Why Britain’s new Aircraft Carriers are not ‘National Delusions’

ANNUAL ESSAY

This Annual Essay considers the implications of the attack by Sir Max Hastings on Britain’s two new heavy carriers, and the planned review of defence procurement by Boris Johnson ally Dominic Cummings for Britain’s ability to fulfil its commitments to NATO given the growing pressures worldwide on the United States and its armed forces.

“HMS Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth represent a colossal embarrassment to the Royal Navy and the armed forces, and should be likewise to a government that spends a moment thinking straight about national security. They reflect Britain’s besetting sin – an exaggerated sense of self-importance – together with an unwillingness to cut our cloth to match our purse and to recognise the revolution overtaking warfare”  

Sir Max Hastings, Giant Carriers are Symbols of our National Delusions. The Times, December 14, 2019

Fact: The United Kingdom spent $56.1 billion on defence according to the 2019 edition of The IISS Military Balance. Britain is the sixth biggest defence spender in the world.

Folie de grandeur?

Alphen, Netherlands. December 17. It is September 2020. Following a brief report by Dominic Cummings on ‘waste’ at the Ministry of Defence, by the ‘Minister’ with Portfolio for Everything, it is announced that HMS Prince of Wales, the second of the two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, is to be scrapped. She was only commissioned in December 2019. Following the 2010 decision to break up brand new MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft this is the second time in a decade a British government has decided to scrap a brand new, expensive, strategic military asset. The result is another extended and major capability gap in the maritime strength, not just of Britain, but also of NATO, and imposing yet more burdens on an already over-stretched United States Navy. For a government that claims to have re-discovered patriotism the political symbolism would be dreadful. The damage to Britain’s strategic brand inestimable. The frustration in Washington unfathomable.

Last Saturday. Sir Max Hastings, who I hold in high regard, wrote a ‘Weekend Essay’ for The Times entitled, Giant Carriers are Symbols of our National Delusions? He did not pull his punches calling the two ships “giants” and “behemoths”. In fact, at 70,000 tons neither HMS Queen Elizabeth nor HMS Prince of Wales are ‘giant’ by any contemporary standard. The 110,000 ton USS Gerard R. Ford is ‘giant, built to meet US strategic power-projection requirements. The two British platforms, and carrier-enabled power projection (CEPP) they support, have been designed to meet British and European requirements. As such they are ‘heavy’ carriers of sufficient size and capacity to undertake the suite of operations relevant to British strategic need – carrier strike, helicopter operations from anti-submarine to humanitarian relief, as well as delivery of the Royal Marines to what I call ‘Littoral-plus’ operations. 

However, peer through the unusually flowery language, which tends to get in the way of much of Sir Max’s argument, and he makes some valid points. His most important is to warn against what I call ‘big ship syndrome’.  Just because a ship is big does not mean it is either powerful or invulnerable. In the long and storied history of the Royal Navy there have been two ships named HMS Invincible that have been sunk, rather proving the point. The worst such example of ‘big ship syndrome’ was the ageing battlecruiser HMS Hood – ‘The Mighty Hood’ – sunk in the Denmark Strait in May 1941 by the then brand new and doomed German fast battleship, KM Bismarck.  The 1919 completed, and only partially modernised Hood, was no match for the Bismarck. Technology and capability had moved on and Britain’s flagship blew up with the loss of 1415 of her crew.  Hood was there because the Royal Navy was over-extended, but also because she had developed a myth of power based on the simple fact she was big and looked good. In terms of over-stretch and its consequences Britain could well be sailing into similarly rough strategic seas.

Sir Max also warns about the vulnerability of the two new ships to new anti-ship hypersonic missile technologies, such as the Russian Zircon system, new nuclear-tipped high-speed torpedoes, and the Chinese DF 26 system.  What is evident from emerging Chinese and Russian systems is that they have both undertaken a systematic audit of allied vulnerabilities, particularly forward deployed US carrier task groups. In the worst-case (the bulk of US forces are in the Pacific), the two British carriers would have to act as the credible command core of deployed NATO European maritime task groups, and provide a credible warfighting deterrent in an emergency with Russia. In such dire circumstances, they would also need to be as heavily-protected as the American carriers. Here is the nub of the problem – how? Absent the Americans and the ships lack anything like the protective shields they would need, there being too few ships armed with too few systems such as Royal Navy’s new Sea Ceptor hypersonic anti-missile, missile.

