In the first week of January, defense secretaries Philip Hammond and Leon Panetta signed a statement of intent on aircraft carrier cooperation that, according to a Pentagon spokesman, will “provide the basis for the United States to assist the British Royal Navy in developing its next generation of aircraft carriers. This cooperation is a cutting edge example of close allies working together in a time of fiscal austerity to deliver a capability needed to maintain our global military edge.”
Figuring out exactly what that means in real, physical results is not easy however because, like any NATO allies, and perhaps more than some, the American and British navies are often working together in a number of ways already, from deployments to individual secondments, to war games and other peacetime training exercises.
Interoperability, then, seems covered by existing practices and furthering of it would seem to suggest more of the same. But the statement really comes into its own when one regards the recent policies of the British Defense Ministry in procurement issues and in retiring systems.
The October 2010, after the latest Strategic Defense and Security Review had been released, I noted the loss of the Harrier GR9 from the Royal Air Force inventory here at the Atlantic Sentinel which ended over thirty years of British use of the vertical takeoff jet, the first in service being the Royal Navy Sea Harriers in 1978 which saw action in the Falklands War. The construction of the two Queen Elizabeth class carriers remained on the board despite fears that one could be scrapped. It may still be sold.
With the retirement of the Harrier, the Royal Navy was left with two light aircraft carriers of the Invincible class: Illustrious and Ark Royal — Invincible herself being decommission in 2005 — with nothing to throw off them, but in the SDSR, Ark Royal too was to be immediately retired and currently only Illustrious remains in the role of a helicopter carrier. It is believed she will remain in service until 2014 from which point there will not be a vessel in service with the Royal Navy capable of operating such fixed-wing craft, regardless of the fact that there aren’t any anyway. Considering the Royal Navy was the first to operate aircraft carriers in the First World War, it must certainly be a source of shame and embarrassment for that institution.
This, however, is not surprising. The loss of the last real aircraft carrier fielded by the Royal Navy, HMS Ark Royal in 1978, was a sign of the future as much as the past. The Royal Navy had been reduced in capabilities (but not commitments) since the mid 1950s. The winds of change at that time clearly blew forth the final touches to the fact that the Royal Navy had been relinquishing its two hundred year position of mastery of the seas, and the responsibility of maintaining their peace, since the Second World War.
It really hit home in the Suez crisis when the US Navy demonstrated clearly the new formula of the international system, one in which Britain, and subsequently the Royal Navy, was no longer the arbiter of good conduct on the great common of the seas. The US Navy took that role, that capability and that responsibility.
With the passing of Poseidon’s trident from Britannia to Columbia, the funding also changed hands. It was now the duty of the American taxpayer to finance the world’s largest navy with as many as eight carrier fleets today. Britons could at least sigh in relief that this burden was no longer theirs.
Yet until the 2010 SDSR, British defense reviews maintained the need for global role aims, despite constant reduction in suitable capabilities. The Falklands war of 1982 is an example of this.
The 2010 SDSR said it would reduce commitment yet maintained the decision to continue construction of two new carriers, made by the previous administration, which shows a bolstering of capabilities to support commitments necessitating force projection, an about-face compared to previous reviews.
The point of such aircraft is geared toward projecting power from beyond established force conveying infrastructures such as those found in or close by states willing to provide airstrips and other facilities. This is therefore not something vital to the security of Britain as a state but in protecting established and emerging interests beyond the immediate area, to maintain good conduct at sea and in the littoral — a job, we have already established, that is undertaken by the much larger, much more capable United States Navy. Could this then be a minor reversal of the last sixty years of British decline at sea in favor of the United States Navy’s growing presence?
In austere economic times as these, even the Department of Defense has considered force reduction, to the happiness of some pundits and observers who too often fail to realize the importance of the United States Navy to maintaining the current international system and the responsibilities of the United States to that system.
