In a further sign that budgets across the globe are beginning to bite, news reports in recent weeks have once again highlighted the challenges associated with operating a modern fleet of aircraft carriers. The challenging global economic situation shows few signs of lessening, and across the world there are reports of further cuts in equipment, hulls and operations.
In Spain for instance the veteran carrier Principe De Asturias (PDA) has finally been paid off after some 25 years service as part of budget cuts. It is perhaps ironic to consider that she was originally conceived in the early 1980s as a cheap ‘Sea Control Ship’ solution originally looked at by the US Navy to provide cheaper carriers. Intended to put ASW helicopters to sea as a replacement for the Delado, she represented the closest any nation has perhaps come to a truly ‘austere’ carrier, with minimal support facilities for the airwing. Optimised in the first for ASW, with a very limited fixed wing capability using the Harrier (although never to the same level of development as the UK with the mixed FA2 / GR7 airwing), the PDA was an example in the 1980s of how smaller ‘harrier carriers’ could be built for emerging middle tier navies, providing them with airpower at relatively small cost. In reality she remained the sole of her class built around the world , with the closest other example being a Thai vessel optimised for EEZ protection and to act as a Royal Yacht.
Although the Spanish have built a large LPH, with carrier facilities (the Juan Carlos) as a second platform relatively recently, she is not an aircraft carrier in the conventional sense, and with the Spanish economic crisis deepening, it seems likely that PDA will not be directly replaced by another ‘proper’ aircraft carrier.
Similarly, with the emphasis on Juan Carlos as an assault ship, it seems likely that the small fleet of Spanish harriers (less than 15 airframes) will be increasingly vulnerable to defence cuts in an economy which is desperately struggling. The chances of seeing a credible Spanish fixed wing aviation capability beyond the next few years seem slim, and at a time when they are struggling to afford sustaining a relatively small buy of Eurofighters, it seems hard to envisage introduction of the JSF too.
So, Spain is perhaps the first carrier casualty of the economic crisis, although Italy is also looking increasingly vulnerable. The Guissepe Garibaldi is now nearly 30 years old, and again is unlikely to be directly replaced. Mindful of the recent cuts to the Italian Navy which will see a near 20% cull in manpower, and significant loss of hulls across the fleet, it again seems less and less likely that a credible carrier aviation capability can be sustained in a single hull (the Cavour). Having seen both these nations enter the ‘Carrier Club’ in the 1980s, one cannot help but wonder if they will be leaving it as full time members in the not too distant future?
|Juan Carlos and Principe De Asturias|
Meanwhile looking across the Atlantic Ocean, the US Navy continues to come to terms with the significant budget cuts being imposed. At least one planned carrier deployment of the USS Theodore Roosvelt has been cancelled for budgetary reasons, with the vessel remaining in home waters although ostensibly ready to deploy if required. At the same time, the nuclear refuelling of the USS Abraham Lincoln has been delayed, and in the worst case may not happen at all.
These two issues highlight the scale of the challenge facing the US Navy today – on the one hand it cannot afford to deploy its carriers, but equally it cannot afford to refuel them either. In reality the delay in refuelling Abraham Lincoln will have two impacts – in the first instance it effectively denies the US Navy a carrier hull for an unknown length of time, which coming on the back of the loss of Enterprise means the USN is having to sustain deployments with only 9 hulls. Similarly, delays to the refuelling will create a backlog within the refit cycle which could impact on the long term ability to support the USNs carrier fleet. Maintenance of hulls is a complex business and one that requires a lot of programming to ensure agreed availability levels. A slip or delay in refit may have repercussions that could take years to sort out, and at a time when its likely that others of the class will also need refuelling. In the worst case scenario, with her fuel expended then the Lincoln may effectively be forced into long term reserve until such point as funding is found – and with no nuclear fuel she is essentially a hulk.
Right now the USN is facing a difficult dilemma – tasked with deploying overseas, it will probably be increasingly difficult to justify the retention of carrier groups at their current levels if they don’t actually deploy. In many ways the USN carrier fleet sums up all that is great about the US Navy – an ability to send force anywhere on the planet, and do so at a time and place of their choosing. To suddenly be forced into a public admission that funds do not exist to deploy is not only embarrassing for the USN, but also highlights that if a high profile ‘flagship’ deployment cannot be funded, then what else is being cancelled?
Given the likely requirement to fund carrier refuelling over the next few years for several hulls, plus the growing age of the platforms, then one can see a future force emerging whereby the older CVNs are discarded at the point when their fuel expires, and left in reserve against the chance of a future economic upturn. Speaking to acquaintances in the US, the author has heard them constantly warn that a 6 carrier navy is on the cards, and these developments do nothing to assuage these fears.
