Academic journal article Naval War College Review

Future Carrier Aviation Options: A British Perspective

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

Future Carrier Aviation Options: A British Perspective

Article excerpt

One of the key debates that face naval aviation in the twenty-first century relates to its key equipment: the airplane. The United States is the only power that will be able to deploy a carrier force of any size, and it has held this position for over two decades. Soviet/Russian ambitions to deploy a blue-water air capability have been downsized, rationalised, abandoned, then reinstated under the threat of cancelation, and now lack funding. The People's Republic of China is known to aspire to develop its naval aviation through the procurement of aircraft carriers, but it has made little obvious progress. While aircraft carriers enable the projection of airpower well beyond a nation's shores without reliance on host-nation support, they have a major problem: they are expensive. Designing, running, and upgrading carriers are beyond the financial capacity of most nations. Only a few have the ability to deploy combat aircraft at sea, and the conventional aircraft carrier can only be procured in small numbers. While the United States can, within the politics of budget constraints, present a formidable air presence from carrier decks, the United Kingdom and France, the two middle-ranking powers with aspirations to maintain aircraft carriers, have been obliged by cost considerations to make some uncomfortable decisions.

Furthermore, there are continuing questions about the necessity of aircraft carriers for middle-- ranking powers. It is argued that the aircraft carrier, by virtue of its considerable cost, is an unnecessary luxury. Under this scenario, the United Kingdom and France are perceived as being unlikely to embark upon independent naval operations but as instead contributing to task forces dominated by the U.S. Navy, which in turn would provide the aviation assets. Practical experience, particularly for Britain, suggests that this view is dangerous.

Nonetheless, Britain's experience of carrier aviation since the mid- 1960s has not been altogether happy. A combination of a reduced world role and serious economic problems led to the downsizing of all British military services, with particularly savage cuts in the 1964-70 period. The aircraft carrier was deemed to be an expensive irrelevance. This view was shortsighted, ignoring the fact that Britain had a number of commitments and obligations in areas that had been brought into the ambit of Britain's concerns through trade and colonialism. As always, plans failed to survive contact with the enemy-in this case, Argentina in 1982, when the only means of recovering the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) was an amphibious operation. Since that time, despite ever-diminishing defence budgets, the aircraft carrier has returned to prominence, with the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) planning for two carriers capable of embarking around fifty aircraft, thus enhancing the deployability of British forces and increasing flexibility.

Nonetheless, there are a number of issues that need to be settled before the new vessels enter service in 2012. This article (based on the state of affairs in late 1999) seeks to provide a general outline of the options facing British naval aviation in the next ten to twenty years. It does not claim to be definitive but seeks to inform, highlighting in particular the manner in which the aircraft carrier has returned to the core of British military thinking as Britain adjusts to the conditions likely to pertain in the first two decades of the twenty-first century.


Decline has been a particularly notable factor in the United Kingdom, where cost considerations led to the abandonment of conventional-takeoff-and-landing (CTOL) aircraft carriers when HMS Ark Royal was retired in 1978. This was not a sudden decision.

The Decline of the British Carrier Force

The first threat to British naval aviation came in the 1960s. In 1957, a whole swathe of advanced aircraft projects had been canceled on the grounds of cost and a belief that their job would soon be done by missiles. …

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