“The go-ahead was given yesterday for the construction of two 65,000-tonne aircraft carriers as big as the QE2, but the Royal Navy will have to wait until 2014 for the first one – two years behind previous projections.”
This is undoubtedly the best news that the Royal Navy, and in my opinion Britain, has had in many years. World War II proved that the age of the Battleship was dead and that this was the age of the aircraft carrier. Sixty years later the Royal Navy is finally catching up.
In 1960 Britain had nine aircraft carriers (more than it had at the start of WWII) but the Royal Navy began phasing out the large aircraft carriers because they were too expensive to run and by 1978 the last one was decommissioned; leaving just three smaller aircraft carriers. These smaller craft could only carry about ten aircraft each. Excellent for air shows and looking shiny on deck, not much good for anything else. It was two of these three that served in the Falklands War and meant that while Argentina had a couple of hundred fighter planes, Britain could only send 20 (a further 8 came later) on two aircraft carriers. Fortunately the Harrier proved its worth and shot down 21 Argentinean aircraft with no losses.
For some reason the decision to build these new aircraft carriers has been criticised in some quarters even though our current carriers are 30 years old. Apparently it is a waste of money and not needed. In this day and age, it seems that some people believe we don’t need things like submarines and aircraft carriers or perhaps even an army. Perhaps I am missing something, maybe there was some international convention that I missed where it was decided that all future wars would be fought on the Xbox. If not then we definitely do need them, now more than ever.
The Falklands War proved that we needed bigger and better aircraft carriers as we only just managed to cobble together the Task Force that retook the islands. Since then the US has proven time and again that large and modern aircraft carriers are invaluable in everything from pre-emptive strikes to peace keeping. America is able to gain air superiority over almost any nation, just by sending aircraft carriers to the region. If Britain were to send her full complement of aircraft carriers, we’d only be able to gain air superiority over nations like Nepal.
A US aircraft carrier and a British Carrier (HMS Illustrious)
The recent problems with Iran showed that we need a navy that can project its power, that can pose a threat and that has ships that can be used like the battleships of old. The two smaller aircraft carriers that the Royal Navy has at the moment can only carry ten aircraft. During the recent sailor incident with Iran the USA moved three carriers into the waters near Iran, placing almost 300 aircraft within striking distance of key Iranian targets. Britain placed one of her aircraft carriers with ten aircraft just outside Iranian waters (Iran has an air force almost 1000 strong), admittedly there were other aircraft in neighbouring Iraq but the actions of the Royal Navy were hardly likely to instil fear into the Iranian regime.
Many Americans believe that moving the three aircraft carriers into the Persian Gulf is what brought an end to this embarrassing episode. Personally I’d like to think that the ten sub sonic Sea Harriers were the straw that broke the camel’s back. But I think that it was highly unlikely to have made a difference. The once proud Royal Navy is, in many ways, a shell of its former self.
In 1960, Britain no longer ruled the waves having been surpassed by first the USA navy and then the navy of the Soviet Union, however it was still a formidable force with over 200 fighting ships (including 48 subs, 9 carriers, 6 cruisers, 55 destroyers and 85 frigates). Today the story is very different, in fact it is shameful. Britain has half the number of fighting ships that she had during the Falklands War, with just 82 (14 subs, 2 carriers, 0 cruisers, 8 destroyers, 17 frigates and 38 other smaller vessels) yet the Royal Navy is still expected to patrol the world’s oceans, protect British interests abroad, patrol Iraqi waters and when needed launch strikes against rogue states.
Most people in Britain are unaware that although the Empire is gone, there are vestiges remaining. Anguilla, Bermuda, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn Islands, St. Helena, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia are all still British territories that need protection.
For people to say that these carriers aren’t needed is laughable. They are sorely needed. Were the Argies to retake the Falklands today we would still only be able to send 20 aircraft and this time the Task Force would consist of almost the entire Royal Navy. When these new carriers enter service we will at last be able to provide air cover to our troops and our ships. But these new ships will also need protection and eight Destroyers just isn’t enough.
I hope that this is just the start of a long line of improvements to the Royal Navy, which has been badly neglected since WWII, but I doubt it will be. If the trend that started at the end of the last century, continues into this one, the Royal Navy will become a simple coastal defence force. If Britain wants to remain a power in the 21st Century, have her share of global trade and ensure that her overseas territories are protected, then the Royal Navy needs modern ships , lots of them and fast.