Ever since its conception, the UK’s sea-based deterrent Trident has prompted a measure of controversy. This includes, among others, the wider question of nuclear armament, the system’s opportunity cost (in this context, the weapons or other security and defence assets the UK stops buying or producing in order to pay for Trident) the indirect impact on the conventional defence budget, and the British “minimal” nuclear posture and doctrine. Trident has also been part of debates such as the UK’s place in the world, her relationship with the EU, and the “special relationship” with the US, while featuring strongly in the 2014 Scottish referendum. While the Conservative victory in the last election featured a “manifesto that included a commitment to build four new ballistic missile submarines … replacing the Vanguard submarines that come out of service from the early 2030s,” as stressed by British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, the debate is still likely to continue, boosted by both political and technological factors. The purpose of this four-part series is to outline the most important terms of the debate, in a language accessible to non-specialists, providing a short yet comprehensive look at the matter. An effort has been made to sum up the different views on this issue, and to present alternatives.
In the first installment in the series, we review some key concepts in nuclear strategy theory and look at the basic characteristics of the Trident system, which provides sea-based, national, and minimum deterrence. We then examine the costs involved, what is meant by “extending Trident,” and discuss the continued relevance of nuclear deterrence. This first part concludes with a look at the gap between the UK’s nuclear and conventional postures.
The basis of nuclear deterrence is the belief that a country equipped with nuclear weapons will not be attacked by another nuclear power because this would result in an exchange and the resulting destruction of both countries. As a result, a “balance of terror” is achieved, whereby nobody uses this kind of weapon, which nevertheless, in spite of being “unusable,” plays a key role in the national security of nuclear powers. The concept of nuclear “mutual deterrence” quickly gained currency as soon as the US nuclear monopoly was breached in 1949, with the Soviet Union’s maiden nuclear test, and became one of the defining characteristics of the Cold War. It is also known as MAD (“mutually assured destruction.”)
It is important to stress two aspects of mutual deterrence:
1. A key condition is the invulnerability of both nuclear deterrents. If there is no way country A can destroy the nuclear weapons of country B, and vice versa, then none will have an incentive to use them, since it would inevitably result in the attacker’s destruction. This would happen, no matter who attacked first, the end result being the same. Attacking first only means dying a bit later. Thus, this acts as a stabilizer at times of crisis, since there is no incentive to strike first in order not to lose one’s nuclear deterrent, there is thus no “use them or lose them” factor. This explains why, during the Cold War, the two superpowers agreed to limit work on anti-missile defences, signing the 1972 ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty. While it may seem counterintuitive, by agreeing to have their cities remain vulnerable to a nuclear strike, they considered to be favouring stability. A working missile shield may have tempted its owner into believing that a nuclear war was “winnable,” one of the reasons for continued Russian hostility in this area. This need to guarantee the invulnerability of one’s nuclear forces also explains the drive to develop sea-based deterrents in the form of submarines equipped with nuclear missiles. Since it is very difficult to detect a submarine, it is expected to survive an attack, thus removing any incentive for the enemy to strike first in the hope of destroying one’s nuclear missiles. Again, like in the case of the ballistic missile defence ban, this was considered to contribute to stability, reducing the risk of nuclear war.
2. The possession of nuclear weapons by two powers, under the above circumstances (vulnerability of their population and invulnerability of the weapons themselves) meant, according to the theory, that nuclear war would not take place. Proponents of nuclear deterrence cite the Cold War as evidence for this. However, neither the theory nor actual historical evidence excluded the possibility of conventional or asymmetrical war (in this series, we will understand “asymmetric warfare” in a broad sense of the term, including terrorism, insurgency, non-lethal use of force, and the currently very much en vogue “mixed war” or “hybrid warfare”). Indeed, the Cold War did not feature any nuclear exchange, but many conventional conflicts took place, involving proxies and sometimes one of the superpowers as well, in addition to myriad instances of terrorism and insurgency. Concerning the relationship between nuclear and conventional weapons, some countries have issued a guarantee that the former would not be used against a non-nuclear enemy, but not all have, and even where a formal guarantee exists, some observers doubt a nuclear-weapons state would renounce using them if its very existence or essential national interest was at stake.