At this point I part company with Sir Max, who also rather mischievously quotes me in his piece, implying that I am also a critic of the new British carriers. For the record, I am not. Whilst I would have preferred the ships to have been conventional carriers, operating the ‘C’ rather than the ‘B’ variant of the F-35, the return of Royal navy carrier strike is essential. And, whilst I am not questioning the quotes, nor even their selective use, Sir Max failed to add my rejoinder; that Britain could solve the ends, ways and means to which the Armed Forces are subject if its political leaders so chose.  It is politicians that created this crisis with the 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews, and it is politicians who can solve it if they believe security and defence as important to the well-being of the nation as health and education. Both reviews were incoherent political metaphors for drastic cost-cutting with little strategic regard or strategic thought. By placing hard defence austerity before sound defence strategy the link between ends and means was broken, and has yet to recover. Andrew Manley, a former senior defence civil servant, said this week that the reviews “…outlined too many objectives”, and led to available funds being spread too thinly across too many priorities. A better definition of a political culture that recognises only as much threat as one can ‘afford’ has yet to be defined.  

One of London’s many strategic delusions is to undertake reviews which set objectives based on an analysis of the strategic environment, and then simply refuse to fund the consequent strategy. However many ‘efficiency savings’ are made 2% GDP spent on defence is an historic low, given the possible causes and effect government itself has identified. It is a travesty of both policy and strategy made worse by the way that defence moneys are now calculated and spent. Worse, the consequent ends, ways and means crisis that has been foisted on the Services has also forced them into a kind of defence cannibalism, the very antithesis of the ‘joint’ force, as they fight to survive by consuming each other.  

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At the core of Dominic Cummings’s arguments, which appears to be a softening-up process for some potentially shocking defence ‘choices’ by the new Johnson government, is a sense that the Ministry of Defence is inherently wasteful, with Britain’s ‘broken’ procurement system and the carriers it procured particular targets for his ire. Procurement is certainly a mess. Indeed, in matters procurement the words ‘British’, ‘smart’ and ‘defence’ can appear oxymoronic. However, that begs further questions. Why does British defence equipment cost so much, why does it take so long to field, and why does the British taxpayer seem to get so little bang for each public buck invested?  Yes, the ‘MoD’ must carry some of the blame. Equipment specification and requirement is too often vague and too ill-defined, platforms are ordered that too often end up looking like technology Christmas trees, designed to do far too much, resulting in equipment that does nothing particularly well. Contract drafting and management is often mediocre with oversight insufficiently rigorous, with inadequate ‘firewalls’ between gamekeepers (civil servants) and poachers (defence contractors) that give the latter too much influence. 

However, much of the blame lies elsewhere, with much of it the fault of politicians. For example, it does not help that Britain has only one prime defence contractor of note (Bae Systems) with a sort of half-share in Thales. It does not help when ministers repeatedly seek cost-savings during the build-phase that reduce capability and push up cost, or delay Main Gate decisions again boosting costs. It does not help that ministers can never make up their minds what type of equipment they wish to procure, or regularly change their minds about what they want any given asset to do. It does not help that defence procurement is often treated by ministers as industrial policy with jobs in sensitive places and constituencies, albeit understandably, more important than defence efficiency. It does not help that ministers repeatedly change their mind about the number of assets to be procured thus pushing up development and construction costs per unit.  Sadly, the aircraft carrier programme suffered from all of the above.

In fact, given all the costs, constraints and uncertainties British ministers imposed on the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, it is not only a miracle they were ever built, there is also an entirely different way to look at how they were built. In short, Britain managed to build two, large and complex naval ships even though successive British governments had done all they could to destroy Britain big-ship, shipbuilding industry. Indeed, there is a story of profound innovation to be told about how much of the British defence and non-defence supply chain rose to the challenge and afforded thousands of workers jobs and apprenticeships in prime, secondary and tertiary contractors across the entire country, but most notably in Scotland and the North of England.  

