RFA Tideforce (lead), HMS Northumberland (left), USS Truxton (far left), HMS Dragon (right), USS Philippine Sea (far right) with HMS Queen Elizabeth at the rear during Exercise Westlant 19.

Lima Charlie: Will The Royal Navy 'Carrier Strike' Programme Deliver?

Or will it be undermined by lack of funding?

RFA Tideforce (lead), HMS Northumberland (left), USS Truxton (far left), HMS Dragon (right), USS Philippine Sea (far right) with HMS Queen Elizabeth at the rear during Exercise Westlant 19.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has released a report into the state of the Royal Navy ‘Carrier Strike’ programme and whether it is on track to deliver as expected.

The key findings of the report were that while the two new aircraft carriers were on track to enter service as planned, there were significant concerns about the ability of the Royal Navy (RN) to generate enough support to make it credible.

To the Royal Navy, the introduction of the Queen Elizabeth class carrier could be an opportunity to completely change how it does business.

Traditionally, its work has involved deploying individual ships, or the odd ad-hoc task group on a deployment for six-nine months before returning home and starting the process all over again.

The big difference with the carrier entering service is that the future operating model for the RN is instead being built around two quite different types of naval presence. The first will be a longer term but lower key presence built around the use of both the Batch 2 River class OPVs, and in due course the Type 31 Frigate.

These ships will spend much of their careers permanently based overseas in a variety of roles – for example, acting as guardships in the Falkland Islands and West Indies, or potentially being based in Singapore to provide a permanent presence in the Far East.

The intention is that these ships will be the day to day Royal Navy presence in foreign waters, representing an initial capability to carry out the overwhelming majority of operations likely to be required – such as maritime surveillance, training other nations and counter-narcotics work.

Royal Navy Merlin helicopter hovering above Queen Elizabeth class carrier in 2013. Crown Copyright. LA(Phot) Will Haigh

Although relatively lightly armed, as these ships are not intended to stand up in a face-to-face fight with most major warships, they are invaluable as a means of carrying out most of the work that a British warship could reasonably expect to be encountered.

In the event of a conflict, they will provide a supporting role – but for reasons of both cost and efficiency, it makes relatively little sense to waste scarce money up gunning them against a theoretical enemy.

Instead, the plan is that many of the so-called ‘heavy units’ such as the Type 23 ASW frigates and the Type 45 destroyers will spend much of their time working as an integrated force with the two carriers to provide what is called the ‘Carrier Strike Group (CSG). This is a new concept for the Royal Navy, which traditionally has not relied on standing task groups for its carrier force.

The plan is that these ships will train together ahead of time and then move to a high level of readiness to be able to deploy to crises around the globe. The force, likely to comprise four escorts and support ships as well as the carrier, will also deploy with up to a dozen UK F35 strike fighters and around a dozen Merlin and Lynx helicopters too.

If a crisis happens, then this force would represent the leading conventional response from the UK, providing commanders in the area with a combination of anti-air, surface and submarine capability as well as the ability to conduct extremely effective strike missions too. The CSG is seen as rightly being the centrepiece of the future Royal Navy and will fundamentally change how it is organised and operated.

Lynx helicopter. Crown Copyright. PO PHOT Ray Jones

The whole process is sometimes referred to in the Ministry Of Defence (MOD) as ‘Carrier Enabled Power Projection’ (or CEPP). On current plans, the MOD had intended that the carriers would reach their initial operating capability (IOC) in 2021, and that full operating capability of CEPP (e.g. the carrier and all of its enabling assets) would be fully worked up and ready by 2026.

The problem that the NAO report has identified is that it is not quite going to plan. Although the two carriers have entered service, the MOD has experienced a significant funding challenge on a range of other projects that have been delayed as a result, threatening to cause real challenges to how CEPP is eventually delivered.

The RAF and Royal Navy have only ordered 48 of the planned 138 F35 Lightning Jets, and that there isn’t enough money available to order enough spare parts for them all. On the current plans, there is no money in the budget now to order more, and no further orders are currently planned or funded.

This means that there is only roughly one third of the number of aircraft available to the UK that were previously planned, and that it will take many years for more to arrive. Unless there is a major change to MOD requirements, no further F35 orders are likely before 2025, which means that more aircraft are unlikely to enter service much before 2030 – a long time away.

