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Brit carrier deals inked at last

We should be happy - but we aren't

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Comment The UK media this morning is alive with "giant carrier" headlines, as the long-awaited contracts for the Royal Navy's new carriers are signed at last. In fact, as some news sources reported at the time, the deals were effectively confirmed six weeks ago, but today is the public announcement.

The general take from most of the beat hacks runs something like this:

"How ridiculous. Look at the silly MoD and the silly Navy, spending billions on massive great aircraft carriers while soldiers are struggling for lack of cheap helicopters, transports etc in Afghanistan. Why, these carriers are no more than another Eurofighter. They have only been approved so that Gordon Brown can shore up Scottish Labour by handing out pork to shipyards. Yet another case of buying Cold War white elephants, only useful for fighting major enemy nations, when we should be backing our boys and girls in everyday counter-insurgency work."

There's a grain or two of truth there. However, in this case your correspondent ventures to disagree. A lot of the stuff the Navy asks for is very questionable indeed; the new Type 45 destroyers, for instance, have been slashed in numbers and rightly so - they are unbelievably expensive and useful for only one very unlikely task which they will still struggle to do properly. The Service's wasteful, mostly pointless flotilla of Type 23 frigates - though it has also taken some cuts - is still far too big and typically employed on ridiculous makework tasking*. The Royal Navy does indeed squander cash on equipment intended mainly to big itself up and preserve its existing personnel structures.

Aircraft carriers are different, though. Unlike most types of warship, they are actually very useful across the spectrum of military operations. An aircraft carrier - and more particularly its aircraft - can be excellent for routine jobs like disaster relief, evacuation of civilians from warzones, delivery and support of peacekeeping and intervention forces.

The arrival of a frigate or destroyer off a coast - contrary to what the mainstream navy will tell you - impresses nobody. One small helicopter and a minimal landing or boarding party don't cut much ice, as was quite plain in Sierra Leone and off the Shatt al-Arab more recently.

But a carrier, accompanied by a few cheap auxiliaries - not billion-pound destroyers - can put up a radar umbrella sweeping hundreds of miles from on high. Anything hostile that moves, by land, sea or air - from attacking jets down to speedboats and armed pickup trucks - can be pounced on by the carrier's patrolling strike fighters. Cheap auxiliary vessels can safely deploy helicopters by the score and troops by the thousand, all of them happy in the knowledge that the big stick is there in the sky above them ready to smack down at a word if there's any bother. This sort of force is also excellent for enforcing sanctions regimes, delivering aid, maintaining ceasefires and suchlike.

Contrast this with the alternative - the intervention forces must fly in to a runway ashore, which may not be there, be in a decent state or be at home to visitors. The surrounding seas, skies and probably even the airbase perimeter can't be secured meaningfully until some time after the airbase has been occupied. (The Royal Air Force were so reluctant to fly their transports into Afghanistan during 2002 that chartered Russian planes had to be used instead.)

Serious amounts of kit and people are hard and expensive to deliver by air lift even for America. If you try using auxiliary shipping without air cover in this context, you'll have to rely on frigates and destroyers for protection - which might work, as in Sierra Leone, or it might not.

Lacking airborne radar, a seaborne force will be cut up very badly if there's anyone around with even a basic idea what they're doing - as the Argentines showed a quarter-century ago. Lacking any serious aviation at all, as will be the case without carriers, a maritime force can be seriously humiliated at the very least by almost anyone with a motorboat - as the Revolutionary Guards showed last year. It might very well suffer worse.

Looking at recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan, proper carriers with proper aircraft would have been hugely useful in the entry stages of both operations, and would still be more than handy as mobile offshore air bases even now.

Carriers, then, aren't just for the Cold War. They're for every day - just like infantrymen, helicopters and air support (indeed, they often are air support). They're a vastly better way of controlling the oceans, the land ashore and the skies above both than surface warships. Very often they're better for these purposes than land-based planes which require a huge, vulnerable perimeter ashore with equally vulnerable land supply lines.

But carriers are also good for big wars, too. Suppose it's really not your day, and the bad guys have some working submarines at sea. An honest anti-submarine commander, offered constant airborne radar and a squadron or two of subhunting helicopters, will always prefer this option to a fistful of frigates. The radar alone will keep the subs submerged whenever they get within a few hundred miles, and in the case of non-nuclear subs this slows them to a crawl - more or less pinning them, while the much faster moving surface fleet moves off out of range.

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