This morning I am taking the very unusual stance of not specifically writing a personal response to what I regard as being an appalling article written by Sir Max Hastings and published on Saturday in The Times under the title ‘Giant carriers are symbols of our national delusions’ but instead and with their permission, I am repeating two excellent response articles written by those who between them understand defence politics, strategy, policy and the military requirement at first hand.
The first response below was written by a former Royal Navy Officer Tom Sharpe OBE and the second, a more detailed and lengthy response from Sir Humphrey @pinstripedline. Both first appeared on Twitter on Sunday
I share the view of both respondents to the Hastings piece and particularly the opening title from the Sir Humphrey title response ‘yet another anti-carrier article relying on tired clichés, confident assertions and a strong desire to bash the Royal Navy’ and adding that the arguments never change, they just become more tedious to read”.
Sir Max Hastings is, as I mentioned yesterday, wedded to believing that of the three services, the Army is the only one capable of determining what is required in terms of UK defence capability. His loathing of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force is well known. Not only in my opinion does Sir Max fail to understand the importance and values of ‘jointery’ in modern defence but, as someone put it to me last evening, this is a man who appears to believe that the most senior military officer in defence, the Chief of the Defence Staff, should always come from the Army.
To me, the article by Sir Max not only shows ignorance and failure to understand that defence and foreign policy objectives should always be combined. Britain’s role supporting our NATO allies remains the most significant of any nation apart from the US and the revival of ‘Carrier Strike’ capability is part of that.
As I do not have permission to repeat The Times article, I suggest that subscribers to that newspaper go to the link below to read it:
I have copied and pasted both articles – one originally contained photographs which I have of necessity had to remove. I hope that both appear well when sent out on email:
The first response ‘A matter of Balance and Mass’ – Why the Royal Navy Needs Both – was written by Tom Sharpe OBE, a former Royal Navy Officer who I had first met when he was Captain of HMS St Albans, a Type 23 Frigate, back in 2011.
“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”
Tom Sharpe OBE
‘Yet another anti-carrier article relying on tired clichés, confident assertions and a strong desire to bash the Royal Navy’ is second rebuttal response piece that I have chosen with the permission of its author – Sir Humphrey @pinstripedline. – to reprint here.
A Strategic Defence Review is coming. The rise in leaked options to the papers, purporting to represent current thinking is now being joined by the next stage in the campaign, articles by senior but not necessarily completely credible, individuals who want to push their party line at any cost. The latest entry in this campaign is by the well-known journalist, Sir Max Hastings.
In his article for the Times on Saturday he attacks the Royal Navy for procuring the two new aircraft carriers as a ‘colossal embarrassment to the Royal Navy and the armed forces’. He goes on to write at length about the vulnerability of the carrier force, how smaller cheaper conversions would be better, and some interesting and historically incorrect assertions about the role of airpower and the Royal Navy before WW2 coupled with a general sense of ranting angrily about how the UK is an irrelevance now and how we don’t actually have any military power.
This is coupled with the same view that somehow the UK is an irrelevance. Maybe it’s a generational thing and the fact that for the few remaining, and increasingly less relevant commentators of Sir Max’s elderly generation of OAPs, perhaps memories of their childhood and a sense of national malaise in the late 1940s and 50s has shaped their perception of the world today. The problem is that their view is utterly disconnected from reality, and their approach seems to be best characterised as to answer any question as ‘the UK is irrelevant, what’s the question again’?
It is set against this backdrop of this article that it is worth reviewing why the Carrier force remains so relevant, and why the UK, despite the wishes of Sir Max remains relevant and credible globally.
Carriers matter in simple terms because they allow the UK to embark an airwing, and military force, that can sail around the world on a self-sustaining basis and arrive ready to operate at a time and place of the British Governments choosing.
The carrier force represents a national investment in a pair of floating bases, capable of hosting troops, helicopters and aircraft and which can represent the UK abroad in a variety of roles. This force allows the UK the ability to project power, both by embarking British or allied assets onboard to sail, influence and if needs be project power ashore from soft humanitarian aid through to the delivery of munitions on the ground
The problem the carrier faces is primarily the ingrained hostility to those who see them purely as naval assets. For years there have been accusations that somehow these ships represent an Admirals bath toy, absorbing funds that could be better spent on whatever issue of the day matters most to defence commentators.
