Friday, 1 March 2013

Is the end of the Aircraft Carrer nigh? The rapid decline of the 'carrier navies'

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...




  1. I think the reality is there have only EVER been three carrier powers.

    The UK, The US and Japan.
    Japan gave them up following the second world war, and the UK gave them up shortly after that.

    Everyone else just plays with them. Because no one else can ever afford to spend enough on their navy to fund them.

  2. No, I think the carrier as people originally imagined it as, is over, but like anything; it has evolved. Maybe into a larger LPD...

    I think the carrier argument will evolve like that of the Tank... for example people have debated this since its inception.

    The thing is, the threat will dictate how equipment and demands will evolve...

  3. Isn't there an opportunity to supersede carriers as presently configured, whether they be the full size Nimitz variety or smaller 'Harrier Carrier' type, with much smaller, cheaper platforms carrying UAVs that could perform the carrier 'strike' role? Indeed, UAV technology might offer the potential to transform most 'escort' sized vessels into carriers in their own right. This might also significantly lower the bar in this arena leading to a proliferation of air power at sea rather than the contraction that you outline above.

  4. What's going to become unaffordable next? Ballistic Missile Submarines?

  5. Fantastic blog - keep it up!

  6. 3 LPH platforms; 1 in refit; 1 fixed wing with UAV strike and F35 (Or does it have to be so advanced if we are talking 'policing' operations.) fleet defence; 1 in amphibious assault. Rotate, exercise and show the flag as necessary, concentrate for an op. Simplistic I know but would it not be a more flexible and cost effective answer than 2 proper carriers, one of which is unlikely to be used. Was not the 'Invincibles' the way forward for smaller navies?

    1. Thats essentially a similar state to which the RN aspired to in the late 1990s and early 00s with 3 CVS and an LPH - one 'strike', one LPH, one in work up / refit, one in reserve.

      The problem is the cost of getting into the game now is seemingly just too great.

    2. Yes, this option would have provided much more operational flexibility than the 2 large carriers. More suited to the needs of the RN and a logical development of the the Invincible/SHAR package.

  7. An excellent but sad post. We've seen the high watermark of US carrier aviation come and go; I agree that nothing short of a Falklands rerun (very unlikely) will see CVF with anything like its intended airgroup; even in a coalition action - e.g. in the Middle East, if we see 24 F35s on CVF, I reckon half of them will be Italian/USMC. Easy to see now why the US are so keen to see us retain carrier aviation, of any sort.

    UAVs may well be at least as expensive as manned aircraft.

    However, as more nations purchase Russian/Chinese equipment, especially in Africa/Asia, if we wish to retain an expeditionary capability, we must retain the ability to ensure our forces have air cover where ever we send them. Until the USAF/RAF develop S.H.I.E.L.D. like airborne aircraft carriers, that's going to mean maritime aviation.

    1. If UAVs are going to be more expensive than piloted aircraft, we're doing them wrong.

      And if UAV-based naval aviation isn't significantly cheaper than conventional naval aviation, we're *really* doing it wrong.

    2. What's S.H.I.E.L.D?

    3. Why should un-manned flight be any cheaper than manned flight?

      The aircraft still needs to have the same level of sophistication and performance characteristics to be able to defeat enemy aircraft. Removing the pilot also means money needs to be spent on developing systems to be able to remotely control the UCAV in a secure manner, or for the UCAV to be able to be fully automatic. Either way your still most likely going to need fully trained combat pilots.

      Now there is no pilot in the aircraft the UCAV will be able to perform manoeuvres that put increased G-forces on the airframe, which will obviously increase cost of maintenance.

    4. And don't forget the satellite to uplink with or once you fly out of radio range, your UAV's either going to go splat or not going to come back. Radio range is only 10-30km at best for USVs. Don't think UAVs are going to fare much better if they want to do low altitude evasion flights.

  8. Sir Humphrey, have you written, or are you intending to write, about the potential consequences were the UK to give up on carrier aviation entirely?

    Obviously, it would be bad for shipbuilders and aspiring admirals, but for anyone else?

