In yet another broadside published in The Times from the Royal Navy’s most opinionated critic, Max Hastings has described the new aircraft carriers as “dinosaurs… expensive, impractical and alarmingly vulnerable”. Here we examine Hastings’ pontifications and provide a more balanced view.
Max Hastings is a respected writer, historian and was once considered amongst Britain’s finest defence journalists. His early career included reporting from the frontline of various global conflicts with an instinctive grasp of infantry operations and how armies work. Hastings may know the difference between a Brigade and a Battalion but exhibits a blind spot for naval warfare and how maritime power is foundational to both Britain’s history and future. The self-proclaimed “first man into Port Stanley” during the liberation of the Falkland Islands in 1982 produced excellent accounts of the land battle but fails to acknowledge the victory was only made possible by Royal Navy aircraft carriers.
The poison pen
To say Hastings has ‘form’ would be an understatement and his polemics have been published by a broad cross-section of the British press. It must be a lucrative sideline writing regular carrier-bashing editorials for media outlets who are either unequipped or unwilling to question the validity of his statements.
Hastings tirades against the RN go back many years, writing in the Guardian in January 2004 he claimed “the new Type 45 destroyers represent another huge folly. They are escorts, offering limited anti-missile and anti-submarine cover”. (Type 45 and PAAMS are recognised as one of the best anti-missile platforms afloat). By 2010 he was (incorrectly) prophesying in the Financial Times that the carrier project would make “the navy’s entire amphibious capability disappear”. Writing for the Spectator in 2013 he contended that “construction of two giant aircraft-carriers might more usefully have been spent on replicating the Egyptian pyramids”.
Hastings really threw his toys out of the pram in 2017, telling Daily Mail readers that HMS Queen Elizabeth “should be scuttled”. Drawing on his great naval expertise, his solution is to build “cheap ’n’ cheerful naval platforms from which to launch drones and low-tech aircraft. For that, one could almost have welded steel plates on top of tanker hulls, to create acceptable flight decks.” (The multiple problems with this approach are way beyond the scope of this article). 2018 saw no let-up in the barrage. Writing in The Sun he said “that the two preposterous carriers should be mothballed” and The Times also indulged him with another unhinged editorial essentially arguing for “more Army” at the expense of everything else. In December 2019 The Times followed up their false assertion that the MoD was looking at plans to “lend one of the Royal Navy’s flagship aircraft carriers to the UK’s allies” with the latest Hasting diatribe prompted by the commissioning of HMS Prince of Wales.
Central to Hastings argument is that Britain is a “faded power” that can’t afford aircraft carriers. Britain has the 5th largest economy on the globe although chooses to inadequately resource and manage defence. His claim that they “cost £6.2 billion, which is 15 per cent of Britain’s budget” is a distortion and shows a complete misunderstanding of how the ships were procured. The £6.2 billion was spread over at least 15 years and even within a constrained defence budget, the ships themselves represent extraordinary value for money. Designed to last 50 years, having exceptionally low manpower requirements and many innovations, the price tag is low in relation to the effect they can deliver and when compared with foreign equivalents.
Hastings calls the F-35 “insanely expensive”. Like all fast jets, it is certainly not cheap but an F-35 is now roughly about the same cost as a Typhoon and the price is falling. If you want credible strike fighter aircraft that can do more than just survive in contested airspace you have to pay for it. There is no other viable alternative to the F-35 for the Navy, RAF and indeed many other western nations, with 12 countries (and rising) now procuring the aircraft. The jets and helicopters are an expensive aspect of CEPP but we would be buying them anyway, even if we did not have aircraft carriers.
Much of the criticism of the QEC aircraft carriers stems from their great size. A carrier half the size would be more than half the price and would deliver much less than half of the capability. Every study into the design of aircraft carriers shows that increases in size above a certain minimum threshold offer an exponential increase in sortie rate and ease of operation. Bigger carriers are slightly more expensive to construct and demand costly supporting infrastructure but over their 5 decades of service they will have the capacity for major upgrades and maintenance is eased by good access. In combat, bigger vessels are more lethal, more flexible and can absorb more damage. Like any warship design, the resulting vessel is a compromise, trading off initial cost, through-life-cost and capability.
