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Persistent Engagement and Strategic Raiding: Leveraging the UK’s Future Carrier Strike Capability to Effect

Sidharth Kaushal
Occasional Papers, 26 November 2020
Military Sciences, UK, Maritime Forces
This Occasional Paper examines how the Royal Navy can leverage the potential of its Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers in the context of a strategic environment characterised by persistent competition.

The imminent arrival to initial operating capability of the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers leaves the Royal Navy at an inflection point. While the strategic and operational environment prevailing at present is radically different from the environment in which the carriers were first conceived, the platforms retain the ability to evolve in a way that will provide policymakers with highly flexible capability in the coming decades. In order to do this, however, new concepts of employment and operations will need to be adopted to better match the strengths of the carriers to the changing operating environment while offsetting their weaknesses. 

The critical question that this paper answers is how the UK’s carrier strike capability can be leveraged to effect in an era of persistent competition. This will, in turn, drive a number of work strands for the Royal Navy in the coming years with respect to force design, procurement and the C4ISR architecture of the UK Strike Force. RUSI has conducted an analysis of the ways that the Navy can leverage the potential of its aircraft carriers in the context of a strategic environment characterised by persistent competition. The key findings of this paper are: 

  • The UK’s emerging strategic environment is likely to be defined by great power competition. This is not to say that other threats such as conflict with sub-peer and non-state actors will disappear, but that their salience will be determined by interactions between great powers. This will be characterised by periods of persistent low-intensity competition punctuated by short, sharp escalations to direct but limited warfare before a reversion to competition. Carrier strike forces must be able to generate both kinetic and non-kinetic options across this spectrum of activity at speed – contributing both to war and the ‘campaign between wars’. 
  • UK Strike Force has the potential to be a hybrid force at sea, operating across the spectrum of competition without heavily drawing on external enablers. Across its carrier and littoral strike groups, UK Strike Force will have a capability to disaggregate into smaller self-sustaining, forward-engaged force packages to shape lower levels of competition in tandem with allies and proxies but also aggregate at speed to deliver high-intensity kinetic effect. 
  • Carrier strike groups (CSGs) can and should experiment with the force generation of modular sub-units – such as two- and three-ship surface action groups – to better compete across the spectrum of competition in distant theatres without compromising the ability of CSGs to rapidly aggregate. Successful competition at lower levels of intensity will determine the rules and boundaries of competition at higher levels and facilitate aggregation for strategic effect. 
  • Protracted expeditionary warfare involving large ground forces operating at reach will become less frequent. Rather than providing steady-state support to forces ashore as part of a protracted strike campaign, UK maritime strike forces will, in many ways, return to form. Persistent engagement will be punctuated with short raids against critical adversary assets exploiting the intra-theatre mobility of CSGs and will characterise future operations. In short, the future of carrier warfare looks more like Taranto or Pearl Harbor than Operation Desert Storm. 
  • The precision revolution is a real but not insurmountable challenge to maritime power projection. In the context of the maturing of precision strike complexes, it will be operationally imperative to compress the time in which strikes are conducted. This will entail shorter but more exacting operations for the crews of ships and aircraft. 
  • Tactically, against a mature reconnaissance strike complex which is nonetheless subject to degradation, the side that wins the battle of the first salvo will prevail. This, in turn, will be a function of whether relative information advantage can be delivered in a timely manner. Much of the information on which success depends will be gathered by forward-deployed forces during peacetime. The objective of information advantage will require a significant degree of integration between carrier strike and littoral strike forces – with the latter playing a vital role in delivering the information critical to prevailing in the crucial early days of an engagement. 
  • The emerging fourth industrial revolution raises both challenges and opportunities for carrier strike forces. On the one hand, the potential production of strike assets in mass is a challenge to be surmounted. On the other hand, a range of increasingly low-cost assets can potentially extend the range of a carrier air wing and its ability to deliver a decisive pulse effect in a compressed timeframe. 
  • The evolvable nature of both the carrier and its pickets could allow it to leverage the opportunities provided to execute a concept of operations consistent with persistent competition. In the short term, leveraging long-range, low-cost attritable unmanned technology could allow the strike range and firepower of the carrier air wing to be enhanced without major structural changes to the carriers themselves. The introduction of a CATOBAR system in the longer term, which the carriers are built to enable, would open further options with which to increase the carriers’ reach, particularly with respect to unmanned aerial refuelling. Similarly, the introduction of the Co-Operative Engagement Capability to the carriers’ air defence picket could significantly enhance its capacity for integrated air and missile defence. Given that the capacity to integrate these capabilities at pace has been built into the platform design, leveraging them over the lifespan of the carriers is desirable. 

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of QEClassCarriers/Flickr

Dr Sidharth Kaushal
Research Fellow, Sea Power

Sidharth Kaushal's research at RUSI covers the impact of technology on maritime doctrine in the 21st century and the role of sea... read more

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