The Royal Navy is two get two new giant aircraft carriers - HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth. They'll be the largest warships ever built in Britain....

Defence deal will add two carriers

Financial Times
By Christopher Adams and Stephen Fidler

Published: July 18 2007 12:41

* Britain’s acquisition of two new ‘pocket supercarriers’ - HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales - is in the utmost national interest.

* These new vessels will secure Britain’s international role and leadership for decades to come, equipping the Royal Navy with extensive ‘blue-water’ capacities, and providing the nation with increased ability to lead the European Union’s emerging foreign, security and defence policies - as well as the dexterity to shape the political and diplomatic decisions of allies and foes alike.

* The Royal Navy is one of only three true Blue Water navies in the world - the other two are the US Navy and the French Navy

The new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy will be named HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales

Britain is to gain two new aircraft carriers as part of a multibillion pound defence spending package being finalised by the Treasury and Ministry of Defence.

Ministers are hoping that a long-awaited announcement giving the final go-ahead to the carriers, estimated to be worth between £3.5bn and £4bn, will come before the House of Commons breaks for its summer recess next Thursday.

Approval of the carriers is expected to safeguard 10,000 jobs at shipyards across the country, including in Rosyth, close to Gordon Brown’s parliamentary constituency. But the prospect of France taking a big construction role in the project appears to be fading.

London and Paris have been discussing whether to deepen co-operation and looked at the option of sharing construction with French shipyards. However, senior Whitehall insiders expect only limited scope for sharing ship-building.

Talks will continue on shared procurement and support. One person familiar with the negotiations said: “We will only collaborate as long as it doesn’t delay progress and there are clear cost savings.”

BAE Systems and VT Group, which will take on the work in a risk-sharing alliance that includes Thales of France, Halliburton’s KBR subsidiary, Bab and the MoD, will merge their shipbuilding assets following the decision.

The merger would create a £1bn company with docks in Portsmouth and on the river Clyde in Glasgow. Some 60 per cent of the work on the carriers – by far the biggest warships to be built in Britain – will be shared between yards in Scotland and the south and north-west of England.

During prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Mr Brown signalled that a decision was close. “I hope we will be able to make an announcement soon on the aircraft carriers.”

The future of the Royal Navy, he said, was best safeguarded by the levels of investment the government was putting in.

The MoD and the Treasury appear close to finalising the defence budget for the three years covered by the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. Mr Brown is expected to use the carrier announcement as evidence of the importance the government attaches to security and the fight against international terrorism.


Britain needs a new generation of aircraft carriers

In 1982 the United Kingdom came perilously close to a national humiliation. Only months before the Argentine Junta ordered the invasion of the Falkland Islands, the government sanctioned the eventual end of the Royal Navy’s remaining aircraft carriers. HMS Hermes was to be decommissioned and HMS Invincible was to be sold to Australia under Defence Secretary John Nott’s 1981 Defence White Paper. It was a time of renewed hostilities between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union, and British defence posture was becoming increasingly atlanticised in the sense that the principal concern was the monitoring and surveillance of Soviet nuclear ballistic missile submarines in the North Sea and North Atlantic. In a lurid way, the Argentine invasion of British territory came at the right time; had Argentina’s generals waited a few months longer, they might have claimed the islands without any fear of British armed reaction. For without aircraft carriers, the Royal Navy would have been powerless to act; the Falkland Islanders would have been forced to render to the demands of a military dictatorship, and Britain’s naval credibility would have been lost. The Soviet Union would have certainly noticed as well that Western Europe’s strongest military power could not even defeat a weak South American dictatorship. The war in 1982 showed that a maritime nation like the United Kingdom, with numerous security-defence interests all over the world, needed to retain the ability to project power anywhere and at any moment. The main lesson learned from the conflict was that Britain required its aircraft carriers, without which it would be hobbled, and repressed into the second rank of the world’s powers.

HMS Hermes fought in the Falklands War. She was the last of the Royal Navy's Centaur Class aircraft carriers

Although Britain subsequently sold off its one remaining and elderly conventional carrier, HMS Hermes, it ploughed ahead with the completion of two new but smaller aircraft carriers to complement HMS Invincible. The first, HMS Illustrious, was launched in 1981 and deployed in the aftermath of the Falklands campaign; the second, HMS Ark Royal, was completed in 1985. All three are in operation with the Royal Navy to this day, although HMS Invincible has been mothballed and placed on extended readiness - and is unlikely to ever see service again. And at 22,000 tonnes, these are small aircraft carriers, designed for a primarily anti-Soviet, anti-submarine role. While they can pack a formidable punch, they are dwarfed by the 92,000 tonne supercarriers of the United States Navy and the 40,000 tonne nuclear aircraft carrier of France’s Marine Nationale. With the end of the Soviet Union, and progressively larger British military deployments abroad in the 1990s, the small Invincibles became increasingly insufficient for meeting national security-defence requirements. This fact was acknowledged when the newly elected government of Tony Blair came to power in 1997 and implemented the innovative Strategic Defence Review a year later. Declaring that Britain needed a renewed fleet of substantial aircraft carriers and support vessels, it was posited that British Armed Forces had to be re-calibrated for expeditionary warfare. The subsequent lessons of British interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq have only reconfirmed the nation’s need for the ability to deploy armed forces overseas. While the government’s acquisition of these potent new vessels must be lauded, planning has taken far longer than anticipated, resulting in the withdrawal of the Sea Harrier naval airgroups and the deactivation of one existing carrier, leaving the nation with limited naval capabilities for at least the next six years. This will change, of course: the project to build the Royal Navy’s largest and most powerful surface warships in history is now nearing completion. The Queen Elizabeth class will be of a unique size; smaller than America’s Nimitz supercarriers, yet considerably larger than France’s Charles de Gaulle, the new British vessels might be described as ‘pocket supercarriers’, and will displace about 65,000 tonnes each. They will be armed with approximately fifty high-tech warplanes and helicopters, advanced radar and sensors, and consequently will increase Britain’s deep oceanic power projection capabilities and global reach enormously.