    1. Hi,

      Its not something I'd really thought about writing on to be honest. It seems likely that baring a major change of plan, the CVF will happen in some form. I try to avoid doing anything too speculative here, rather I prefer to look at and respond to events in the news as they occur.
      That said, its certainly an interesting concept - perhaps a good place to ask would be on ARRSE or the Warships1 Forum?

    2. Howabout something about Trident and whether Nuclear cruise missile armed Astutes are a credible alternative.

      Obviously its a massive reduction in capacity but the main purpose of nuclear policy seems to be about maintaining a minimum credible threat for international prestige.

      Hammond stated that conventional and nuclear cruise launches could be easily mixed up by our enemies and could actually trigger a nuclear war. Plausible?

    3. And obviously I meant capability not capacity.

  9. A great piece... An infusion of realism.

    Kuznetzov refit will include the change of airwing - the MIGs are only available because India picked up the conversion bill. And CDG's absense will be prolonged as it involves the refuelling cycle... Gives plenty of time to build enough Rafales to get the SEtendards into retirement, finally

  10. Good post Sir H!

    I like yourself and many others see dedicated carrier aviation being increasing a thing of the past, but that's not to say their isn't a strong possibility of a LPD boom that can adequately replace traditional carriers and amphibious ships with a multi-purpose and flexible design.

    CVF will essentially spend their time acting as very large LPD's along USMC lines, and I don't see much wrong with that when one realises that a dedicated 'strike' carrier with 36 F35 has been a fantasy for many years now.

    A CVF that routinely carries 12 F35 and a dozen or more helicopters, with room for some embarked RM's and the ability to take more stuff in a crises isn't bad going from where I'm sitting! I think you're correct in guessing that whilst right now it's a force mix and utilisation which seems a bit of an under resourced fudge it will be far better than most nations can manage in 10 or so years time.

    What may be ridiculed in 2013 may sadly be envied in the not too distant future...

  11. "What's S.H.I.E.L.D?" - Sigh. The youth of today.

    1. Gerry Anderson got there first. ;-)

    2. You remember Captain Scarlett too?

    3. @WiseApe,

      I do (remember), at any rate. Though with reference to the recent updating, I'm quite happy with any design considerations/build timetable for the SHIELD carrier so long as Cobie Smulders is at the conn.

  12. An excellent post. I have to agree that the US is waking up to the inevitable in the same way that the UK was 50 years ago. If France builds a second carrier it will probably replace rather than supplement the CDG and it is 50/50 whether it will ever be built at all. No decision is due until at least 2015/16.

    As for the Russians, no decision is due on new carriers until ~2020, so the Kutnetzov will soldier on in updated form as their sole carrier until at least 2025-2030. All the bravado about 5/6 new CVNs is, of course, complete nonsense.

  13. Hello, im a new poster to this particular blog. Its very informative and i enjoy the topics that are covered. I think from a british perspective when considering our carrier coverage, it is important not to forget the crucial role our overseas terrortories can provide. The plethora of bases we have dotted around the globe, stategically maintained is a significant for multiplyer and add invaluable felxibility. Effectively a carrier in the south atlantic (falklands), the same at the gates to the med, giving coverage to north west africa (gib), raf akrotiri allows access to the middle east and north east africa. This allows for significant coverage when one then considers the carrier that would be available as well. Not forgetting ascension and to a lesser degree diego garcia.


    1. Hi Sellers,

      thanks for your post - the PJOBs are useful, although DG is really a US facility not a UK one. One of the reasons why the UK still has a reasonable amount of strategic importance is the location of real estate around the globe that can be of value to our allies.

  14. I disagree to a point. All of the nations listed could in fact afford carrier aviation. That is not the problem. The problem in all cases, of all the nations listed - is domestic entitlement spending. Effectively - socialism. The media and political definition of 'compassion' is a big government program. The reality is that true compassion is economic prosperity due to free markets. You look for security in big government, giving up freedom, and eventually - you will have neither. I have every confidence that the anti-military socialists have 'road-mapped' this very outcome - spend so much domestically, get people dependant, and it will result in not being able to afford the security we need. And we're too stupid to stop it.

