Does the United Kingdom Have Enough Money for Its Carriers and Their Escorts?

 In Sea, Air

Key point London wants to have it all, but it may not have the funds to main­tain its navy. In fact, the cost of its car­ri­ers will make it harder to build other ships or acquire for jet fight­ers.

The Royal Navy in late 2019 announced the com­po­si­tion of its first-ever air­craft car­ri­er battle group. And it’s both good and bad news for the sto­ried fleet.

Good news because the Royal Navy just barely should be able to gen­er­ate all the ships and planes it need to deploy an entire­ly British battle group.

Bad news because fre­quent deploy­ments with the same mix of ships clear­ly is unsus­tain­able as the Royal Navy shrinks, the inevitable result of decades of declin­ing bud­gets.

HMS Queen Elizabeth, the lead vessel in a two-ship class of con­ven­tion­al­ly-fueled car­ri­ers, is slated to deploy for the first time in 2021. Fleet offi­cials told reporters the flat­top will sail with two Type 45 destroyers includ­ing HMS Dragon, two Type 23 frigates includ­ing HMS Northumberland, a nuclear-pow­ered attack sub­ma­rine, the tanker RFA Tideforce and fleet stores ship RFA Fort Victoria.

Queen Elizabeth’s air wing for the deploy­ment, which could take the car­ri­er group through the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf en route to the Pacific Ocean, will include 24 F‑35B stealth jump jets, includ­ing U.S. Marine Corps air­craft, in addi­tion to heli­copters.

That’s a lot of combat power. But it stretch­es the U.K. armed forces’ capac­i­ty. The Royal Navy pos­sess­es just six destroy­ers, 13 frigates and six attack sub­marines. But usu­al­ly more than half of those ves­sels at any given time are in ship­yards for repairs or refits.

In deploy­ing with four destroy­ers and frigates plus a sub­ma­rine, Queen Elizabeth will leave the United Kingdom with just a handful of sur­face war­ships and poten­tial­ly one attack sub­ma­rine for other task­ings.

Likewise, the flattop’s air wing during that first deploy­ment could require every single deploy­able British F‑35. It’s not for no reason that fleet offi­cials have stressed the U.S. Marine Corps’ will­ing­ness to con­tribute jump jets to the deploy­ment.

“We are con­strained by the F‑35 buy-rate even though that was accel­er­at­ed in [the strate­gic defense review] in 2015, so ini­tial oper­at­ing capa­bil­i­ty num­bers in 2020 are going to be very modest indeed,” said Capt. Jerry Kyd, Queen Elizabeth’s former skip­per. The Royal Air Force was able to gen­er­ate just seven F-35s for trials aboard the car­ri­er in late 2019.

“We will flesh it out with heli­copters, and a lot depends on how many USMC F‑35s come on our first deploy­ment in 2021,” Kyd said. “But by 2023, we are com­mit­ted to 24 U.K. jets on board, and after that it’s too far away to say.”

Defense sec­re­tary Ben Wallace acknowl­edged the strain the 2021 car­ri­er cruise will place on the armed forces. “It is def­i­nite­ly our inten­tion, though, that the car­ri­er strike group will be able to be a wholly U.K. sov­er­eign deploy­able group.”

Bowing to real­i­ty, how­ev­er, Wallace left open the pos­si­bil­i­ty of shrink­ing the escort force in future car­ri­er deploy­ments or, as an alter­na­tive, invit­ing NATO allies to con­tribute ships to British car­ri­er groups. “Depending on the deploy­ment, of course, we will cut our cloth as required.”

“We are already engaged with inter­na­tion­al part­ners to under­stand how we will inte­grate an Arleigh Burke destroy­er from the U.S. or a Dutch destroy­er into that pack­age,” Air Marshal Richard Knighton said.

Still, the heavy demand car­ri­ers place on escorts is dri­ving fundamental change in the way the Royal Navy tasks its ships.

The fleet’s cur­rent deploy­ment model, for the most part, sends out single war­ships on solo patrols, each at their own pace. With two new air­craft car­ri­ers slated to begin deploy­ing over the next two years, the U.K. fleet must figure out how to deploy, as a cohe­sive force, large num­bers of war­ships com­pris­ing a car­ri­er battle group.

If the reor­ga­ni­za­tion suc­ceeds, the Royal Navy will evolve from a thinly but widely spread force to one that deploys to fewer places at a time, but does so in greater con­cen­tra­tion. The Royal Navy would become what Tony Radakin, the new first sea lord, called “a proper, car­ri­er task group navy.”

“The whole pat­tern of the fleet will have to change so that a group of escort ves­sels and sup­port ships are all brought to readi­ness togeth­er to deploy with the air­craft car­ri­ers,” the web­site Save the Royal Navy noted. “Changing the rhythm of deploy­ments to this new model, while still retain­ing the flex­i­bil­i­ty for ships to oper­ate inde­pen­dent­ly, per­haps detach­ing to and from the car­ri­er group, will be a com­pli­cat­ed bal­anc­ing act.”

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graph­ic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad. This first appeared in January 2020.

Image: Reuters

Source: National Interest

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