Sharing aircraft carriers

Tight budgets mean hard choices. For instance, new aircraft carriers would be lovely but they cost a lot. As the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review reaches its final stages, Nick Witney argues that perhaps it’s time to start sharing with the French.

The crucial stage of the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review is now approaching – the final collision between the irresistible force of the defence community’s aspirations and the immovable object of the Ministry of Defence’s empty pockets. Central to this climacteric will be the decision about the UK’s planned new aircraft carriers.

Of course, two new aircraft carriers would be lovely – indeed three would be better. But, after a disastrous decade in which the MOD have ultimately failed to defy the laws of financial gravity, the famous ‘hard choices’ can no longer be avoided. And the case for the defence is not a strong one.

Easiest to dismiss is the special pleading by BAE Systems, who own the shipyards (and have a big stake in the American Joint Strike Fighter, planned to be flown from the new carriers) about the risks to the UK ship-building industry if the carrier order is reduced or cancelled. The hard truth is that the industry has been kept afloat for decades on defence orders, whilst signally failing to earn its living in global export markets, whether military or civil. There is no case for continuing to protect this uncompetitive sector.

Nor is the military/strategic case for the carriers compelling. Their design has been driven by the aim of unloading the maximum weight of ordnance from the ships’ magazines onto land targets in the shortest possible time. They are essentially instruments of ‘shock and awe’ – and that is not the most credible use for British military power in the foreseeable future. True, they could fulfil other roles, such as doubling as floating helicopter bases. But there are infinitely cheaper alternative ways to perform that function.

This is the real problem with the carrier programme – its exorbitant cost. The five billion pounds for the two ships (which, as a vignette of so much that is wrong with MOD procurement, have mysteriously swollen in size by 50%, to a gargantuan 64,000 tonnes, since they were first proposed in the 1998 defence review) is only a start: the aircraft will cost twice as much, and on top of that comes the bill for the anti-air and anti-submarine escorts that these vulnerable ‘capital’ ships would require.

That cost threatens to suck the life out of the Royal Navy, diminishing yet further the already unprecedentedly-reduced number of hulls available to maintain Britain’s maritime global presence.

So the options of cancelling one or both of the new carriers are on the table. And what use, it can fairly be asked, is one? France’s single carrier has recently emerged from two years in dry-dock. What’s the point in having a military capability whose availability ‘on the day’ depends on the lottery of refit schedules?

It is here that the idea of sharing capabilities with the French comes in. ‘Utterly unrealistic’ says the Defence Secretary – though primarily directing his fire, one must hope, at the circling predators of the UK Treasury. In practice, of course, the single-carrier option would look a lot more sensible if refit schedules were coordinated with France, so that one or other carrier was always available for allied operations. Forget cherished historical enmities: the two countries’ strategic interests are now so closely aligned that the chances of the French refusing to send their carrier where we would have wanted to send ours, or vice-versa, are slim.

A more radical version of ‘sharing’ is also possible – though, even with the financial ceiling falling in, ‘radical’ is unlikely to commend itself to the MOD. Carriers are essentially floating parking lots and garages for their aircraft, and cannot operate aircraft types for which they have not been fitted out. But if Britain were to cancel its order for American planes, and instead buy the (less-capable but much cheaper) French aircraft already flying off the French carrier, then British and French carriers could be made literally interchangeable. The requirement for each nation to hand its carrier over to the other if dire need arose and it were the only one available could be enshrined in Treaty.

A host of objections – starting with the nuclear capabilities of the French carrier – will immediately present themselves to the minds of politicians, officials and admirals, and not just on the British side of the Channel. But solutions could be found, given the will – the will to accept a shared capability in preference to either a fully independent one which can be achieved only at devastating cost to the rest of Britain’s defence, or to none at all.

Of course, there is one further possible course of action, which is to slow the build down, postpone the aircraft buy, and generally play for time – desperately hoping, like Dickens’s Mr Micawber, that in due course ‘something will turn up’. In other words, carry on behaving just as the MOD has done over the past decade, using the taxpayer’s money less to buy capability than to buy time, and to duck those ‘hard choices’. Surely not the sort of behaviour that Britain’s bold and decisive new government would countenance for one moment.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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