Britain’s nearly 20-year drive to get back into the big aircraft carrier game took a critical, if ceremonial, step forward last week, with the formal naming of the first of two giant ships.
HMS Queen Elizabeth — christened by its namesake Queen Elizabeth II — is the largest warship ever built in Britain and will be commissioned into the Royal Navy in 2016. A sister ship is under construction and slated for delivery in 2019. The new carrier will be the centerpiece of a joint force bringing together the three UK military services, which will operate aircraft from the ship’s 4-acre flight decks.
“HMS Queen Elizabeth will also become the beating heart of our strategic armada, the Joint Expeditionary Force,” said Adm. Sir George Zambellas, the First Sea Lord, at a London conference last week. “And we are exploring how to internationalize the JEF to enhance cooperation and interoperability with our allies.”
In particular, Britain’s new carriers will enjoy a close operational relationship with the US Marine Corps, which will fly the same short-takeoff, vertical-landing F-35B as the the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.
But London has taken a tortured route toward this achievement. Budget pressures forced the government to waffle on its carrier plans, flip-flopping on design decisions and, at one point, considering canceling them entirely. UK leaders also balked on how many F-35s to buy, although now, at least, up to 138 jets remain in the plan.
Still unclear, however, is whether the two new carriers will ever serve simultaneously under Royal Navy’s legendary White Ensign.
The current plan is to put only one of the ships in service, with the other to be mothballed or sold. A Strategic Defence and Security Review is to decide the ships’ fates next year.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has said that having the second ship available for duty would cost an extra £70 million, a modest price given the capability gained and the significantly greater costs already incurred.
Once equipped with the F-35 fighter, as well as an assortment of helicopters, including the Merlin, Wildcat, Chinook and the future Crowsnest ISR system, the ships will constitute a formidable capability.
Failing to put both ships in service is shortsighted, leaving Britain in the same compromised state as France, which is without an available carrier for extended periods during necessary maintenance.
One carrier is better than none, but two are better, ensuring that the massive investment pays off with a strategic national capability available whenever needed. You can’t schedule international incidents around maintenance availabilities.
“Credibility also hinges on a carrier being available when the need arises,” Zambellas said. “Hope is not a reliable method of ensuring capability availability when a crisis erupts. … That means having two carriers, not one.”
He is right. Britain is one of the world’s most important powers, one that is a cornerstone of the rules-based order that governs international affairs. As such, these ships will be critical for the security and global interests of the UK and its allies.
Sadly, Britain sometimes tries to do big things on the cheap, cutting corners that undermine its own plans. Having already committed tens of billions of pounds to build the ships, the new carrier-based aircraft that will operate from their decks and the escort ships to defend them, Britain has made a strategic investment that will yield decades of capability.
But buying the ships — as well as aircraft and systems — is only half the story. They must be continuously available for operations if they are going to constitute a real capability.