18 October 2010


Patrick PorterAaron Ellis, Gunslinger at Ink SpotsTom Ricks and Aitor from Ireland have all weighed in on a proposal for drastic cuts to Britain's Royal Navy which could potentially cap the entire fleet at just 25 ships.  That's smaller than the entire British task force which intervened during the Falklands Islands crisis in 1982.

Keep in mind that while the Royal Navy of thirty years ago triumphed over the Argentine Navy, despite a hurried deployment far from their logistical supply lines, was designed to be little more than support for the US Navy's efforts in NATO.  The Royal Navy of late 1970s and early 1980s was centered around anti-submarine warfare, designed to augment efforts to contain Soviet submarines should they pass through the "GIUK" Gap (Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom).

Most importantly, the Royal Navy will be reduced to two aircraft carriers.  Although, if one considers an impending defense pact with France, the Royal Navy and French Navy may "share" carriers, putting at least two of their three combined carriers to sea at any one time.

The carrier became the capital ship of naval warfare on the 7th of December, 1941, when aircraft from six Japanese carriers sunk the American battleship fleet lying in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

"A bow on view of the U.S.S. Arizona as she plows into a huge swell.  It is significant that despite the claims of air enthusiasts no battleship has yet been sunk by bombs."
--Flyer from the Army-Navy Game, 29 November 1941
For the record, six Italian battleships were sunk by British Swordfish bombers at the Battle of Taranto, nearly a year prior.  

Though carriers were first built during the 1920s, few nations operate these nautical behemoths, even today.  Currently, only the US (11 super-carriers, plus a number of amphibious assault ships with contingents of helicopters and Harriers), Britain (two carriers), Thailand, Spain, Russia, Italy, India, Brazil and France (one each) operate these ships, which vary greatly in their capabilities.

If the carrier is the symbol of naval strength, why have so few nations adopted carriers?

Aircraft carriers are expensive in terms of both financial intensity and organizational capital.  Even in the 1920s, the aircraft carrier cost more than the battleship.  For instance, the HMS Nelson, a traditional battleship commissioned in 1927, cost $36.4 million.  By comparison, the USS Lexington and Saratoga, America's second and third carriers, respectively, cost $45 million each--just for the ships themselves.  Today, aircraft carriers run in the billions of dollars.  

Carriers are also expensive in terms of organizational capital, as carrier warfare takes years to fully master.  While the US Navy may have had more carriers than the Japanese Navy at the onset of WW2--in 1939, the US Navy possessed seven carriers as opposed to Japan's five--they were far less adept at combat operations.  

The Japanese Navy had years of experience during action in China to hone their skills.  By comparison, the US Navy had to learn carrier warfare through painful lessons during the Battle of the Coral Sea, before achieving victory at Midway in June of 1942.  Carrier warfare also requires a new set of skills and new promotion policies, both of which are difficult to fully implement.  They require a great degree of sustainment at sea--for food, for fuel, and for ammunition.

Despite being the most powerful warships at sea, carriers are still quite vulnerable.  The Soviet Union, lagging in carrier technology, decided to invest in a relatively cheap counter-technology:  anti-ship missiles which could quickly and efficiently eliminate carriers.

Fortunately, the US Navy spent considerable resources developing the robust Carrier Battle Group (CVBG)--in theory, capable of defeating a wide range of threats.  CVBGs generally include submarines, anti-submarine frigates, destroyers and cruisers with the Aegis air defense system, and logistical ships in addition to the carriers themselves.

Thus, Dr. Patrick Porter immediately recognized one of the more disturbing aspects of Britain's defense cutbacks--the reduction in the number of support ships available to carrier battle groups.  Against a competent naval power, a carrier is useless without ships to defend it.

Carriers and their support ships can be quite vulnerable against asymmetrical threats.  In congested shipping lanes--like the Straits of Hormuz or the Gulf of Aden--a competent opponent might use "swarming tactics" .  This is where a mixed force of smaller ships, armed with smaller-caliber short-range weapons might work best.

Carriers by themselves are useless--especially when they're considerably less than a super-carrier.   Not to mention the obvious: island-based land power, without the power to project it, is essentially a self-licking ice cream cone.

So please, for God's sake, don't cut the Royal Navy by half.  Rule Brittania!  (Though I mean that as no offense to my Irish friends)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I assume you're getting some of this from Michael Horowitz?