The UK’s Future Aircraft Carrier (CVF) programme has come under pressure in the media for cost increases and potential job cuts which may follow its completion. A recent think-tank report has questioned CVF’s future contribution and relevance to potential operations. These reports, however, neglect the demonstrated relevance of aircraft carriers in supporting a range of recent UK operations, and do not appear to appreciate the absolute value of carriers in fighting, and crucially deterring, conflict.
By Dr Lee Willett, Head, Maritime Studies Programme RUSI
There is a degree of predictability about some aspects of the looming defence budget fight, in the General Election and in the Future Defence Review which inevitably will follow it. Big ticket items like Britain’s Future Aircraft Carrier (CVF) programme will be an easy target, due to a focus on their relatively large capital cost rather than their absolute value, and also because of perceptions of their lack of strategic relevance. Recent BBC reports about programme cost increases and job losses have hastened what some are calling ‘a fight for the programme’s survival’.
Yet the two future aircraft carriers, the 65,000-ton HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, are joint assets intended to meet a range of national political and military requirements. The carriers will be assets operated by the Navy for the nation.
Carriers: a Crucial Contribution to Fighting - and Deterring - Conflict
Recent history has shown the significant strategic value delivered by carriers when supporting UK requirements to operate at distance in an expeditionary posture from the sea, both in a coalition and autonomously.
In Sierra Leone in 2000, British hostages were freed by ground troops deployed ashore from the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean and supported by Harriers from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. In 2003, the British landing on the Al Faw peninsula (its major contribution in commencing operations in Iraq) was launched from Ocean and from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. During the Israel-Hizbullah war in 2006, Illustrious was used to evacuate British and other national non-combatants by sea.
Most significantly - in the light of both the political focus on Afghanistan and the view that forces based at sea make at best a limited contribution to this campaign - UK operations in Afghanistan were initiated in 2001 by a sea-based operation. Needing to deploy quickly at distance with no land bases available to begin with, Royal Navy carriers made a significant contribution to a multi-national sea-based force which provided the ‘jumping-off’ point for operations ashore. British carriers used helicopters to deploy ground troops ashore, as well as launching fast jets. Some question the contribution of carrier-based capability to current operations. This overlooks the regular and crucial contributions of the Naval Air Squadron (NAS) Harriers in their Joint Force Harrier (JFH) role. Until the US made arrangements for basing aircraft in the region - in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan - the air power contribution to operations on the ground was made entirely by sea-based aircraft. NAS Harriers also have made a regular contribution to JFH’s five-year tour in Afghanistan, with JFH aircraft utilising their jump-jet capability to be the first aircraft deployed to Kandahar airfield and their sensor and weapons systems to provide a level of close air support (CAS) for UK troops in Helmand Province unmatched at this time by other UK aircraft. Some often question the contribution of a platform as large as CVF to such operations. Yet aircraft from large-deck United States (US) Navy Nimitz-class carriers regularly fly CAS operations to support UK ground troops in Helmand.
Just these four examples - and there are others - highlight the crucial role of carriers in creating a sea base from which the UK can operate across a broad spectrum of political and military tasks. There is also the significant issue of the role of forces based at sea in preventing and deterring future conflict. The flexibility of forces based at sea in a political context where elective ground interventions may no longer be desirable and where the rise of particular major states as significant sea powers highlights the importance of a robust navy in preventing and deterring future conflict. Here, the relationship between cost and value again becomes significant when examining the UK’s future balance of investment in defence capability. Between 2001 and 2008, the UK spent £14 billion on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then Secretary of State for Defence Des Browne announced in 2008 that the Government was committed to spending £14 billion on the Royal Navy over the next fifteen years. This questions whether the UK is striking the right balance in its capability plan, spending as much on short-term operations of political choice as on the obligatory security that the Royal Navy can provide in deterring conflict over the next half a century.
The IPPR Report
A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research also has argued for the carriers to be cancelled. The report, titled ‘Shared Responsibility: a National Security Strategy for the UK’, lists just four programmes to which the UK should revisit its commitment: the Astute-class submarines, the Type 45 destroyers, the Joint Strike Fighter, and CVF, which together constitute the backbone of the future Royal Navy. Arguing that ‘forces that cover the full spectrum of conventional combat capabilities cannot be maintained at currently planned scales’, the report seems to indicate that a Navy structured for high intensity combat operations is not what the UK requires.
It would seem inconsistent for a nation with a range of global interests varying in place and type well beyond operations in Afghanistan to consider gutting its navy. Regardless of the contribution of carriers to Afghanistan, the report goes on to argue that the UK should continue to retain the ability to conduct ‘small-scale national operations’ like Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, of course, the British Army was a bullet fired ashore by the Royal Navy – from Ocean and Illustrious.
