By Danny Hawkins
Skeptics of Britain’s new supercarrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which will rival the US’ Nimitz class in capability, argue that whilst it's a magnificent piece of naval architecture, it's not what the UK currently needs. To the contrary, I suggest it’s exactly what the UK needs and has needed for a long time.
Whilst Britain is not actively engaged in a Falklands-like war, launching jets on a routine basis, they still have a need for force projection. The UK needs to be considered diplomatically relevant on the world stage, whilst having the capability to defend overseas territories. The Queen Elizabeth class of carrier will provide the United Kingdom with exactly that, when it is rolled out in late 2017.
The British government began cutting carriers in the 1960s, disingenuously claiming that the domestically based RAF could provide all the cover needed. Of course, this was a result of fiscal tension and military budget cuts, and the notion that all a sovereign defence needs is an air force that has been debunked many times. The reality is that a mobile base with global range, which can launch weapons or drones, is essential in modern peacekeeping, disaster relief or warfare operations.
A good example which demonstrated the value of a mobile base with global range came during the Falklands War, where Britain was sending forces to the South Atlantic to free people caught up in a dictatorship. Without the carriers, Britain would not have been able to reach the citizens on the island. It might seem like a different era now, but having the capability to respond when the unexpected or unwanted happens has to be considered. Detractors of the project argue that the UK faces no immediate danger from a direct attack, meaning there is no need to spend such a great amount on military machinery. However, if history is any indication of what the future can hold, a nation would do well to be thoroughly prepared for the worst at all times.
Sceptics of the £3.5bn vessel conveniently neglect the benefits of having a carrier group in war time. The use of carriers can limit interventions to sorties rather than boots on the ground, saving hundreds of lives. They provide a better means of both force projection and fulfil diplomatic commitments to avoid the unfortunate deaths of young soldiers. Would sceptics of the UK’s new carrier prefer a quick intervention launched from the safety of her deck, or another fully fledged campaign with armies on the ground? I suspect it would be the former. If war is to become fully unmanned in the future, then a mobile base from which we can launch machinery, such as drones, will be essential.
Stepping away from war, we can see the benefits of having global naval projection in the securing of essential resources. It is looking increasingly likely that climate change will increase instability and a demand for resources. Chatham House have recently produced a report titled ‘Chokepoints and Vulnerabilities in Global Food Trade’, which details the under explored threat to global food security and trade. The report is startling, and they suggest having a physical response in maritime chokepoints will be worthwhile for some time to come. The US are also mobilizing naval groups to the South China Sea, as Washington looks to secure the $5 trillion worth of trade that passes through its shipping lanes every year. Again, without their carrier fleet, the US would not be able to secure the navigation routes, and the pressure on resources and trade would mount up.
Galatée Fouquet, in her article, mentions that Trump’s mounting “pressure on Europe could provide the stimulus the continent needs to redefine itself, since its existing relationships with the United States [and Russia] have tended to weaken Europe’s ability to manage and defend itself”. Whilst the United States have been less than impressed with European failure to adhere to military spending pacts, the UK emerges as one of only four states to uphold the NATO military spending pact. By launching the new class of carrier, the UK once again signals its intention to play a significant role in European and global security. In volatile times such as these, it will be interesting to see if other European states show commitment to their allies, as the UK have, or whether they continue to prioritise other obligations.
Captain Jerry Kyd (2017), who will have command of the HMS Queen Elizabeth, argues that “all major nations around the world have carriers”, because they “provide the government with an incredibly flexible tool - it's not just about war fighting, but deterrence, coercion, political signaling, providing a huge sea base for disaster relief and humanitarian assistance.” The Australians, French, Spanish, Italians, Japanese, Singaporeans, Algerians, Indians and Russians have all come to similar conclusions as the Royal Navy and have decided to invest in, or have already implemented an aircraft carrier as part of their forces. They see the benefits of having an aircraft carrier, namely; fulfilling global diplomacy pacts, force projection, securing resources and disaster relief, and decide that these benefits outweigh the cost and skepticism.
Danny Hawkins is an International Relations Masters Graduate from the University of Sussex, specializing in counter-terrorism and new security challenges. He previously contributed a piece on Russian intervention into the Syrian conflict.
Galatée Fouquet (2017), “Macron’s New Cabinet Heralds Revival of a European Defence”, [online] http://global-politics.co.uk/wp/2017/05/22/macrons-new-cabinet-heralds-revival-european-defence/
Jerry Kyd, (2017), forces.Net. “Fallon: Russia Will Be Looking At HMS Queen Elizabeth 'With Envy’”, [online]; http://www.forces.net/news/navy/fallon-russia-will-be-looking-hms-queen-elizabeth-envy.