    1. Agreed socialism goes broke eventually.
      If it is in competition with free market capitalism.
      We no longer have this in the Western World, we have crony capitalism, with politicians collecting healthy kickbacks from favoured corporations.

      What if UN Agenda 21 is the plan for our future?

      One world govt, no competition, no private property, the family abolished, no private ownership of land.
      A serf class of about 15% of the present world population, with a governing class of the 1% served by a bureaucracy of the communist control freaks of the "Green" movement.

      Google agenda 21 for dummies.

  15. Very strange post that seems to pick its examples very selectively to make a case. "Decline in Western carrier aviation" would be more suitable and even there one could point out many caveats.

    Focus is on two carrier operators, that, as pointed out, only joined the carrier club in the 1980s. Italy and Spain both have acquired new platforms significantly more capable than the old ones they are about to phase out (or have done so). In both cases the operation of two carriers at the same time has never (!) been a realistic option, despite government assurance to the contrary. What they will do with Harrier-replacements, remains to be seen. Yet the platforms dont disappear and buying new AC is hardly impossible, cuts in their respective airforces to enable such a buy are in fact much more likely.

    Then of course there are India and China, barely mentioned here, which both are arguably about to acquire significant capabilities. India has been an operator for a long time and, despite all their procurement chaos is bound to have at least two operational platforms, both much more capable than what they have now. What China plans to get, is anybodies guess, but they have money and the tech base.

    Japan and South Korea have both acquired vessels, that for the first time enable them to operate planes, if they wish to do so. Japan furthermore is, for the first time since WW2, now building what is arguably a true carrier of 30,000 tons, even though they go to great lengths to argue the opposite.
    Australia is getting two platforms able to operate planes, even though its unlikely they will do so in the near future. Yet there we have another nation, that now has a "break-out"-capability after decades of absence from the carrier club.

    France will likely never operate two carriers in the future, but they most certainly will replace the CdG with a vessel based on the plans they have had ready for the last five or so years.

    The USN is the elephant in the room, and them reducing numbers and thus presence is, in my view, consequential based on the world rebalancing and reflecting more accurately national capabilities than what we had over the past two or three decades.

    Looking out to what anybody is doing in thirty or so years (2050 etc) is pretty bold, that seems a bit like projecting naval developments in 1910, making the point, that navies worldwide will center their fleets around dreadnought battleships in 1945.

    1. Is the trend you're seeing actually the failure of the F-35 project? The experience of building the QE class seems to suggest that the shipbuilding isn't the sticking point. Similarly, the Juan Carloses pack a lot of capability into not much money.

  16. Echo,

    Thanks for your detailed comments. My view on both Spain and Italy is that had the economic crash not happened, then we'd have seen them remain members of the club for some time to come with both platforms and F35. The issue for both nations now is partially the reduction in carriers, but also the sheer cost involved on maintaining an F35 buy relative to its value. Don't underestimate just how utterly screwed both economies are at present and how little spare cash exists. In both cases, the F35 is going to be an expensive burden on a hardstretched procurement budget, and my point was more that this will look an increasingly easy target to delete - Carriers are not vital national assets for either nations defence, and with both nations already operating the Typhoon, there is a reduced need to acquire F35 as a next generation fighter.
    As for Australia, while the Canberra class looks like a carrier, the Australians ruled it out a long time ago. Also, don't underestimate just how severe the current round of defence cuts threatening the ADF are - there was a very good piece in Janes Defence Weekly recently pointing out that they are on the verge of swingeing financial cuts. Again, my instinct is that at a time when other more vital needs will be cut, it would be hard to identify a requirement for Australia to suddenly acquire a very small carrier capability.
    So, no I don't see Australia as acquiring a Carrier.