Right from the beginning it was clear that nuclear weapons would have a major impact on warfighting, and the British nuclear program and the later US Manhattan Project were fueled by fears that Nazi Germany may be more advanced in this field. Nuclear weapons were controversial even before they were first used, with some of the nuclear scientists involved making a last-minute attempt to employ a device for a “demonstration” in the hope Imperial Japan would surrender without the need for the mass destruction of civilian lives. Later years saw campaigns against nuclear weapons, often wider and including a blanket opposition to civil nuclear power, while some countries made desperate efforts to secure their own deterrent, and others signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear weapons states in exchange for some sort of guarantee by an accepted nuclear power that the latter would use, if necessary, its own nuclear weapons to defend them. This practice, known as “extended deterrence,” should not be forgotten, since it is doubtful that without it so many countries would have accepted the NPT. This division of countries into two leagues, only one of which was allowed to own nuclear weapons according to international law, was bitterly denounced by India, which branded it as “Nuclear Apartheid.” Other established nuclear powers kept insisting that “non-proliferation,” the policy of restricting the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries, was conducive to stability. One may note a certain contradiction between the concepts of deterrence and non-proliferation, whose relationship is complex. In recent years New Delhi has signed a number of agreements with the US and other countries, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, so that we can now say India is a “de facto” recognized nuclear weapons state outside the NPT.
Trident: The Basics
In a few words, Trident is a sea-based national minimum nuclear deterrent.
Sea-based because it consists of four Vanguard-class submarines equipped with nuclear missiles. As explained above, submarines are considered to be very difficult to detect and destroy, making them the ideal platform for deterrence, since an aggressor managing to destroy UK population centers could expect swift retaliation in kind. To achieve this, it is necessary to always have at least one submarine on patrol (known as CASD, “Continuous At Sea Deterrence”), with four widely considered to be the minimum number of boats needed to achieve this. Otherwise, an aggressor aware of a window of vulnerability, with no submarines on patrol, may choose to strike at that particular time. This minimum number means that it is not really possible to cut the cost of the program by reducing the number of units deployed, since below this minimum the key objective of one submarine in patrol at all times would no longer be achievable. It should also be stressed that there is no absolute guarantee that a submarine is invulnerable, since technological developments may enable an enemy to track and destroy or otherwise neutralize them. In part three of our series we will discuss cyberwarfare and submarine drones, whose potential impact on Trident has been discussed over the last few months. It is also necessary to take into account that, while four is widely considered to suffice for the purposes of nuclear deterrence, this number comes from statistical studies and past experience, but does not amount to any iron-clad guarantee in the face of possible trouble from, among others, damage, malfunction, or cyber attacks.
National, since it is owned and operated by Her Majesty’s Government, being under national command. It must be noted though, as discussed later, that the technology employed is not exclusively British, being dependent to a considerable extent on the United States. The missiles are American, the submarines and warheads British. Second, British nuclear doctrine does not exclude the possibility of employing Trident to protect NATO Allies. The UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review states that “The UK has long been clear that we would only consider using our nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of our NATO Allies, and we remain deliberately ambiguous about precisely when, how and at what scale we would contemplate their use.”
Minimum, for a number of reasons. First, because it only features submarines, one of the legs of a possible “Nuclear Triad,” the others being land-based missiles and aircraft-dropped bombs. Second, because the number of submarines is the smallest compatible with a continued patrol capability. Third, because these submarines only carry a fraction of the missiles and warheads they are capable of delivering (8 and 40 respectively, instead of 16 and 192 originally envisaged). Fourth, because British nuclear doctrine, while not going as far as ruling out, for example, a first nuclear strike, or an attack against a non-nuclear country, seeks to considerably restrict the scenarios in which atomic weapons may be employed. This is clear for example in the section on “Five Enduring Principles” in the 2006 white paper titled “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent.” The 2006 white paper states that “the UK will retain only the minimum amount of destructive power required to achieve our deterrence objectives.”
Trident can thus be seen as a compromise solution between, on the one hand, the perceived need for a nuclear deterrent, and on the other the wish to minimize its scope. This does not mean that it results from a simplistic calculation, since many other factors may have influenced the choice including inter-service considerations and relations with the US, just to mention two, and to be discussed later.
How Much Does Trident Cost?
Given that a key aspect of the debate is financial, it is necessary to bear in mind how much money we are talking about, both concerning the existing Trident system, and the possible replacement of its submarines. In 2012 the Secretary of State for Defence replied to two parliamentary questions covering these issues, saying that “As stated in the White Paper, The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent (Cm 6994) published in December 2006, we expect that once the new successor nuclear deterrent submarine comes into service, the in-service costs of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, which will include Atomic Weapons Establishment’s costs, will be similar to today (around 5% to 6% of the defence budget)” and, concerning the estimate for “the cost of design and build for a replacement continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent system” that “current forecast costs, including planned Submarine Enterprise Performance Programme efficiency measures, indicate that we remain within the 2006 White Paper estimates of £11 billion to £14 billion (at 2006-07 prices) for the Successor platform costs (assuming a four boat fleet).”
