I am not only an Armchair General, I’m also an Armchair Air Chief Marshall and Supreme Admiral of the Fleet.

In the latter capacity, I’d like to query just what consecutive British governments think they’re doing playing with our ships? In particular, our aircraft carriers.

When we really needed big carriers during the Cold War, we got rid of them and introduced three baby ones. HMS Invincible, Illustrious and Ark Royal. Through-deck cruisers they were initially called.

They had no steam-catapult to launch fast jets, but at the time we had short-range, British-invented Harrier jump jets. They were nimble and the combination more than proved its worth during the Falklands War.

Now that our immediate perceived enemies are terrorists with shoe bombs and exploding underpants the last Labour government decided to invest in two huge carriers, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.

You’d have thought they could launch the latest fast jets with a steam catapult like the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz and the other big American floating fortresses.

(Note to accountants: Nuclear carriers have a shelf life of 50 years with only one change of reactor halfway through. Now they may be an expensive investment, but that’s what you really call value-for-money!)

But no, our ones aren’t nuclear powered for some reason. Running on natural methane and solar panels apparently. So no catapults, so no conventional fast jets.

So enter the American take on the Harrier, the experimental F35, which is too heavy and has all sorts of teething problems.

If our first new carrier is launched in 2017 as planned, it will still not have any aircraft to fly from it until 2021 at the earliest.

Several bright ideas to overcome the problem have been suggested by Whitehall and our European allies – namely allowing the French to fly their aircraft from it. Now do our jack tars have to learn French or vice-versa? Or do all crew members learn to speak German to make it fair?

Did no one ever think of simply creating newer variants of the Invincible class and brilliant Harriers, other variants of which could also provide close battlefield support to the army.

(Note to accountants: These were also cheaper for emerging nations to afford. Ie. longer production runs and making profits.)

Now we find that our new HMS Queen Elizabeth will be without a vital crow’s nest. Crowsnest is a vital helicopter-based, airborne early warning system that apparently now won’t be ready until 2022 at the earliest.

It’s been tried by us before, on a Sea King at one time, and my understanding is that a helicopter is an inherently and vibrantly unsuitable platform for delicate radar instrumentation.

Unlike, that is, the tried and tested twin-engine Grumman E-2C Hawkeye high-wing turboprop that flies off US carriers with an all-seeing 24 ft radar dish. It’s been bought by several friendly nations and its very latest incarnation, the Advanced Hawkeye (AHE) awaits… But not, it seems, for the Royal Navy.

You may not know this if you’re a land-lubber, but big Aircraft Carriers bring with them their own big problems.

They’re huge and very expensive bits of capital kit. Their crews are huge, floating cities. You have to have at least three of them. Possibly needing more sailors than we have – unless you include admirals without a ship to sit on.

After the first few years’, one Carrier will always be unavailable, in dock for a major refit of engines or avionics. Another will be in for minor repairs or updates, probably available but not working 100 per cent.

A Carrier has very little self-protection, mostly wishful-thinking anti-missile missiles or rotary cannon. It therefore ideally needs at least four seriously dedicated anti-aircraft/missile frigates or destroyers deployed way out to its fore and aft, port and starboard.

Ditto anti-submarine frigates and/or hunter-killer submarines against the enemy’s underwater or surface threat.

Obviously the figures vary with each scenario. But you get the drift. That’s a substantial sized fleet just to protect your main asset.

That whole fleet also needs long distance protection from enemy aircraft and/or surface-to-surface missiles, especially modern surface-skimming varieties that can be difficult for radars to pick up.

Line-of-sight or nap of the earth eyeball vision or surface-to-surface radar is in the region of 25 miles at sea. Other radars can give farther range but with less clarity given different climate and sea conditions. Airborne early warning –essential to counter any modern missile or aircraft threat – increases that to around 250 miles plus.

So you can see that our wonderful Royal Navy, in which my father, godfather and uncle proudly served, has been lumbered with two huge Aircraft Carriers to fight a bunch of land-based terrorists as the immediate threat, when at least three are needed to be effective anyway. But also no aircraft, or the wrong aircraft, to fly from them, and no airborne early warning to offer them crucial protection.

You couldn’t make it up. Perhaps we should give up our delusions of grandeur and just ask the Swiss Navy for advice. Methinks they’d have a better idea.


  1. I visited the Natioal Memorial Arboretum recently and was astounded to see that the Fleet Air Arm Memorial which is an aircraft carrier in marble had not a single aircraft on it . Perhaps the committee who commissioned it had second sight to realise that in the future our 2 new lovely carriers would not have aircraft in their armoury??

  2. As countries throughout the World continue to see the benefit of Naval Aviation through carrier borne aircraft(U.S., Russia, France. Spain, Italy, Australia and now China) The UK has gone backwards with the vociferous RAF getting the upper hand in inner circles of government .Having succeeded in “advising” the government to ditch cats and traps for new QE aircraft carriers so the range of aircraft they carry will be diminished the RAF recently proposed the RN’s new 65000 tons carriers should only embark 6 aircraft, WHAT! whoever made that proposal is either stupid or, more likely, deliberately trying to sabotage the carrier project. I suspect the latter.The MOD later had to state that 12 aircraft would be carried but even that number belies belief for a carrier her size , she was designed to carry at least 36 aircraft. The plot thickens when we learn the RAF sees the F35B as a replacement for the Tornado and not the Harrier. The RAF want to own 60% of the F35B and base the whole fleet at an RAF station not Yeovilton or Culdrose . Someone needs to tell the RAF if indeed the Tornado needs replacing for the RAF’s dubious strike role they should order the F35A land based aircraft and let the Navy get on with defending the Realm as they have for the last 500 years or so.

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