    Looking at India, you seem to have not noticed that I specifically cited the Indians as one of the few nations introducing carriers into service. I'm still undecided as to how their programme will really go. The conversion of Gorshkov has taken far longer than planned, and the end result will be a potentially terrible conversion of a 30 year old hull that spent many years alongside into something she was never designed to do. My instinct is that this programme will be a near disaster for the Indian Navy. The Vikrant programme is more interesting, but again it is suffering from delays and overruns - the potential is there, but I suspect will take far longer than people are currently planning for. Whatever happens, the Indian fleet will operate something, but its going to be very much a mixed bag of capability and platforms.
    Looking at France, the issue is that while a 2nd hull (PA2) has long been planned, it has struggled to gain any traction - even under Sarkozy. The French may well order something, but again its a question of budgets and national capability. If they look like losing their shipyards, then I suspect an order would flow in, but I have yet to see concrete evidence of long term funding. More worryingly, there is as yet no sign of a replacement for Rafale, which is now approaching early middle age. The cost of developing a new carrier AND an aircraft at a similar timeline to requiring a replacement for the SSBN fleet is going to be extremely expensive for French planners. My concern is that something is going to give, and in a contest between the SSBN and the Carrier, I can only see one winner.
    Looking to Japan and Korea etc - again, I didnt rule out the possibility of them acquiring one - indeed, they may well look to do so. But the military rationale for this is hard to find - it is much more of a 'status symbol'.
    So, I return to my key conclusion, namely that yes the carrier is important, but its sheer cost of acquisition and operation is so much that most nations are soon not going to be able to afford a conventional 'carrier' as we see now. Rather I suspect we will see things like LPHs acquiring a much greater importance as they provide far better swing capability between the aviation mission and the assault mission. Conventional carriers like Invincible or De Gaulle are nowhere near as good in the LPH role, lacking the assault routes and other key design features that make it a credible platform to base troops on.

  17. How many LHDs actually have the ability to sustain air ops beyond a handful of a/c? I see the LHD as good in the aviation ferry role but not good for extended ops.

    1. An LHD clearly does not have comparable fixed wing capability to a conventional carrier, but only a tiny group of nations require and are able to fund large carriers. They require huge investment throughout their operational lives, so an LHD equipped with a mix of STOVL aircraft and helicopters represents a relatively affordable way of obtaining a more modest, but sill flexible, power projection platform.

      The LHD air group can be adapted to meet operational requirements and it would probably be able to cope with most conceivable scenarios, although it doesn't have the capability to support extended operations in the same way that a conventional carrier would. However, for most navies that can afford an LHD or two this would not be a problem - the "big stick" CVBG is the province of the USN alone.

    2. With this in mind then, the RN carriers could be in demand over the next few years then.

  18. @ Alex above, because this folds in with the rest of my comment (rather than replying in-thread) it's not just the failure of the F-35 project. It's the currently unsustainable nature of the military aircraft R&D/production industry. In even a worse shape than global military shipbuilding, for a congeries of reasons. "Dave" is merely the poster child, perhaps not surprising since it's made by LockMart who sired the F-104 on the world. Those of us old enough remember both how it was done and how, broadly, it turned out.
    Sir H and all,

    Not surprising that the scale of global fiscal crisis (general and nation-specific) is picking off the low-hanging fruit of the carrier community. I suspect the Marina Militare will first try to preserve their small F35B buy to guarantee a spearhead CAP/CAS squadron for amphibious operations, based on the facts that 1) they do generally plan only to operate in the Med basin or alongside US/UK/France, and 2) it gives a broader range of air cover besides Mangustas that's not dependent on refuelling out of Italy's "unsinkable aircraft carrier," the peninsula itself. Also PA2 will happen though it will take until late in CdeG's natural life, a decade or more yet at least, because "gloire" demands it, and because the French would be happy with Le Royale based just on boomers, a carrier group, and lashings of colonial patrol cutters of a 21st-century Floreal sort (hence the murmurings about Gowind lately.) What I suspect we'll see ahead is:

    Quasi-carrier capable: Italy with Cavour, South Korea getting two or three flights of Dave-B to put aboard their Dokdos for out-of-area (Japan's land-based fighters have refueling range for their home defence commitments and allies elsewhere, more likely for "22DDH" to be in fact an LHA)

