Tuesday, 13 March 2012


In case you have missed the latest on the fiasco which is the Royal Navy's new aircraft carriers: the word is that the cost of converting them use to the more effective (hugely delayed) US aircraft will be so much that the Admiralty may reverse its earlier decision and go with the inferior version of the same plane. OR - quelle horreur! - use the French plane which is available now, and that will probably end up operating from them anyway...

It is likely to make for a fascinating Easter budget statement.

If you thought you knew how much the new Royal Navy carriers have cost the UK budget, you are probably wrong. Originally budgeted at £3 billion, now at 7, likely to rise to an eventual 12, the real cost of disastrous budget decisions on this subject going back to the 1960s has been closer to £30 billion, plus the lives of hundreds and British and Argentinian servicemen and a long running international dispute which poisons Britain's relations with the entire of South America.

The first of the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers is due for launch next year without any aircraft. The preceding class of ships, the much smaller but Illustrious class, have just been scrapped early due to budget issues, leaving the Royal navy without any carrier capability for nearly a decade. While this happens the other Royal Navy carrier veteran from the Falklands War, HMS Hermes, will continue to serve, as it has done for decades, as
 INS Viraat, the flagship of the Indian Navy until 2020.

What happened to the the management and procurement of the Royal Navy's assets to allow billion dollar assets to be sold and scrapped while their even more expensive replacements sit useless for years?

In the 1960s The Royal Navy had six carriers, all laid down just after World War Two, all in various states of refit. The two major assets where the 50,000 ton Audacious class carriers, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Eagle, capable of flying the biggest baddest jets of the era, the supersonic Phantom II. The others, of which 
HMS Hermes was one, were half the size at 26,000 tons but considered useful as helicopter platforms. The plan was to replace the larger ships with one or two large but easy to use ships, codenamed  CVA-01 , and keep one or two of the smaller ships for the Royal Marines.

Unfortunately the fleet flagship, the 
Audacious Class Ark Royal, was an infamous lemon, an expensive money pit who spent more time in dockyards being fixed than at sea. Her sister, HMS Eagle, was much easier and cheaper to run but had missed a crucial upgrade to her flight deck in the 1950s (cost cutting already).

When the inevitable decision was taken to scrap both Audacious Class ships, Eagle had just finished a refit, was considered to be in excellent material condition, estimated to be at least ten years live left in her. And, as the subsequent carrier of Hermes has proved, estimates on the life of aircraft carriers have since proved to be hopelessly pessimistic.

Hesitating at the decision to replace the larger carriers with the new 
CVA-01 design, a decision was taken shortly after to abandon all Royal Navy operations East of Suez and to scrap the entire carrier fleet.

Such was the political stigma of "aircraft carrier" in the UK budget at the time, a form of replacement, the compromised anti-submarine Invincible Class (including a new Ark Royal) was only ordered as "through- deck cruisers". Of the others, HMS Hermes and one sister ship were retained for use by the Royal Marines as helicopter platforms.

With the even further scrapping of RN resources in Thatcher government's defense budget of 1981 the military dictatorship in Argentina decided this was a signal to re-occupy the Falklands. Previous UK governments had directed a nearby RN frigate to sail around the islands in times of tension. In failing to do this the UK government most responsible for the political failure of allowing the conflict to start reaped historic political benefits from the war which followed. The withdrawal East of Suez was forgotten as a whole new requirement South of Suez was discovered.

 Approximately a thousand deaths later, with a new disputed base to be defended 8000 miles away, with HMS Hermes dragged out of retirement and HMS Illustrious dragged out of a sale to Australia, carriers become a fashionable subject again within budgeting terms and new long term planning began on their replacement.

HMS Hermes, thought to be beyond her useful life, was sold to India in 1986 to become INS Virrat.

Illustrious and her two sister ships sailed onto two decades of semi usefullness with their tiny air group (12-18 short range, subsonic, Harriers) attracting criticism for their limited capability, until a straight budget decision in 2010 between them and a 40 year old RAF relic from the 1970s resulted in the entire Harrier force being scrapped to allow the UK to keep the Tornado (a very hard but correct decision as the RAF role in the Libyan uprising proved.)
Figure 2 HMS Illustrious size comparison with US carrier

Meanwhile, as INS Viraat, the old Hermes, a contemporary of the old Eagle and Ark Royal but half the size, sails on as flagship of the Indian Navy. The Indians had bought a Russian carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov,  to replace her but having found problems with the Russian ship (a similar hybrid compromise to the Illustrious class) the Indians chose to keep refitting the old ship and she is now set to continue until 2020, by which time there will be no spares left for her aircraft. Hermes will then have served for 60 years, when her original estimate was 20.

