All posts by Ben Ho Wan Beng

Little Men in Black: The Frogman Threat in Maritime Hybrid Warfare

By Ben Ho Wan Beng

Introduction

Maritime hybrid warfare is upon us, so proclaimed James Stavridis, a retired United States Navy admiral. “(I)t will sail out to sea and prove a formidable challenge,” he contended in a December 2016 Proceedings article. According to security analyst Frank Hoffman, a hybrid opponent is one that “simultaneously and adaptively employs a fused mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the battlespace to obtain desired political objectives.” Indeed, Beijing’s use of its maritime militia, or “little blue men, in the South China Sea (SCS) and similar measures by Teheran in the Persian Gulf are worrisome signs of hybrid warfare taking on a nautical slant.

Several commentators have visualised scenarios of how maritime hybrid warfare, or MHW in short, might unfold. Stavridis spoke of unidentified men in small boats wreaking havoc with rocket and machine-gun fire on SCS shipping in his Proceedings piece. In the same vein, defense writer Colum Hawken conceived of “Q-ships” attacking merchantmen at busy waterways near Singapore and in the Baltic Sea.

These scenarios and most other works on the subject matter delve largely on the use of irregular forces such as militiamen and terrorists to conduct such operations at sea. As for waging MHW beneath the waves, the role played by unmanned underwater vehicles has been recognized as well. What is overlooked perhaps is the utility of “regular” naval special operations forces (SOFs), more specifically combat swimmers, for MHW in the sub-surface realm and this needs to be addressed. It is worth noting that a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) study on maritime domain awareness in northern Europe described frogmen as “arguably the most effective force for maritime hybrid operations.”

Covert and High Level of Deniability

So what is it about combat divers that makes them so suited for MHW? A key feature of hybrid warfare is deniability. As such, “gray-zone” actors often turn to clandestine means to prevent attribution and retaliation by the targeted party, and the low signature of frogman operations is arguably what makes them so suitable in this regard. After all, covertness is the watchword of SOF units, whether they be maritime- or land-centric ones. Indeed, the popular image of them is one of a United States Navy SEAL emerging from the depths of the water to eliminate an unwary sentry or a British Special Boat Service team making a stealthy landing on a hostile beach.

The deployment of frogmen under various conditions accounts substantially for their low signature. Two of such conditions are not unique to these forces but apply to another SOFs as well: deployment in relatively small numbers and during the wee hours where defenses are least alert. To further protect their cover, the frogmen can operate from a Q-ship masquerading as an innocuous commercial ship in the targeted nation’s waters. To be certain, a submarine is also an option for combat-swimmer deployment. However, compared to the Q-ship, the sub simply does not have the same degree of non-attribution that is so central to gray-zone warfare.

Matters for the targeted nation are not helped by the area of operations the combat divers and their motherships would be in – the littorals, with its significant background clutter. As the naval analyst Geoffrey Till wrote: “The littoral is a congested place, full of neutral and allied shipping, oil-rigs, buoys, coastline clutter, islands, reefs and shallows, and complicated underwater profiles.” The ability to detect and identify threats would be a premium in such waters, and this accentuates the frogman threat given its already minuscule signature. This low detectability invariably also means that combat-swimmer missions have a great element of surprise, which is another integral element of MHW.

Navy divers and special operators attached to SEAL Delivery Team (SDV) 2, perform SDV operations with the Ohio-Class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine USS Florida (SSGN 728) for material certification. (U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Andrew McKaskle)

All this is not say that divers cannot be picked up at all by sensors – they can be detected by sonar and countered by various measures, including marine mammals and other anti-frogman techniques. That said, if the commandos were to be compromised, their government could deny any association with these “little men in black” like how Moscow distanced itself from the “little green men” who created military facts on the ground in Crimea. After all, the black wet suits worn by combat swimmers are typically unmarked and this helps to some extent in putting up the veneer of non-attribution around these forces.

Kinetic Missions

Combat swimmers can execute a wide range of tasks in maritime hybrid warfare. The kinetic threat they pose is especially ominous as they can create disproportionate strategic effects. Using weapons like limpet mines, divers can carry out attacks on a nation’s maritime interests, whether they be offshore hydrocarbon installations, merchantmen, or even warships.