    Clinging to a single carrier for pride and occasional power projection in their patrimonies: France, Russia, Brazil (Russia most likely to lose it in return for subs in better shape)

    Serious second-tier carrier powers: China, India, and perhaps the UK

    The USN

    I have my own opinions on the constitutional/fiscal hostage crisis they're enduring in Washington, but dire murmurings of six carriers won't happen. It's the same sky-is-falling stuff any predominant military service spouts when they don't get precisely what they want. (Sidebar: I'd like to write a whole comment sometime about why I, as a fervent Dark Blue FC partisan, think CVA-01 was a disastrous decision... by the RN. Much better to have updated Ark & Eagle and Phantomized the latter, with Bulwark & Hermes swinging between Commando and ASW carrier roles. But not something the dominant fleet for 250 of the previous 275 years could countenance.) What I do think, sure as the sun rises, is that there will be 9 CVNs in the USN's permanent future. They'll need to push hard to actually rule-of-three them, rather than that "three point five" fudge factor more common to naval readiness cycles both sides of the Atlantic, but that will be the state of play. What that does definitely mean, is that you have three at sea any given time, two in the Pacific and one in the IO, surging a fourth quickly in the Americas if needed, or at more length to IO/eastern Med by shuffling that fourth out to the Pacific and budging over. That leaves a big gap in the western Med (waiting for anything or everything from Benghazi to Marrakech to blow up one of these days) and most if not quite all of the Atlantic Ocean. And that brings me to the RN, but that's another comment (about the future of carrier aviation) when I've got the time later. Pressures of work in another time zone....

  19. Stealth aircraft + CVs don't really work for most navies. Most navies are not going to e v e r need a counter-land force footprint.

    CVs are still kings of the deep blue.

    The shift will be towards using drones and cruise missiles to degrade harsh air defenses. After which point, even F-18s will be very effective. It's the ordnance and drones that will become stealthy.

    F-35 is money thrown to the wind.

    F-22 in enough quantity would, like knights of old, take the first charge. Thereafter, F-18, F-15E etc. can carry on the good work.

    Without the stealth albatross the RN, USN and JN can field plenty of naval air power.

    BTW, Japan is likely to simply build up naval air assets in depth -- using Pacific islands instead of CVs. Japan's naval 'game' is one of pure defense. Stealth planes are a bad bargain for her.

    1. "The shift will be towards using drones and cruise missiles to degrade harsh air defenses."

      This, with attention to Americanised spelling at the end ;) Two things it seems to me that USN have very right in their "single naval battle" model are

      1) crisis response will indeed be come-as-you-are, so there is no "peacetime deployment" model any longer, you can deploy lean in terms of how much or how often, but it must be ready to fight, and

      2) the "battle of signatures" model holds up. Hammer them from VLS and, when you can afford it, long-endurance flying missile trucks (not sexy planes, but B-52/Canberra/Vulcan style) that flood the targets they can't hide underground or in back gardens and force them to turn on radar and/or launch SAMs, making those visible to targeting. Rather than argue about F-35, however, I'd simply say that it means you can have fewer (not a *lot* fewer, not a bean counter's dozen, but relatively fewer) fixed-wing aircraft because they are most needed to do CAP/CAS for sea- and beachead-control. Likewise the light blue, who should be pluged into a joint Army/RAF expeditionary structure to roll up on shoreline and start work once the "door" is breached from offshore. That means extra tubes on T45, I would say it means build a couple of extra Successors and make sure they all come with CMC so you can use one or two at a time in a conventional strike role (loading not just TLAMs, but whatever comes after TLAM, plus whatever comes of the Pegasus missile project, maybe even small drones), and those un-sexy passenger jet-style missile trucks to do the shooting. The other model is really just masturbation by ageing Cold War F-15E/Tornado jockeys from several different air forces.