With regard to the cost of the new submarines, the then coalition government officially confirmed in 2011 the 2006 estimate by the previous Labour administration. In present-day pounds, it would be “£20 billion to £25 billion at out-turn” according to then Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox, who added “Between now and main gate [in 2016] we expect to spend about 15% of the total value of the programme. That is entirely consistent with defence procurement guidance. The cost of long lead items is expected to amount to about £500 million.” As is generally the case with defence procurement, it may be difficult to provide accurate cost estimates given possible overruns, unexpected contingencies, and evolving technological and doctrinal changes. The long life span makes any calculation even more difficult, with London-based think-tank RUSI noting that “estimating total costs for a programme which will last beyond 2050 is a highly speculative exercise.” What seems clear is that the sums involved are substantive, yet within the means of the UK. Thus, although cost may be used by detractors of the program or of nuclear deterrence in general, what matters the most from a defence policy perspective is first whether a more economic alternative may be found to provide the UK with an equivalent nuclear deterrent, and second the opportunity cost of Trident for conventional defence. Both will be covered later in our four-part series.
We should also note that in assessing the cost of alternatives to Trident, the schedule to replace the existing submarines must be taken into account. This means that some alternatives that may seem cheaper are no longer so when the time to develop them is taken into account. The Trident Alternatives Review admits that “The costs of delivering an alternative system could theoretically have been cheaper than procuring a like-for-like renewal of Trident” but adds “were it not for timing and the fact that the UK deterrent infrastructure is finely tuned to support a submarine-based Trident system. In particular, the time it would take to develop a new warhead (itself a costly and high risk exercise) is judged to be longer than the current Vanguard-class submarines can safely be operated.” Also relevant is the fact that, as noted by think-tank BASIC, “Replacement of the submarines is already underway in several respects,”
What do we mean by “extending” Trident?
We should briefly note that the decision to be taken by the current parliament does not, strictly speaking, directly involve the Trident missiles or their warheads but the Vanguard class submarines carrying them. As noted by an observer, “The same Trident 2 D5 missiles currently in service will continue to be used at least out to 2042, so it is most definitely not a matter of replacing Trident. The warheads are also good out to 2032 at least, as they are subject to a life extension programme which brings them to MK4A standard” but “The four Vanguard submarines, on the other hand, can no longer be life extended safely and effectively. Their useful life has already been stretched and the first of the class is now due to soldier on until 2028, but it is assessed that extending further is not desirable.”
Nuclear Deterrence: Still Needed?
The first question to answer when considering the future of Trident is whether the concept of nuclear deterrence is still current or has become obsolete. A second question is whether a country needs to be a nuclear weapons state in order to be a top diplomatic power. Third, we have the relationship between nuclear and non-nuclear defence, and more precisely whether nuclear weapons are necessary to wage conventional or asymmetric war.
As discussed later, an affirmative answer to these questions does not automatically mean we should support Trident, since other nuclear alternatives exist, but should we answer them in the negative then it would be logical to defend Trident’s end.
With regard to the first question, as long as other powers sport their own nuclear forces, and even more so if tensions or significant conflicts persist with some such powers, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is indeed necessary for the UK to retain her own nuclear deterrent. Terminating it would mean that the country may become the victim of nuclear blackmail. It is true that the UK may seek to rely on extended deterrence (also known as the “nuclear umbrella”) by the United States, but this would mean outsourcing national security, with the corresponding loss of power and influence on the one hand, and the risk that American authorities may not be ready (or may be perceived by a potential aggressor as not being ready) to risk American lives to preserve British ones. Some observers in Japan, which relies on US extended deterrence, have often posed the question whether America would be willing to “trade LA for Tokyo,” and as noted by a Congressional Research Service paper “Since the threat of nuclear attack developed during the Cold War, Japan has been included under the U.S. ‘nuclear umbrella,’ although some ambiguity exists about whether the United States is committed to respond with nuclear weapons in the event of a nuclear attack on Japan.” A similar question could be asked with regard to London, Manchester, or Birmingham.
Furthermore, it should be noted from a financial and industrial perspective that relying on extended deterrence may also directly or indirectly lead to the UK shouldering part of the cost of providing that protection, without the industrial benefits from having a national system. This may be another consideration against the nuclear umbrella as opposed to an independent deterrent.
It must be noted, though, that some observers doubt the value of a nuclear deterrent, and furthermore point at recent history as evidence that money should best be spent elsewhere. For example, writing for RUSI, Hugh Beach argues that “It cannot be shown that by virtue of its UK nuclear arsenal, Britain has been able to take any action vis-à-vis another country that it could not otherwise have undertaken, nor prevented action by any other country that it could not otherwise have prevented. British nuclear weapons did not deter Argentina from attempting to annex the Falkland Islands in 1982,” a line of thought that he extends to other nuclear powers.