It is a story that also raises further politically-sensitive questions. Are many of these constituencies not the ones which Prime Minister Boris Johnson says put him in power? Are they not the blue collar northern constituencies, one of which is from where I hail, who are patriotically proud of the two British aircraft carriers as symbols of a still relevant Britain, not delusional Britain? Are they not the same constituencies who faced with the humiliating and embarrassing sight of HMS Prince of Wales being mothballed (at great cost), sold off, or scrapped, would not begin to wonder why they loaned Johnson their vote?

Little Britain?

Britain is not the power she was, but nor is she the ‘has been’ Little Britain that Sir Max seems to think. She is an important regional Europeans power in a world rapidly changing for the worse with the economy, technology and armed forces to match.  A country that is too powerful to hide from power, and yet too weak to engage it alone.  A country led by an elite establishment that too often seems resistant to the idea that Britain still has an important regional leadership role to play in defence.  

It is these people, and their lack of political leadership and resolve, who are the real cause of Britain’s defence ‘failure’. For too long Britain’s elite have been strategically illiterate content to view defence as little more than a contingency reserve for politically more convenient causes, rather than the first duty of the state. For too long they have seen the defence of the realm as a cost rather than the most important of values to be afforded. For too long they have talked the talk of Britain as a Tier One military power, but funded at best a Tier Three military power. 

My hope is that the intelligent Mr Cummings will realise that it is impossible to measure the ‘cost’ or ‘value’ of defence unless one also understands the ends, ways and means for which it exists. What is needed now, above all other considerations, is a proper analysis of Britain’s future security policy, of which defence policy is a part. Thereafter, a proper sizing and structuring of the British defence effort, with a sound defence strategy properly and consistently funded to ensure ends, ways and means are again aligned, not with how much London wishes to arbitrarily afford, but in response to the extant and emerging threats Britain must confront.  

Ultimately, Sir Max is contesting not just the force concept implicit in the two carriers, he is also questioning whether Britain can ever afford all the other capabilities Britain needs to exploit the full potential of the two ships, as well as fund the Army and Royal Air Force so they too can fulfil their allotted roles and tasks. Whilst his warning is apposite, the solution to the problem of Britain’s hollowed out forces must be a political one. Yes, Cummings can help squeeze more value out of Britain’s public investment in defence, and it is high time. Yes, Britain can rename commands and forces until the cows come home. However, until politicians start to properly address the ends, ways and means crisis in Britain’s defence the entire British security and defence architecture, from the National Security Council down, will continue to try to fulfil their ‘parochial’ missions by fighting each other to the point that the architecture itself is consumed.   

Britain’s defence imperative

The single most pressing imperative for British defence policy is thus: given the growing pressure on US forces world-wide, driven primarily by the rise of China as a military power, without the full commitment of Britain, France and Germany to properly lead NATO Europe across the multi-domains of contemporary and future warfare, the US will be simply unable to guarantee the defence of free Europe which she has since 1949 and the formal creation of NATO.

The appropriate military force that should emerge from such an exercise, given who, where and what Britain is, and given pressures on other allies, most notably the United States, should be a deeply joint, multi-domain force, plugged in to a tight government security and defence apparatus, able to lead coalitions by acting as command hubs. Surely, that is why Joint Force Command has been renamed UK Strategic Command? What Europeans need, with Britain to the fore, is a fast, first responder, high-end force that can uphold effective deterrence in and around Europe, even if the Americans are busy elsewhere. In the maritime domain only the British could lead such an effort. In that context, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales are precisely what Britain needs: two British national strategic assets that communicate British strategic seriousness to American and European allies alike, act as national, Alliance or coalition command hubs, and offer potent carrier and amphibious strike. If used, equipped and protected properly they will prove their adaptable worth and value over many years of service in a domain where Britain is truly expert – above, on, below the sea, as well as deep into the Littoral. 

There is one final point – if aircraft carriers, such as HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, are merely ‘convenient targets’, as one Russian admiral so inelegantly observed, then why are the Americans, Chinese, Indians, Russians, and a host of other countries either building or planning to build them?  Blue water carrier-strike is in vogue, not out of it, because so many countries realise it affords them a discretionary, declaratory and flexibly potent capability that few other platforms can match – still. A capability, by the way, that Britain not only created, but pretty much pioneered and perfected.

