Britain's new carriers in a post-Brexit world

During the arms race in the late thirties, Britain and the Royal Navy did all they could to ensure that the nation preserved its naval dominance over Germany. However, there were a few anomalies.

One of these was the battlecruiser, HMS Hood, flagship of the fleet. Yes, she was long, beautiful and carried the biggest guns, but she was a battlecruiser. These ships were designed to be armed with the big guns of a battleship coupled with the speed of a cruiser. This was rather strange as the weakness of this design concept had been highlighted at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 when the three British battlecruisers HMS Invincible, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary were all lost explosively in short order to large calibre German fire penetrating their thin armour. This was the very same thin armour that saved weight and allowed them to move so fast compared to the heavily protected battleships. So, it should really not have been a surprise when 25 years later HMS Hood followed a similar horrendously explosive end when her quarry the Bismarck turned and fired her opening salvo in the Battle of the Denmark Strait. So why had the lesson not been learned and applied? The reason being peacetime dulls the lessons once etched in blood.

Today in a post Brexit world, Britain has turned its back on being part of a continual power structure in the form of the EU, a model that failed to serve both Napoleon and Hitler in the face of global competition. Instead, Britain has returned to the global trading model that allowed it to build the largest Empire the world has seen. Key to that success was a commensurate naval power that protected commercial interests. Thus, the fate of Britain and its navy is now once more inextricably connected.

On August 16th, in what appears to be a remarkable coincidence, but what I suspect, is very much a product of the new British regional cycle, HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed into Portsmouth. This was the very same harbour utilised by Henry VIII to expand English sea power; that move itself is part of a previous regional cycle of the British Empire. The route by which these new carriers have been built cannot claim to be by precinct demand, but rather by the sum of random political decisions with admirals who obviously had a strategy and foresaw the nation's future defence needs demanded them.

The two carriers are potentially extremely capable power projection platforms. If one had by now  been fully serviceable, it could presently be operating off North Korea with American carriers preparing for a preemptive strike. When both carriers are in service and fully equipped they will be formidable and place the RN second only to the USN in maritime strike capability. However, there is one major lesson that seems to have been lost. In the Pacific War carriers were king, but they required a massive accompanying fleet to provide defence from submarines, kamikazes and warships. The requirements to defend against kamikaze attacks were combat air patrols as far away from the carriers as possible as well as rings of anti-aircraft guns fired from multiple escorts. Notwithstanding, when all failed and attrition took its effects, it was numbers that ensured victory.

Today, in a world of lethal and accurate missiles that are generationally more capable than those seen in the Falklands War, we only have six Type 45s (all of which have engine problems), thirteen aging ASW Type 23 frigates and a total of seven hunter killer submarines (three of which are from the Cold War) to provide fleet protection. The words diminished and denuded come to mind. Thus, our carriers are without sufficient fleet support and so are currently frighteningly vulnerable whilst operating independently of other nations, just as HMS Hood once was.

The two new carriers are not themselves dedicated weapons systems but rather platforms for its aircraft which are its weapons. The choice of the F-35B was the only choice to make and may not be so flawed as the critics claim. Yes, they have a lower range and payload than the catapult launched C version. But, both variants will need in-air refueling to hit targets out to 1200 nautical miles and allow the carrier to standoff in safety. If one or both carriers were to be lost in combat, then the F-35B could still operate from other platforms if provision is made in anticipation to the design of enlarged helicopter flight decks and hangars. The thought that destroyers could have their own aircraft capability would be in line with the concept of distributed lethality around the surface fleet so enhancing the survivability of combat power if losses are taken.

The carriers are an exciting addition to the RN and a boost to national pride at a critical time in the Brexit process. However much as HMS Hood once was, these ships are now one of the premier symbols of national pride. Consequnetly, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales must be adequately defended as without sufficient escort ships and the necessary air power to provide teeth along with the ancillary support systems, their full capability will never be realised. A proper balanced fleet defence will require significant increases to defence spending and policy. Without which they are as vulnerable as their critics claim.

Comments

I have real concerns about these carriers.
The Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk in WWII - because they had no air cover - as the naval chiefs hadn't appreciated its essential value. Military chiefs are too often behind the times.
A major part of any coming conflict will be fought in cyberspace. That has been known for some time. But there will also be a massive increase in the number of intelligent drones both in the air and in the sea. I foresee mother drones closing to a safe distance, then releasing swarms of self-sufficient drones to swamp the defences of the target.
These will be vastly cheaper than aircraft carriers or aircraft, and require no manning.
These aircraft carriers will be redundant before they are in service!