The Gap between the UK’s Nuclear and Conventional Posture
In connection with the above, we should mention that, as noted by RUSI’s Malcolm Chalmers, British conventional and nuclear defence policy may be seen as out of step. The former is based on the assumption that no state conflict involving the homeland is foreseeable, whereas the latter is posited on the opposite assumption. Chalmers wrote “Discussion of options for conventional capability in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is based on the assumption that the UK homeland does not face a significant threat of attack by other states. Nor, it is assumed, could one emerge without an extended period of strategic warning. While the UK plans to maintain and improve capabilities for a range of national tasks, including strategic intelligence, counter-terrorism, counter-cyber, and defence of dependent territories, these tasks do not include defence of the UK against military attack by other states. The main focus of conventional force planning, accordingly, is now on the appropriate size and shape of the UK’s contribution to collective capabilities for intervention and stabilisation in other parts of the world. By contrast, the commitment to maintain a nuclear-armed missile submarine on patrol at all times (i.e., CASD) has remained largely unchanged since the 1960s, when a surprise attack on Western Europe by the Soviet Union was a central driver for UK force planning.” Although this different posture is clearly in place and can be observed in the respective doctrinal documents, we should be careful before reaching any rushed conclusions. We should also be careful before imagining that the solution to the Trident debate is to put nuclear policy in line with conventional doctrine and forego or downgrade the British deterrent. Possibly because it is conventional doctrine that needs an in-depth review in a more realistic direction. Second, because there may not be, as discussed later, a gulf between conventional and non-conventional defence, but rather a continuous spectrum. In other words, any cuts in nuclear capabilities or credibility may have a negative impact on conventional deterrence and the ability to wage conventional, unconventional, and hybrid war.
In our second part, we shall first examine the impact of nuclear weapons on a country’s hard and soft power, and then proceed to discuss “Hybrid warfare” under a nuclear umbrella. While this term has become a buzzword, it is often examined without taking into account its non-conventional dimension, thus failing to capture its complexity. We shall also cover Trident’s opportunity cost and, as some opponents argue, whether it may constitute an obstacle for British conventional rearmament. This second installment concludes with a look at the connection between Trident and, on the one hand, the “special relationship” between London and Washington, and, on the other, the UK’s place within the European Union, the subject of a referendum on 23 June.
Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University, Japan, focuses on security and defense policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his papers can be found here.Previous work on British nuclear policy includes A. Calvo and O. Olsen, “Defending the Falklands: A role for nuclear weapons?” Strife Blog, 29 July 2014, availablehere.
This article originally featured on the Phoenix Think Tank, and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.
By Hal Wilson
Even thirty-three years after the end of hostilities there, the Falklands Islands still enjoy close attention. Diplomatic skirmishes and oil exploration at the islands merit recurring interest. But perhaps above all, the positioning of the Argentine military draws attention which few of its other Latin American counterparts receive.
In 2012, the Royal United Services Institute released a thorough review of the Anglo-Argentine security ‘equation’.1In 2014, David Axe of War is Boring reviewed the Argentine Air Force (FAA) in close detail.2Geopolitics help drive this attention – as Axe highlighted, Argentina “aspires to be a regional power”. Likewise, after investing blood and prestige in 1982, Britons remain concerned about the Falkland Islands’ security.
The latest flurry of interest comes with the retirement of Argentina’s ‘fast-jet’ fleet – leaving the FAA with an inventory of subsonic fighters and training aircraft. A layman might assume this marks the end of the Argentine military threat – but these waters are muddied by plenty of spilled ink.
In August 2013, the British Sunday Express highlighted potential sales of Spanish Mirage fighters to the FAA.3Then again in February 2014 the Express announced a £3 billion increase in the Argentine military budget, including “£750 million for 32 procurement and modernisation programmes.”4 Later that year, both Spanish-language5and English-language6outlets covered potential Russian leases of Sukhoi attack aircraft to Argentina.
In January this year the Uruguayan news outlet MercoPress reported on potential Chinese fighter aircraft sales to Argentina 7, news substantiated later by Jane’s Defence Weekly.8 Both MercoPress 9 and Jane’s 10returned to this topic in February – this time highlighting the sale of the Chinese P18 corvette to the Argentine fleet.
Put simply, a cursory review suggests a determined Argentine policy to enhance its military power.
There is real merit to this recurring emphasis on Argentina’s air and naval inventories: Power projection capabilities are often the most important metric of military power. While land forces can secure and defend territory, only air and naval forces have the reach to intimidate, deter or attack distant targets. Indeed, the critical role of the FAA in 1982 makes it a natural focus-point for anyone familiar with the Falklands Conflict.