Aircraft carriers are, in the modern world, the most important piece of politico-military apparatus a country like Britain possesses - perhaps even more significant than our strategic nuclear deterrent. Command of the sea in a globalising and more dangerous world remains vital. Seventy percent of the world’s population lives near the coast; many of the world’s capital cities are in littoral regions; over ninety percent of Britain’s imports and exports go by sea; and much of the world’s trade flows through strategic channels and other choking points like the English Channel, the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, Drake Passage, the Strait of Malacca and the Gibraltar Strait. The ability to deploy naval power in these regions can have enormous political impact, and keeps the seas open for international trade, which remains vital for British and allied countries’ prosperity. As such, the aircraft carrier’s role is thoroughly strategic; it helps to structure the global system, providing a platform for the upholding of the Western democracies’ primacy and the global economy. On a national level, it acts as the pivotal platform for Britain’s Armed Forces - the entire naval fleet is anchored around it. Not only is it the offensive weapon par excellence, it is also the best defensive weapon in any navy’s arsenal. It provides a mobile aerodrome - a few floating hectares of sovereign British territory - readily deployable to almost anywhere in the world where there is water deep enough to sustain its hull, removing the need for basing or overflying rights - as is the case with the air force. And the mere movement of a carrier into a trouble-spot can have a deterring and calming influence on adversaries and warring groups. In short, any country wanting to uphold a global role and have the means to defend itself and its interests must retain aircraft carriers.

And yet, even in light of the nation’s need for these vessels, there has been much speculation on whether or not they will ever get built. Like the doomed CVA-01 carrier programme in the 1960s, proliferating newspaper articles continue to report that a constellation of opponents to the new aircraft carriers have emerged, including sectors of the Ministry of Defence and various defence experts, whom have counselled against their acquisition. The arguments for not building the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers come from two angles: Firstly, their detractors say, the nation’s enemies are changing. We no longer face hostile national navies but rather Islamist terrorists in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. As such, the argument is put that Britain should re-equip its Armed Forces with lightly armed mobile forces, Special Forces, and high-tech equipment. While this is undoubtedly correct, we must also retain the large strategic platforms in order to protect and support those forces. When operating in extremely hostile regions, only aircraft carriers provide the necessary level of protection for advanced and expensive warplanes, as well as providing a visible and threatening naval presence off the shore - crucial for instilling apprehension and the futility of their cause into Britain’s enemies. Second, the aircraft carriers’ opponents claim that they are too expensive, or that the funding put aside for their renewal could be used more effectively elsewhere. They are indeed expensive; but is the £3.9 billion (€5.8 billion) price tag really that much when so much depends on this unique and potent capability? What price would Britain pay for not having aircraft carriers? Certainly, we would have much less influence when trying to shape the European Union’s evolving security and defence policy, effectively leaving France as the only credible European seapower (indeed, France is likely to build its own second carrier using British designs). We would be less respected in Washington, New Delhi, Beijing and Moscow - as well as in capitals hostile to British interests. We would lose the ability to defend our allies, consequentially losing influence over their political and diplomatic decision-making. Without aircraft carriers, Britain would also lose the ability to take part in large offensive wars and humanitarian interventions. And should it be lost, an aircraft carrier capability would be hard to regain. The current crews and pilots would lose their skills; and such large and complex vessels cannot just be rustled up overnight should an existential threat re-emerge to British interests. With the world’s fifth biggest economy and a £33.5 billion (€49.5 billion) a year defence budget - incidentally the world’s second highest - there is no credible reason for why Britain cannot afford these new warships.

As such, Britain’s need for aircraft carriers has never been greater. There is no financial argument sufficient to contemplate their cancellation; if funding is needed elsewhere in the Armed Forces, the government’s responsibility is not to raid one part of the defence budget to pay another, but to increase defence spending overall. As has been demonstrated, aircraft carriers are needed for the new wars of the twenty-first century, even those requiring lightly armed and highly mobile ground troops deployed forwardly in hostile lands. They are also needed to maintain command of the seas, keeping open the channels through which most of the world’s trade continues to flow. Ultimately, the aircraft carrier is necessary for deterrence and political impact; should Britain decide to lose this capacity, it will have profoundly negative consequences for the nation’s international standing, as well as for the role of the rest of Europe and the West in general. Britain’s aircraft carriers demonstrate that we remain willing to uphold our duties and discharge our obligations in the wider world: in other words, remaining on the top table of global affairs. Here, at least things are moving in the right direction. The Times reported on 19th February 2007 that only VT Group and BAE Systems’ shipbuilding assets merger stands in the way of the official go-ahead from the Treasury, which has now the funding set aside for the new vessels’ construction. With this merger projected to be complete within weeks, assembly could begin rapidly; official launch dates are 2012 and 2015 respectively, although with the delays these dates are unlikely to be met. When HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales finally slide down their slipways to take their place as the nation’s penultimate shield and trident, Britannia will once again (help) rule the waves.

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