Britain Spent So Much on Two Giant Aircraft Carriers, It Can’t Afford Planes or Escorts
The new British carrier force is hollow
The United Kingdom is spending nearly $8 billion building two new large, conventionally-fueled aircraft carriers and equipping them with F-35B Lightning II stealth jump jets.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is scheduled to deploy for the first time in 2021, ending a seven-year carrier gap that began in 2014 when the Royal Navy decommissioned the last of its three, Cold War-vintage light carriers.
The U.K. military by then had already sold off the carriers’ Harrier jump jets.
Queen Elizabeth and her sister Prince of Wales are impressive vessels. More than 930 feet long and displacing around 70,000 tons, they are bigger and more modern than every other flattop in the world except the U.S. Navy’s 11 nuclear-powered supercarriers.
The carriers in theory are the steely core of a revitalized and reorganized Royal Navy. “Carrier strike provides the ability to launch fixed-wing aircraft from a ship to undertake a range of military tasks,” the U.K. National Audit Office explained in a June report. “It is central to the government’s plans for the country’s armed forces.”
But there’s a problem. Having blown billions of dollars building the ships, the U.K. government no longer can afford the aircraft, escorts and support ships that help the flattops deploy, protect them and give them striking power.
Nor can the government afford to modify Queen Elizabeth or Prince of Wales to support amphibious landings, one of the early justifications for cutting existing ships—such as the assault ship HMS Ocean—in order to free up money for the carriers.
The new British carrier force is hollow. And at least one analyst believes the Brits would have been better off without.
The shortfalls are myriad, according to the NAO. The carriers’ air wings at a minimum should include a dozen F-35Bs plus a dozen Merlin helicopters, some of which would carry the Lockheed Martin LMT +0.7%-made Crowsnest early-warning radar in order to provide sensor coverage over the carrier group.
Guess what. “The new Crowsnest system is 18 months late, which will affect carrier strike’s capabilities in its first two years,” according to the NAO. “The [Ministry of Defense] did not oversee its contract with Lockheed Martin effectively and, despite earlier problems on the project, neither was aware of the sub-contractor’s lack of progress until it was too late to meet the target delivery date.”
“It subsequently concluded that the sub-contractor working on the project, Thales, failed to meet its contractual commitments to develop the equipment and had not provided sufficient information on the project’s progress. The [ministry] and its industry partners have since implemented a recovery plan and enhanced monitoring arrangements. However, further delays mean that it does not expect to have full airborne radar capability until May 2023.”
Meanwhile, the ministry also has been slow to buy F-35s. “From 2015, its intention has been to buy 138 Lightning II jets, which will sustain carrier strike operations to the 2060s. The [ministry] initially ordered 48 jets but has not yet committed to buying any more. In response to wider financial pressures, it will also receive seven of the 48 jets in 2025, a year later than planned.”
A single Queen Elizabeth-class flattop could carry as many as 24 F-35s. But a total force of 48 F-35s probably wouldn’t allow for a 24-plane air wing after taking into account training and maintenance needs. As a rule, usually no more than third of a particular fighter fleet can deploy at any given time.
Equally vexing, the Royal Navy has laid up all but one of its solid support ships, which sail along with front-line vessels in order to keep them stocked with food, parts and weapons. The defense ministry “has long been aware that this will restrict the operational freedom of carrier strike but has not yet developed a solution,” the NAO warned.
“In November 2019, the [ministry] stopped the competition to build three new support ships due to concerns about value for money. It believes this will delay the introduction of new ships by between 18 and 36 months, making it uncertain the first new ship will be operational before the existing support ship leaves service in 2028.”
The list of shortfalls continues. A British carrier group at a minimum should include one frigate for anti-submarine protection plus a destroyer for air-defense. But the Royal Navy operates just 13 aging Type 23 frigates and six Type 45 destroyers. The former are slated to leave the fleet starting in 2023. Their replacement, the new Type 26, won’t start joining the fleet until 2027.
The navy expects to buy just eight Type 26s. At least five new Type 31 frigates will replace the balance of the Type 23 force, but the Type 31s lack major anti-submarine systems. All that is to say that, from the mid-2020s on, the carriers could be vulnerable to submarines.
Don’t expect some sudden cash windfall to save the Royal Navy from its carrier problems. If anything, the budgetary problems could get worse. The defense ministry already is cutting back on its investment in Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales.
The government had planned to spend $75 million modifying one of the new flattops with extra accommodations in order for the ship to double as an amphibious assault ship. But according to the NAO, the ministry in March 2020 quietly dropped the amphibious requirement.
The bitter irony for the navy is that it sacrificed the assault ship Ocean back in 2018 in order to free up money and manpower for the carriers and eventually claw back the lost amphibious capability by way of modifications to at least one of the newer ships.
Now it appears the fleet gave up Ocean for nothing.
So are the new flattops worth it? As costs rise and budgets shrink, the carriers gobble up a growing proportion of the Royal Navy’s resources while at the same time falling far short of their operational potential owing to cuts at the margins of their capabilities.
“Given that what the Royal Navy has become in return for its two carriers, and given how at present this investment has delivered a part-time carrier force with a small number of available fast jets, significant spares shortages, reduced escort fleet numbers and a lack of longer-term support ships or escort elements,” one commentator wrote, “then perhaps the answer to the question ‘was it all worth it’ is ‘no, it was not worth the pain for the gain’—at least not in the short term.”