  20. On the subject of the QEs and their actual use by the time they're in service, they are almost -- and could be, with a little tweaking -- the very model of that "way forward" for carrier aviation (somewhere I think between themselves and the USS America model, and closer to the QEs.) I am a lifetime's worth of familiar with the Private Frazer outlook of all British military commentary (i.e. "we're DOOOOOMED") in the there will only ever be 12 jets/they won't be ours/nothing will ever get paid for/boo RAF/boo FAA/eternal decline and irrelevance and pour me another cuppa projections into the future. I should say first that these are not operationally useful especially at such distance: not much more than eighteen months ago it was COIN forever and ever amen, Super Tucanos off flattops, and endless "enduring" operations. Now, even at the slower-moving official level (e.g. FF2020 and the jobs program for brigadiers via "upstream engagement") we see MoD in the halfway house away from there. Add a few years and that move gets stronger. Also, if any government of any type decides on any economic/fiscal policy besides austerity there's change as well. And then there are the responses to outside stimuli: only a dozen fast jets at a time is a bean-counter's fantasy even more than an inter-service one. I suspect by the late years of this decade, with QE only on trials and PoW/Ark/Whatever still at Govan, it will be terribly clear that rapid-reaction military responses to crisis are now (by then) a come-as-you-are affair because the various bad actors are aware that time -- the slowness of Western mobilization of resources and the opposing speed and viciousness of Western paid/social media cycles -- are BlueFor's achilles heel. In that case you need a maximised (not optimised, but at least maximised given constraints of cubic footage and logistics) package already available and the QEs could -- could -- play that game very well. (I'll sketch that in the follow-on comment)

    1. So imagine this sketched out. Current plans seem to amount to a "duty carrier," rather than actually rotating the two continuously at-sea and tolerating gaps during refit. (Second carrier proposed to be on 60 days' readiness according to recent leaks, or has that changed since?) So there's *a* working carrier, and it puts out with the following air wing/group. (One other note: no, there's just this air group. American-style, there is an air group that works up and down and up again with the duty carrier.)
      2 x 12 F-35B (ideally the proposed FAA squadrons, just to assure they're there, with crabs available to reinforce or make up the numbers if training pipeline's tight)
      1 x 12 Merlin HC3 for CHF (plus two more aboard the MARS SSS for a squadron of 14 -- down to one squadron of Junglies in budget cuts I'm afraid)
      1 x 4 Wildcat (light attack support. Wokkas and Apaches are all very well, but both have short legs and hate salt water. Much better to invest in more Ports or serious Ro-ros like the American LMSRs to get them ashore doing their work than play at "jointness" because every service is living on crumbs.)
      1 x 4 Merlin HM1 ASW (more on other vessels)
      1 x 3 rotary AEW
      1 x 1 rotary ship's flight

      That's two dozen fast movers, two dozen rotary. Is that packed? Yes. Will they have to develop a new approach to ship-aircraft interface to operate both in tandem? Yes. (Although really in any raid/beach assault the Junglies will do most of their job in two big sorties to get a Commando's men and personal gear ashore, then use the carrier as a mother ship while they mostly lilypad on the 'phibs doing incidental transport.) Will it mean more aircraft living on deck more often than H&S et al. have envisioned? Yes, welcome back to operating a full-sized carrier. But this way you actually have a modern fleet carrier (in the Ark/Eagle style, a couple of dozen FJ plus AEW) and an Ocean replacement in the single hull. Even more of an Ocean replacement if one could "Americanize" lodging a bit -- it is a bloody big hull, even with all the storage space they want in it, and assault routes to be built in for "swing" to LPH, yes? -- and stick austere, stacked-up, hotel accommodation for about 600 booties plus rifles and rucksacks aboard. (Gear can ride in the lane space on the LPD, the two Bays, and the MARS SSS that would go with the group.) Then you really have squared the circle of CBG and RFTG in the same squadron of ships. QE (later PoW) plays both roles as a true "aircraft" carrier and a modern-day CVA (Assault Carrier) being both the hub for fast jet ops and the hub for "vertical envelopment" by heliborne marine raiders. Here -- because of the constraints placed on the LHA-6 design by bodging quite so many Marines and kit aboard, and the less fixed-wing optimised design -- the USN could, just as in the days of the original HMS Hermes, learn from the RN's example. Would it get done? Anyone's bet. But it *could* be done -- it's no "fantasy fleets" exercise, it's well within the design tolerances of what's being financed and built, on both ship and aircraft sides of the equation. Then you have enough FJ to do most missions, a Commando battlegroup of the sugested size (which frankly looks pretty big to me if it's just based on a RM Commando), that can have enough kit prepositioned aboard the 'phibs to serve the assault-surge force of c. 2800-2900 (enough for two RM Commandos, two batteries Commando RA, two squadrons Commando RE, all of 30 Cdo Signals, and as much of CLR as you can stuff in.)

