A review by the British National Audit Office has cast doubt over the United Kingdom’s proposed aircraft carrier strike force program. There are concerns that two Queen Elizabeth class super-carriers under construction may be more expensive than expected, and that savings being sought for the project will jeopardize operational safety. These concerns are valid, but must not be used as an excuse to scrap this important project.
The British carrier program — now estimated to cost 6.2 billion pounds ($9.8 billion) — was one of the most controversial points of last year’s strategic defense review, which outlined the future size and structure of the British armed forces. In exchange for keeping the two ships, the Royal Navy has had to retire early its existing carriers, as well as the Harrier jet fleet that operated from them. This will leave a gap of nine years before delivery of the new carriers in 2020. Until then, the Royal Navy lacks an operational carrier force.
An independent review of the project has thrown up a host of potential problems with the current plans. Chief among these are fears that the use of untested operational systems — such as catch-and-pulley wires on deck for the U.S. made F-35C Joint Strike Fighter — will “introduce significant levels of operational, technical, cost and schedule uncertainty.” The project's savings of around 3.5 billion pounds ($5.5 billion) may not offset these other costs.
All of this is grist to the mill of those who thought the UK’s carrier plans were under-funded or politically ludicrous from the beginning. There is indeed a legitimate debate to be had about the utility of carrier-based attack forces in today’s climate of counter-insurgency campaigns and domestic terrorism. Yet, I believe the British carrier plan still makes sense, for three key reasons: power projection, an uncertain future, and alliance commitments.
Firstly, carriers offer the only robust platform for power projection. Without an aircraft carrier, a nation is reliant on local allied airfields during an expeditionary mission. For many potential military flash-points around the world — from the South China Sea to the UK’s own disputed territories — these are not available. Carriers give you more options.
Secondly, the acquisition time for this project — over a decade — meant the UK was faced with a stark choice: invest, or lack carriers until 2030 or later. So while buying two carriers during a financial downturn may be controversial, the other option is to forego carrier strikes completely for the foreseeable future. In a rapidly changing world, the UK is right to avoid this risk.
Finally, the UK program must be put in the context of its alliance commitments. Every operational assumption in British war planning sees cooperation with at least one, if not multiple, allies. As such, these carriers will not only be able to host American and French jets, but will also provide a niche capability not being invested in by other European allies. Numerous battlegroup concepts in both NATO and the EU rely on the availability of a carrier. The UK, by filling this gap, is providing a capability all of its allies require.
So while the program will no doubt continue to be controversial, the UK is right to invest in these valuable military tools.
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