The case for Britain’s heavy aircraft carriers

So, let me conclude by making the case for Britain two ‘heavy’ (by no means ‘giant’) aircraft carriers.

Keeping close to the US: Post-Suez (post-Brexit?) British defence policy has been predicated on London maintaining a close strategic relationship with the US and its armed forces. As there is no European alternative, and unlikely ever to be, the rationale is sound. What assumptions must now be made for the maintenance of such a policy? This week Forbes.com published a piece by H.I. Sutton entitled “The Chinese Navy is Building an Incredible Number of Warships”  Rather like the Kaiser’s Imperial German Navy prior to World War One, the nature and capability of many of these ships clearly indicates the People’s Liberation Navy is determined to contest the high seas with the Americans.  The China challenge faced by the US Navy is realising such proportions it is now possible to envisage a major emergency during which the Americans may not be able to provide credible maritime-amphibious power in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and the Pacific, at one and the same time. Royal Navy 1935?

Easing US strategic burdens: It is no coincidence that one of the most enthusiastic champions of the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers is the US Ambassador to the Court of St James. Whilst in the recent past the Royal Navy could function as an anti-submarine adjunct to the US Navy of small aircraft carriers, frigates and submarines, in the worst-case, which must again be considered, Britain could well be called upon by the Americans to act as alternative maritime Alliance or coalition command hub for the European theatre of operations.  That means providing the Naval Service with the assets and armaments to undertake such a role, including carrier strike. My concern is not so much with the platforms themselves, but with the refusal of successive governments to properly arm and equip them, and the escorts they need. Moreover, conventional thinking would suggest that with the current number of hulls in service (or more accurately available) the Royal Navy cannot both be some latter day ‘Corbett Navy’ and a ‘Mahan Navy’. And yet, with the creative use of technology, capability, capacity and alliance the core command force the ‘RN’ is creating could well fulfil its role and missions if London backs it. Moreover, for lesser contingencies than high-end deterrence/warfare the two carriers afford London great utility, as demonstrated by the French carrier Charles de Gaulle off Libya in 2011.  

Influencing Washington: There is still far too much sentimental nonsense spoken in London about the so-called Special Relationship. If Britain can assist the United States meaningfully in easing the strategic and force dilemma in which the Americans are now trapped, then Britain will have significant influence in Washington. If Britain does not, or worse, chooses not to, then Britain will have little influence. It was interesting to watch the US reception of HMS Queen Elizabeth during her recent visit to New York. On the surface at least, here was an American ally delivering high-end capability within the framework of the transatlantic relationship. With the new Johnson government in place, and the two new carriers both commissioned, Britain has an opportunity it has not had for some time to again be taken seriously by the Americans. London must now follow-through on that promise and, to coin a phrase, help the US Navy be great again, where it needs to be great, for all our sakes.

NATO Europe’s strategic maritime command hub: Sir Max complains that for high-end operations the British carriers will depend on the support of European allies, and that many of them are woefully deficient in both offensive and defensive capabilities. He is right. Indeed, I wrote a scenario that demonstrated the dangers of such weakness in a piece entitled Future War NATO that I co-wrote with former SACEUR General (Ret.) Phil Breedlove, US Marine Corps (Ret.) General John Allen, and the former First Sea Lord, Admiral (Ret.) George Zambellas. At the end of the article there is another scenario in which HMS Queen Elizabeth, and the NATO task group she leads, prevails precisely because the force is armed with the right ‘kit’ both to protect itself and exert deterrence. If European allies are not prepared to engage in the vital maritime aspects of collective defence then, given US over-stretch and the evolving character of warfare, it might be cheaper to end the pretence and scrap NATO now, MC400 and all!  My view is more positive. The Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, and the European maritime task groups they will lead, now provide a focal point for a European maritime warfare technology cluster. For example, neither the Royal Netherlands Navy, nor the Royal Netherlands Marines Corps, have little utility without the Royal Navy and the carrier strike and power projection explicit in Britain’s carrier-enabled power protection (CEPP). Britain needs to make the case.

