1998 the UK government did perhaps the best thing it has done to date: it conducted
a Strategic Defence Review (SDR) which was foreign policy, not resource led. Instead
of defence policy being cobbled together in response to whatever scraps the Treasury
affords the MoD, new Labour very sensibly intended that it should be the physical
manifestation of our foreign policy objectives. And those objectives were made
nothing if not apparent. For when, a few years hence Jack Straw and Tony Blair
attend international conferences, the response of their less well endowed peers
will be, 'are you just pleased to see us, or are those a pair of bulging aircraft
carriers you've got there?'
Professor Lawrence Freedman (one of the external participants in the SDR) explained,
the review led to a 'consensus within the defence establishment behind the need
for new, large aircraft carriers. The service chiefs had seen little point in
buying replacement aircraft carriers for HMS Invincible, and her two sister
ships, unless they could carry many more aircraft. This would require ships as
much as twice the size of the Invincible'. But understanding why something
should be done, and even making a pledge to do that very thing are not, as this
government daily displays, guarantees that those things will be done. The
new carriers have been pledged during a time of plenty it's not too hard
to see a future, when the economy's not quite so hot, where choices might have
to be made. Such as between hospitals in Rotherham and e.g. big ticket, easily
cut items of defence procurement. Therefore in addition to asking, what will these
lovely new status symbols do, and why, we need to ask, will they ever be built?
can be little doubt that the Royal Navy performs miracles with the inadequate
20,000 ton Invincibles. Their deficiencies illuminate the last time Labour
was responsible for big decisions like building carriers. In the mid sixties the
Admiralty had drawn up plans for a new class of fleet carriers. The CVA-01 would
have been about 50,000 tons, and equipped with fixed wing aircraft. They would
have been expensive, but what scuppered them was not cost. Instead it was the
combination of an inadequate strategic rationale, and the arrival of an arrogant
latter was Denis Healey. The former can be summed up as, the exigencies of alliance
defence. Cold War Britain saw NATO as the alpha and omega of defence. 'The West'
was the idea we were fighting for, but, if we were going to fight, the only place
we were set on doing so was central Europe. This meant that the continental commitment
(i.e. the army and RAF in Germany) always trumped naval arguments. When the RAF
argued it alone could discharge the aerial contribution to NATO the carriers
were left financially exposed. Their sole justification would have been if Britain
intended to 'bear burdens' outside the NATO area.
possibility was killed off with Healey's 1966 Defence White Paper:
one type of operation exists for which carriers and carrier borne aircraft would
be indispensable; that is the landing or withdrawal of troops against sophisticated
opposition outside the range of land-based air cover.
as the Defence Secretary put it in the ensuing parliamentary debate, 'British
carriers are not necessary for operations in the Atlantic, Mediterranean or Middle
East'. No new carriers were commissioned, and those in service were to be phased
out by the end of the seventies.
should have been that, but the brute cunning of the senior service is never to
be underestimated. One NATO role only the RN could perform was waging anti-submarine
warfare against the Soviets. Ship-borne helicopters were the principal weapons
system. To carry a substantial amount of helicopters what inescapably was needed
was a fairly substantial vessel. Since proposing carriers to ministers was akin
to swearing in church, these were called 'through-deck cruisers'. By the time
their design was completed they had swollen to 20,000 tons (more the displacement
of a Great War battleship than a cruiser) and the Heath government commissioned
the first Invincible in 1973. However, all the while the Admiralty was
conscious of what the new V/STOL (vertical/short take off and landing i.e. aircraft
that could take off from small carriers) technology could mean. In the
Harrier they had found a way of saving the carrier. Thanks to one of those eleventh-hour
moments of British amateur brilliance, this possibility was triumphantly vindicated
when Lt. Commander DR Taylor invented the 'ski-jump'. Which allowed Sea Harriers
to get airborne at significantly reduced speed the inevitable consequence
of operating off small platforms.
heroics of 1982 when, thanks entirely to the surviving carriers, the Navy
pulled off an operation it was never meant to be capable of fighting ensured
all three Invincibles were built. Despite their not in truth having any
NATO-centric justification. In effect, we maintained a marginal carrier capacity,
without quite believing in the doctrinal reasons for doing so. Now that the Cold
War has been dead a good decade, the love that dared not speak its name
having juicy big carriers has erupted out of the Strategic Defence Review.
