Two aircraft carriers would cement UK’s position as global player

A decision to adopt only a single UK aircraft carrier would offer poor value for money and compromise the government's ability to respond to international crises, argues a new report published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Future CarrierLeveraging UK Carrier Capability, written by Tobias Ellwood MP, argues that a decision to operate both the aircraft carriers currently being built would cement Britain's position as 'a global player with a military power of the first rank' and also provide compelling operational and financial benefits. 'The UK either needs a carrier capability or it does not. If it does, then a minimum of two are required in order to have one permanently available.'

Ellwood writes that there 'is a narrowing window of opportunity to procure equipment, develop protocol and train personnel in order to maximise the early potential of this unique class of carrier.' Chief among the final decisions to be made over the carriers is whether both will enter service or just one.

The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review proposed holding a second carrier in 'extended readiness' as one option to reduce costs. But the paper argues that a '£3-billion carrier waiting in "suspended animation"... has political consequences, as does the selling of a ship at a loss. Neither option is sensible use of taxpayers' money.'

The paper, launched on the first day of the RUSI Maritime conference, points out that in the UK's 2011 Libya campaign, a lack of carrier strike capability meant that RAF Tornados and Typhoons had to fly a 4,830km round trip from the UK to North Africa until logistics were in place at Gioia del Colle, Italy. 'Although this base was much closer to the targets, Tornados still required two mid-air refuelling operations in order to complete their missions.' The expense of using foreign bases, in-air refuelling, extended flying time and air-frame fatigue add up to 'the cost of land-based air costs (at a distance of 600 miles) rising to four times that of carrier-based operations'.

Ellwood argues that the 'The carrier's agility and independence means it is likely to be one of the first assets deployed to any hotspot around the globe.' He adds, 'The UK carrier capability is a clear statement of "conventional deterrence", complementing the UK strategic deterrent as its ultimate security guarantee.'

But the importance of these ships for Britain's foreign policy is at odds with the limitations of operating only a single hull. 'A single carrier would be limited in both availability (to around 200 days per annum) and role. As both carrier strike and littoral manoeuvre require regular embarked periods to validate and maintain role-specific currency, a single ship would be in perpetual re-role.' Operating only one carrier would mean significant gaps in service, as 'every eight to five years a single ship would be removed from the schedule due to routine (but extended) maintenance.'

'To date there has been little agreement,' writes Ellwood, 'as to how the most costly defence project ever (carrier and aircraft combined) will be utilised.' 'With a lead time of eight years, appreciating the full contribution the carriers can offer would ensure that they commence operations as state-of-the-art assets with the built-in agility to adapt quickly in the future rather than date before their time.'

To read the occasional paper Leveraging UK Carrier Capability: A Study into the Preparation for and Use of the Queen Elizabeth-Class Carriers in full, click here. 


1.       Leveraging UK Carrier Capability was released on the first day of RUSI's annual Future Maritime Operations conference. For more on the conference, please visit

2.        RUSI is an independent think-tank for defence and security. RUSI is a unique institution; founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington, it embodies nearly two centuries of forward thinking, free discussion and careful reflection on defence and security matters.




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