The MOD has also confirmed that it is reviewing its requirements for the F35 force – it may go for a so-called ‘split buy’ investing in both the vertical take-off variant which equips the carrier force, but also the conventional version too. This would reduce the number of jets available to operate off the carrier force.

F-35B Lightning. Crown Copyright. SAC Tim Laurence

As if this was not challenging enough, it turns out that the ‘Crowsnest’ programme is also delayed too. This is a project designed to provide a series of radars to act as the next generation of Airborne Early Warning aircraft (AEW) that will be fitted to the Merlin helicopters embarked on the carrier.

This capability was proven vital in the Falklands War, where the UK's lack of early warning meant it was much easier for Argentine aircraft to attack without being detected, costing lives. Since then, the Royal Navy has maintained AEW via its Sea King helicopters, but these left service a couple of years ago, and now there is currently a gap which needs to be filled.

The NAO has identified that the project is running late and has financial challenges, and it remains far from clear whether this means it will enter service as planned, or if it exposes ships to unacceptable risk.

Another challenge that has been identified in the report is that not only will the ships not have the aircraft in time, but they will also not necessarily have the vital spare parts needed to keep them operating. This is because the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) support ship that will accompany the force has not yet been ordered.

The Royal Navy relies on the RFA to act as its floating stores and supermarket at sea – every few days it is necessary to embark more food and spare parts from these giant warehouses via the replenishment at sea process, to help ensure that the carrier and her escorts can function properly.

At the moment, of the three stores ships in RFA service, only one can support carriers-  RFA Fort Victoria. She is almost 30 years old and is due to be decommissioned in the late 2020s. The problem is that the planned order of three ships to replace her has been more and more delayed, falling victim to both budgetary wrangling, and debates about whether it should be a British or foreign shipyard that builds these ships (known as the FSS Project).

RFA Fort Victoria. Crown Coryright. L(Phot) Will Haigh .

Until this is resolved, the elderly ship will need to soldier on, but will require a refit soon to continue. This means that the much-vaunted power projection capability of the Carrier Strike Group will be significantly more limited than planned until the new ships can enter service.

When brought together, this highlights that for the Royal Navy there are potentially very significant challenges ahead in trying to fund not only the carriers themselves, but also the capabilities central to their defence and wider utility.

This is not an ideal outcome, but perhaps reflects the difficulty in Whitehall of trying to fund lots of different major projects on what can at times be an extremely limited budget. Most reputable estimates suggest that there is a shortfall of potentially up to nearly £15 billion in the planned equipment programme – in other words, projects that the MOD wants to buy that it does not have enough money for.

In practical terms, this means that major decisions need to be taken about what the priorities are in Defence, and more importantly what gets cut to pay for them.

This is likely to be a very bloody and brutal process as the sheer scale of savings required means that potentially major capabilities may have to be removed from service.

One example of this is the mention in the report of the fact that the Royal Navy has scrapped plans to invest £60 million to conduct a refit to one of the two aircraft carriers to use as a replacement for HMS Ocean, the former helicopter carrier.

HMS Ocean moored in London for the 2012 Olympic games

Under the original plans dating back to about 2015, it was intended to scrap HMS Ocean and that the Royal Marines would then form an integral part of the carrier strike group concept, and be based on the ship and use helicopters to move ashore as required. Refit work would be carried out to ensure the carriers were suitably adapted for the Royal Marines to embark – for instance through even little things like embarkation routes that heavily laden troops could move without their equipment getting snagged.

The problem is that without these changes being done, the Royal Navy has essentially scrapped its only dedicated amphibious helicopter carrier and not replaced it. This is not really an ideal outcome for the Royal Marines.

It is interesting to note then that the Royal Marines have chosen this moment to announce the so-called ‘Future Commando Force’ and how it will work. This is the culmination of several years of work to restructure the Royal Marines away from focusing on amphibious landings across a beach against heavy opposition, and instead act as small raiding parties, going where the enemy does not expect them to be.

The new model of operations for the Corps will see it create permanent operating detachments based in both the Middle East and in the Europe, particularly the Med, operating permanently to provide acclimatised troops to respond to a crisis in a hurry.

The intention is that these troops will be based on a ‘Bay Class’ landing ship, of which there are three currently in service. One is permanently based anyway in the Gulf on a rotating basis to support operations in the Middle East, while another has in recent years been working mostly in the West Indies to provide humanitarian support after natural disasters.