We want them big, and we know why we want them. It is, in short, the [George]
Robertson doctrine: 'in the post Cold War world, we must be prepared to go to
the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us'. This is not merely expression
of a military truism (of course to fight, you have to go to the fight), rather
it is enunciation of a very disturbing foreign policy. Engagement is the polite
term; in reality, under Blair we are set to play global special constable to America's
world policeman, and the new carriers are his moral truncheons.
apart from, is this all just fine sounding Blairite waffle, will a future government
actually cough up truck loads of dosh to pay for the world's largest, er, manhood
magnifiers? What can the carriers do and to whom? Well, as the Americans show,
if they're big enough they project power. What one does with power is a moral
consideration and therefore beyond my scope, but power is what carriers deliver.
How large then will ours be? Defence Procurement Minister Lady Symons trills that
they 'are likely to be the biggest warships ever built in Britain'. I'm sorry
to be too train-spotterish here, but that would make them about 50,000 tons, just
about the minimum necessary to avoid all the drawbacks of the Invincibles.
The government in fact has set a ceiling of 40,000 tons. Size matters because
that determines the size of aircraft a carrier can take. Which in turn determines
their individual capability. The whole point of this exercise being to acquire
carriers which carry fixed-wing aircraft, not the less capable V/STOL airframes
(e.g. the Sea Harrier).
that there is an aircraft yet. This purchase will cost more than both carriers.
The choice is between either an Anglo-American project currently in development,
or, crossing our fingers and hoping that a naval version of Eurofighter can be
magicked into existence. This latter option would inescapably entail a ship of
at least 50,000 tons. The 50,000 ton mark has serious implications as to where
it would go i.e. it will be a tight squeeze into any of the remaining naval dockyards.
All of this though is to ignore the most basic question of all, where will it
be built? Yards which could handle a vessel of this scale e.g. Harland & Wolff
are far from certain to be around in five years time. Then there is the issue
(ruled out for no reason other than cost) of why shouldn't they, like the American
ships, be nuclear powered? Which would, after all, tie in exactly with their supposed
rationale: being there to facilitate 'anytime, anywhere' action. There's a strong
case for saying that the sole determinant of size should be that ours end up longer
and wider than those of the French.
they are built, what are the tactical implications of the government's decision
that, in order to afford them, we'll cut back on escort ships? Most of these dilemmas
(given that having large carriers is an intrinsically pleasurable and desirable
activity) could have been forestalled if a visionary Defence Secretary had bought
ex-Soviet kit at bargain prices, and handed them over to UK shipyards for rebuilding.
Unfortunately the man that that vision would have been required from was pre-penitent
if Blair's British beauties are ultimately built and especially
if they're the seriously expensive vessels they need to be in order to be worth
the effort what government is likely ever to have the courage to place
them in harm's way? For (unlike the three-strong Invincible class) there
are only going to be two of them. The government claims that 'this reduction in
hull numbers is to be achieved through modern build and support techniques which
will dispense with the need for long refit periods and will allow required ability
to be achieved from only two hulls'. Regardless of how diverting or otherwise
one finds this fantasy, it ignores that the test of these carriers (and the strategy
behind them) is how they would perform during war. One might sink. The
possibility that they might be used to fight in the first place is infinitely
more credible if there are three, not two.
much wrong with defence policy. The closest the British army should be to the
Rhine is Kent. Another carcass clung tightly to is the RAF. One may as well say
that any given piece of equipment fax machines for instance should
have it's own service. In principle there's nothing wrong with carriers; now more
than ever a maritime strategy is the one for Britain. But if the principles these
vastly expensive weapons serve amounts to little more than armed enforcement of
global counselling sessions we, and the rest of the world, would be a lot better
off without them.