The new aircraft carriers are designed for large scale war - with Britain acting as the junior partner of the US argues Alastair Stephens
The recent launch of HMS Queen Elizabeth, by the eponymous monarch, is a very public expression of what was already an open secret: that the UK intends (most likely as the junior partner of the US) to attack other countries.
The ship, the first of two, is the largest ship ever built for the Royal Navy and is the first real aircraft carrier the Navy has had since the decommisioning of HMS Ark Royal in 1978, a ship that's construction had started during the Second World War.
The launch was accompanied by the usual chaff about its multi-purpose abilities; humanitarian relief operations came up a lot. This is of course what is technically referred to as “complete bollocks”.
Aircraft carriers are about one thing: force projection. This is how policy wonks refer to a state's ability to conduct large scale military operations (i.e. launch attacks) in distant countries.
Even the world's most powerful army is no use if it cannot be deployed. Aircraft carriers can do this. They give a state the ability to attack from the air, and support ground operations (troops), anywhere in the world.
Carriers never travel alone. They are the central and essential element of a battle fleet which normally consist of a number of other warships, including missile cruisers, destroyers and submarines. These can then also be accompanied by the military forces needed for the ground war: troop ships, landing ships, supply ships, hospital ships etc.
The battle group protects the carrier against sea attack and the carrier’s planes, in addition to launching strikes against the land, protect the fleet from air attack. and all of them protect the ground forces.
A full strike amphibious strike force involves tens of thousands of personel and hundreds of planes. It is one of the most potent military forces ever deployed in the history of humanity
The carrier is the key element of a mobile army that can make war anywhere in the world irrespective of whether neighboring states will give support. Even if they do, a carrier group is still necessary. Land bases take time to build, and they and their supply lines are vulnerable to attack.
A carrier group is almost invulnerable. It is invulnerable because virtually no other countries in the world have the equivalent naval firepower.
The carrier club
Funnily enough the US has eleven such "Carrier Strike Groups" giving it the ability to conduct large scale operations (war) against multiple targets across the globe simultaneously.
At the centre of each group is a carrier such as the USS Admiral Nimitz, which with its crew of 5,000 is a floating city, entirely devoted to war (Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth looks puny in comparison, with its crew of just 1,600).
The only two other navies to possess the ability to strike outside their home region (or have a “blue water navy” in the jargon) are unsurprisingly Britain and France, the two global powers which the US replaced. At present only France has a carrier of the sort the US has.
The western foes du jour, Russia and China, come far behind in this league.
Russia effectively abandoned any pretension to a global naval presence with the end of the Soviet Union. It currently has one Soviet era carrier in service, the Admiral Kuznetsov. Its sister ship the Varyag was never completed. Its hull was sold to the Chinese and relaunched as the Liaoning two years ago.
A handful of other navies have carriers, mostly of the smaller type, just a third of the size of the American behemoths. Some are second hand carriers bought from old powers by Brazil and India, who wish to become regional powers. Two other European states to have carriers, Italy and Spain. These are just faded status symbols of third-rate powers.
One of the reasons that we know that the new British carriers are not just for show is their obscene cost. Originally budgeted for £3 billion for the pair they are now expected to cost over £6.2 billion pounds. The two between them will carry 70 Lockheed F-35 warplanes planes, a snip at £90 million a piece. And that is all before their annual running costs.
The expenditure anytime would be obscene. That this money is so freely paid out in a time of austerity exposes the falsity of the need for austerity. The cutting is selective. It is also noticeable that this massive state project built by the private sector is twice over budget and is two years late, to very little comment.
Still, it is unlikely they would spend so much money out of a defence budget that already has a large number of commitments, unless they were planning to use these carriers.
Consensus for war
The other reason we know that they intend to use these new weapons platforms is the political consensus for foreign intervention that has existed between the three main parties for some two decades now.
This is not something new, these carriers were ordered as a result of a Strategic Defence Review carried out by the new Labour government in 1998. This was to set defence procurement policy for the next two decades and declared that the British military must be prepared and able to carry out large scale military interventions on the scale of the first Iraq war in 1991, a war it had proved to be ill-prepared for. It shouldn't be forgotten that this was three years before 9/11 and the 'War on Terror'.
The Secretary of State for Defence at the time, George Robertson, later went on to be head of Nato.
The recent back track on Syria is unlikely to be little more than a brief diversion. The Labour party remains dominated by the followers of Blair who backed the war in Iraq, and though some of them may now suffer form “buyer’s remorse”, this is for the most part expressed in terms of the way the war was fought, or the lack of WMD, rather than the principle of British Imperial power being used to invade other countries to sort them out. Others remain entirely unrepentant.
The doctrine of liberal interventionism remains alive and well in the upper echelons of the Labour establishment.
The likelihood of the carriers being used is high. They will undoubtedly be used in medium scale actions such as the British intervention in Sierra Leone, or the French action in West Africa.
They are, it must be said, a little over-specced for such “police actions”, and not having super-carriers has not prevented Britain from conducting these types of operations.
What the new carriers are designed for is large scale war, and the only conceivable way that Britain will be doing this within the foreseeable future is as the junior partner of the US.
In our currently unstable world, it is only a matter of time before the new carriers are deployed in a war as the centres of two new Carrier Strike Groups, making war alongside their senior partner, the US Navy.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.