by Charles Strathdee
On the same day the UK government unveiled plans for a new Strategic Defence Review, which will no doubt scrutinise the
validity of the Royal Navy’s future carrier programme, in the northern Arabian Sea the newly arrived USS Ronald Reagan launched
air strikes in support of US Marines fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The targets of the F-18 Hornets were several hundred miles from the ocean, but, as far as the big carrier US Navy is concerned, well within the littoral zone. Meanwhile, the US Marines, who
had the previous week launched their biggest helicopter-borne assault since the Vietnam War - using aircraft that are an essential element of their assault carrier-based Expeditionary Strike Groups - were making good progress as they advanced in Helmand.
Surely there was no better illustration of the essential wisdom behind the expeditionary warfare rationale that was the main
outcome of the UK’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR), than the lesson provided by USN carrier-based strike jets and
American marines last month. However, in the more than ten years since SDR, the British government has failed to equip its Navy
and its marines, or even Army, with the same scale of reach so amply wielded by the Americans as they took the lead in Helmand, a battle zone previously the primary responsibility of UK forces. The same day that Reagan’s jets were in action, steel for the first of
the Royal Navy’s two new super-carriers, Queen Elizabeth, was being cut. Provided the new SDR - due to be initiated in 2010
after a Green Paper sets out its parameters - confirms the future carriers, then the two 65,000 tonnes vessels should be able to
use their F-35 Lightning II strike jets to exert the same littoral reach as the USN today. British Secretary of State for Defence Bob
Ainsworth has explained that the new defence review is to ensure UK forces are “ready to face the challenges of the future.”
Shadow Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox felt it was all a little behind the curve. Dr Fox said: “This review should have been initiated
at least two years ago, as the Conservatives have been demanding. This announcement represents the last gasp of a dying government under a Prime Minister who has never given the Armed Forces the priority they deserve. We nevertheless welcome
it as long overdue, as long as the work will serve to inform the full Strategic Defence Review which a Conservative Government is committed to undertaking.” At least one of the Shadow Defence Secretary’s colleagues was clearly unconvinced of the need for
new aircraft carriers, despite Dr Fox recently confirming his party’s belief in them during a key speech in Parliament. Douglas
Carswell MP, writing on his internet blog, highlighted his belief, in a somewhat vague fashion that showed little knowledge of what carriers are all about or capable of. Pressing on regardless, Carswell suggested that alternative naval investments could achieve similar results to shiny new carriers: “Can’t we have ships that are missile platforms, without the need for that expensive Top Gun middle bit? Might smaller, faster, lightly-manned ships be less vulnerable and present less of a target to Silkworm missiles and
USS Cole-type attackers? No need to build an entire navy around them just to keep them safe? Just asking. Tell me why I’m wrong.” Many who posted feedback on his page patiently explained the virtues of carrier strike that are so beloved of navies around the
world busy investing in…er…carriers. It is strange that Carswell’s blog on the carriers has been removed from his site archive. Did
Dr Fox have a word with him? More substantial doubts over the future of the programme to build the British carriers, plus the
purchase of the JSFs that will fly from them, exploded the week before the defence review announcement. BBC News revealed it
had discovered a one billion pound overspend in the carrier programme already, just days before the first steel was cut, mainly
due to the Government delaying the programme by two years to save costs. This actually increased the costs of various elements, including expenditure on keeping workers on the payroll longer and maintaining investment in the construction facilities themselves. Inflation and changes to the design specifications also came into play. Defence analysts suggested that a billion pounds overspend
in a major public works programme, especially for ships that will defend the UK for more than five decades, is not a great deal, especially when compared to the many billions of taxpayers’ money ‘invested’ elsewhere, including saving banks that were on
the verge of collapse.
MEANWHILE, in the Arabian Sea, aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, which had just relieved her Nimitz Class sister ship USS
Dwight D. Eisenhower on station, confidence in the relevance of the carrier mission was high. Captain Kenneth Norton, the
Reagan’s Commanding Officer, enthused: “I’m excited to get this started, because in essence, what we’re doing is saving
American and coalition lives.” The Reagan Carrier Strike Group (CSG) boss, Rear Admiral Scott Hebner explained that the group’s 7,500 sailors were “eager” to carry out their mission. “They are focused and serious minded about what is ahead,” he explained.
“They know the Navy and our country is counting onthem. They are ready to demonstrate their impressive capabilities across the spectrum of our Maritime Strategy.” Such clarity about both the application and utility of sea power, and its relevance to battlefields
like Helmand, was notably absent in many quarters ofthe UK, where Army officers, pacifists and politicians were lining up this summer to say that new aircraft carriers were a waste of time. The UK’s government said it remained committed to the programme and, as our interview with him elsewhere in this magazine reveals, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, remains absolutely convinced they match his nation’s defence needs.