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Heading North: the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers and a new maritime strategy

October 12th, 2017

By Dr Rowan Allport – Senior Fellow

The arrival of the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth in August was an event of mixed emotions. For many, there was a sense of pride that the Royal Navy was receiving the first of two ships which, alongside HMS Prince of Wales, will be the largest vessels it has ever operated. For others – particularly old hands who remembered the aborted CVA-01 carrier programme – it was simply a blessed relief that it had been delivered after twenty years of gestation. Others took a far more cynical tone, saying that the ship represented a throw-back to the colonial era and should be towed out to sea and sunk.

Most of the more extreme objections to the ships can be readily dismissed as the work of cranks and the poorly informed, although there are many sound reasons to criticise the way the carrier programme has been handled. But whatever the view taken, the bigger point is that the two vessels are not a set of statistics, a historical redemption or a political statement – they are tools to be used as part of the UK’s wider defence and foreign policy.

As Britain comes to grips with a series of (largely self-inflicted) political traumas, the country’s security focus is becoming increasingly rationalised around its NATO commitments – perhaps no bad thing given the recent behaviour of Moscow. Whilst much of the West’s focus is now on the direct defence of Eastern Europe – as witnessed by the attention paid to last month’s Zapad 17 exercise in Russia and Belarus – the carriers will provide other, less direct methods of deterring and – if necessary – countering the challenges faced. These approaches are not new, but will require relearning the strategies of the recent past.

The Echoes of History

The CVA-01 carrier programme of the 1960s was marketed by the Royal Navy as a route to sustaining power projection in limited wars East of Suez, with more NATO-orientated taskings in the North Atlantic largely dismissed. Whilst it was true that Royal Navy carriers still had an important role in supporting the NATO Striking Fleet in its delivery of nuclear weapons into the Soviet Union, even the Admiralty was unwilling to argue that this was an efficient way of doing things – particularly given the vast amount the UK had spent on the RAF’s V-Force and was then in the midst of investing in the submarine-based Polaris system. It was also unclear what broader role fleet carriers could play in a war with Moscow in which missile and bomber-deployed strategic nuclear weapons were used from day one of a conflict under the doctrine of Massive Retaliation. Additionally, there were concerns about the vulnerability of carriers to the weapons systems possessed by the Soviet Northern Fleet.

It was ultimately judged that CVA-01 – partnered with three older carriers dating back to World War 2 – would provide poor value for money for East of Suez operations, and that the RAF would be able to supply air cover for the UK’s forces in the Middle and Far East. Against a major budget crisis, the 1966 Defence White Paper scrapped the CVA-01 programme.

Two subsequent decisions, however, raised serious questions about the reasoning behind both CVA-01’s marketing and cancellation. Firstly, in 1967, NATO adopted a doctrine of Flexible Response – a posture designed to replace the immediate use of strategic nuclear weapons in the event of Soviet attack with a more gradual escalation. This brought the prospect of a protracted conventional war with the USSR back to the table, and in doing so returned the security of the North Atlantic supply lines to prominence. Secondly, the UK Government’s decision in 1968 to begin a withdrawal of most British forces East of Suez ended the relevance of sustaining a permanent carrier presence in the theatre. Instead, the Royal Navy’s focus was to be on its NATO commitments – chiefly in the North Atlantic.

As the 1970s began to draw to a close and the Royal Navy was left with only the elderly HMS Ark Royal in its carrier fleet, the reality of what was about to be lost to NATO was dawning on all involved. The absence of Ark Royal meant that there would be no fleet carriers based in the East Atlantic region, leaving NATO dependent on US Navy carriers stationed on the east coast of North America.

HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned in February 1979, less than a year before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that was to help propel the Cold War to new heights and assist in ushering Ronald Reagan into the White House. This in turn facilitated a further turn towards a carrier-centric approach in the North Atlantic, facilitated by both the US Government’s 600 ship Navy Plan and the Pentagon’s adoption of the Maritime Strategy doctrine. The latter’s most prominent European element envisaged the Alliance taking the offensive through not only blocking the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap to Soviet submarines seeking to pass into the Atlantic and endanger the allied sea lines of communication (SLOC) through which reinforcements would flow from North America to Europe, but also via sending carrier groups into the Norwegian Sea and Barents Sea to bring the USSR itself into conventional bombing range. The aims of this approach would be to secure Norway, prevent SLOC interdiction, force Moscow to divert forces away from Central Europe to defend its northern region, and – ultimately – support the end of the war on terms favourable to the West by attacking bases in the USSR proper.