The latest defence cuts likely to impact on the US Navy as a result of sequestration will only proceed to make matters worse. Reports indicate that the USN may find itself effectively mothballing four out of its nine carrier air wings as a result of these cuts (essentially suspending flying), which will take up to 12 months minimum to reactivate. In reality this move way well take longer – one only has to look at the way that the RN is considering all manner of options to keep its carrier currency alive ahead of F35 introduction to service – skills fade can happen very quickly, and when half your carrier airwings are not active, its going to present a real retention and training problem. At the same time, if the reports are true then even deployed carriers will have massively reduced flying hours (potentially up to 50%) even in locations like the Middle East. By late 2013 there will only be one available carrier to respond to a crisis.
The really worrying thought is what happens to the USN over the next couple of years as it struggles to adapt to a world in which it has only got five active duty airwings in a crisis. At best there will be two-three available at any one time for duty. When one considers that the Marines AV8 Harrier fleet is also reportedly looking vulnerable to cuts, the clear message coming through is that the US will struggle to remain a truly global superpower. The days when the carrier was a visible symbol of US diplomacy are gone forever, as the US can no longer afford to steam a carrier off a coast as a visible symbol of its displeasure. Instead the carriers will be seen as silver bullets, only to be used in times when it really matters.
The problem for the USN is that these cuts will also impact on wider deployments, with the projected surface escort fleet due to drop to under 90 hulls soon (many of which are approaching 20yrs old or beyond) and all exercises and deployments will be cut – indeed it looks as if all deployments to Europe and South America are on the verge of being cancelled.
The author has long held that the US is experiencing now what the UK went through in the 1960s – the sudden crushing realisation that the global footprint is no longer sustainable or affordable. With an ever smaller US Navy, worked ever harder and with reduced training and capability, it does not bode well for wider Western maritime security.
|An ever rarer sight - a US Carrier at sea|
The Broader Decline of Carrier Nations…So, if the smaller and larger Western navies cannot afford to run carriers at any level, what does this perhaps tell us about emerging priorities? Firstly, it would suggest that the RN decision to scrap harrier and preserve the amphibious fleet in the SDSR was perhaps a sign of things to come for most carrier nations. Both the Italians and Spanish seem to be investing their resources in protecting littoral capabilities over traditional carrier ones. It seems clear that the days of smaller navies operating dedicated carriers and airwings are rapidly drawing to a close. Instead future acquisition is likely to focus far more on vessels capable of supporting amphibious operations, where there may be the opportunity to support some limited fixed wing flying. The sheer cost of acquiring and running a conventional carrier and airwing is now simply too great for all but the largest spending nations – even the RN has probably sacrificed its pre-eminence to afford the Queen Elizabeth class and JSF. It is perhaps telling that reading the SDSR and other documents one finds plenty of discussion about the use of CVF in roles other than fixed wing carrier, and it seems unlikely that it will be many years, if not decades before CVF sees more than 12 JSF operating from its decks. So, if the RN cannot afford to run carriers, then there is little hope for smaller European navies. While it is perhaps tempting to talk in terms of shared acquisition for a future carrier programme for the Spanish and Italian Navies, which could enable a shared airgroup, the reality is such a deal is unlikely to come to pass. Both nations have different requirements, and are unlikely to be able to afford the cost of a fixed wing carrier and airgroup. Indeed, when one realises that the Charles De Gaulle is now approaching middle age, and with no sign of a second hull under construction, or replacement for the Rafale under way, it is perhaps worth considering if the French themselves may be forced to bow out of the carrier game in the next 15-20 years?
It is perhaps less surprising that the RN will only routinely operate 12 F35 from a CVF, and we should be more impressed that fund will be found to get 12 onto a carrier in the first place. The sheer cost of carrier capable aircraft means that for most nations, even 12 airframes is going to be unaffordable. While it is easy to mock the RN for having large platforms and small airwings, this is perhaps little different from the 1960s, when despite our fond memories, the reality was that the average RN airwing was barely 20 aircraft including helos. Even then, the CVF airwing will be able to put more airpower to sea than almost any other country – its easy to be despondent that the UK will deploy small numbers of aircraft, but perhaps we should be more positive about the fact that we remain one of the very few nations able to afford to invest in such a capability in the first place.
The Russians meanwhile remain an enigma – the Admiral Kuznetzov is approaching her 30th birthday, but has racked up very little operational seatime. This authors personal view is that Russia will retain Kuznetzov in service, but she will rarely see any credible seatime or deployment with a proper airwing. Replacements will be mooted, but unlikely to arrive.
Finally Brazil continues to operate an ever older carrier (the Sao Paulo is now roughly 50 years old) which has yet to take more than four A4 Skyhawks to sea. Although rumours persist of a replacement, it seems ever further off. The Indian programme continues to serve as a model of how to operate and run multiple types of vessels at the same time without really worrying about effectiveness. India is one of the few nations, along with China, which seems to be seeking to support its carrier fleet and grow it in size.
