Security & defence

Royal Navy Far East Cruise 2021

white war ship Royal Navy
Written by Adrian Hill

What can the new aircraft carriers do? What is required to make them fully effective? What will the Royal Navy need further into the future? Former soldier and diplomat Adrian Hill explains.

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I’m glad to learn that our carrier task force will have friendly escorting warships from the US Navy, Royal Australian Navy and possibly the Japanese Navy but that is no excuse for sending ships east without proper armament against the very latest and worst that China or Russia (or countries armed by China or Russia ) might hurl at them. Hypersonic and ballistic weapons can only be defeated by innovation – an obvious defence is combining Artificial Intelligence with swarms of autonomous munitions or missiles. Others already exist – disrupting command and control systems with nuclear bursts on the edge of space and destroying hostile satellite constellations backed by cyber attacks. Deep penetration air strikes by B 2 stealth bombers from random directions backed by electronic counter measures. Cyber warfare is central but cannot replace sufficient ships, aircraft and submarines. All cyber war does is make proven weapons more effective. BAE already have their Nelson programme to explore new ideas. The US Navy tests robot submarines for intelligence gathering thereby releasing manned submarines for attack patrols. Swarms of AI torpedoes are a lot more dangerous than hypersonic missiles. So are rail gun rounds. The Five Eyes partners should form an alliance team from some of our brightest young brains and set them to work on all kinds of new ideas as a matter of urgency.

There is no magic wand, no science fiction means of providing safety on the cheap. Politicians are seat of the pants people, they rarely consider the ultimate long term consequences of their short term fixes. The Treasury civil servants feed their political masters all their favourite money saving and raising schemes once they see they’re running out of ideas for how to solve the problems they’ve just created. Politicians lie to win our votes. Those of us who believe in strong defence also believe we the public have a right to know when we’ve been placed in danger, when we’re being cheated.

What happens if a Democrat wins the next American Presidential Election? The last Democrat President said that he regarded Germany as the USA’s most important partner on this side of the Atlantic. Angela Merkel’s strategic plans – stay friends with Russia and China, replace NATO with Germany itself and rule the EU – may have changed minds in the liberal universe of Washington DC but there is no sign of any road to Damascus. The liberal grip extends through the intelligence agencies and Department of State and the media have both hands on the steering wheel. And their open bias is much more brazen than the Sir Humphreys in London. We’re in the happy position that we owe our allegiance to the Queen. The US Navy must obey its politician Commander-in-Chief. All those US warships might sail further east than ours – all the way back to Pearl Harbour. Nor can we rely on our neighbours as some faithfully believe. An EU that can withdraw its escorts at any time would control our aircraft carriers and our navy and thereby British foreign policy.

Our warships must be able to look after themselves.

The Carriers and Their Capacities

Despite some negative (and ignorant) media comment, the new carriers have suffered very few teething troubles and exceeded most technical requirements, starting with their 25 knots designed top speed.  In the words of an expert naval architect, “While the vessel will never routinely cruise at that speed, ships of this size including bigger American supercarriers never do, she will be capable of this speed even when loaded as verified by recent builders trials. 32 knots however is likely the maximum, she’s not going to go any faster.”

Vice Admiral Jerry Kyd, when captain of HMS Queen Elizabeth, commented on the initial deployment and the gradual increase in air wing numbers:

“We are constrained by the F-35 buy rate even though that was accelerated in SDSR in 2015, so initial operating capability numbers in 2020 are going to be very modest indeed. We will flesh it out with helicopters, and a lot depends on how many USMC F-35s come on our first deployment in 2021. But by 2023, we are committed to 24 UK jets onboard, and after that it’s too far away to say.”

In 2023, the UK will have 42 F-35 aircraft, with 24 being front-line fighters and the remaining 18 will be used for training, be in reserve or in maintenance.

The size of the carriers has little to do with the variant of the JCF 35 fighter chosen for their air groups. Rather, the naval architects were asked to design ships that could launch a given number of JCF 35 sorties per day, over a period of four weeks before the ship needs re-supply with munitions and aviation fuel. This design target led to the plan for an air group of 36 fighters, possibly almost 60 fighters in an emergency backed by 4 or more AEW and air sea rescue helicopters. The scenario began with a surge of 150 sorties per day but after a debate lasting years – yes, really – settled on a surge of 108 sorties a day followed by 72 sorties a day for ten days, followed by a further 36 sorties a day for the another twenty days. Much of the demand for space is to meet the need for equipment able to handle ammunition and stores at this rate.

One suspects that the original scenario of 48 to 60 fighters was wiser though required four possibly five squadrons of fighters – whereupon the government wilted at the bill for 48 or even 60 JCF 35s on board each ship. Even the best plan falls apart once contact is made with the enemy. Another Battle of Midway could require as many sorties a day as humanly possible. F 35s are capable of scouting ahead and making sure the coast is clear for aircraft designed with less stealth capabilities – such as Typhoons – thus double as force multipliers. One of the lessons from the South Atlantic War was how quickly Sea-Harriers could be turned round after air strikes on shore targets to patrol as air defence fighters.

Had we opted for the catapult launched fighter (Cameron personally added a few million to the bill with his skid turn only to reverse with a handbrake turn) it would have equipped the carriers with an aircraft with longer range and much greater internal payload ( a conventional engine takes up less room within the airframe) and allow buddy refuelling. On the other hand, such an option demands more space on board for storing fuel and ammunition. And as discussed, the flexibility of STOVL is lost entirely with a manned conventional aircraft – the latter cannot hop from ship to ship ( known as cross-decking ) nor ship to shore. Harriers could operate from short rough strips high among the Afghan mountains. Other fighters could not and Bagram air base was built at a cost of a billion dollars plus another half billion every year to run and guard it.  The US Navy still experiences problems with their new electric catapult system so the decision to revert to STOVL probably avoided a great deal of extra cost – as our two carriers would have been the guinea pigs.