That said, attentive readers will already see the fault in accepting the first-glance impression from the press: Not only are the FAA’s last supersonic jets retiring – they are retiring without replacement: Argentine efforts to procure replacement fighters through both Spain and Sweden failed. The Chinese jet program also failed amid increasing costs, leaving a last, doubtful option for replacements from Israel.11
Argentina’s stock of air-launched missiles – though barely publicized – likewise seems of dubious standards. The venerable Exocet anti-ship missile, infamous in 1982, still features: Spanish-language coverage reports that efforts began in 2005 to extend Exocet lifespans,12 but by 2014 these had apparently met with only partial success.13 Latin American social media and Argentine military blogs both refer to another anti-ship missile model – the AS-25K – but reliable details are less forthcoming on stockpiles and capabilities.
But given the Argentine fighter inventory now stands at just 25 subsonic A-4 jets,14 their armament is almost a moot point. Deadly enough in 1982 but increasingly obsolete today, these aging fighters will also suffer increasingly poor serviceability – the FAA is cutting back on working hours and maintenance, not just its jets.15 While the FAA’s transport fleet of five C-130 planes is undergoing a limited upgrade, even this is not expected to be completed until May 2019.16
But what of the Argentine Navy? Annual bilateral exercises are held with the Chilean Navy17 and a vital life-extension program for its P3 Orion patrol aircraft is underway.18 Coupled with the acquisition of Chinese P-18 corvettes, initial impressions suggest a service intelligently building core capabilities – but a fleet is more than the vessels it operates.
Argentina’s maritime-industrial supply chain, on which any navy relies for upgrades and maintenance, appears to be chronically underperforming. A Mid-Life Update for one of the fleet’s two submarines had a seven-year turnaround;19 the Argentine Navy icebreaker AlmiranteIrízar completed its refit in August 2015 – eightyears after suffering a fire in 2007.20 With such a track record, the 2010 announcement that a nuclear submarine would be built in Argentina21 appears unrealistic at best.
The Argentine Navy itself comes off little better. A sensational 2012 MercoPress article revealed a host of striking shortcomings: Each of Argentina’s four destroyers were reportedly suffering engine problems and expired ordnance; while submarine crews were receiving 19hours rather than the 190 days minimum submerged training.22 In a 2014 TV expose, Former Argentine Minister of Defence Horacio Jaunarena identified the fleet as Argentina’s most modern armed force – but estimated it as only 40% operational.23 To date, little appears to have been done to remedy the situation.
Argentina’s air and naval capabilities are trapped in a deep malaise. But what lessons does this hold for British military and political leaders, who have more reason than most to take note?
As RUSI’s Michael Clarke highlighted in 2012, “there is no plausible mainstream military option open to Buenos Aires”24for capturing the Falklands Islands. The British press occasionally raises concerns regardless, whether stressing “aggressive Latino diplomacy”25 or possible Argentine special forces raids26 as subverting Britain’s position in the South Atlantic. More thoughtful commentators draw parallels to ongoing tensions in the South China Sea.27
But how relevant are such ‘hybrid’ threats to the Argentine context? Where asymmetric tactics have succeeded – as in the Ukraine or the South China Sea – China and Russia materially and economically dominate their opponents. A militarily weak Kiev was caught surprised and uncertain by Russia’s lightning invasion; Vietnam and the Philippines are divided and outclassed against China’s fleet. The hybrid threat rests on conventional power, and the ability to project or escalate a confrontation.
Britain’s position in the Falklands, by contrast, is challenged by a dysfunctional economy wielding a shrinking arsenal of aging, ill-equipped air-naval assets of minimal power projection value.
The core lesson in this context is for UK policymakers to hold their current course. Key capabilities at the Falklands garrison are already being improved, including enhanced air mobility28 and radar upgrades.29 Both steps are politically and militarily valuable for deterring Argentine initiatives, whether conventional or hybrid. Combined with British diplomatic clout – Argentina’s bid for Swedish jets was doomed by British pressure – the Falklands will remain secure against the full spectrum of possible threats.
Hal Wilson graduated with first class honors in War Studies and History from King’s College London in 2013. He wrote his dissertation on the counterinsurgency lessons of the Afghan War, and also specialized in modern naval history. He works as an analyst in financial services, and has also worked as Principal Administrator of the Phoenix Think Tank since late 2012. Hal has a continuing interest in British maritime history, and its lessons for current policy.
Michael Clarke, ‘The Falklands: The Security Equation in 2012’ in RUSI Analysis (16 Mar. 2012) https://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C4F6324444BE2E/#.Vdmy9PlVikp (Accessed 23/08/2015)
David Axe, ‘Sad and Hopeful Tales of Extinct Air Forces’ in War is Boring (24 Dec. 2014) http://warisboring.com/articles/sad-and-hopeful-tales-of-extinct-air-forces/ (Accessed ibid.)
 ‘Jet fighter threat to the Falkland Islands’ in Sunday Express (13 Aug. 2013) http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/419522/Jet-fighter-threat-to-the-Falkland-Islands (Accessed ibid.)