There have been a number of noted successes in this regard with the December 1941 Alexandria raid being conceivably the most famous. During this operation, six Italian frogmen crippled two British battleships moored in the Egyptian base, changing the naval balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean albeit temporarily. In three groups of two, the divers attacked at night and only one group was detected by the British during the attack – but only after they had attached explosives to the bottom of HMS Valiant.

What is illuminating about this episode is that the Italian commandos pulled off the attack on a highly protected base under wartime conditions. In an MHW environment, however, the opponent’s defenses would not be as vigilant given that they are not operating under a state of war. To be sure, modern naval bases would invariably have anti-frogman measures in place, but many such systems are largely unproven, at least from what is known from open sources. More importantly, commercial ports and other civilian maritime interests that are prime targets for MHW are probably not as heavily guarded as military ones. Indeed, should frogmen be utilized in the vignettes that Stavridis and Hawken have presented in their writings, the situations would probably be more chaotic given the insidious nature of such forces.

Non-kinetic Missions

Frogmen can also perform various non-kinetic tasks in support of a maritime hybrid warfare effort. These include placing eavesdropping sensors on the seabed a la Operation Ivy Bells, where American naval divers wiretapped the Soviet undersea communications system at the height of the Cold War. Another non-kinetic task in the MHW sphere for combat swimmers would be the tampering of the undersea cables so crucial to the Internet and communications services of a nation.

Experts believe that seabed operations – of which divers can play a role in – is likely to gain greater significance with time. As a matter of fact, British Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach has warned of Russia – a leading hybrid warfare practitioner – cutting and disrupting his country’s submarine cables. The British defense chief noted that such a move could “immediately and potentially catastrophically” hit his country’s economy, adding that it poses a “new risk to our way of life.”

It is worth noting that these non-kinetic missions would have an even lower level of attribution compared to kinetic ones given that no explosions or casualties would be involved. The targeted nation may not even know it has been subjected to MHW techniques until much later, and this no doubt increases the extent of non-attribution so crucial to the success of gray-zone warfare.

Final Thoughts

All in all, the frogman is of considerable utility in the waging of both kinetic and non-kinetic maritime hybrid warfare. The CSIS report mentioned earlier acknowledges this fact vis-à-vis Russia in the Baltic and Norwegian Seas and recommends a technology-centric solution with the development of capabilities for low-signature detection. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, and countries outside of northern Europe facing up to such threats would do well to follow suit.

Addressing the challenge cognitively is just as important, if not more so. What is needed is thus a greater recognition of the frogman threat that has somewhat been understated in the discourse on maritime hybrid warfare. With this, “simple vigilance,” which is what one writer deemed as the final line of defense against the threat, could hopefully be strengthened.

In the final analysis, while naval divers constitute a potent threat in the MHW scheme of things, a hybrid actor worth its salt would not use them in isolation. They would likely be deployed in concert with other tools from the hybrid operations playbook like cyber-attacks, (dis)information campaigns, as well as small-scale kinetic action on land. Prussian king Frederick the Great once said that “he who defends everything defends nothing,” and therein lies the enduring challenge of countering hybrid warfare – how best to deal with a threat that is at once multi-faceted and insidious.

Ben Ho Wan Beng is a senior analyst with the military studies program at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He writes primarily on naval affairs, and his work in this area has been published in the likes of the Naval War College Review, Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, The National Interest, and The Diplomat.

Featured Image: German Navy combat divers Kommando Spezialkräfte Marine (KSM)

Assessing the Usefulness of the American Large-Deck Carrier

The following article is adapted from a recent Journal of Military and Strategic Studies publication entitled The combat utility of the U.S. fleet aircraft carrier in the post-war period

By Ben Ho Wan Beng

Introduction

Former U.S. president William Clinton once said that whenever a crisis breaks out, the first question that comes to everyone’s mind would be “Where is the nearest carrier?” In the half century after World War Two, Washington employed force in response to some 200 crises, and carriers were involved in two-thirds of them.[1] On the other hand, the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force (USAF) were involved in 38 and 53 of these incidents respectively.[2]

This contrast came about because the large-deck carrier of the United States Navy (USN) offered a number of unique advantages over other combat platforms. Esteemed naval analyst Norman Polmar said: “(The) survival of the aircraft carrier… can be attributed to… territorial independence, flexibility of striking power, (and) mobility.”[3] These three attributes will be explored in this article.