Royal Marines new uniform

These ships will host the Marines and be able to provide them as required to support military operations – either on their own or as part of the wider carrier strike group. There are challenges to the Bay class though – they are relatively slow and have limited aviation support facilities and practical command and control capabilities too.

Traditionally, the Royal Navy has relied on its pair of Albion class landing ships to carry out the command and control of complex amphibious operations – but the hint in the announcement of the Future Commando Force seems to be that these two ships do not have a future in Royal Navy service. Instead, it seems likely that both ships will be paid off and sold to another navy as part of the decisions that will be taken in the next Defence Review (due later in 2020).

The reason for this is that the Royal Marines want to move away from the notion of being used to only ‘run up a beach towards gunfire’ which has historically proven to be a very expensive and costly way of taking ground. The future concept of operations is far more likely to involve small parties of troops conducting raids ashore using landing craft and helicopters, than it is wholescale landing of Brigade sized forces.

While the likely scrapping of HMS Albion and Bulwark will be emotional to many, it also reflects a good insight into the big challenges facing Defence right now. To keep on funding capabilities that really matter, like Carrier Strike means taking tough decisions about what else can realistically be afforded.

The risk for the Royal Navy though is that it has to be coherent in what it scraps – the so-called ‘salami slicing’ whereby a little of everything is taken may be less emotionally painful, but also makes it harder to make real changes if you have to keep buying a little of everything, rather than just scrap an entire set of capabilities in one go.

HMS Albion in the background of Royal Marines on simulated beach landing at Salmistu, Estonia. Crown Copyright. SAC Ed Wright RAF

This is why in 2010 the difficult decision was taken to scrap both the Harrier and Nimrod forces in their entirety. The savings that could be made by reducing numbers overall were a small fraction of the savings that could be made by scrapping the entire force, its supporting infrastructure and also all the training and stores holdings – all of which would have needed to be maintained in some way if small numbers of aircraft had been kept in service.

This means that come the next Defence Review, the Royal Navy is going to have to work hard to make the case for carrier strike and in ensuring that it is fully funded. This will mean reprofiling money away from some projects and ensuring that funds exist for more F35 orders, to place orders for the new support ships and to ensure that the next generation of Type 26 frigates are ordered as planned.

The problem is that this is going to force major changes elsewhere which may not be welcome.

If the plan is to focus investment on carrier strike, then this means making significant cuts to future plans for the other two services and potentially changing the UK’s level of commitment in a range of other areas – for example, would it means scrapping planned upgrades to armoured vehicles like Warrior, and what would this mean for the UK’s commitment to NATO in Eastern Europe?

These questions matter because at the moment there is no sign of any additional funding being found for defence, and no clear agreement about what politicians and policy makers want the UK’s international role to be in the next five – 10 years. It is only by working this out that the MOD can work out what it is it can cut, and what it needs to find extra money for in order to meet the expectations of the Government.

HMS Bulwark during Operation WEALD in the Central Mediterranean. Crown Copyright. L(Phot) Jay Allen

For the Royal Navy, this means it faces a challenging few years. On paper it has acquired a pair of extremely capable aircraft carriers, which are likely to be the centrepiece of its operations for many years to come. But in doing so, it may have also failed to properly invest in all the other vital supporting capabilities needed to make this more than the sum of its parts.

Even if the two new aircraft carriers are very potent ships, the overall effect may not be as good as it could have been had money been fully invested, and it may take many years until these defects are properly resolved.

In the interim the UK will have sacrificed a great deal in other areas of defence to find the funds to deliver the two carriers which will, ironically, be far less employable or capable than desired due to the lack of money needed to properly fund their supporting units.

What this means for the UK and the ability of the British Armed Forces to operate abroad isn’t yet clear, nor is it certain what else will need to be scrapped to pay for the enhancements and equipment necessary to keep the carrier force credible for the long term future. The NAO is clear that despite much of the core ships, aircraft and equipment that make up part of the carrier group being scheduled to leave service in the next 10 or so years, no plans, funding or decisions have been taken about how to replace them – nor does it seem likely that any decisions will be taken soon either.

The big question that the MOD, and wider government, will soon need to grapple with answering is what does it do with an aircraft carrier force which appears to lack the necessary protection, support and capability needed to work effectively without significant extra money being spent on it,  what does it want to cut in order to afford this and what military tasks does the UK need to stop doing in order to keep affording being able to possess a credible aircraft carrier strike group in the first place?

This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.