Why the Royal Navy needs both
Max Hastings rather depressingly suggests here that the new aircraft carriers are an expensive white elephant that are both vulnerable and reflective of muddled defence thinking. Below are some of my thoughts that may or may not add to this debate.
To deliver a sustainable range of naval capabilities; from coastal to deep water and from defence engagement to fighting, the make-up of the Royal Navy requires both balance and mass. Without the ability to strike from sea, balance has been missing since HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned in 2011. The new carriers have plugged this gap albeit at some cost to the rest of the navy. The ‘fewer big ships’ and ‘more small ships’ argument would reopen this capability gap and also favours mass over balance and so is not the answer. (Also, see the US commentary on their Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) if you want their view on the survivability and therefore utility of these types of vessels.) When the T26 and the T31 frigates are online (fingers crossed for the latter in decent numbers), and presuming the excellent but ageing minehunters are replaced, then the RN will have a level of balance and mass that is as good as can be expected in the current resource constrained environment.
Two other points. First, carrier vulnerability is overstated. The complexities of engaging a ship at range are significant (particularly when one has the option to shoot back) and often underestimated by those who think of this kind of engagement in terms of a lab experiment. Incidentally, the same goes for ‘transparent oceans’ and the (overstated) future vulnerability of our nuclear submarine force.
Second, our value to the US military in terms of experience, hardware, equipment they don’t have (rare but happens), intelligence, special forces, doctrine and good old-fashioned hardware is much greater than Max suggests. That we are in some way mocked by our US counterparts plays to a particular insecurity that resonates in an article but is something I have never seen close-up. In fact, quite the opposite. As for the carriers, they literally can’t wait for ours to load-share some of their tasks in the way that the Charles de Gaulle has been doing (with disproportionate diplomatic effect) for some time now.
So, keep the carriers. They’re good value for money and we have them now. The US nuclear carrier is first on the team sheet in any planning event despite those who don’t like them (even within their own navy) – ours should be too. Increase Frigate and Destroyer numbers, ideally across the board but certainly via the Type 31e which will provide mass whilst freeing-up the more expensive stuff to protect the carriers (balance). Then recruit and retain the relevant numbers to operate them all. If the navy finds anything ‘a colossal embarrassment’ just now it should be personnel shortages and not the new, and frankly excellent, carriers.