• There is a strategic requirement for a future carrier-strike capability. The Invincible-class carriers were designed principally to meet Cold War threats on the high seas, with short-range jets providing air defence for a naval task group, without the ability to interoperate aircraft with our key allies and whose primary mission was anti-submarine warfare. A Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, operating the most modern combat jets, will give the UK the ability to project military power more than 700 nautical miles over land as well as sea, from anywhere in the world. Both the US and France, for example, have used this freedom of manoeuvre to deliver combat airpower in Afghanistan from secure carrier bases in the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean. This capability will give the UK long term political flexibility to act without depending, at times of regional tension, on agreement from other countries to use of their bases for any mission we want to undertake. It will also give us in-built military flexibility to adapt our approach over the 50 years of the carrier’s working life. In particular, it provides options for a coercive response to crises, as a complement or alternative to ground engagements. It contributes to an overall Force Structure geared towards helping deter or contain threats from relatively well-equipped regional powers, as well as dealing with insurgencies and non-state actors in failing states.
We will need to operate only one aircraft carrier. We cannot now foresee circumstances in which the UK would require the scale of strike capability previously planned. We are unlikely to face adversaries in large-scale air combat. We are far more likely to engage in precision operations, which may need to overcome sophisticated air defence capabilities. The single carrier will therefore routinely have 12 fast jets embarked for operations while retaining the capacity to deploy up to the 36 previously planned, providing combat and intelligence capability much greater than the existing Harriers. It will be able to carry a wide range of helicopters, including up to 12 Chinook or Merlin transports and eight Apache attack helicopters. The precise mix of aircraft will depend on the mission, allowing the carrier to support a broad range of operations including landing a Royal Marines Commando Group, or a Special Forces Squadron conducting a counterterrorism
strike, assisting with humanitarian crises or the evacuation of UK nationals.
A single carrier needs to be fully effective. As currently designed, the Queen Elizabeth will not be fully interoperable with key allies, since their naval jets could not land on it. Pursuit of closer partnership is a core strategic principle for the Strategic Defence and Security Review because it is clear that the UK will in most circumstances act militarily as part of a wider coalition. We will therefore install catapult and arrestor gear. This will delay the in-service date of the new carrier from 2016 to around 2020. But it will allow greater interoperability with US and French carriers and naval jets. It provides the basis for developing joint Maritime Task Groups in the future. This should both ensure continuous carrier-strike availability, and reduce the overall carrier protection requirements on the rest of the fleet, releasing ships for other naval tasks such as protection of key sea-lanes, or conducting counter- piracy and narcotics operations.
The strike needs to be made more capable. Installing the catapult and arrestor will allow the UK to acquire the carrier-variant of Joint Strike Fighter ready to deploy on the converted carrier instead of the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant. This version of the jet has a longer range and greater payload: this, not large numbers of aircraft, is the critical requirement for precision strike operations in the future. The UK plans to operate a single model of JSF, instead of different land and naval variants. Overall, the carrier-variant of the JSF will be cheaper, reducing through-life costs by around 25%.
The current, limited carrier-strike capability will be retired. We must face up to the difficult choices put off by the last Government. Over the next five years combat air support to operations in Afghanistan must be the over-riding priority: the Harrier fleet would not be able to provide this and sustain a carrier-strike role at the same time. Even after 2015, short-range Harriers – whether operating from HMS Illustrious or HMS Queen Elizabeth – would provide only a very limited coercive capability. We judge it unlikely that this would be sufficiently useful in the latter half of the decade to be a cost-effective use of defence resources.
This new carrier-strike policy is consistent with the Strategic Defence and Security Review’s overall approach of holding defence capabilities at different levels of readiness appropriate to the strategic context. It makes strategic sense to focus on developing a more effective and appropriate carrier-strike capability to deal with the uncertain evolution in type and scale of potential threats from various states in the next decade and beyond. To provide further insurance against unpredictable changes in that strategic environment, our current plan is to hold one of the two new carriers at extended readiness. That leaves open options to rotate them, to ensure a continuous UK carrier-strike capability; or to re-generate more quickly a two-carrier strike capability. Alternatively, we might sell one of the carriers, relying on cooperation with a close ally to provide continuous carrier-strike capability. The next strategic defence and security review in 2015 will provide an opportunity to review these options as the future strategic environment develops. Retaining this flexibility of choice is at the core of the Government’s adaptable approach.