It did get aircraft carriers, eventually, but these were tiny, 20,000-tonne carriers that were not even called "carriers" when they were proposed but "through-deck cruisers." Two of these three ships--the Invincible and Ark Royal--have been paid off and are gone. The third carrier, the Illustrious, is reduced to carrying only helicopters as the Harrier jets it was designed for are gone. In fact, the mighty Soviet fleet it was designed to counter is gone.
The RN is reinventing itself as an Expeditionary Navy. That is, it is intended to carry itself to some far-off place, probably as a self-sufficient component in an allied fleet, but by itself if necessary, and attack from the sea. It may have to expel an invader, as it did in the Falklands or Kuwait, launch a land assault from the sea, as it did in Iraq, or control the air space over a troubled country, as the RAF did in Libya. To do all this, it would once again have to operate East of Aden.
While it lays plans for its reinvention, the RN is contracting in size. The last four Type 22 frigates were withdrawn without replacement in 2011. The last of the Hawker Harrier fighters were axed in 2010. HMS Illustrious will retire in 2014, without immediate replacement. HMS Ocean, the other helicopter carrier, will be withdrawn in 2018. The number of new Type 45 anti-aircraft destroyers (Daring Class) that will be built was reduced from twelve to six in 2008. The recent history of the RN shows a steady decline in the number of hulls, shown in this graph from 2011 from a site called Save the Royal Navy.
Arguably, the fleet is contracting now to save money to build new ships. The question, then, is what will the fleet look like in, say, 2020, when the new building is done?
The biggest change will be that aircraft carriers are back on the menu. Instead of the 20,000-tonne former carrier and a 21,000-tonne helicopter carrier it has now, the RN will have two proper, functioning 65,000-tonne aircraft carriers, the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales. If they were afloat now, only the new Chinese carrier Liaoning would match them in size and only the American carriers, 100,000-tonne behemoths, would exceed them. However, they are not afloat today: the Queen Elizabeth will not be ready until 2016 and the Prince of Wales, 2018.
This rendering, from the Grand Logistics blog, shows the unique "two island" design of the British carriers. The forward island is the ship's bridge. The aft one is the control tower for the planes.
The British aircraft carriers will differ in function, as well as size, from the American ones. They are intended for expeditions to a trouble spot, rather than a permanent patrol of the world's oceans. As a result, they will use cheaper diesel-electric propulsion rather than nuclear power. They will carry a mixture of aircraft, both fighters and helicopters, suited for the expeditionary task, rather than the permanent air wing of seventy to ninety fighter planes permanently assigned to each American carrier. (For perspective, each of the American carriers operates more fighters than the entire RCAF). At most, each of the British ships can operate thirty-six fighters--giving them about half of the punch of an American carrier.
In fact, the flexibility in function of the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers puts them closer in concept to an American amphibious assault ship, like the U.S.S. America, than to an American carrier. They would operate the same fighters as the America: the short-take-off and vertical-landing version of the F35 fighter (the F35-B). Like the America, they could find themselves supporting amphibious attacks with transport helicopters and helicopter gunships. Like the America, they may even end up carrying some marines for the attack. The British ships, though, are quite a bit larger than the America Class, which weighs in at 45,700 tonnes. They are, therefore, able to take on a larger number of roles.
An aircraft carrier going off alone is too vulnerable to contemplate. It is always escorted by a "Carrier Strike Group." In the U.S. Navy, this typically has
an aircraft carrier, at least one cruiser, a destroyer squadron of at least two destroyers and/or frigates, and a carrier air wing.... A carrier strike group also, on occasion, includes submarines, attached logistics ships and a supply ship.Its British equivalent may be a carrier, a couple of Type 45 destroyers for air defence, a couple of Type 23 or Type 26 frigates for submarine defence, and perhaps an Astute class submarine or two. Replenishment at sea would be from one of the four Tide class replenishment oilers. These large vessels (37,000 tons) should be available from 2016.