Should the United Kingdom come to assist this task of Atlas, the US Navy would find itself more free to cut down its own forces and perhaps, depending on the burden being taken on by allied forces, reduce the number of its carrier fleets.
This is not to say that is how things will pan out but the American encouragement of British plans to expand capabilities like force projection and sea basing are surely not done out of the goodness of Secretary Panetta’s heart. The United States will surely benefit from a friendly carrier out doing the same job as the US Navy, especially one operating the same aircraft, speaking the same language, with officers and men who have worked with the United States Navy and with equipment using similar supply chains to the United States Navy and allowing American aircraft to land on a conventional carrier deck.
Furthermore, it may be wondered if this will involve industry assistance of some kind in the development of the carrier itself, which would seem to be mentioned in the statement, but of what kind is not made clear. Both the new Royal Navy carriers and the next generation of American ones are said to feature electromagnetic catapults. No doubt the sharing of other technologies could be agreed upon to increase interoperability.
The Royal Navy faces severe challenges in achieving any kind of position from which to lend credible assistance however. In the summer of 2010 it was thought Britain and France could closely integrate aspects of their defense capabilities, including the use of the French carrier Charles De Gaul, an idea that was later rubbished by Liam Fox, then defense secretary, for good reason, Charles De Gaul being a nuclear powered, conventional CATOBAR carrier. The new British carriers will also facilitate catapult assisted takeoff as opposed to the “ski jump” type used on the Invincible class and optimized for aircraft like Harrier.
For the same reason this could not work, the Royal Navy will struggle to adjust to the new vessels, and hence commitment of the assistance of the United States Navy.
The Royal Navy has no operational memory of such a large vessel, of orchestrating such large air flight groups, or of operating decks or aircraft compatible with catapult assisted takeoff. The US Navy has, and Royal Air Force pilots will no doubt have to learn from American counterparts in the technical difficulties of landing and taking off from aircraft carriers, as much as Royal Navy servicemen will have to learn from their opposite numbers in American service in handling all aspects of carrier operation.
This is quite good news as it will be easier to learn from the Americans than any other power with an aircraft carrier, simply by closeness of relationship and by common language. One also suspects the souring of cordiality between Britain and France surrounding eurozone fiscal policies may have played a part in turning to the United States when just last year the French were heralded as the new partner for interoperability and joint training. Defense diplomacy is alive and well.
Furthermore the Ministry of Defense plans the Royal Air Force to use the F-35C on board the new carriers. Britain is the only Level One designated state involved in the unfortunately slightly troubled Joint Strike Fighter project and, should all creases be ironed out, will benefit greatly from experience of working with the United States, specifically the US Navy which is set to use the same variant.
The scheduling of aircraft production however may seem slow with the F-35 perhaps entering service in 2020. The Queen Elizabeth is due to enter service at some point around 2016. That leaves her without aircraft for four years which by the standards of things at the moment is perfectly fine and sensible. Eight years then until RAF pilots (and one hopes, one day again, Royal Navy ones) as well as Royal Navy sailors will learn everything they can on American ships about carrier operations and duties. Ample time, considering it only took the Royal Navy two years to develop the first true aircraft carrier (HMS Argus, launched in 1918) from scratch and write at least the first few chapters in the book on modern naval aviation.
The only problem which remains then, in theory, is the rest of the Royal Navy fleet which has had its other types cut, a number of destroyers and frigates lost along with the amphibious dock landing ship Largs Bay, now HMAS Choules.
With a smaller fleet the Royal Navy will have a weaker stable with which to create and augment a flotilla based around one of the new carrier. Forming two such flotillas around both of the new British carriers is out of the question so perhaps there again interoperability with the United States Navy, and possibly even the French, will be the expected outcome, should the scenario come about where Britain has to deploy two aircraft carriers at the same time. Should it have to go it alone, the Royal Navy force sent may be at increased risk due to lack of support vessels and have limited capability if specialist vessels like the Bay class are unavailable or too far away for whatever reason.