New UK carrier sets sail: a sea change for the programme?

The maiden departure of HMS Queen Elizabeth is doubtless a bold statement about the UK’s strategic ambition. But, as Nick Childs explains, the strategic credibility of the investment hangs on whether the UK is truly committed to delivering a full carrier-based power projection capability. 

HMS Queen Elizabeth at Rosyth. Credit: MoD/Crown Copyright

By Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security

The maiden departure on sea trials of the first of the UK Royal Navy’s 65,000-tonne new-generation aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, clearly represents a major milestone for a programme that already stretches back some two decades. The controversial project promises to transform the UK’s so-called ‘power-projection’ capabilities. But a significant, challenging and lengthy voyage still lies ahead in terms of regenerating a full UK carrier strike force.

Following the ship’s departure from Rosyth in Scotland on 26 June, there will be an initial six weeks of machinery and propulsion trials followed by another six weeks of systems tests. The plan is that the ship will enter her permanent home of Portsmouth naval base towards the end of the year to be accepted into Royal Navy service. Rotary-wing flying trials are due in early 2018, while initial fixed-wing trials with the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter will take place off the US east coast later in the year. A carrier strike initial operating capability (IOC), with a limited number of perhaps 6–12 F-35Bs and some airborne early warning capability with the Crowsnest programme, based on the Merlin helicopter, is planned at the end of 2020. A full operational capability would be some years after the IOC.

As UK F-35B numbers are built up, HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first operational deployment, due in 2021, is expected to include a detachment of US Marine Corps F-35Bs for at least part of the deployment. In 2015, the government announced that 24 F-35Bs would be available for carrier operations by 2023. The aim is for a full carrier-based power projection capability, with a task group including purpose-built support vessels, by 2026.

A key issue, of course, is whether the UK will indeed routinely be able or willing to deliver that level of carrier capability in that timeframe. On that really hangs the strategic credibility of the investment.  

All that only serves to underscore the challenge of regenerating a carrier capability, particularly following the decision in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review to scrap the UK’s then light aircraft carrier capability, based on Harrier jump jets and the 20,000-tonne Invincible-class ships. What is more, the UK has not operated vessels on a scale even approaching that of the new ships for four decades.

In that sense, the decision back in 1998 to procure them represented a deliberate decision to step back up the strategic ladder of maritime-based power projection. That ambition in itself has been controversial, given the scale of resources it also implied. The subsequent austerity-driven reductions in overall UK defence capability have fuelled that controversy, and added criticisms that the Royal Navy’s reduced overall force structure and personnel numbers mean that it will struggle to deliver a credible carrier capability, let alone a balanced maritime force. 

On top of that, there have been significant delays and cost increases. Having said that, just over £6 billion for two 65,000-tonne carriers still represents a significant national technical achievement. And, if the programme targets are met, the UK should, in the mid-2020s, be in a very elite carrier capability club, with the United States in a league of its own still, China’s carrier investments possibly by then putting it in second place, but with the British force ahead of those of France, India and Russia.

Significantly, despite the huge challenges and controversies, the original ambition has essentially been endorsed by successive governments since 1998. Like it or not, deploying a carrier capability probably still makes a statement about national strategic ambition like no other conventional defence investment. In that sense, HMS Queen Elizabeth represents a ‘ship of state’ like no predecessor in modern Royal Navy or UK defence history. But, clearly, the current UK government and its successors will still face further challenges not only in delivering this capability, but also in meeting their other major defence programme targets.

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