Territorial independence

During times when defense spending is tight and when different branches of the American military vie for the budgetary pie, the aircraft carrier would often be subjected to criticism by other services, especially the Air Force. This is because the vessel is deemed to be a major competitor for scarce resources, owing to its high price tag and a perception that it is taking over some USAF roles. Nevertheless, even some of the harshest critics of the USN have begrudgingly alluded to some advantages unique to the carrier, the most important of which is arguably the territorial independence that allows it to conduct operations unconstrained by political limitations.

For instance, General Ronald Fogelman, the USAF Chief of Staff from 1994 to 1997 and who was known to be a fierce critic of USN expenditure, was cognisant of this attribute when he said: “Aircraft carriers give you the ability to sail into a littoral region and not have to worry about diplomatic clearance… The… crisis during Taiwan’s elections… was an ideal use of… carriers.”[4]

A U.S. carrier strike group, with its own logistical infrastructure and force-projection capabilities, makes an ideal tool for intervention. This is especially so in cases where American interests are not aligned with those of allies, and this could result in Washington not having access to air bases.[5] The carrier’s territorial independence would thus come in handy if local issues were to make it difficult for land-based airpower to be deployed.

csba-range-slide-iran
Illustrative range and persistence for a notional unmanned aircraft with 1500NM range, and last refueled approximately 250 nm from coastline. Image credit: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, September 2010

A related issue is that of friendly air bases being attacked. According to a RAND report, the U.S. has 28 major air bases on the geostrategically and economically critical Eurasian landmass.[6] Although land bases are closer to potential hotspots, they are also closer to likely adversaries and could be targeted more easily during a conflict, making them more vulnerable than carriers. As a USN officer maintained: “I can’t tell you where… our carriers are… but given a few moments of research at Base Ops, I can give you the coordinates of every Air Force runway… and hangar worldwide.”[7] The proliferation of missiles and their enabling systems such as satellites in the post-Cold War period has led to several nations gaining the capability to target U.S. bases.

Indeed, this threat has become more serious with the advent of more advanced weapon technologies in recent years. This is arguably why Washington is realigning forces from Okinawa to Guam and setting up a new Marine contingent in Australia – to hedge against American forces in north-east Asia being targeted by China’s A2/AD systems during a conflict.[8] There have been no studies that do not acknowledge the vulnerabilities of land bases to anti-access threats; furthermore, even the most optimistic of such reports.[9]

Equally troublesome for America in times of crisis is the refusal of nations to grant over-flight [10] and aircraft deployment rights – an issue which the carrier does not face. The denial of over-flight rights to land-based aircraft could complicate Washington’s strategy. During Operation El Dorado Canyon, France, Spain, and Portugal denied over-flight rights to U.S. aircraft; consequently, the USAF F-111 Aardvarks involved had to be refueled in mid-air several times, a problem not faced by the carriers involved in the same operation as the ships were situated contiguously in the battlespace.[11]

As for the constraint of needing political clearance before U.S. aircraft can operate from foreign bases, a 2013 study contended that: “The attitude of host countries… is difficult to predict, raising… uncertainties regarding the basing of aircraft. The United States can bring enormous pressure to bear on a host country to accept U.S. forces, but success… cannot be guaranteed.”[12]

Examples abound of allies being hesitant or unwilling to allow U.S. aircraft to operate from their territory. Even when Iraq was poised to invade Saudi Arabia after taking over Kuwait in August 1990, the House of Saud hesitated before it permitted coalition forces to be deployed on its soil.[13] Similarly, the USAF could not operate out of Saudi Arabia and Turkey for Operation Desert Strike[14], leading a USN official to comment that the air force had been “castrated.”[15] He then extolled the territorial independence of the carrier in this instance: “With an aircraft carrier, you get 4.5 acres of Americana with no diplomatic restrictions.”[16]

The phallic reference may sound exaggerated, but it was a fact that American land-based airpower was effectively emasculated when it could not operate out of its Middle Eastern bases for Desert Strike. All in all, American carriers have proved to be useful for their territorial independence. This characteristic – combined with their mobility – essentially allows them to act as “first responders” to any situation.