Where can Britain best add strategic value now: The inference by Sir Max is that the two carriers (one carrier makes no operational sense, two only just) are not just destabilising the ‘RN’ with their cost and voracious appetite for crew, they also prevent the British Army from acting as an effective deterrent on the Continent, and undermine the RAF and air power.  Look at a map, and then consider changed and changing strategic circumstances. Britain is an island with centuries of experience in the use and application of sea power. Continental land strategies are relatively new to the UK. It would be strategic folly of the first order to ask contemporary Germany to take the European lead in providing the maritime aspects of collective defence, so why should Britain. The European land defence of Europe must be led by Germany, with that other continental power France. It is entirely proper and appropriate that Britain takes the lead in the maritime domain. Indeed, with the development of the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force Royal Navy power projection is vital for the support of military power during grey zone operations, particularly in the increasingly contested North Atlantic, Nordic, and possibly Arctic regions, especially if the US Navy is again busy elsewhere.  In other words, Britain is already pioneering the concept of the future joint force, now is the time to actively build one that can operate with allies and partners to effect across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge and the comparative advantages which Britain enjoys. 

Platforms for new technologies: In a recent blog Dominic Cummings emphasises the need for new technologies to be applied to the British military space, such as space-based sensors, artificial intelligence (AI), as well as cyber and drone swarms.  He also echoes my calls for a NATO Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or NDARPA. He is right. However, the devil is in the detail. Space-based architectures will require allied collaboration with much of the heavy-lifting done by the Americans. Britain is to the fore in Europe in the considered development of AI in defence, but far more needs to be done. Britain’s offensive and defensive cyber capabilities need to be much enhanced, even if much of that effort will be civilian, not military. Cummings also places great emphasis on the use of ‘intelligent’ drone swarms in the battlespace. In the maritime domain it will be platforms such carriers that will provide the bases from which they are launched, and the mass needed to swamp the defences of adversaries. In any case, for the foreseeable future British maritime strike will likely be a combination of manned air (F-35 Lightning 2), developing drone technology, helicopter-based (Merlin) anti-submarine capabilities, in addition to sub-surface defence provided by the Astute-class nuclear attack submarines, with air defence provided by Type 45 destroyers, as well as Type 26 and Type 31 frigates. That is, so long as they all work, and are all built as planned.

Overcoming British defence inertia

The real crisis in Britain’s defence effort is not caused by the aircraft carriers or by defence procurement. The real crisis is caused by the conservatism, inertia, and lack of innovation at the heart of the British defence establishment, allied to the strategic illiteracy of the British political elite. For too long Britain’s leaders have come to believe that the only operations that are important are so-called ‘hybrid operations’ at the lower to mid-range of conflict. They have become used to the idea of land-centric ‘discretionary warfare’ being the norm, possibly because it smells like the imperial policing of Britain’s past. What is needed is a fundamental re-think in both Westminster and Whitehall about what it will take to ‘defend’ Britain and its allies in the twenty-first century, and the ‘strength’ and ‘power’ maintaining peace through deterrence will require of Britain and its armed forces.  For even writing this I will again be cast by the Establishment as a heretic unable to offer a ‘balanced’ perspective.  Sadly, the word ‘balance’ in British establishment speak is merely a metaphor for the placing of short-term politics above sound longer-term defence strategy. 

Sorry, Sir Max, but I respectfully disagree with your thesis: Britain’s new aircraft carriers are not national delusions. The delusion is to fail to realise the centre of gravity of Britain’s defence effort is, and must, shift quickly and profoundly.  The delusion is to believe a power such as Britain has any alternative but to face the world as it is, not as its political leaders would like it to be. The delusion is to fail to consider where Britain can now add defence value, and where its particular genius can be best applied to ensure the democratic peace is collectively maintained. The true test of the forthcoming ‘Britain’s place in the world’ review, and the ‘all in’ (and hopefully-linked) integrated security, defence and foreign policy review, will be whether it has the necessary strategic ambition to set a still powerful Britain on the course for a twenty-first century defence, or it is yet more strategic pretence which imposes on the British people a higher level of risk than responsible government should ever allow. 

One final word: the Royal Navy is not seeking to rebuild Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet, Sir Max. However, if Britain does not lead other Europeans in the increasingly contested strategic maritime domain around Europe, who on Earth will? It is my firm belief that Britain is still up to the challenge of a modest, but important military-strategic leadership role. Sir Max?  

Julian Lindley-French