There are plenty of self-styled ‘visionaries’ on hand to advise that our forces need to be radically transformed to be agile, lightweight AI cyber warriors, equipped with drones and lasers. These visionaries the same people who were telling us a few years ago that state-on-state conflict was a thing of the past and we should reshape our forces for nothing but counter-insurgency operations. Incidentally, a large force of low-budget constabulary vessels that some might wish for would also be a liability in a real conflict and lack both the hard-power deterrent and political value of large and high-end warships.
There are certainly new threats from advancing technologies and the RN needs must respond much faster. Cyber, AI, unmanned and hypersonics simply add other dimensions to the threats we face but in no way render all conventional weapons obsolete. The hard-won lessons of history remain, ships will still need to cross the sea carrying men and materials and will have to be protected. Carriers are a key part of that protection, in the end, airpower was decisive in the critical logistics battle of the Atlantic during WWII.
No-one sensible would claim that carriers are entirely invulnerable, but what are the alternatives? Pretty much everyone agrees that airpower will be decisive in any future conventional conflict which is unlikely to be decided just by an exchange of missiles or a contest in cyberspace. You cannot deliver airpower without aircraft which must have an operating base. The location of airfields can easily be determined by adversaries and are therefore simple to target with highly accurate modern guided weapons. An aircraft carrier can potentially move to a position anywhere within a 700-square mile area in just 30 minutes. After 90 minutes, that area increases to over 6,000 square miles. To hit a carrier you first have to find it and then overcome the very difficult problem of providing almost real-time targeting information to your weapons system. The carrier is also surrounded by a shield of escort vessels and a network of airborne or shipboard sensors. Very few military airbases in the world have defences that come even close to the capability of a typical carrier strike group.
Ever since Royal Navy aircraft destroyed much of the Italian Fleet at Taranto in 1940, the carrier has offered the ability to strike from the sea unexpectedly at a time and place of its choosing. Critics often imply the carriers are somehow passive, a self-licking ice cream that floats about merely trying to avoid its own destruction. In fact, the strike carrier is primarily an offensive weapon, its aircraft may destroy the enemy’s ships, aircraft, missile batteries and sensors before they can begin to threaten the carrier or anything else. This is why adversaries fear them and the leading nations in the world keep investing in them.
A submarine and its torpedoes remain the greatest menace to a carrier, especially in more confined waters. In the open ocean mobility is the carrier’s great defence. Conventional submarines lack the range and speed to maintain contact and would either need luck or foreknowledge of the carrier’s movement to be in a position to attack. Even the quietest nuclear submarines produce an increasing acoustic signature as they raise their speed to keep up with the carrier group. This signature makes them much easier prey for hunting aircraft or warships. Self-generated noise also reduces the effectiveness of the submarines’ sonar complicating its ability to make attacks or evade ASW measures.
Hastings has a point that the carriers are pressurising the rest of the RN’s budget but the answer is more resources for a balanced fleet, not tearing out the centrepiece and reducing the RN to a second-tier navy that must live on the defensive. It is certainly true that we need further investment in a new generation of missile defences and more escorts. In future unmanned carrier aircraft and a refuelling platform to extend the range of the F35 will also become imperative.
Hastings’ claim that carriers are a product of pork-barrel politics, inertia and nostalgic admirals might have a grain of truth in the UK and particularly the US, but China is rapidly developing a carrier force. The authoritarian Chinese government is not subject to equivalent pressures and is building a blue-water navy almost from scratch. The Chinese clearly see the military value in naval airpower and are not investing heavily in carriers out of sentiment, tradition or the need to sustain existing industry.
Hastings observes that the US regards the UK as an ally of diminishing reliability as defence spending has fallen over time. There is much truth in this but ironically the aircraft carriers are highly regarded by the Americans who see them as one area where the UK is really pulling its weight and can usefully burden share with them.
Let us imagine for a moment that Hastings’ advice had been followed and the aircraft carriers had been cancelled. The ‘pull factor’ of equipping the navy to support the carriers would be gone. It is much harder to make the case for more escorts without a capital ship to escort. Manpower might be slightly less tight but it is difficult to imagine that the RN would be allowed to keep hold of the windfall and have a vastly larger frigate and destroyer force instead. In an ideal world, it would not work this way but this is good politics for the Navy. Having committed itself to carriers, the government is therefore committed to the Navy.
Next time you read an Army-centric rant in the national media you must decide if it is slanted journalism or aircraft carriers that are the real “embarrassment to the Royal Navy and Armed Forces”.