By Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Maritime Forces and Naval Security
The new British aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, has had its first encounter with a United States carrier, specifically the USS George H W Bush. Images of the pair off the coast of Scotland this week carry with them considerable symbolism, and not just for observers from the United Kingdom.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is still only at the beginning of her sea trials. It will be more than three years before she achieves even an initial fixed-wing carrier capability. It will be the mid-2020s before the UK has any chance of deploying on its own a full complement of F-35B fighters – officially 36 jets – aboard the ship. But the images of this week’s rendezvous drive home the fact that, in HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales, the UK will have vessels closer in potential capability to US carriers than it has had in decades.
The 65,000-tonne UK vessels will still not have capabilities of quite the same scale or range as those of the US Navy’s nuclear-powered 100,000-tonners. It will be a subtly different capability too in terms of design and concept of operations, but also because the UK does not have anything close to the resources available to its ally.
New ships will boost UK’s global role
However, the new carriers will offer the UK’s political leaders a significantly enhanced set of national strategic options, which may only become fully apparent as the ships are deployed operationally. They will represent a notable new contribution to the US–UK strategic relationship with a critical capability that has great resonance in Washington. They will also enhance the UK’s ability to offer a leadership role in other coalition scenarios – even, for example, in a future European context.
The Royal Navy’s concept of operations will be transformed, moving from a recent model chiefly of individual deployments back to one of a task-force-centred navy. But just delivering a fully-credible sovereign carrier capability will be hard enough, and any significant operation will require the deployment of the bulk of the navy’s assets.
There will need to be a continued high-level commitment if this aim is to be realised. The Royal Navy faces considerable challenges in terms of numbers of platforms and personnel, challenges likely to get worse before they get better. How, and indeed whether, the navy will be able to continue to fulfil its existing tasks as well is a significant issue. And all this comes in the context of a new mini-review of overall defence priorities brought on by budgetary pressures.
Washington seeks closer cooperation
But the latest images also underscore what the United States has invested in the UK’s carrier regeneration project. The fact that the USS George H W Bush was diverted to exercises off the Scottish coast on its homeward voyage, after a long deployment, is telling. So too is the fact that she had some 60 UK personnel aboard, including the nascent UK carrier strike command team, there to develop their skills.
The two navies have undertaken to cooperate and coordinate ever more closely on carrier operations in the future. The US Navy is facing its own challenges to rebuild the readiness of its overstretched carrier fleet. That reinforces the potential strategic value to the US of both the UK carriers and France’s Charles de Gaulle. But it also implies a level of expectation in Washington as to what these ships will deliver.
Meanwhile, the US Navy is facing calls – led by Senator John McCain – to look at smaller, potentially more cost-effective alternatives to its full-size carriers. The fanfare for the UK’s new carriers stems in part from the fact that they will be largest warships that the country has ever operated. But in the context of even larger US carriers, the Queen Elizabeth class might just fit the bill for that smaller, cheaper option that some in Washington are advocating. Although if this course is pursued, the result would probably look more like the latest big-deck US amphibious ship, USS America.