Special Report from WARSHIPS IFR July 2011 edition
The adrenalin fuelled thrill of an arrested landing on the US Navy’s newest carrier, and a catapult launch later – with a bit of a pause in between those two heart-pumping episodes – made a great day out for Dr Dave Sloggett.
Having been immersed in the multi-sensory roller-coaster ride of a super-carrier going at full throttle during flying operations, there was plenty for him to mull over when it came to producing this article, which looks at the awesome capabilities offered to military planners by strike carriers. It is a timely analysis, in an era when strike carriers reign supreme over the world’s oceans, with one notable exception, the nation that invented the concept in the first place: The United Kingdom.
THE headline in one of Portsmouth’s local newspapers proclaimed: ‘The Yanks are Coming’. This was to herald the imminent arrival of the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77) – the latest American aircraft carrier and the last in the Theodore Roosevelt (Improved Nimitz) Class of vessels. Too big to fit in Portsmouth harbour – where the future HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales (65,0000 tonnes) will be based – the Bush (nearly 100,000 tons) was anchored at Stokes Bay, just down the coast. Last month’s time in UK waters was the carrier’s first overseas port visit at the start of what is expected to be a 50 year career. It came at the end of a work-up period in the North Atlantic alongside two other American warships, a UK Daring Class (Type 45) destroyer – HMS Dauntless – and the Spanish frigate SPS Almirante Juan De Borbon in an exercise called Saxon Warrior. I was fortunate enough to be one of the select few invited by the Americans to fly out to the George H.W. Bush, and this was achieved via a Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) turboprop aircraft from Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset. After the amazing experience of landing – a supremely thrilling ride and somewhat scary process all mixed up together – we were allowed out onto the vast flight-deck to witness flying operations, and also given a tour of key areas in the gigantic vessel. The organisation and movement of aircraft was described by senior members of the carrier’s crew as a ballet and they were not wrong. The complex movement of aircraft to and from the catapults and into the hangars below was coordinated on a ‘weegie board’ managed by the ‘Handler’; who in the case of the USS George H. W. Bush has 27 years of experience in conducting the movement of aircraft. To witness how it works is to be present at a master-class in logistics, adaptive thinking and planning. It is not difficult to imagine how programmes might have tried to capture all of the variables in a computer system and failed. The sheer number of things that have to be considered would rapidly make any requirement specification for a piece of software to replace the ‘Handler’ and his staff unmanageable. Below deck the Control Room is darkened and vibrates to the sound of aircraft being launched from the catapults or being recovered. The switch from launching jets into the skies to recovery back aboard requires a smooth transition that is indicative of a highly professional team at work. To visit such a vessel leaves many images burned into the brain. Among these is the sheer complexity of operating aircraft carriers of this size. While the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers will have less embarked aircraft, scheduled to be just a dozen F-35C Lightning II strike jets during peacetime deployments (with an ability to surge up to 36 in a time of tension), the problems of managing and operating such a vessel are not solved once the ship is in the water. It is therefore doubly important that those serving Royal Navy officers currently aboard the USS George H. W. Bush to learn the tricks of the big carrier trade use their time wisely, and learn as much as they can. By allowing the Royal Navy to embark personnel in the carrier to gain priceless insights, the United States Navy is providing significant help to the British fleet in order to overcome a huge gap in carrier strike capabilities until 2016, when the Queen Elizabeth is due to be commissioned; albeit on current plans with no embarked air wing. US Navy officers must surely remark to each other in private that building a new super-carrier without the intention of using its full potential as a strike platform is nuts, but that’s the Limeys for you, huh?
THE arrival of the USS George H. W. Bush off Portsmouth at around 7.00am on May 27 this year was really low key. The carrier crept out of the morning mist easing her way past the triangle of sea forts that ring the outer part of the Solent, recalling past concerns of invasion and the immediacy of the threats during bygone wars. It was, in a sense, ironic given recent decisions arising from the UK’s Strategic Defence Review (SDSR), that as the American carrier steamed through the remnants of the defences that had once protected the English coastline from a variety of threats, on the same day 70 years previously – almost to the hour – as a direct result of the successful attack launched from a British aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, the battleship Bismarck suffered the full striking power of the Home Fleet, residing primarily in the battleships Rodney and King George V. The events of May 27 1941, like those that occurred later in WW2 at Midway in the Pacific, remain iconic, both actions helping to turn the tide of war in favour of the allies. Unfortunately for today’s political elite the talk of such moments is dismissed as living in the past rather than as a lesson in the necessity to make long-term investment in capital ships. You never know when you will need them. The USS George H. W. Bush is one of the 11 aircraft carriers that are available to the US President in a time of need. Even if named after a man (former US Navy aviator and President George H.W. Bush) a ship is still ‘she’. This she is capable of performing all of the six core requirements of the United States Maritime Strategy, underscoring her utility as a flexible, reliable and persistent national resource. The missions cover: Forward presence; deterrence; sea control; power projection; maritime security; humanitarian assistance and disaster response. In a battle group configuration, accompanied by cruisers and destroyers that contribute their own vital piece of the defensive screen that has to operate around major units to defeat sub-surface, surface, air and space-based threats, such a warship can be deployed off the coast of many trouble spots.
US Navy carriers have in recent years calmed troubled waters just by their mere presence, as a hard power threat to underscore soft power diplomacy. Whether it is off North Korea, in the Straits of Taiwan, the South China Sea, Arctic Ocean, Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean or Mediterranean Sea, each theatre provides its own unique mission challenges for the projection of both hard and soft power.