    2. Bleah, "Points" not "Ports" (as in the ro-ro ships) above. Curse you, Autocorrect....

    3. Jackstaff, I agree with the overall jist of what you are saying and wiukd argue that any replacement for the Albion LPD's should actually be a 3rd CVF for the RN. This would result in commonality of platforms and maximising the use of expensive assrts such as the F35.

      Amphibious assault is likely to become an over the horizon affair which could in my view be best supported by a mixture of CVF, LSD, Point and SSS assets. Maybe even by trading the 5 GP T26s for more Absalon type ships.

      Worse case scenario would be another Falklands whereby two CBG / RTFGs each with a marine commando unit numbering a couple of thousand would be covered. I think the days of assaulting a well defended beach head with Tanks etc are long gone.

    4. All this sounds highly optimistic. Cheaper and more realistic than a 3rd CVF would be a pair of Juan Carlos/Canberra type vessels to replace Ocean, Albion and Bulwark. They could be rotated in service if things are tight. Also, I don't think 5 GP T26s is going to happen. Maybe 8 ASW + 2 GP if we are lucky. Things are going to be very lean for a long time and there will be no spare resources for anything more than the essentials.

    5. By the time you design, build and crew these LHDs you will be probably worse off than building another CVF.The third would probably need to be held in reserve / refit, but what it ensures is permanent multi-role carrier coverage which no-one outside of the USN can do.

      Long term the 6 T45s and 8 ASW T26s should be replaced with a single high-end multi-role Destroyer. This would give the UK a strong core maritime capability when couled with SSNs and RFA.

      Outside of that the RN should focus on large cheap multi-role ships (such as Absalons) and smaller Litterol ships.

    6. I think you could build a pair of LHDs for less than ~£1.5 billion, a 3rd CVF would be more than twice that. Keep one in service and one in reserve so not that difficult to crew.

      Thinking beyond T45/T26 is really too far into the future to be certain of anything. The T45s will have to last at least 30 years and by that time the CVFs themselves (if we still have them) will be ~2/3 of the way through their operational lives.

    7. HMS Daring would need to be replaced late 2030s just after the kast T26 is due to roll out. In modern warship buikding terms it's not that far away - look how long it took to get the T45 eventually designed and built.

      CVF would / should be nowhere near 3bn, assuming the politicians don't do their usual scope creep, delay and flip flop.

  21. I am a new reader, I found your thoughts and conclusions interest ing. I recently read a U S Naval College essay called the New navy war fighting machine and the challenges to US Navy super carriers and their battle groups. I found the thesis fantastic. they are too expensive to risk and too expensive to operate.

    I would love to get your thoughts

    1. Many thanks for the comments - I've not actually seen the article in question though. They are expensive - they offer superb reach and capability, but one has to question whether they are always the right answer, or if shore based facilities will meet much of the requirement at a lesser cost.

  22. Wow this is an awesome post I have ever read on Navy with its battle power.

  23. Sir Humphrey

    You stated that the US Navy could not afford to refuel some of its carriers in part,

    May I ask?
    Is it at all poss. to strip out the nuclear power of one carrier and replace it with the same as in use with the HMS Elizabeth,

    If this could be done,
    Could not the royal navy buy 2nd hand US Carriers and convert them,
    For a lot less than buying a new carrier.
    Just a thought.