From the outset the carrier has been designed as a truly joint asset – one must speak to the RAF to understand how closely involved they have been in bringing the dream of carrier strike to life. The ships may be operated by the Royal Navy, but the force and capability the class represents is truly joint in nature.
The ships will not go to sea to do some random admirals bidding, sailing in the Med on a pleasure cruise while launching aircraft for the fun of it. They will go to sea on a tri-service deployment, embarking helicopters and aircraft from all three services and going out to meet the direction of Whitehall.
The carrier is a national strategic asset – it represents an influencing tool and means of sending a message that cannot easily be sent by other means. Sir Max bemoans the lack of UK influence overseas, while ignoring the reality that these two ships are intended to spearhead and reassert this influence. The presence of a carrier strike group in your neighbourhood draws interest and attention from all parties.
Carrier forces are flexible because they can demonstrate capability and intent without being committed. The British Army has a deployable division, but the challenge it faces is where to put it and when to deploy it – once on the ground it is both committed and fixed in position till it can be recovered – potentially setting in play an escalation of events in a foreign policy crisis.
Land based RAF forces, while inherently capable and flexible are reliant on fixed locations to operate out of. When the UK wants to deploy in a crisis overseas, it is reliant both on the host nation being prepared to admit forces on the ground, and then supporting the UK from operating as it pleases with them. One of the challenges of coalition operations is the constant balance of securing permissions from your hosts to carry out the missions you want, without disrupting their often-challenging local relationships at the same time.
This is not to say that land-based air does not have its advantages – it absolutely does and, in a crisis, where a land campaign is about to be mounted, or where you are absolutely aligned with the host nation on the goals of the air campaign, it is very flexible. Just look at the way that the RAF made extensive use of the Middle East for much of the 1990s and 2000s to conduct missions over Iraq in a variety of guises.
However, what carrier power brings is the ability to remove the need for permissions, or joint agreements with host nations. It allows the CO of the ship to deploy the airwing at a time and place of their choosing, and if needs be relocated to better influence the situation. The operational freedom the carriers provide is significant and gives genuine sovereignty to the decision on when and where to launch a mission.
From an influence perspective too, the presence of a UK carrier, able to do this serves as a key factor in opponents decision making. They know that the ship can move and send a message without ever entering their airspace or territorial waters, and they know that unlike land-based forces, they cannot influence a third party to stop supporting it.
At its heart, what carrier airpower gives the Prime Minister is the ability to let the UK wage war on its terms, removed from the constraints of host nation support or worrying about the footprint of personnel on the ground. They represent a true manifestation of sovereignty, which is why the nations that value their ability to influence events abroad want to own one.
The article trots out the tired old clichés about the vulnerability of the carriers to whatever wonder weapon of the day foreign nations are selling. In the 1960s it was ICBMs able to wipe out a carrier force at four minutes notice, today its hyper velocity missiles or some other acronym ridden product yet to enter service and work as planned.
It is very easy for opponents of the carriers to look at some breathless marketing brochure or internet fanboy site and read off a litany of statistics and think ‘oh shit’. Its slightly harder to get them to do some critical thinking about the credibility of the threat, in the same way as they seem determined to analyse how weak the carrier may be.
In a way this is frustrating because we are letting ourselves be influenced in the way the marketeers want us to be influenced. If we genuinely believe some of the nonsense out there and give up on priceless capabilities because in a deeply theoretical and unlikely set of circumstances Country X may possess a weapon that could, according to the advertising, hurt us, not only are we achieving their own policy goals for them, but we may as well ask why we’re in the business of having armed forces at all.
A carrier is intended to operate and survive in some very challenging conditions. The full survivability of a large carrier is something that hasn’t been tested in operations realistically since WW2. The closest we have come is incidents onboard ships like US carriers off Vietnam where disasters occurred doing damage, but still enabling the ships to stay on station (for example fires onboard the USS FORRESTAL or the USS ENTERPRISE fire off Pearl Harbour).
In the modern world we’ve never actually seen a carrier tested to the full to understand how survivable they are, but it is worth remembering that there are a lot of things that have to happen in order for the carrier to be taken out of action.
Firstly, the enemy has to find the carrier. This may sound obvious, but the sea is an extremely large place and it is very, very easy to disappear in – even fairly close into shore. Just read up for example the story of the old ARK ROYAL off the East Coast of the USA in the 1970s on exercise where for days she sat off the coast ‘bombing’ various airfields without being found.