Mobility

Our ability to deliver… firepower and generate… high aircraft sortie rates can… impact on… a conflict… during the critical early period of a joint campaign, when… U.S.-based forces are just starting to arrive in theater. – Admiral Jay Johnson, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations from 1996 to 2000.[17]

Owing to their mobility, U.S. carriers are usually the first assets to be deployed to a hotspot. This attribute has made one analyst describe the USN, and for that matter its carriers, as “the… little Dutch boy… (who) can hold a finger in the dike until reinforcements – the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, and allied forces – are in place.”[18]

When the deployment order comes, a carrier group moving at even a moderate speed of 25 knots can cover a significant 600 nautical miles in 24 hours of continuous steaming. To illustrate, a U.S. carrier group near Guam moving at that speed would take just over two days to reach the vicinity of Taiwan in the event of a Taiwan Strait crisis.[19] Suffice it to say that it would reach there even sooner at a higher speed.

The mobility that enables a carrier to act as a first responder was manifested as early as the Korean War. From the invasion of South Korea by the North in June 1950 until the Inchon landings in September, American and British carriers provided the sole tactical aviation assets as the number of South Korean-based aircraft was small and the USAF platforms in Japan were too short-ranged to have significant loiter time over targets.

800px-Aircraft_carrier_at_underway_replenishment
USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (CVN 69) with Carrier Air Wing SEVEN embarked (right) conduct an underway replenishment with USNS ARCTIC (T-AOE 8) (left). Image credit: MC2 Miguel Contreras, USN.

In a more recent conflict, during the 1990 Gulf crisis, Army General Norman Schwarzkopf said the Eisenhower and Independence battle groups were in range of Iraqi targets within 48 hours of the deployment order being given, adding that: “The Navy was the first military force to respond… and… was also the first airpower on the scene. Both of these deterred, indeed, I believe, stopped Iraq from marching into Saudi Arabia.”[20]

To get such a glowing assessment from a top officer in a rival service undoubtedly attests to the carrier’s unequalled utility in responding first to a crisis. In addition, the aforementioned carriers provided air cover for the deployment of equipment to Saudi Arabia since viable shore-based offensive airpower was available only three weeks after the crisis broke out.[21] Had Iraq invaded Saudi Arabia within this period, the two U.S. carriers on station would have been even more crucial as they were the only assets in theater that could take the fight to the enemy. 

Flexibility

Another inherent advantage offered by the carrier to U.S. theater commanders is that it can conduct a wide variety of operations because of the different types of aircraft embarked on it. To be sure, land bases can accommodate a wide range of aircraft as well, but they simply lack the unique attributes of territorial independence and mobility offered by the large-deck carrier as discussed earlier. The typical carrier air wing (CVW) today consists of 44 F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet fighters, five EA-18 Growler electronic warfare aircraft, four Hawkeye airborne early-warning platforms, and 19 MH-60 Seahawk helicopters.[22] Indeed, during its 50-year service from 1962 to 2012, USS Enterprise operated 43 types of aircraft.[23]

This ability to accommodate diverse aircraft enables the carrier to carry out a wide range of missions. This was evidenced during Operation Deliberate Force when carrier planes participated in the whole gamut of operations: close air support, search-and-rescue, and enforcement of the no-fly zone. Because the carrier is such a large platform, it can integrate assets from other services, even other nations, into its operations.

This is crucial with today’s emphasis on jointness between the American armed services, and interoperability between Washington and her allies. In the current combat environment characterized by fluidity, the capabilities needed in one region or situation may not be the same as another, and thus why the ease of modifying the CVW is useful. [24] To illustrate, during Operation Uphold Democracy[25], USS America and USS Eisenhower carried elements of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and the aviation component of the 10th Mountain Division, the ship’s organic air wings having being temporarily removed. 