Marco Giannangeli, ‘New arms threat: Argentina’s £3 billion boost to military’ in Sunday Express (23 Feb. 2014) http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/461327/New-arms-threat-Argentina-s-3billion-boost-to-military (Accessed ibid.)
 ‘Aseguaran en el Reino Unido que Rusia le ofreció aviones de combate a la Argentina’ in Infobae.com (28 Dec. 2014) http://www.infobae.com/2014/12/28/1617683-aseguran-el-reino-unido-que-rusia-le-ofrecio-aviones-combate-la-argentina (Accessed ibid.)
Jaroslaw Adamowski & Andrew Chuter, ‘Report: Russia May Supply Su-24 Aircraft To Argentina In Exchange For Food’ in DefenseNews (2 Jan. 2015) http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/air-space/strike/2014/12/30/russia-argentina-jets-food/21045405/ (Accessed ibid.)
 ‘Chinese jet fighters, an option to re-equip the Argentine Air Force’ in MercoPress.com (14 Jan. 2015) http://en.mercopress.com/2015/01/14/chinese-jet-fighters-an-option-to-re-equip-the-argentine-air-force (Accessed ibid)
 Gareth Jennings, ‘Argentina and China agree fighter aircraft working group’ in IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly (5 Feb. 2015) http://www.janes.com/article/48726/argentina-and-china-agree-fighter-aircraft-working-group (Accessed ibid.)
 ‘China to supply Argentina five ‘Malvinas Class’ offshore patrol vessels’ in MercoPress.com (5 Feb. 2015) http://en.mercopress.com/2015/02/05/china-to-supply-argentina-five-malvinas-class-offshore-patrol-vessels (Accessed ibid.)
Richard D Fisher Jr, ‘China, Argentina set for defence collaboration, Malvinas-class OPV deal’ in IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly (1 Feb. 2015) http://www.janes.com/article/48512/china-argentina-set-for-defence-collaboration-malvinas-class-opv-deal (Accessed ibid.)
 Jose Higuera, ‘Argentina Eyes Second-Hand Kfirs to Replace Mirages’ in DefenseNews (25 Jul. 2015) http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/air-space/strike/2015/07/25/argentina-eyes-second-hand-kfirs-replace-mirages/30247999/ (Accessed Ibid)
 ‘La Armada de Guerra Argentina presenta los misiles Exocet repotenciados’ in Infodefensa.com (18 Aug. 2011)
 ‘Rockwell Collins to support Argentine Air Force’s c-130 upgrade programme’ in airforce-technology.com (20 Apr. 2015) http://www.airforce-technology.com/news/newsrockwell-collins-to-support-argentine-air-forces-c-130-upgrade-programme-4556677 (Accessed 24/08/2015)
 ‘Argentine and Chilean navies in Beagle channel joint sea and air exercise’ in MercoPress.com (20 Aug. 2015) http://en.mercopress.com/2015/08/20/argentine-and-chilean-navies-in-beagle-channel-joint-sea-and-air-exercise (Accessed Ibid.)
 ‘Argentine Navy receives refurbished TR1700 class submarine ARA San Juan’ in MercoPress.com (19 Jun. 2014) http://en.mercopress.com/2014/06/19/argentine-navy-receives-refurbished-tr1700-class-submarine-ara-san-juan (Accessed 24/08/2015)
 ‘Sener completes ‘Almirante Izmar’ [sic] refit’ in The Motorship (3 Aug. 2015)
 See 21:00 onwards, ‘#FuerzasDesarmadas: el informe completo de PPT’ in El Trece (20 Jul. 2014) http://www.eltrecetv.com.ar/periodismo-para-todos/fuerzasdesarmadas-el-informe-completo-de-ppt_070512 (Accessed 26.08/2015)
 ‘Falklands: are we ready for the latest threat from S America?’ in The Week (23 Nov. 2011) http://www.theweek.co.uk/world-news/falkland-islands/42902/falklands-are-we-ready-latest-threat-s-america (Accessed 26/08/2015)
 Dan Warburton, ‘Special Forces in Falklands threat as ‘Argentines may seize the tiny island’ in Daily Mirror (29 Mar. 2015)
 Alex Calvo, ‘Asymmetric Naval Warfare: Next Stage in the South Atlantic?’ in The Phoenix Think Tank (10 Apr. 2015) http://www.phoenixthinktank.org/articles/alex-calvo-asymmetric-naval-warfare-the-next-stage-in-the-south-atlantic.html (Accessed Ibid.)
 Philippe Naughton & Jenny Booth, ‘UK to boost Falklands military presence’ in The Times (24 Mar. 2015) http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/uk/defence/article4391457.ece (Accessed Ibid.)