For the UK the implications are both challenging but worrying. Within 5-10 years it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the UK will operate 2 out of 3 carriers in Europe, plus a reasonable amphibious force to boot. This will increase European dependency on the UK to provide support for a variety of long range interventions, whereas currently in a crisis airpower can be delivered by both the Italians and Spanish navies. Such a move will increasingly make Europe ever more reliant on the UK to be the provider of meaningful maritime power outside of home waters. This has significant political ramifications, as any crisis occurring when the Charles De Gaulle is in refit will require the UK to acquiesce, lest it is doomed to fail.
At the same time, the US Navy seems likely to have ever fewer carriers available, and those that are deployed will be to locations like the Gulf or Pacific. A force of 6 CVNs will only realistically permit 2 to be on deployment at any one time. There will be a carrier vacuum emerging in the Indian Ocean and Asia Pacific which emerging powers may well seek to fill in the next 10 years. For instance the Indian Navy’s carrier programme, delayed and chaotic as it may be now, is likely to eventually deliver new platforms at the same time as the Chinese Navy is probably going to see its own carriers enter full service. The reality is that within a generation, when someone asks ‘where are the carriers’ the answer will be ‘in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and most of them aren’t our own’.
|The future of naval aviation - LPDs with attack helicopters?|
It is perhaps interesting to look at the number of nations operating ‘proper’ aircraft carriers, and see how it has declined over time. If one looks at the number of new carriers out there, then the last 20 years has seen a huge decline in construction. An objective look would suggest that since the end of the Cold War, the US has continued to introduce modified Nimitz class carriers, while Italy has introduced the Cavour into service (and even then she is more LPH than ‘proper’ carrier). Only the UK and India have designed and ordered new carriers (the CVF and Vikrant class respectively) with both classes not likely to enter service until the latter part of the decade. Outside of this, beyond some conversions of legacy Soviet hulls, no other truly new class of carrier has entered service, and only one new country (China) has really joined the carrier club since the late 1980s.
The sheer cost of entry into the carrier business is increasingly looking like a bar for navies who see ever tighter procurement budgets. Its not just the hull, its finding a carrier capable fighter aircraft and the associated escort and replenishment force to go with it. The cost of generating a truly credible fixed wing carrier battle group is truly vast, and this number will only get higher as time goes by. As budgets get more squeezed, it will be increasingly difficult for many nations to be able to justify the operational need for a carrier. While there are wonderful doctrinal arguments, or Gucci powerpoint slides which show how Nation X can operate at distance and project airpower without anyone interfering, the cold harsh reality is that very few countries have the military capability or national interest to want to go and do this. It is, for instance, difficult to conceive of circumstances in the near future in which the Brazilian Navy will be required to conduct air strikes in the Indian Ocean from their carrier.
This is not to say that the aircraft carrier is obsolete – far from it, as a potent tool of national power, the Aircraft Carrier is a superb instrument. But, its also an exceptionally expensive one to operate properly, and this is money that most nations simply don’t have. The days of cheap entry points into the carrier ‘club’ from buying a small ‘STOVL Carrier’ and running a few harriers of the back have gone forever. Any nation wanting to get into operating a carrier is either committed to STOVL (e.g. F35 at well north of £100m per aircraft) or CTOL, in which case either F35, Rafale or Russian aircraft are all that is open to you. As the global economic situation continues, it remains hard to see any new Western entrants to the carrier business, and if anything, they are likely to reduce in number over the next few years. Looking more globally, outside of China and India (and possibly Russia) there are no new emerging powers likely to enter the carrier club soon. That said, as economies continue to grow in the Far East, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that some of the navies in the region such as Japan, Korea or in time Indonesia, may seek to acquire some kind of carrier platform as a status symbol, even if they have little operational need for one.
This is not to say that naval aviation does not have a future – it emphatically does. However in an era of tight budgets, it is easier to see the construction of multi-role ships such as Juan Carlos being the preferred setting for most navies, as they represent a more versatile platform which is cheaper to run. As nations increasingly focus on influencing the littoral environment, LPHs / LPDs seem to be the new generation of capital platform. Able to be built relatively cheaply, but providing wide flexibility, they are not ‘proper’ aircraft carriers, but they do provide a deck, hangar space, command facilities and the ability to put troops ashore. The authors personal prediction is that while carriers may be on a slow decline, the broader global market for this sort of platform may boom.
The very stark reality is that most navies seems to be stepping gracefully away from the Carrier game – it is hard to see a Royal Navy in 2050 investing in new carriers, or the USN being able to afford one for one replacements for their CVN’s. Although the process will be slow, the increasingly likely outcome is that within 30 years the bulk of those carriers left in service around the world will be operated by nations whose strategic interests are not always in alignment with our own. The era of Western carrier dominance is nearly over, as costs rise. But, the era of carrier proliferation is not here either, with costs for a ‘proper’ carrier remaining too significant for all but the richest of nations. Were Humphrey a betting man, then he’d be willing to place a small wager that within 20 years, there will be six nations operating aircraft carriers (down from nine today), and only two of them will be in the West...