Two F-35s on the deck of the USS Nimitz during the first carrier trials for the aircraft in November 2014. US Navy photo.
Two F-35s on the deck of the USS Nimitz during the first carrier trials for the aircraft in November 2014. US Navy photo.

Conclusion  

The carrier has proved to be an extremely useful platform for the U.S. National Command Authorities, but it must be noted that the deployments delineated above occurred where anti-access threats were at best marginal. In an anti-access/area-denial environment, would the carrier be given carte blanche to project its airpower? Would its survivability be seriously questioned by the submarine and other anti-ship systems? These are but some of the key questions shaping the debate over the utility of the aircraft carrier, and my full article addresses some of them.

Read the full publication here: The combat utility of the U.S. fleet aircraft carrier in the post-war period.

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 is a CIMSEC member and has published with the likes of The Diplomat, The National Interest, and Real Clear Defense.

Endnotes

[1] Jeffrey G. Barlow, “Answering the Call: Carriers in Crisis Response Since World War II,” Naval Aviation News, January-February 1997, fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ship/docs/970100-jb.htm.

[2] Reuven Leopold, Sea-Based Aviation and the Next U.S. Aircraft Carrier Design: The CVX (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Center for International Studies, 1998), p. 4.

[3] Norman Polmar, Aircraft Carriers: A Graphic History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events (New York: Doubleday, 1969), p. vii.

[4] Quoted in Leopold, Sea-Based Aviation, p. 5.

[5] Jacquelyn K. Davis, Aircraft Carriers and the Role of Naval Power in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Institute of Foreign Policy Analysis, 1993), p. 34.

[6] Michael J. Lostumbo, et al., Overseas Basing of U.S. Military Forces: An Assessment of Relative Costs and Strategic Benefits (Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation, 2013), p. 20-30.

[7] Quoted in James Paulsen, “Is the Days of the Aircraft Carrier Over?” (Air Command and Staff College Research Report, 1998), p. 20.

[8] Cheryl Pellerin, “Work: Guam is “Strategic Hub to Asia-Pacific Rebalance,” DoD News, August 19, 2014, defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=122961.

[9] Sam J. Tangredi, Anti-Access Warfare: Countering A2/AD Strategies (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013), p. 68.

[10] It must be noted that this point applies only to states contiguous to the sea where the carrier is deployed; overflight rights are still needed for aircraft seeking to reach countries situated landward of a coastal state.

[11] Leopold, Sea-Based Aviation, p. 4.

[12] Tangredi, Anti-Access Warfare, p. 49.

[13] Davis, Aircraft Carriers, p. 34.

[14] Operation Desert Strike was initiated by the United States in September 1996 in response to the Iraqi military offensive against the city of Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

[15] Quoted in Bowie, The Anti-Access Threat, p. 3.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Angelyn Jewell, Carrier Firepower – Realising the Potential (Alexandra, Virginia: Center for Naval Analyses, 1999), p. 5.

[18] Ibid.

[19] According to the author’s calculation, at 25 knots, it would take some 52 hours to cover the     distance of about 1,300nm between Guam and the waters off eastern Taiwan, which is derived from Google Maps.

[20] Davis, Aircraft Carriers, p. 22.

[21] John Pay, “Full Circle: The U.S. Navy and its Carriers: 1974-1993,” in Seapower: Theory and     Practice, ed. Geoffrey Till (Portland: Frank Cass, 1994), p. 136.

[22] David Barno, Nora Bensahel and M. Thomas Davis, The Carrier Air Wing of the Future   (Washington, D.C.: Center for a New American Century), p. 8.

[23] Rebecca Maksel, “The Future of Aircraft Carriers,” Air & Space, January 15, 2015, airspacemag.com/daily-planet/future-aircraft-carriers-180953905.

[24] Lambeth, American Carrier Air Power, p.37.

[25] This was the 1994 intervention in Haiti to remove the military regime installed by the 1991 coup overthrew the elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Would Britain Really be Back as a Traditional Carrier Power?

This article originally appeared on RealClearDefense. It can be read in its original form here.

By Ben Ho Wan Beng

The United Kingdom’s new national security document – the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 (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 writes at 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 Review 2015 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 iswbho@ntu.edu.sg.