The Royal Navy’s role in this approach as the lead element of NATO’s Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) Striking Force was well established by the late 1980s, with a force centred on at least one Invincible-class light carrier being tasked first to ‘hold the line’ near the GIUK Gap until the arrival of US forces, and then to push north to screen the advance of US fleet carriers towards Norway and beyond. However, the Invincible-class were specialist ASW ships built to primarily carry helicopters. Less than half the size of conventional carriers, the ships possessed only around eight subsonic, short-range and lightly armed Sea Harriers as their fixed-wing air group – a major drop from the twelve F-4K Phantoms and fourteen Buccaneer S.2s that were carried alongside ASW helicopters by HMS Ark Royal during its final commission.

How this approach would have ended for the Royal Navy can only be speculated, but the likely answer is ‘badly’. Given the limited air defence capabilities of their ships, much of the plan was based around the prompt availability of the US carriers that formed the core of the NATO Striking Fleet – something that was difficult to provide without considerable prewarning. Even far back in the Atlantic, the Royal Navy would have faced a large number of submarines and Soviet Naval Aviation strike aircraft such as the TU-22M Backfire carrying long-range anti-ship missiles. The limited number of fighter aircraft on the carriers would also have not been compensated for by ship-mounted weapons: the Falklands War of 1982 demonstrated that the Royal Navy’s then surface-to-air missile systems were mediocre at best. As the Invincibles had moved into the Norwegian Sea, they would also have faced Soviet tactical fighters and further elements of the Red Banner Northern Fleet. Although they would have been supported by aircraft based in Iceland, Norway and on US ships, the UKs mini-carriers were ultimately not well suited to their mission.

Far more appropriate to the Forward Defence task would have been fleet carriers of the type the Royal Navy had previously operated. This is not to evangelise CVA-01 itself: even the vessel’s project lead admitted that the programme’s cancellation had been ‘the happiest day of his life’ – such were the budget-induced problems with the design. But the basic concept – a ship in the 50,000 tonne range with an air group of around two dozen fighter/strike aircraft and a dozen ASW and support helicopters – would have been considerably more appropriate than what was available.

Ultimately, none of this mattered, as no war against the Soviet Union ever took place. The Invincible-class eventually found fame in the wars in the Falklands, the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and Iraq. But just as the final member of the class drew its service to a close, the scenario for which they had been designed suddenly began to once again have relevance.

Back in the present

A surprisingly large number of parallels can be found between the story of today’s carriers and CVA-01. It goes without saying that there is a major point of departure: the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review – born in the midst of an economic crisis like its 1966 counterpart – opted to keep the carriers. This was not entirely a voluntary decision: the Government would have cancelled the second vessel had the contract for the ship not been written in such a way that abandoning it would cost more than pressing ahead. There was also the attempt to modify them to carry catapult-launched aircraft before the U-turn when it was found out how expensive that would be, and the will-they-won’t they saga of whether both would be brought into service that only ended with a 2014 commitment to commission the two vessels.

It is clear that the Queen Elizabeth-class – or Future Carriers (CVF) as they were first known – were very much sold in the same ‘out of area’ mould as CVA-01. Although less tightly defined than East of Suez, the 1998 Strategic Defence Review placed great emphasis on ‘power projection’. The notion that “At sea, the emphasis is continuing to move away from large- scale maritime warfare and open-ocean operations in the North Atlantic” was given great prominence, highlighting that once again it was tasking beyond the NATO area that would be the carriers’ central mission.

Almost twenty years later, it seems that the UK’s situation now resembles the late 1960s. British national coherence – riding high in the late 1990s – was severely dented in the 2008 financial crunch and then shattered by the vote to leave the EU. The country is now in a crisis every bit as deep as the one it faced fifty years ago.

A defence manifestation of this has been a turn away from power projection and towards a more parochial posture. In part, this has also been due to the bruising experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq. But externally, the leading concern has been the emergence since 2014 of the Russian threat.

The current problem

In the 21st century, it is the Baltic States and Eastern Poland that have replaced West Germany as NATO’s primary defence arena. So far, the UK has played its role in their defence in the air and on the ground by its continued participation in the Baltic Air Policing mission, and through the deployment of an Army battlegroup to Estonia and a company size element to Poland. But more substantive problems remain. Most notably, little real action appears to have been taken by the UK in the maritime domain. True, there has been an order for nine P-8 Poseidon ASW aircraft to replace the much-missed Nimrod in tracking Russian submarines, as well as participation in a smattering of naval exercises, but genuine vision is not yet fully manifest.