The report also suggests that the UK should consider focusing on building closer military relationships and ‘greater capability specialisation’ in the European context while reducing ‘absolute dependence’ on the United States. Yet, as shown by the UK-led European Union (EU) Operation Atalanta, countering piracy off Somalia, it is clear that a major pillar of any UK specialist contribution to a European military force would be a naval one and that there is no other obvious member state to lead such a force. Moreover, if sea-based air power is a core requirement for any European power projection, the Royal Navy has the only current, large-scale future carrier programme.
The CVF ‘Story’: Politics and Their Purpose
It is worth noting that neither element of the BBC stories necessarily is ‘news’. The CVF programme currently is being re-costed, after the Government took the decision to delay the in-service dates of the two ships (as part of a decision to re-profile several programmes as a result of the MoD’s 2008 Equipment Examination) in order to save money in the short term. A side-effect of this decision was inevitable cost increases in the long-term, as those working on the programme would need to be retained for a longer period. Indeed, the MoD itself stated in December 2008 that there would be a cost increase of this nature as a direct result of the programme delay.
Also, the BBC went on to report that the future of several thousand jobs - and even of one of the two Clyde ship yards - would be at risk after the carrier build programme was completed. Such risk is already understood, and can only be mitigated when the build programme for the UK’s new generation frigate (under the Future Surface Combatant programme) has been determined.
Yet the key question is why the ‘story’ was leaked. Given the number of people lining up to try to sink the carrier programme, it would be unsurprising if the impetus for such a leak came from opponents of the programme. Perhaps, though, it should also be considered that, with a significant potential cost increase risking serious damage to the programme, an insider may have seen a leak as a way of putting public pressure on the carrier’s building alliance to pull out all the stops to keep costs down.
What is interesting too is why a Minister, Defence Equipment and Support Minister Quentin Davis, gave an interview when, arguably, a more appropriate MoD response would have been to state that it did not comment on unsubstantiated leaks. Perhaps, with the accuracy of the BBC figures unconfirmed with no MoD figures yet available, and also because the MoD had already acknowledged a significant degree of cost increase as a result of the programme’s re-profiling, it was perceived that a strong response was required to reinforce the Government’s commitment to the programme in the light of a story which could have some traction given the politicking surrounding current defence policy and equipment debates.
In the context of the hard strategic choices the UK faces because of the current political, security and economic circumstances, and while the UK faces a garrison commitment to Afghanistan it may still be prudent to consider options which optimise political and military flexibility for minimum cost. A versatile, flexible sea-based force - of which CVF would be a key component, providing flexibility across the spectrum of operations as well as providing an air base when none are available ashore - could deliver significant value for money in terms of supporting policy, especially in preventing rather than fighting wars.
 See BBC, ‘Navy Carriers “£1bn over Budget”'. Available on-line at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8125449.stm. Accessed 30th June 2009.
 Joint Force Harrier is a combined Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm unit that first deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan in May 2004 in support of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). JFH aircraft flew in excess of 22,000 hours on a total of over 8,500 sorties, mainly supporting ground troops in Helmand Province. JFH has now been relieved by Tornado GR4s from 12 Bomber Squadron. For full information, see MoD, ‘Harriers Come Home after Five-Year Tour de Force’. Ministry of Defence Press Release, 1st July 2009. Available on-line at http://nds.coi.gov.uk/Content/Detail.aspx?ReleaseID=404275&NewsAreaID=2&HUserID=886,781,894,851,778,684,710,705, 765,674,677,767,684,762,718,674,708,683,706,718,674&ClientID=-1. Accessed 2nd July 2009.
 Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Cost of War in Afghanistan Soars to £2.5 bn’, The Guardian, 13th February 2009. Available on-line at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/feb/13/afghanistan-iraq-bill-british-military. Accessed 20th May 2009.
 Rt Hon Des Browne MP (then Secretary of State for Defence). Hansard, 3 March 2008, Column 1443. Available on-line at <http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmhansrd/cm080303/debtext/80303-0002.htm#0803035000967>. Accessed 13th May 2009.
 Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). ‘Shared Responsibility: a National Security Strategy for the UK’. The Final Report of the IPPR Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. June 2009. London: IPPR. pp.14 & 50 (Recommendation 15).
 In its 2008 Livre Blanc, France effectively deferred indefinitely the decision on building a new carrier.
 See, for example, ‘Royal Navy Aircraft Carriers “£1 Billion over Budget”’, Daily Telegraph, 30th June 2009. Available on line at: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/defence/5690499/Royal-Navy-aircraft-carriers-1-billion-over-budget.html>. Accessed 30th June 2009.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.