    1. Interesting question - while anything is technically possible, I would suggest that the cost of refitting a carrier with an entirely new propulsion system is vastly expensive.
      Remember these ships were designed from the keel up as nuclear carriers, to strip this out would mean effectively gutting the ship inside and installing an entirely new system - it would be cheaper to build a new one from scratch.
      Its also worth noting that US vessels require 3000 crew plus up to roughly 3000 airwing - CVF will require some 700ish crew. We dont have the manpower to operate them.
      The final issue is that US carriers are too physically large to come alongside in UK ports, so we'd have nowhere to berth one.

  24. Operating 2nd hand US carriers would be pretty much out of the question. Refitting and adapting them to RN requirements would be extremely expensive and the manpower, operating and maintenance costs prohibitive. As they are already old ships it would be a bottomless pit into which to poor money for relatively little return. Only the US is equipped to operate ships of this size and complexity.

  25. thanks for the reply

  26. One shouldn't confuse the temporary measures enacted to absorb sequestration, with a long-term plan. To a degree, this is only mirroring what happened to the USN in the 70s post-Vietnam. At one point carrier decks were down to 12 (of which three were Midway class) and looked set to fall further. They chose to increase spend and would have had 15 all big deck ships had the Warpac not collapsed, at which the "Peace Dividend" was grabbed and a number of ships decommissioned. The desired number of carrier hulls was then revised downwards from 15 to 12.

    As someone has pointed out above it is more a case of spending choice, than affordability. There has not been a single conflict that the US has engaged in since WW2 that could be thought of as existential - they are all in effect elective. One might argue that Korea, Vietnam were to avoid the dreaded "domino" effect and that Desert Storm was to avoid another Oil Crisis, but none could be characterised as a serious threat to the existence of the US.

    However, that is a period of only 70 years. The fifty years prior to that were characterised by a number of resource-grabbing wars - a phenomenon that may well re-emerge in the next fifty. What is certain is that an inability to protect naval forces from air, surface and sub-surface attack is likely to prevent their use in a power-projection role. No other system than a carrier can provide that protection.

    Sooner or later, the US will have to decide whether it cedes the Pacific and retreats to the West Coast. If it decides that option is unacceptable, then it will build more large carriers, because the economics of anything else don't add up.

  27. "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..."

    Great article, thoroughly agreed, but if there is one lesson to be drawn from it is to realise how this decline will increase the value of CVF to HMG in the decades ahead. It will be a unique capability to west, outside the US, and will accrue a huge amount of (geo)political capital in conseuence.

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  32. The election of spain to choose the LHD is because we wanted to replace the 2 LST that were too old. At the same time, the PDA was also too old, so thats why we give aircraft carrier possibilities until the new aircraft carrier was built.There is a plan to build a carrier similar to french one but in 2020. The problem was due to the crisis that we have to reduce the defense investments so we decided to descommised the PDA before we expected.

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  34. Hi there, I'm new to this so hey ho:

    Going with the idea that we build another QE to replace the amphibs, would it be stupid to forward deploy one of them to Ascension Island? Along with escorts etc, much like the usn does with a cbg in Japan. This would allow us to rapidly deploy to something anywhere along the west coast of Africa, aswell as a much shorter response time to the Falklands Islands.

    1. Hi and welcome onboard,

      Its a good idea you've raised, but the challenge of Ascension is that it lacks any credible infrastructure or harbour facilities. Consequently it would cost billions to make the island capable of supporting a Carrier, arguably a big investment for saving only a few days steaming time.

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  42. I think it was inevitable that all these nations are going broke and can't support what has only been used as an offensive weapon. The U.S. government is inhumanly corrupt group of psychopaths. To see them going broke and unable to murder and slaughter millions is a welcome sight for me. Eventually the U.S. Government will go completely broke and be unable to maintain it's thousand foreign military bases. The world will be better off and so will America.

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  44. Old post now, but still great. If I may dare, isn't the real problem with LHDs that require VTOL, and aside from cost, VTOL reduces armament, and most importantly range, which increasingly places them outside of relatively affordable A2/D2 radar/anti-ship ballistic missile platforms? This is becoming an issue for the big deck carriers, let alone the LHDs, begging the question as to whether LHDs offer any power projection in at all in a modern contested environment. V/r

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