Almost every statistic associated with the Bush is impressive. She is 1,092 feet (332.8 metres) long and has a beam of 252 feet (76.8 metres). Her propulsion is provided by two nuclear reactors and four steam turbines that generate 194MW of power. The USS George H. W. Bush is a complex war machine based upon a full complement of 5,600 people, of which 2,200 comprise the embarked Air Wing. The latter is made up of nearly 70 aircraft, ranging from the E2-C Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft to the FA-18 (F/C) and EA-18G ground attack and electronic warfare aircraft. The MH-60S and the MH-60R helicopters aboard are capable of switching roles from Search and Rescue (SAR) duties to surface and sub-surface missions with a variety of payloads. At 97,000 tons full load, the vessel is some 32,000 tons heavier than the Queen Elizabeth Class ships. With the Bush last in her line, American naval power projection will gradually be taken up by the Gerald R. Ford Class of carriers with the introduction into service of CVN 78 around 2015. To date three vessels in the new class are envisaged, with the remaining two entering service in 2019 and 2023. For the United States Navy, power projection from carriers is a cornerstone of an enduring view of the world.
Today the United Kingdom struggles to come to terms with threats that often seem distant and far away over the horizon. The sense of an immediate danger of invasion no longer preoccupies the political elite. Their approach to the problems of the world is skewed thanks to a determination not to deploy hard power, but rather soft power, though events in North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East tend to suggest this bias towards the latter without the former to back it up (in the shape of an extant strike carrier) is a huge error.
There are some politicians in the higher ranks of the current UK government who even suggest a navy is not necessary at all. More overseas aid and less naval forces and the world will surely be a better place? In an odd coincidence of timing, as the USS George H. W. Bush was dropping anchor in Stokes Bay, Prime Minister David Cameron was at the G8 Conference in France, proclaiming that he watched Live Aid on television in 1985 and was profoundly affected by its display of raw collective emotion and desire to do the right thing and help people in poorer countries. Unrepentant in the face of those who criticise the UK’s determination to enthusiastically dole out each year in overseas aid the equivalent to the cost of the new RN carriers, Mr Cameron was attempting to seize and hold the moral high ground. This was based on the United Kingdom’s achievement of being the only country to have lived up to its promises to ring fence and maintain its overseas development aid budget. There are of course many ways to skin the proverbial cat. Simply throwing money into the often-dubious banking systems that exist in poorer countries is one that is unlikely to win any global leader a lot of respect in some quarters. China, Russia and the USA seem to have a lot of influence around the world without necessarily standing on the summit of moral high ground Mr Cameron occupies.
Past performance suggests that most of the cash the UK is splashing around will not reach those most in need of help. There are voices in the target countries that argue by handing out overseas aid the UK is discouraging taxpayers who reside in them from doing their bit to provide their own version of ‘the Big Society’. Anyway, why would Britain want to indirectly fund arms programmes in Indian and Pakistan by enabling them to devote their money to defence spending rather than feeding the poor? Samuel Johnson’s prescient words of ‘the triumph of hope over experience’ come to mind when thinking about the current UK government’s approach to international relations. The bank accounts of many dictators have been swelled by such naive generosity.
Plato understood the basic warlike nature of human beings; something Mr Cameron’s contemporaries who have also sprung from elite British universities would do well to remember. One of Plato’s most important quotations notes that ‘only the dead have seen the end of war.’ His other relevant observation was that ‘the price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.’ It still rings true today. It epitomises the challenges faced by many trying to overthrow dictators in the Middle East and by military forces currently operating off, and over, Gaddafi’s Libya. Clausewitz reminded those prepared to entertain his thinking that ‘politics is the womb in which war develops’. His sentiment is well understood by those that care to read history. For those unwilling to venture into the past it is simply too depressing, but the Live Aid era is well and truly over and could be said to have ended in 2001.
A decade on we are moving ever deeper into an era of hard power – just look at how Syria’s regime was able to achieve what Gaddafi’s could not, by using overwhelming force against its disobedient population, knowing it had the support of Iran, and, most importantly, Russia, a UN Security Council member and nuclear power. Both of those allies of Damascus are pressing ahead with major naval facilities on the coast of Syria.
For those privileged to have visited the USS George H. W. Bush, the lasting memory is of a warship getting ready for anything the dynamic world in which we live today may throw up. Aboard ship there is a sense of a steely-eyed determination to be ready to go into harm’s way should that be required. The ship’s motto of ‘Freedom at work’ provides an insight into the guiding philosophy of enforcing American-style freedom wherever and whenever necessary. It is to be hoped that when the Royal Navy takes delivery of its two new ships that it too can be ready to swiftly go into harm’s way, should that be necessary. For those that lamented the end of UK carrier-based fixed-wing aviation with the retirement of the Harriers and HMS Ark Royal, and were swift to point out the insane economics of flying Tornado aircraft from airbases in England to attack targets in Libya, the USS George H. W. Bush is an excellent example of enduring soft and hard power projection capabilities all wrapped up in one ship. For when Indonesia desperately needed help in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, when Haiti was crying out for instant aid in 2010 and Japan lay prostrate after this year’s tsunami, there was one kind of ship that was there, with the ability to fly ashore fresh water, temporary shelters and people with the expertise to help devastated areas get back on their feet: The strike carrier. The US Navy’s carriers worked in the cause of mercy, demonstrating that billions invested in those ships was worth as much, if not more, than dollars that might have been given away. The aid swiftly went direct to the people that needed it with no middlemen and no bureaucracy to delay or direct it. Surely Mr Cameron, that is all in line with your Live Aid philosophy and demonstrates that in building and operating BOTH new carriers the Royal Navy can do its bit to save lives and rebuild devastated parts of the world, as well as being ready to strike freedom’s enemies?