Peter Divey assesses strengths and weaknesses of Britain’s latest hard power capability: HMS Queen Elizabeth.
As recently as 1996 UK defence spend stood at three per cent of GDP. That has now shrunk to two per cent. That is a significant reduction in spending; it is not austerity-light. Defence chiefs are constantly looking at ‘efficiencies’ with capital spend. Hugely expensive big-ticket costs are unavoidable with military procurement. Ships. Aircraft. But personnel will always be the biggest cost: wages, training, pensions. It is almost impossible to reduce those costs without cuts, so cuts there have been. Everywhere. Schemes are ongoing, sub-contracting maintenance, recruitment, even training. Helpful, but really little more than tinkering. It is unsurprising that the Royal Navy’s (RN) splurging on its new aircraft carrier capability is controversial. Costs are massive. Scrutiny has been intense and relentless.
HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales have some notable design features. Efficiency and pragmatism are to the fore. Propulsion is diesel-electric rather than nuclear because it is much cheaper. The ship’s crew will be less than 700, modest compared to other ships of similar size and class. Efficient. There are two towers giving these ships a distinctive profile: the forward tower for ship command the other for flight control. The flight-deck has a launch ramp but does without either aircraft launch catapult or landing arrest wires. This decision saved money but has had a big effect on future flexibility as the carriers must now use short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft. The Royal Navy is expert at maximising this setup because it exactly mirrors their prior Harrier setup on HMS Invincible. From 2025, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will bestride the globe, protecting and furthering Her Majesty’s interests. The carriers will always be accompanied by a specialised protection and logistic fleet. The Navy call it Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP).
CEPP depends almost entirely upon the mysterious qualities of the Lockheed Martin F-35B STOVL jet fighter. A modern fifth generation stealth-enhanced design. Critics have been savage. The F-35 programme is over-priced, late, too heavy and complex, unfit for purpose. A joke. This is the aircraft that the Royal Nave and Royal Air Force will purchase as many as 138 aircraft through to 2035. There is a 15 per cent work share arrangement on UK bound aircraft which could create up to 24,000 jobs. The performance of the F-35B is as yet unclear, much is still secret. Will it be as awful as the critics say? As outstanding as Lockheed Martin say? There are some clues: senior RAF personnel have talked about deploying the Typhoon (Britain’s current air superiority fighter) out front as “the tip of the spear” taking it to opposing aircraft with the F-35 sitting in behind acting as a “force-multiplier”. This presumably refers to the futuristic sensors and battle-space awareness of the F-35B enabling it to control and direct a conflict, “multiplying” the lethality of the Typhoon. Or maybe the F-35 is too expensive to risk? Or maybe it just can’t fight a damn? I am optimistic and expect the F-35B to perform well. The Navy will of course have to “take it” to any aggressors without any Typhoon led spear-tips.
What will CEPP actually do? Surprisingly little actual fighting I expect. Restraining pirates off the African coast, famine relief, thwarting drug runners and people smugglers. Maybe even policing UK waters post-Brexit? It would be fool-hardy to directly challenge one of the carriers and its accompanying fleet. Walk softly when you carry a big stick. The threat alone should be sufficient… unless an enemy has made an entirely different assessment of the merits of the controversial F-35B. If it is useless you will be unable to project meaningful power. Time will tell.