While poorly written fiction and the movies will have you believe that a carrier can be found and tracked, the reality is sometimes different. A carrier that doesn’t want to be found can disappear easily and it takes a great deal of effort to be found again. To fire these super-duper hypersonic missiles, you have to know where to send them – something that constantly gets overlooked.
Much like we assumed the Soviets were giants with wonder weapons that always worked, today we assume our likely foes will automatically know exactly where we are, what we are doing and where we are going next. That is a rather courageous assumption to make, and it’s hard to understand what facts it is based on.
The next assumption is that carriers are somehow sitting ducks and cannot defeat any incoming missiles. Again, this seems to assume that somehow not one penny has been spent on self defence systems and that the carrier operators have no idea what to do. In reality the situation is very different.
It would also be worth noting that a fact often missed at times in these debates is that the fixed airfields positions are also remarkably well known. It is infinitely easier to fire missiles at an airbase whose location has not changed in decades, than it is to fire at a moving target that doesn’t want to be found. While airbases may not necessarily be sunk, they are just as vulnerable to attack, and are arguably more so due to their lack of close in weapon systems and passive soft kill measures.
HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH may not be bristling with big guns, but she and her escorts will be equipped with a wide variety of exceptionally advanced electronic means of doing bad things to incoming missiles. The Royal Navy (and other navies) doesn’t talk about this sort of thing or capabilities for good reason. But, when we read articles attacking the carriers, it always seems to be the case that the authors forget the huge capability of ‘soft kill’ measures that the ships will be unleashing.
The reality is that a Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group operating in a conflict situation will be able to activate a whole host of interesting countermeasures that have received zero publicity. It is reasonable to say that anyone attempting to fire incoming missiles at an RN force which is operating with its sensors in their wartime modes is in for an unpleasant surprise.
Finally, there is always an effort to underestimate the survivability of a carrier to taking hits. Modern ships are built to survive taking damage and to keep operating in often extremely difficult conditions. This is due to multiple redundant systems, investment in firefighting and other damage control systems and designing the ships from the outset to be able to operate in wartime to take and survive damage. Be wary of assuming that one hit will automatically mission kill a ship – it may, but equally it may well not.
The risk then is listening to people pandering the ‘oh but if only we just bolted a flight deck to a merchant ship’ line. Normally when Humphrey hears people say this in person, he usually responds by asking them if they’ve been taking illegal drugs.
The UK did it in the 1940s when aircraft were very simple, and the circumstances utterly desperate and yet these ships carried very few aircraft and were quickly retired post war due to their eminent unsuitability in the role. The lack of airpower though was not because, as Sir Max accuses the RN of having battleship focused Admirals before WW2 – in reality the Admiralty and RAF before WW2 had long realised the importance of the carrier, as can be seen by the manner in which a very large amount of the construction programme was aviation based. It is deeply ironic to see a man whose entire career has it feels been spent on believing that things were better in the past to blame the RN for Admirals looking to the past not the future.
Modern aircraft carriers are big complex vessels – the challenge is not the flight deck, but the plethora of systems needed to support aviation operations. From moving aviation fuel from the storage tanks to the flight deck, or munitions safely around the vessel from deep well protected magazines onto aircraft, or the complexities of the operations room and mission planning areas, not to say the maintenance workshops and support areas needed to keep the aircraft flying – modern carriers are incredibly complex vessels.
Simply throwing out lines like ‘oh well just convert a merchant ship’ is dangerous because the idea is simply not going to work. Taking a vessel like a merchant ship, probably a single screw hull intended to sail at fairly low speeds and with no internal compartmentation to support battle damage survivability and then turning it into an aircraft carrier is a feat that smacks of desperation. By the time you’ve taken a merchant ship, removed all the parts you don’t need, completely rebuilt the inside and added a hangar, magazines, fuel storage and all the command systems and the like and then put the ship to sea, you’ve ended up spending hundreds of millions, if not billions on turning a vessel not designed for the job into a bodge job.
The UK looked extensively at this idea in the 1980s – it was called the Arapho concept and saw ships used this way in the Falklands. It led to the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor. The UK tried again with RFA RELIANT off Lebanon, and again it was clear that the idea just doesn’t work – fixing and operating aircraft using shipping containers may sound fun, but it’s also intensely impractical and there are good reasons why RFA RELIANT, was quickly disposed of.