The amphibious abilities of the Royal Navy must depend on three Bay class landing ship docks (which were accepted into service in 2006 and 2007, so are still fairly new vessels). Each displaces over 16,000 tonnes. These can carry up to 700 soldiers and landing craft as well as land vehicles or supplies. In addition, the Albion and her sister Bulwark, 18,500 tonnes each, are "Landing Platform Docks." The Albion is currently held in "extended readiness" to save some money. The two will switch roles in 2016, the Albion coming into service as the Bulwark goes into storage. Finally, there are six 23,000-tonne Point Class roll-on/roll-off cargo ships that transport military cargoes and vehicles when required but are chartered as merchantmen the rest of the time.
The Royal Navy's renewal follows the strategy of fewer but larger and more capable ships in almost every category. Two new 65,000-tonne carriers will take the place of the three 20,000-tonne carriers of the Invincible class; six 8,000-tonne Type 45 destroyers will replace the sixteen 3,600-tonne Type 42's that were built; the three 16,000-tonne Bay class landing ships have replaced the five 3,300-tonne ships of the Round Table class. Only the hunter-killer submarines were replaced one-for-one, though the Astute class submarines, at 7,000 tonnes each, are much larger than the 4,400 and 4,800 tonne boats they replace. Finally, the four Vanguard class ballistic missile submarines that constitute Britain's nuclear deterrent will be replaced by either four or three new boats. The number will be determined in 2016.
This strategy makes sense to some extent. A larger ship can be a more powerful one in the short term. In the long term, it can be more easily upgraded. However, a larger, more expensive ship is too expensive to be risked close to a hostile coast, is a wasteful expense for anti-piracy and coast guard work, and is likely to have no replacement in the wings if it is damaged or lost. Numbers of smaller ships need to supplement these big ones. That is why the decision to create a new class of ships for mine sweeping, hydrography and patrol is an important one. A line in the Wikipedia article on "The Future of the Royal Navy" states,
It was speculated in December 2010 (post SDSR) that 'Current plans seem to point to a single class of vessel about 100m in length and between 2,000 and 2,500 tonnes displacement. These will deliver on the MCM, survey and patrol requirements using a range of off board systems like USV’s, UAV’s and UUV’s.'If these ships are inexpensive in fact as well as in intention, then they may be purchased in relatively large numbers. The Chief of Defence Staff reiterated the plan for a number of smaller ships in this talk.
Still, a few important decisions, besides the number of smaller ships, must be taken before 2020. First, my uninformed guess is that the Illustrious (currently due to operate until 2014) will be somehow kept going for another two years so her crew can be transferred to the Queen Elizabeth. When the Prince of Wales comes into service, the crew might move to that ship while the QE is placed into "extended readiness" (long-term storage). Having them alternate in periods of active service and extended readiness would extend the ships' already-long service lives (from fifty years to a century!) but makes it unlikely that we would see both ships being used at the same time. The extra crew to run both might not be available at short notice.
Alternatively, the Prince of Wales might get the crew of the HMS Ocean in 2020, when the Ocean retires. In that case, the Prince of Wales will probably be used as a helicopter carrier, like the Ocean, rather than an aircraft carrier. It is not an ideal vessel for the Ocean's speciality of supporting amphibious attacks: too big, too expensive, and with no dock for landing craft, so that the lifting capacity of a Chinook helicopter would be the limit on what it could get onto a beach. The Albion and Bulwark would have to pitch in to get the really heavy equipment to shore.
Ideally, a new ship would be built as a direct replacement for HMS Ocean. If that happened, the fleet will be able to keep one strike carrier and one amphibious warfare carrier (LPH, LHA or LHD) at sea at all times while the third ship, whichever that happens to be, undergoes maintenance. Whether to build the third ship is a decision for later.
Finally, there is the RFA Argus, a 100-bed floating hospital. She entered service in 1988 and was refurbished in 2007, so may last a little longer than our 2020 vision can forsee. At some point, her replacement must be planned for.
A strong Royal Navy is an important part of Britain's identity, more so than its army and air force. Although it is at a historic low point in the number of ships and capabilities, there is a determination to rebuild it. However, some decisions have been deferred that must be grappled with before 2020.