It is said that the first question a US President asks when a crisis erupts somewhere in the world is: “Where are the carriers?”
UK admirals are known to prefer the saying “Carriers give governments options, not dead ends.”
Now I will make a rapid, schematic and not at all exhaustive list of 10 good reasons why I totally agree with them and with their assesment of the real need for CVF in the future of the UK.
1) Aircraft carriers provide mobile, ready, sovereign air bases that can be rapidly brought to bear without reference to any other power. They will be essential in the future conflicts which, while unpredictable by nature, are most likely to happen away from Europe, primarily in the Middle East, Africa and, then, towards Asia.
2) They can poise (to use the British doctrinal term) in international waters giving politicians a range of options, with a capability for rapid action once they make their minds up.
3) If nationals have to be evacuated, helicopters can be based aboard to carry out the mission.
4) If opposition is expected, it can be overawed or, if necessary, neutralized by combat aircraft totally free of the limitations of doubtful host nation support.
5) They can contribute to amphibious operations embarking Marines and helicopters. In the case of the UK, it is CVF or nothing at all, because HMS Ocean is bound to have NO direct replacement, while the LPDs and LSD(A)s can operate helicopters but don’t have hangars and proper aviation facilities.
6) An aircraft carrier carries the planes, the crews, and accommodates them all.
7) The aircraft carrier carries the weapons and the fuel and the spare parts to support its planes.
This is a relevant point in itself. In the Gulf War, bases given to Coalition aircrafts provided the fuel for the planes, but of course the spare parts, the weapons and all the rest had to be brought in by air or sea.
Even now, as UK planes deploy in Italy, fuel and – to a degree – spares might be fetched locally, since the Italian air force also has Tornado and Typhoon planes. They still have to be paid, but at least there is not to flow them in. Weapons instead have to be brought from UK to Italy, for both political reasons (Italy does not want to participate in bombing ops and, at least so far, it is not making available Paveway bombs to the Coalition either) and for technical reasons (UK Typhoons use ASRAAM missiles, while Italian ones use the Iris-T, Tornado GR4 employs Paveway IV, Litening III pods and Brimstone missiles, and Italy has none of this kit etc) adding to costs and logistic strain, making the already overtaxed cargo fleet of the RAF even more busy.
8) An aircraft carrier is considerably safer than a land base. An aircraft carrier can move, make itself hard to find.
The F35C will have a combat radius of over 1300 km. An enemy bombed by embarked F35C will have to draw a huge circle on the sea, for an area of several thousands of square miles, where the carrier could be hiding. Not many countries in the world have the assets needed to track and detect the position of a ship moving on the sea, well past the horizon line, out of radar range.
Even when it is detected, an enemy wanting to attack the carrier will have to deal with the embarked AEW radar platforms and the fighter jets flying CAPs in defence of the ship. Even when these are overcome, the Carrier is still surrounded by Escorts, from Type 45 with Sea Viper missiles to, one day, Type 26 with CAMM. They will be effectively protected by the SAMs, even against ballistic threats via Sea Viper, and they will also be screened by the decoys that ships can deploy to lure missiles away.
This compare very favorably with a land base which, in the best case, could now get Rapier, and in future CAMM, for its self defence.
9) The Carrier preserves the capability of the UK to act independently and unilaterally in defence of its interests in the world, enables the country to take on small and medium sized expeditionary war ops, and ensures the UK a good seat at the planning table of any coalition operation.
10) The C17 can carry to the operational theater 4 or maybe up to 5 Apache helicopters. But to transfer huge amounts of air assets to an area of operations, carriers are the best assets.
The UK knows this practice all too well, since the Royal Navy lost several carriers (included the borrowed USS Wasp) cruising the Mediterranean sea under ferocious air attacks in order to bring RAF airplanes to Malta under siege. A page of WWII heroism often forgotten.
A fitting example of how a carrier can be used as a Ferry aviation super-transport comes from this amazing image of the American LPH-4 USS Boxer leaving Mayport, bound for Vietnam, in 1965.
She is crammed full of aircrafts and supplies for the American forces in the Asian country. On deck it is possible to see:
- 56 CH-47 Chinook
- 36 UH-1 Iroquois
- 4 CH-54 Tahre
- 6 OV-1 Mohawk
- 36 UH-1 Iroquois
- 4 CH-54 Tahre
- 6 OV-1 Mohawk
Considering what was carried inside the vessel as well, the totals reach the astonishing figures of: