A timely article on the government’s commitment to two new aircraft carriers in the FT. Michael Quinlan writes:

The defence budget is in deeper trouble than at any time since Labour came to power. But so are the general public finances, so the Treasury will not come to the rescue. In such situations, squeeze-and-postpone never suffices. Nettles have to be grasped – the sooner, the better.”

This follows an article in the latest edition of The Economist on Rusty Lusty, HMS Illustrious, and the “hollowing out of the navy as defence spending becomes tighter”. The stark facts are

“Such ambitions come at a cost. The new carriers have enlarged an already big hole in the defence budget. Despite plans to increase real expenditure by 1.5% a year, defence sources say there is an “eye-watering” shortfall of £500m next year, rising to about £2 billion in 2011-12. On February 20th service chiefs and civil servants will try to agree on a savings plan for approval by Des Browne, the double-hatted secretary for defence and for Scotland. Budgeting involves grim inter-service fighting at the best of times, but the current round is the toughest in decades. About £2 billion must be taken out of the £12 billion annual equipment budget over the next two years in order to balance the books while paying for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and improving soldiers’ pay and conditions.

Britain is still fighting two wars on peacetime budgets. It needs to decide whether to increase defence spending to match its global ambitions or accept the permanent loss of some military capabilities. Instead, to put off the reckoning, ministers will probably delay the new carriers by a year or more, chop a few more ships and submarines, push back new transport aircraft, downgrade future armoured vehicles and skimp on maintenance.

All this distorts the military posture. It creates an even bigger hole in the budget from 2010, sucks out funds to keep old kit going, increases the unit costs of delayed and reduced future equipment, and penalises those at the end of the procurement pipeline. On current plans, for example, the air force is taking full delivery of 232 Typhoon jets, but it is doubtful that Britain will buy the 150 JSFs it would like.”

I have just finished Nemesis, Max Hastings’ account of the final year of the war against Japan. By the start of that final year the great carrier engagements were history, but Nimitz’s fleet carrier task forces played a key role in interdicting Japan’s seaborne trade and supporting US forces on the ground. What is clear, however, is that the flat-tops required enormous logistic support and each task force was exactly that: a fleet carrier and a retinue of destroyer radar pickets, anti-submarine frigates and more and more. 60 years on, what has changed, other than the fact that the chances of our being engaged in global war is remote; instead we fight asymmetric wars where carriers are most unlikely to play a decisive role.

The last word should perhaps be from Michael Quinlan:

“Defence planning has to make choices that limit what we can do. But with direct military threat a remote possibility, almost everything we take on far from home is ultimately optional. Do big carriers give us choices that other forces do not and that are wide, important and likely to warrant the costs? Carriers are an expensive way of providing a modest amount.

Carriers are an expensive way of providing a modest amount of air power. Like all forces, they have limitations. They are more vulnerable than airfields and harder to repair after damage, even if not sunk. Against serious opposition much of their effort goes into defending themselves, and they need a protective entourage. Even then, a single carrier is at severe risk within range of enemy air power (or missiles, or submarines). It cannot give much if any support if the operational theatre is deep inland. Two carriers cannot guarantee, as a basis for political commitment, the timely availability of one in the right place. A distinguished admiral has said that there is a case for three or none, but not two.”



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