The lack of deep focus on maritime matters by either the UK or NATO as a whole is troubling on a number of levels. Firstly, NATO’s ground forces in the Baltics and the surrounding region are little more than a trip-wire force, unable to stand up to a determined assault. Either their augmentation in a crisis or a build-up as part of a Desert Storm-style effort to liberate occupied NATO territory would require seaborne reinforcements from the US. Not unrelated to this were the 2015 revisions to Russia’s maritime doctrine, which placed new emphasis on gaining access to the Atlantic Ocean: in the words of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, renewed attention on the Atlantic was the result of “NATO’s active development and the alliance approaching our borders”. Recent upsurges in Moscow’s naval activity have underlined the seriousness of this plan. Although the Russian Navy is vastly depleted from the Cold War and there is no question as to whom would come out best in any confrontation in the Atlantic, there are complicating factors.

Whilst attacking US forces en route may seem like a major escalation of a conflict that could otherwise be contained, it would make far more sense for Moscow than simply following the path Iraq was forced to take in 1990/91 – in effect sitting and waiting for an unmolested build-up to be complete before an attack commenced at a time and place of the allies’ choosing. On a practical level, ground force reinforcements from the US would likely come in a relatively small number of large ships: the deployment to Europe at the beginning of 2017 of the US Army’s 3rd Armoured Brigade Combat Team was centred on just three huge transport vessels, the loss of any one of which would have crippled the unit. There is also the political angle: exposing US forces to a high risk of losses even before they reach the battlefield may not be acceptable to Washington – particularly given the current state of the US policy environment. Therefore, it is vital that NATO’s SLOC are protected. This is to say nothing of the need to secure commercial shipping and underwater telecoms cables.

Secondly, there is also the important point that in not addressing the maritime angle, NATO is squandering the one overwhelming area of advantage it retains. Whilst Moscow has made considerable strides in air defence and land warfare technology, many of its naval systems still suffer from serious shortfalls. By taking advantage of its superiority at sea, NATO’s naval forces – which in the East Atlantic are still led by the Royal Navy in peacetime – present the Alliance with options to shape the endgame of a conflict. The latter would require Russia to suffer a substantial material loss and a defeat that was politically clear, whilst at the same time avoiding presenting what could be perceived as an existential threat to the country that Moscow might seek to use to justify the use of nuclear weapons.

A new-old model

For the Royal Navy, the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers are an avenue to make a major contribution to the NATO’s deterrence and defence force, and present a number of major advantages over their Invincible-class predecessors. Most notably, the air group they will carry – for open-ocean operations expected to be around 24 F-35Bs and fourteen Merlin HM Mk2s helicopters for ASW and airborne early warning and control – will be far more potent than those available in the 1980s. The air defence systems available to them through the Type 45 and Type 23 escort ships – the already introduced Sea Viper and the just entering service Sea Ceptor – present major upgrades on their predecessors. To these would no doubt be added the systems available on the escort ships of other Northern European NATO Navies such as Germany and the Netherlands.

On the opposition side, the forces available to Russia for deploying into the Atlantic have significantly contracted, narrowing the quantitative gap. None of this is to say that Moscow has stood still at the technical level. Notably, the Yasen-class submarine is a major advance on its predecessors, and many existing platforms are receiving substantial upgrades. New weapons systems are also being introduced, with Russian Air Force Tu-22Ms being equipped with the advanced Kh-32 anti-ship missile and the threatening but mysterious Zircon hypersonic anti-ship missile in the pipeline. But given the decrease in unit numbers available to Russia, there would be restrictions as to how many of these assets – primarily tasked with defending the ‘bastions’ adjacent to the country’s northern coast that are home to the Northern Fleet’s ballistic missile submarines – could be brought to bear further south. Thus, the security of the North Atlantic SLOC could be quickly supported by a Royal Navy carrier group in a more robust and survivable manner during either a crisis or early in a conflict than was the case during the Cold War. Such an effort would also help mitigate the practical problem of the US now having fewer carriers and a focus on the Pacific and Middle East, given that these issues extend the time it would take to bring US assets into theatre.

A follow-up advance into the northern Norwegian Sea and the Barent Sea itself would be a different proposition, and necessitate a full-scale ‘buy-in’ from the US Navy. Nevertheless, an increase in the weight carried by the Royal Navy and other European allies both in initial operations and in the follow-up advance would likely reduce Washington’s reluctance to contribute.


The theoretical intent to use the carrier in the GIUK region is clearly at least a paper ambition for the Royal Navy. The slide below from a MoD presentation at the 2017 Paris Air Show on the carrier programme clearly shows the Norwegian Sea as one of the three envisaged main areas of operation.