 Ben Farmer, ‘Britain orders £36m air defence radar to protect Falklands from Argentina’ in The Telegraph (25 Aug. 2015)
The United Kingdom’s new national security document – the Strategic Defence and Security Review2015 (SDSR 2015) – was released to much fanfare. This document has been generally well received in the defense community with most analysts believing that the review’s proposed changes would profoundly boost Britain’s military capabilities in the coming years.
Among SDSR 2015’s myriad initiatives, particularly eye-catching is the reiteration by London to have a two-carrier fleet comprising HMS Queen Elizabeth and sister ship Prince of Wales. Paralleled to this is the decision to acquire 138 F-35B Lightning II Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing (VSTOL) strike fighters over the life of the aircraft program.
Various defense commentators have lauded these measures, arguing that Britain is now on its way to becoming a traditional aircraft-carrier nation again with the F-35B operating from the Queen Elizabeths. To illustrate, Philip Radford writesat The Strategist that the Royal Navy (RN) would soon have a “viable, independent, strike-carrier capability”. Similarly, a War On The Rocks piece by Matt Schnappauf speaks of the U.K. obtaining the ability to “deliver hard power through traditional carrier strike and maneuver missions.”
Would this really be the case? Arguably not during the first few years of the two British flat-tops’ projected 50-year service life. This is because their primary striking force – the F-35B complement – is likely to be considerably under-strength during their early years.
The raison d’etre of the aircraft carrier is its air wing, and the latter’s size and composition dictate the kind of operations the ship can carry out. A major doctrinal role for the flat-top is to project power and being able to carry out offensive missions is therefore essential for the vessel. Being a capital platform, however, the protection of the carrier is of utmost importance to its commanders, and a good portion of the ship’s air wing will invariably be dedicated to fleet air defense.
The onus is thus on the carrier task force leadership to maintain a judicious balance between defense and offense. Having a sizeable air wing on the carrier would certainly facilitate this endeavor, but this is not something the Queen Elizabeth-class vessels will have up till the year 2023 and maybe even beyond.
This is because although the new British carriers can each deploy up to 36 F-35Bs as part of its Tailored Air Group, a fraction of that figure is likely to be the norm during the ships’ fledging service period as there will not be enough of the aircraft to go around initially. Indeed, while theQueen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales are slated to be commissioned in 2017 and 2020 respectively, only 42 F-35Bs (24 for carrier deployment, 18 for training) will be in service by 2023 when both vessels and the F-35B are expected to reach full operational capability.
As Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne declared a day before the release of SDSR 2015: “We are going to make sure that when these aircraft carriers are available, they are going to have planes that can fly from them in force (emphasis added)… By 2023, we will be able to have 24 of these jets (F-35Bs)… on the decks of these carriers.”
That being said, it is not entirely clear exactly how many F-35Bs each flat-top will operate. Using the figure provided by the Chancellor, 24 of the aircraft for carrier duty works out to a measly 12 per ship, prima facie. As a matter of fact, various media outlets have reported that the carrier will routinely deploy with only a dozen of the aircraft. However, one informed source states that 15-20 F-35Bs will make up one squadron, of which there will be two. Given that one carrier and its constituents will be at sea at any one time while the other in port for refitting and crew rest, this means that each flat-top is likely to deploy with only one Lightning squadron.
A tactical combat aircraft complement of 12, or even 15-20, is rather small for traditional carrier operations, especially force-projection ones that are likely to predominate considering the SDSR’s expeditionary-warfare slant. Indeed, it is worth considering the fact that the two British small-deck carriers involved in the Falklands War carried 20-odd Harrier jump jets each, and they were about three times smaller than the Queen Elizabeth-class ships.
In fact, each new carrier might even be operating with a much fighter complement fewer than 15-20 in the years leading up to 2023, giving lie to the phrase “in force” used by George Osborne when he spoke of equipping the carriers with significant airpower.
In any case, the small fighter constituent means that if the Queen Elizabeth carrier were to get involved in a conflict with an adversary with credible anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, the vessel would be hard-pressed to protect itself, let alone project power. With a displacement of over 70,000 tons and costing over three billion pounds each, the new British carriers will be the crown jewels of the Royal Navy; indeed, HMS Queen Elizabeth is slated to be the RN’s flagship when she comes into service. The protection of the ship would hence be of paramount importance in an era that has witnessed the proliferation of A2/AD capabilities even to developing nations. Hence for a Queen Elizabeth carrying 20 or less Lightnings in such circumstances, it remains to be seen just how many of the aircraft will be earmarked for different duties.
Should a F-35B air group of that size put to sea, at least half of them will be assigned to the Combat Air Patrol (CAP), leaving barely 10 for offensive duties. It is worth noting that of the 42 Harrier VSTOL jets deployed on HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible during the Falklands War, 28 of them – a substantial two-thirds – had CAP as their primary duty. It is also telling that of the 1,300-odd sorties flown in all by the Harriers, about 83 per cent of them were for CAP.
