By Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Maritime Forces and Naval Security
Amid much fanfare, the new Royal Navy aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, has achieved another hugely symbolic milestone with her first entry into her home base of Portsmouth. This very public debut is likely to increase the pressure to turn her potential into real operational capability as soon as possible.
At 65,000 tonnes, the ship certainly dominated the scene as I witnessed her thread her way through the narrow entrance to Portsmouth harbour. The last time there was an equivalent first entry into Portsmouth, ushering in a new era for the navy, was March 1980 and the advent of the then new-generation aircraft carrier, HMS Invincible. But she displaced just 20,000 tonnes.
Indeed, HMS Invincible’s debut marked the real transition from a post-imperial, 'east of Suez' navy to a Cold War, chiefly North Atlantic, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) navy. Ironically, little more than two years later, HMS Invincible was playing a pivotal part in a post-imperial expeditionary campaign at extreme range in the South Atlantic to retake the Falkland Islands.
The last time the United Kingdom operated a carrier even close to the scale of HMS Queen Elizabeth was in 1978, when the fourth HMS Ark Royal, at 50,000 tonnes, finally decommissioned. Then, according to the 1978/9 edition of the IISS Military Balance, the navy also operated 66 destroyers and frigates (and two cruisers). Today, that number is 19.
In a way that underscores the fact that for the UK the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers potentially represent an even more strategically significant asset than the big carriers of old – in terms of the balance of the rest of the navy, overall UK defence capabilities, and even global power-projection capabilities. In the context of a more complex and contested security environment, the manner of their possible deployment may differ considerably from what was originally envisaged – not just classic power-projection potentially east of Suez again, but operating in a period of revived state-on-state friction, renewed concerns about Russia and therefore the North Atlantic, and a heightened focus again on ASW in a potentially hostile maritime domain.
Amid what has been a long-running controversy over the UK carrier programme (and the debate continues over the extent to which the programme is straining UK defence resources), one of the hurdles for the carrier advocates has clearly been a loss of collective UK political and institutional memory as to what it is like to be able to deploy a full-size carrier – in terms of strategic options and messaging.
But there are already signs that the lure of that leverage is beginning to have an effect. And there may yet be a difficult balance to be struck between the focus on regenerating an operational carrier strike capability, and demonstrating the utility of these significant investments at an early opportunity. The challenge still ahead in terms of integrating the UK force of F-35B joint strike fighters into the carrier capability should not be underestimated.
On a recent visit to Australia, the UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson rather over-embellished UK intentions to deploy these 'colossal' carriers, as he described them, to the Asia-Pacific region (and he subsequently toned down his comments). But the fact that they are seen in Whitehall as potential totems of renewed UK strategic intent in the region is not in doubt. And yet there will also be a pull to deploy them to other regions of interest, like the Middle East or closer to home waters in a European and NATO context.
But current plans are that only one carrier at a time will be maintained at high readiness. Likewise, Royal Navy resources will be stretched to support even one carrier, including with suitable escorts. The US Navy, at a much higher scale of both resources and commitments, is also likely to remain stretched in terms of carrier deployments. And the other main Western carrier operator, France, has just one vessel currently, the Charles de Gaulle. Hence all three leading Western carrier operators are keen to emphasise ever closer partnership and integration in their future operating plans.