The sole merchant conversion that has worked is that of RFA ARGUS, who underwent an extremely lengthy conversion into an aviation training ship, but even then, has found herself mostly employed in other roles. One has to ask though whether the cost of converting ARGUS back in the 80s would have been better spent on acquiring a purpose built LPH instead.
Not one nation on the planet is looking at this idea as a credible way of getting aircraft to sea – if it was that good an idea, surely every country wanting a naval air arm would do it? You only have to look at nations that have tight budgets but quasi-carrier aspirations like Japan, Turkey, Brazil, Australia, South Korea etc to realise that they have all gone for purpose-built ships for a reason.
There is something mildly distressing at the manner with which Sir Max loftily pronounces that this conversion can be done. He is essentially condoning the construction of a snatch land rover of the sea, and willingly supporting construction of ships that, in wartime, would see British service personnel killed.
The final frustration reading this piece comes from the utter defeatism that permeates every part of it. There is something profoundly depressing about reading this sort of article which seems to assume that the UK is wrong, that we’re to blame and that we’re also completely useless at everything and nobody likes us anyway. This sort of national self-doubt is frustrating because it is so utterly at odds with the reality of the world today.
The UK is one of a handful of countries that enjoys a truly global outlook. Possessing huge diplomatic reach with one of the largest networks of embassies and High Commissions out there, coupled with extensive trade and global soft power access, British influence and credibility is far higher than some defeatists would like to admit.
Today the British Armed forces operate across the globe, operating on the full range of the military spectrum from carrying out hydrographic operations and defence diplomacy in the Asia Pacific region, through to combat operations in the Middle East and deterrence operations in northern Europe. The British Armed Forces are deployed on every continent on the planet, and this year have sailed or operated across every ocean too. How many other countries can do this?
We like to permanently beat ourselves up as if we’re somehow failures, yet when push comes to shove, we seem to be remarkably good at not being failures. There is always a UK capability or asset that we can help with or support. Only this week the RAF sent an A400M to conduct search and rescue operations in Chile, while at the other end of the world, it finished providing air defence to Iceland with a Typhoon detachment. When disasters occur globally, the UK is always ready to send aid and assist, while in a crisis there is usually a UK military asset nearby that can help.
This reach is in part due to the fact that the UK has invested heavily in jointery and ‘fusion’ bringing together departments and assets to work in a far more coherent and joined up way than most nations. As a nation we enjoy considerably more influence, reach and access than we think, and are usually at the cutting edge of efforts to improve capabilities too.
It is particularly frustrating then to see attacks on the existence of the carrier force in a way that treats this priceless national asset as if it is some kind of toy for the Royal Navy. It smacks of a total lack of understanding about how defence works in support of wider national security, and how joined up things really are these days.
The carrier is a national investment designed to provide a wide plethora of capabilities to support and defend the nation, and its allies, for decades to come. To see it purely through the prism of a myopic lens and an overt and tedious hatred of the Royal Navy for reasons more probably linked to events of the 1980s than any fact is fairly sad to observe.
To be honest this piece seems to mark yet another part of the opening of hostilities in the SDSR campaign. It seems intended to cause debate about the value of carriers and gently reinforce the message that somehow money should go elsewhere – ignoring the fact that this money has now been spent.
It’s hard to understand what the thinking is here, but at its heart it feels like this is a piece intended to condition the public into thinking ‘the Navy and to a lesser extent the RAF has had lots of money wasted on it, let’s go be nice to the Army for a change’. Such a view though is utterly removed from the reality of how defence works, but it feels as if it is intended to reinforce stereotypes that wouldn’t hold up to any scrutiny.
This week marks a moment of national celebration. For the first time in almost 50 years, the Royal Navy has two strike carriers in commission, able to represent and defend the United Kingdom across the globe. They are a stunning vindication of decades of truly joint staff work by the RN, RAF and Army to make the credible case for power projection and while they may be painted battleship grey, they are a truly purple asset. The future is bright, it is exciting and it’s time to focus on this, and not cling to tired clichés and myths that have no relevance to the modern Armed Forces.
Sir Humphrey @pinstripedline.
(CHW – London – 17th December 2019)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785