Humphrey has been suffering from a nasty virus recently which has left him out of action and unable to write. While firmly recovering now, he has had time to catch up on various bits of reading, both articles and on the internet. One issue which caught his interest was a subject which seems to perennially come up in various forums, particularly on ARRSE, which is the question about why the UK (or presumably certain other close allies) have not gone down the road of leasing an American aircraft carrier for introduction to the RN, either to fill the gap between CVF entering service, or alternatively in place of CVF. It is a question which has often been asked, but Humphrey has never seen anywhere set out in depth why it hasn’t happened and what has stopped it occurring in the past. As such, the aim of this article is to try and set out the arguments underpinning why leasing/buying a US carrier is simply not feasible. This in turn forms the loose first part of a two part article on warship exporting in more general terms.
For the purposes of this article, one is considering the practicality of whether such a move could occur -on cost grounds alone such a move seems unlikely, but one needs to suspend disbelief to consider this proposition anyway!
On paper it does seem to be an interesting proposition – the US has been constructing aircraft carriers on a near continuous basis for over 60 years, and has a wealth of knowledge about how they can be built, and the shipyard facilities to support this. The argument as usually put forward is that rather than build CVF, it would be just as efficient to either lease a ‘spare’ carrier (particularly in the post sequestration environment where they are spending more time alongside) or just pay for the US to build one.
The first challenge to this idea is a very simple problem. There is no military dockyard anywhere in the UK which can accommodate a US supercarrier alongside. Were the UK to acquire one, it would either have to create an entirely new facility at an existing commercial port (e.g. Southampton) or it would have to base the vessels in the US. The creation of a new facility would be a particular challenge, as any nuclear powered vessel would require discrete berthing with security procedures to take into account the presence of nuclear reactors. One only has to consider the security in place to support the SSN/SSBN fleet to realise what would be needed for the CVN. The creation of any extra facility at a point when the RN is trying to reduce its shore based footprint would cost a great deal.
So if we have nowhere to moor the vessel, we have yet to consider the problem of propulsion. The USN no longer has any active conventionally powered super carriers, the last decommissioning a few years ago. This means that any lease / build would need to be from a nuclear powered design. The UK has never operated any surface vessels with nuclear propulsion (standfast a few tentative designs in the 1960s) and would find it a challenge to bring such a capability into service – this is without even considering the likely challenge of finding a home port which would want to see a nuclear powered aircraft carrier based there. The most significant challenge of operating a nuclear carrier would be the lack of any suitably qualified personnel to run the reactors, and then over time the drain on manpower from the wider nuclear qualified fleet. Retaining suitably qualified and experienced nuclear watchkeeping personnel is a major challenge for the RN to keep its SSN and SSBN fleet at sea – indeed one reason why the RN is allowing women to sea in submarines is arguably to help increase the potential numbers of engineers who it can recruit. While Humphrey doesn’t have the exact numbers to hand, it would be a reasonable assumption that to man a single US CVN would require the greater part of the RNs current level of nuclear trained personnel, which would have a very challenging impact on the wider fleet.
Manpower more broadly is a major challenge – it is often forgotten that the future RN manpower plot isn’t actually that big. Of a headcount of some 30,000 people, by the time you’ve stripped out the Royal Marines, Fleet Air Arm and Submarine Service, you’re left with roughly 15000 people to do everything else. A single US carrier needs some 3200 personnel just to operate the ship – by the time you work on the 3:1 ratio (e.g. to keep one person at sea requires three people in the Service) then a single carrier would require well over 9000 people in the manning pool. This is before you even consider the size of the airwing. So, even if the RN acquired a carrier it would need to stop manning the majority of the surface fleet in order to put her to sea.
If we were to assume that the manpower could, somehow, be found, then we still have the major issue of training and spare parts. US and RN warships are very different beasts, with each reflecting national design preferences. There is relatively little commonality of systems, structures or methods of operation and in taking on a USN vessel the RN would have to spend a very significant amount of time training staff to use it to best effect. There would be a large bill attached to this (e.g. creation of courses, establishment of training pipelines, refresher training and the like) which would be required just to support a single ship. Similarly, the US has a very different set of parts and technical systems in service – any carrier acquisition would require the RN to adopt an entirely new and very separate supply chain at great expense. One challenge of buying from the US is that you would be entirely reliant of the largesse of the US system to allow the sale of spare parts – the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system is a classic example whereby the US sells a lot of basic equipment cheaply, but ties the buyer into long term supply contracts to provide its equipment, and its support to the customer. It is likely that the RN would find itself tied into very expensive US support contracts which would do wonders for the US economy but not support UK national preferences. Our ability to modify the carrier to suit our own purposes would also be reduced – in other words, buying the Carrier would probably mean buying into the US support system too. This is fine for a technologically less mature military which perhaps lacks the industrial and technological support base to run vessels, but it does mean that the RN would find itself hamstrung. By contrast CVF gives the UK total freedom of manoeuvre to change / modify or update the vessel and her systems in any manner that we see fit.
Finally one has to consider the issue of the airwing – the value of a supercarrier is being able to put up to 90 airframes to sea and position them where the US Government sees fit. The problem for the RN is that the funding does not exist to buy such an airwing, nor does the manpower exist to do so. Sending a single CVN airwing to sea would take up the majority of the Fleet Air Arms current manpower, to the detriment of most other tasks.
So, we find ourselves in a situation where to consider buying an supercarrier for the RN requires us to realise that there is nowhere to house it, not enough crew to man it, not enough aircraft to fly from it and the costs of training and supplying a single ship would be astronomical. This is to not even consider the wider damage to the UK shipbuilding capability that would result from a distortion of budget funds away from home grown construction in favour of supporting US industry.
This last point is perhaps key – we live in an era where many nations find themselves in possession of a military ship design and building capability, but where ever fewer nations seem able to secure export orders. One only has to look around the world to realise that the market for complex warships is diminishing, and where the loss of design skills probably means the end of a national capability to build complex vessels. Just look at the case of the MARS tankers, where even though they are being built in Korea, the key requirement was the protection of the UK design capability which was vital.
Increasingly warship construction is as much about economic security (e.g. protection of national assets like shipyards) as it is about physical security. The loss of an order may mean the end of a national capability to build warships. Buying from the US would mean the UK quite probably losing the ability to construct high end vessels, and as Canada is finding out now, the cost of re-establishing a shipbuilding industry is huge (see the excellent 3D’s blog by Mark Collins for more detail on the ongoing saga of Canadian shipbuilding). All those advocating the acquisition of US carriers for the Royal Navy should perhaps consider that it would not only be entirely unfeasible to support, train or operate one, but to do so may end our independent capability to build complex warships at all.
As a follow up, the author wants to consider whether there is a market for warship exporting at all in future, and what it may look like. Time willing, the loose part two to this article will follow in the next week or so.