British naval experts, who seemingly prefer shiny new ships with half the capability of the old, would scoff at the Indians for sailing around in ships of that age, but the Indians  are practical enough to realise something that has also occurred to the US Navy. An aircraft carrier does not have to be stealthy, fast, economical, pretty or even rust free. It is a floating air base. All it needs is to be big enough and mobile enough. For this reason apparently ancient designs, even for the limitless resources of the US Navy, work just fine. USS Enterprise is due to be retired in 2013 after 51 years of service. 

Another factor to be included in these early years of the 21st century, when discussing the usefulness of carriers, is what their actual effective use would be. How much real danger are we expecting to put these ships in? In a world of 'power projection' and flag waving are such vessels, of whatever age, really going to be thrown into the sharp end of a modern conflict? Might some future UK government feel constrained to justify the expense of a new carrier by actually using them? The previous RN carriers were protected by 14 frigates and 20+ destroyers. Today we have the bright and shiny Type 45s. But there are only 6 of them (and currently we can only afford to equip them with one type of missile)

The two new carriers, The Queen Elizabeth Class are named Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales. As has been mentioned elsewhere the previous HMS Prince of Wales was a modern capital ship of another era sent into a hostile zone without adequate support to make a strategic political statement. She then faced state of the art weapons and was sunk (along with HMS Repulse) with huge loss of life. It was a loss of naval prestige in the East which the RN never recovered from and which led directly to the original decision to scale back East of Suez.

Of course, to avoid being wholly pessimistic, we could play the historical game another way, and say the previous Queen Elizabeth Class served with huge distinction in both World Wars and were arguably the most cost effective weapons ever ordered by a British government. The decision to order the deployment of Prince of Wales and the decision to order the Queen Elizabeth super dreadnoughts were both taken by the same man, Winston Churchill, underlining the difficulty ordering and deploying weapons from another era.

Nevertheless, to get the cost of the new carriers in perspective let us put it alongside the budget decisions that followed on from the original carrier savings in the 1970s.

Starting with the most heinous losses.

£3 Billion +
255 lives (649 Argentinian)
Six ships sunk
plus permanent state of cold war in South Atlantic and ever worsening relations with South America

ILLUSTRIOUS CLASS "aircraft carriers/through deck cruisers"
Three built, entered service by 1981, all scrapped by 2014
£0.8 billion+

Two ordered
Original estimate £2 Billion
Likely to be £12 Billion
Cost and type of aircraft currently unknown, ships unusable until 2020

The cost of the much reviled CVA-01, cancelled in the 1970s is estimated at £100 million, a bargain in today's terms but impossible to justify in the climate of the time. (More difficult decisions for politicians: the decision to scrap the carriers in the 70s was taken by the man who later have to beg for help for the financial bailout from the IMF, Dennis Healy.)

Seen with hindsight the real disaster was to scrap the assets available at the time. It was estimated that a fully modern refit of HMS Eagle (twice the size of Hermes) would have cost £5 million. The cost of continually refitting the carrier since, in a method similar to Hermes/Viraat, is unknown but likely to be less than completely re-inventing the industry, expertise required to operate modern fully capable carrier aircraft for the new carriers after an absence of 35 years.

The US Navy is due to help the RN re-acquire these skills and it is from this direction that we have the most compelling argument to go ahead with the carriers, and not necessarily because we actually should use them. Much of the pressure to get the new carriers came from the US tired of footing the bill for European defence and acutely aware it is the only nation currently deploying large carrier task forces. Regardless of the actual usefulness or obsolescence of the new RN carriers this is the best reason for acquiring them.

In a world were anything from satellite weapons, cyber warfare, nano-technology and drones could be decisive in a future conflict, and the UK has little to no capability in any of these areas, the billions spent on the carriers actually is billions spent on keeping the UK, and Europe, some way underneath the US hi-tech defensive umbrella.

And speaking of Europe, it is again here where the carriers make sense in a larger international context. Operating alone as only as part of a massively cut down Royal Navy the new carriers would be an exceptionally juicy target. However, along with the likely French carrier contribution, and protected by the significant and effective naval assets provided by the rest of Europe they will likely be the core of EU naval defence for at least the next 30 years. 

In this context the initially surprising thought of flying French aircraft from the British ships actually makes sense, and it would perhaps balance some of the idiotic lack of common sense that has plagued the issue of Britain's carriers for the last 40 years. The real cost of the new carriers has been in lives and is a result of vacillation and short term thinking. Having made a hard decision to build and pay for the new carriers let us make sure we get the most from them for as long as possible without needlessly expending them - or their crews.

From the budgetary perspective of 2012 ordering the new RN carriers looks insane. From the international political perspective of future generations the investment in securing our allies across the Atlantic and in Europe is priceless. Whether our allies would agree that defending Europe includes the South Atlantic is another matter.

Each of the new Royal Navy 65,000 ton super carriers will sail into action with a crew of 1600. Hopefully the only sacrifice made on this issue is the financial one we have to make now.

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