Practical steps are also being taken to deploy in the region. Shortly before decommissioning in 2014, HMS Illustrious embarked nine Merlin HM Mk2 helicopters on exercise as part of an effort to regenerate large-scale ASW expertise. Royal Navy submarines have also recommenced deployments to the Arctic after a ten-year hiatus.

But it is no secret that major problems dog the Navy. Too few ships, aircraft and personnel are the lead issues. With only 19 destroyers and frigates, there will have to be a move away from the model of sending such ships on (often questionable) ‘presence’ missions and towards a focus on supporting carrier groups. In fairness, this issue appears to have been picked up: the UK government’s recently published National Shipbuilding Strategy specifically highlighted the need to concentrate the use of the Type 45 destroyers and the forthcoming Type 26 frigates on task group operations, whilst leaving lower-end duties to the smaller Type 31e frigates and patrol craft. This, however, does little to resolve the numbers issue – particularly as during a major conflict, there will be a need for high-end escort ships to perform non-carrier tasks such as convoy escort. This is to say nothing of the need to build up munitions and spares stockpiles to support intensive operations.

Aircraft present a similar challenge. F-35B procurement is proving slow, although at least 24 aircraft should be available for frontline use by 2023. The shortage of Merlin helicopters is also a problem, with only 25 expected to be available for all ASW and airborne early warning and control tasks. Similarly, the RAF’s new P-8 aircraft will provide welcome distant cover to the carriers, but will be thinly stretched.

The final core issue is personnel numbers. A decision appears to have been taken to bring both carriers into service on a more-or-less full-time basis, with one tasked with general operations at 5 days’ notice to deploy, and with the second (when not in refit) tasked in the helicopter carrier role (replacing HMS Ocean) at 30 days’ notice to move. However, this will place a major strain on the rest of the fleet, with a frigate and a destroyer already laid up due to a lack of crew.

There is also the issue of practising for a revitalised maritime approach to the defence of Europe. It has been many years since a major exercise centred upon fleet carriers took place in northern waters, and even longer since the ‘Northern Wedding’ and ‘Teamwork’ exercises that headlined Cold War training. The planned ‘Trident Juncture 2018’ will see a large-scale deployment of NATO forces to Norway, but it is unclear what role the UK will play.

Underpinning all ofthis is the UK’s ongoing defence budget crunch – a phenomenon that is only likely to get worse in the coming years. At present, revisions to the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review are expected to be published in early 2018. Few doubt that these will involve further cuts. In large part, these will be the result of the post-Brexit vote depreciation in the value of the pound that has increased the cost of importing equipment. Given the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU in March 2019 and suffering a recession as a result, misery may be piled upon misery. This is to say nothing of what a hard-left Labour government elected on the back of such a recession may do to the Armed Forces.


The entering into service of these ships presents the UK with a significantly expanded array of policy options. These priorities will evolve over the ships’ expected fifty year life, and at some point in the future we will no doubt see a political environment that will allow a return to the type of expeditionary operations for which they were originally designed. But until then, they are well-suited to more basic self-defence missions centred upon the UK’s NATO commitments – with the deterrence of Russia, defence of the Atlantic sea lanes and prosecution of any conflict to a favourable conclusion being central aims.

The challenges facing the UK Armed Forces in both fulfilling this type of tasking and its wider mission are considerable given economic constraints and internal turmoil, to say nothing of an international environment which to the casual observer appears to be spinning out of control. But whilst they were conceived of in a different era, the Queen Elizabeth-class have the potential – if properly supported – to repay many times the investment made in them. What is needed now is a Royal Navy, MoD and a government with the vison to realise this possibility.


Top image: HMS Queen Elizabeth (source: Brian Burnell/CC-BY-SA-3.0)

About Rowan Allport

Dr Rowan Allport is a Deputy Director who leads the HSC's Security and Defence team. Rowan holds a PhD in Politics and a MA in Conflict, Governance and Development from the University of York, as well as a BA (Hons) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Hull. Specialising in strategic analysis and international security, Rowan's primary areas of interest lie in the defence issues in and around the NATO region, interstate conflict and US foreign policy discourse. He is also the lead author of HSC's recent ‘Fire and Ice: A New Maritime Strategy for NATO’s Northern Flank’ report. Rowan's publication credits include articles and commentary in Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, The Hill, DefenseOne, RealClearDefense, The Strategist, UK Defence Journal, Politics.co.uk and The National Interest. He has previously worked as a lobbyist for the Whitehouse Consultancy in Westminster, and as a Senior Analyst for RAND Europe's Security, Defence and Infrastructure team.