Ben Wan Beng Ho from Singapore recently wrote a very perceptive article for the RUSI Journal[1] in which he compared the Royal Navy’s options for naval long-range land-attack bombardment – submarines, carriers or other surface warships. According the media our new super carrier will sail to the Far East with only two F 35 squadrons, one RAF and another from the US Marine Corps. ( Exactly as Vice Admiral Gerry Kydd outlined for UK Defence Journal[2]  back in 2017 ) Ben asks what happens if there is a high demand for air defence sorties? Surely with only two squadrons that leaves very few aircraft for long range ground strikes? He suggests that the new Type 26 frigate should be fitted to fire long range missiles at targets far inland. Even with a future surge of not far short of sixty fighters.

He is right.

Leave aside the rate of delivery for the aircraft. By placing our naval long range land attack capability on many small moving targets, we give our potential foes a big headache. Whether armed with swarms of hypersonic missiles or rail gun hypersonic rounds – faster at Mach 7 plus than any other projectile – a large land power would face possibly thousands of incoming targets. There are other ways to swamp radar and communications systems than simply dazzling them electronically.

American warships and submarines are gradually switching to launch systems that can fire a variety of missiles and even submersible vessels from large diameter tubes known as CWLs or Common Weapon Launchers, otherwise CMCs, Common Missile Containers. A large diameter allows the tube to load and fire mixed weapons including the next generation of hypersonic cruise missiles when they come into service. Four of the new Ohio class submarines are being fitted out this way and the US Navy also has a design on the drawing board for a 12,000-ton triple-role submarine. This latter boat would carry Tridents, cruise and hypersonic missiles, submersible vessels, plus seal teams and other special forces – offering a patrol submarine that can undertake deterrent and conventional patrols, tactical strike missions and special operations.

Dare I suggest that a combination of triple role submarines and surface ships armed with rail guns and CWL batteries might prove a better investment than simply replacing our deterrent force one for one? The same money would buy fifty surface ships or a combination of surface ships and nuclear submarines armed as proposed.

The strategic impact of our new carriers is out of all proportion to their cost – their planned lives are 50 years and they will bring a huge increase to the strength of our nation and the Five Eyes alliance. Few in the US Navy will question the value of a special relationship with a unique ally who adds two world class carrier groups to our combined strength. I stress ‘carrier groups’ because at the very least the Royal Navy needs to triple its fleet of destroyers, frigates and submarines and form three or four squadrons of maritime patrol aircraft for controlling home waters and duties overseas. STOVL allows the aircraft carriers to host Royal Navy, RAF and US Marine Corps squadrons including Osprey troop carriers. It also allows our F 35s and those from Japanese and South Korean carriers to cross-deck with each other’s ships. This versatile package is going to provide a conventional deterrent force with enough stealth firepower to frighten any country, small or large. Add fighter delivered tactical nuclear weapons or hypersonic weapons among the group’s escort forces and every big hostile country will tread carefully. As we all know—well, at least some of us do—peace is much cheaper and far less painful and harrowing than war. Always deter, only fight as the last resort and even then only over essentials.

The new aircraft carriers will be the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy weighing in at 70,600 tons fully loaded and 930 feet long with a 240 feet beam (at the water line 128 feet) thus much closer in size to the US Navy’s strike carriers. Yet they will go to sea with only 1300/1400 complement rather than nearly 5000 on a US carrier. The flight deck has two islands, one for steering the ship and a second for controlling its aircraft. The ski jump bow allows its STOVL fighters to use less fuel and take off while carrying a heavy load. Over a lifetime of 50 years the ships may increase to 75,000 tons fully loaded as ballast changes and additions are made – such as armour on the flight deck and sides – and possibly further deck space added. France planned a single aircraft carrier along the same design though weighing 75,000 tons—presumably its armour and catapults since the ship’s length and beam were going to be the same. This plan has now been shelved. There are sensible arguments for this country building a third big aircraft carrier and even a fourth.

Warships go into battle and sometimes take hits. A large warship, designed to withstand battle damage, has much more chance of survival and often remains able to fight. There is armour, room for built-in redundancies for command and power cables, plenty of space for stores to be carried safely. By contrast, during the Falklands War, the two small aircraft carriers often had live ammunition stacked on the flight deck because of the cramped spaces below deck.

An idea of the advantages of a big ship can be seen from an accident on board the USS Enterprise some 70 miles off Pearl Harbour in 1969. The exhaust from an F4 Phantom fighter set off rockets which set off a chain of fuel and ordinance explosions – eighteen in all including several 500lb bombs – which blew eight holes in the flight deck, destroyed 15 aircraft, killed 28 and injured 344 members of the crew. The holes were patched and the ship ready for action within hours. The eventual repairs cost $ 122 millions.

Conclusion: The Special Relationship Is People in Uniform

Our navy has a special relationship with the US Navy in core specialities: nuclear submarines both ballistic and attack, carrier strike, and the F 35 programme.  They trust only each other to escort major units such as super carriers, planet-capable amphibious forces and naval special forces. To keep the third core relationship requires that our surface ships are fully armed – they are not – and that the navy has at least twice as many destroyers and frigates plus at least three times as many attack submarines.

The Europe obsessed FCO has neglected the Commonwealth for nearly sixty years. China and North Korea keep Africans in power that place their lands in hock for decades. Now we learn that this is happening in the Caribbean islands. Surely it follows that whoever proposed disbanding the Royal Marines at the same time as China steals small islands to threaten its neighbours and global commerce through the South China Sea deserves posting to Wuhan.




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About the author

Adrian Hill