Faced with modern A2/AD systems such as stand-off anti-ship missiles, how likely then would the carrier task force commander devote more resources to offense and risk having a vessel named after British royalty attacked and hit? Having said that, having too many planes for defense strengthens the argument made by various carrier critics that the ship is a “self-licking ice cream cone,” in other words, an entity that exists solely to sustain itself.
The task force commander would thus be caught between a rock and a hard place. Allocate more F-35Bs to strike missions and the susceptibility of the task force to aerial threats increase. Conversely, set aside more aircraft for the CAP and its mother ship’s ability to project power decreases. All in all, with a significantly understrength F-35B air wing, the Queen Elizabethflat-top would be operating under severe constraints, making it incapable of the traditional carrier operations it could have carried out with a larger tactical aircraft complement. Indeed, one naval commentator is right on the mark when he argues that two squadrons with a total of 24 aircraft should be a “sensible minimum standard” for each carrier.
A counter-argument can be posited that the F-35Bs of the United States Marine Corps (USMC) could deploy off the Queen Elizabeth carriers, and this will surely augment their air groups. Indeed, USNI News reported last September that such an arrangement is in the works. A similar counter-argument can also be made that the British carriers will invariably be operating in the company of the U.S. Navy and its supercarriers, rendering the need for a full-size air group not as pressing. While valid, these two contentions ignore the fact that American assets would only operate together with the Queen Elizabeth carriers during joint operations agreed to by both London and Washington.
Another counter-argument can be made that the two British flat-tops can operate together once Prince of Wales is commissioned, thus doubling the combat airpower of the carrier task force. This argument is flawed as it does not consider the fact that aircraft carriers are highly complex systems that need regular and lengthy refits. As such, when both Queen Elizabeths are in service, one is likely to be at sea while the other is in port undergoing maintenance, as mentioned earlier. Even if both ships happen to be sea-worthy at the same time, operating the two together, however, means that Britain would not be able to maintain the continuous at-sea carrier presence crucial to protecting its far-flung global interests.
A different counter-argument can be put forth that aircraft and crew from the 18 training F-35Bs, or even the other carrier, could be “surged” in extremis to the active-duty carrier. This assertion is seemingly more watertight, but it is not certain exactly how many of the aircraft and the requisite personnel to operate and maintain them would be available for redeployment to the flat-top at sea. As an article on the Navy Matters blog argues cogently along these lines:
“Those who might suggest that the a dozen aircraft are just fine for routine operations and that the rest of the aircraft can be instantly surged are just not seeing reality. The F-35 is not a WWI powered kite that can be piloted by someone with a few hours training and maintained by any mechanic with a pipe wrench. Surging F-35s may take weeks or months and a carrier caught in a moment’s notice conflict will be severely limited in its capabilities.”
Even if a considerable number of Lightnings and their requisite crew could be surged to the active-duty carrier on relatively short notice, it remains to be seen how effectively the augmented air wing could be utilized. As the aforementioned Navy Matters piece maintains perceptively, the transition from operating a dozen or so aircraft to 30-40 of them is unlikely to be seamless for the carrier; in addition, “(l)earning on the fly on a carrier is a recipe for disaster.”
Rounding up, the Strategic Defense and Security Review2015 promises much for Britain in terms of aircraft carrier capability. While the document seeks to re-instate the U.K. as a traditional carrier power, it is still early days to proclaim that this will be a reality like what some have maintained. This is especially so considering the fact that the Queen Elizabeth flat-tops will be operating with a significantly reduced tactical aircraft complement till at least 2023. Of course, if the size of the British carrier’s F-35B complement could be increased, ideally closer to its full strength of 36, more possibilities will definitely open up for the Royal Navy with regard to its carrier capabilities.
Then again, this is contingent on the availability of financial resources in the years to come. This is especially crucial in view of the fact that various British naval programmers have been truncated or even completely shelved due to austerity. Think the Type 45 destroyer and the Cooperative Engagement Capability initiatives. In fact, HMS Prince of Wales was conceived at one stage to handle more capable catapult-launched aircraft, but prohibitive costs put paid to this idea.
That being said, if there is one thing that could ameliorate any fiscal problems that may arise in the future, it would be political will. Would Whitehall muster the political will needed to see the F-35B project through to its entirety? This is an issue that the defense community will certainly keep tabs on in the years to come.
Ben Ho Wan Beng is a Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and he received his master’s degree in strategic studies from the same institution. Ben’s main research interest is in naval affairs, and his works in this area have been published inBreaking Defense, The Diplomat, War Is Boring, as well as the Center for International Maritime Security’sNextWar blog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.