Tag Archives: Royal Navy

Will China Fight Falklands-Style Wars?

The Pentagon’s analogy of China and Falkland-Style wars does not mean that it is yet meeting all such necessary criteria. Instead, the analogy tells us about the PLAN’s present and future rank in the hierarchy of navies. Although Europe is in decline, Europeans should not bury their heads in the sand. There are still useful efforts that can be done.

Does the analogy apply?
The Pentagon’s latest Annual Report to Congress says that China has increasing emerging expeditionary naval interests. The Report emphasizes China seeks the capabilities to fight a Falklands-Style wars:

“The PLA Navy’s goal over the coming decades is to become a stronger regional force that is able to project power across the globe for high-intensity operations over a period of several months, similar to the United Kingdom’s deployment to the South Atlantic to retake the Falkland Islands in the early 1980s. However, logistics and intelligence support remain key obstacles, particularly in the Indian Ocean.” (DoD 2013, p. 38)

One can question whether the historic analogy between the UK in 1982 and China after 2013 does really apply. China has no overseas territories like Britain’s Falklands, Diego Garcia, and Pitcairn; or France’s Martinique, Reunion, and Polynesia. Obviously, the geography in the North and South Atlantic is very different from the Indo-Pacific theater. And, being under sequester-siege, one can ask if the U.S. Admirals are over-hyping China’s rise to defend their budgets. On the other hand, one can be sure that the Pentagon’s officers are aware of what they are talking about when they use analogies. Moreover, when talking about expeditionary campaigns of navies underneath the U.S.’ full-scale war level, other cases are hard to find.

What “Falklands-Style” is not about:

Ye Olde British Refueling Plan
          Ye Olde British Refueling Plan

Britain’s major obstacle in 1982 was that its “closest” airbase was on the tiny island Ascension 6,300 kilometers from the Falklands. Thus the Falklands-style does not apply to scenarios like Taiwan or the East and South China Sea; China’s military facilities are right next to the theater. Any Chinese campaign in these areas would more be more like NATO’s Libya campaign than the Falklands due to PLAAF bases close to the battlefield. In 1982, Britain conducted some symbolic air raids with Avro Vulcan bombers on Port Stanley’s airfield, however only made possible by a very complex chain of aerial refueling. Britain’s success or failure was dependent on the two carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. If one or both of them would have been sunk, Britain would have lost, because the Royal Navy could only succeed due to the air power delivered by the seaborne Harriers.

“Falklands-Style” means a carrier-centric operation far away from the homeland. Carriers are an inevitable necessity for expeditionary campaigns due to the need for air superiority. Moreover, such a “Falklands-Style” operation would include some, but not a lot of support from overseas bases and be out of reach of homeland airbases, as Port Stanley was 11,000 kilometers away from London. A “Falklands-Style” campaign’s ultimate operational target is to bring boots on the ground by amphibious landings. Politically and strategically, the aim is to achieve military superiority over another state in certain geographical areas, but not over a whole country – that would be “Iraq-Style.” In addition, Falklands-Style does not apply to non-state actors. They lack the ability to deliver significant, nearly equal air and sea power in the theater as the Argentinians did.

China’s “Falklands-Style” Capabilities
Applied to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), geographically “Falklands-Style” means an operation beyond the Second Island Chain or “West of Malacca”. However, China does not meet the carrier criteria and it is unlikely to do so before 2020. Moreover, overseas bases are planned, but their operational worth cannot be taken for granted. Gwadar in Pakistan is the PLAN’s only project which can be taken seriously right now. However, in any action, Gwadar would have to be supplied by complex air logistics (the forthcoming Y-20). Railroads or even useable roads from Pakistan to China just don’t exist.

Beside the two carriers with their 48 Harriers, the Royal Navy’s Task Force included two LPDs, eight destroyers, 15 frigates, five nuclear subs (SSN), one conventional sub and dozens of support vessels. In total, Britain sent over a hundred ships. Many of the supply ships were requisitioned civilian vessels. China’s fleet in 2013 includes one carrier (Liaoning, not yet operational), three LPDs, 14 destroyers, 62 frigates, four SSBNs, five SSNs, 55 conventional subs, and 205 logistic and support ships (IISS 2013: 289-290). Thus, in all cases except the carriers China’s numbers meet or exceed Britain’s Task Force.

Moreover, China’s is the world’s largest shipbuilder. While hulls for sophisticated military vessels like carriers may still be challenge, China can easily mass-produce simple hulls for transport and supply ships or confiscate ships present in Chinese ports, as the UK did. China is working on further tanker and supply ships to support expeditionary operation. Other observers like Information Dissemination, one of best-informed blogs, note that China is already able to build sophisticated ships like LHDs:

“Last year, we were introduced to a LHD design that China was offering for export. A couple of months ago, we’ve seen this LHD design displayed for export to Turkey and also at Abu Dhabi. This mysterious design is said to be 211 m long, 32.6 m in beam and 26.8 m high for a displacement of 20,000 to 22,000 ton. It’s a little wider than Type 071 and has a flat top, so it can hold 8 helicopters with the hangar space for 4. This is an increase over Type 071, but I would imagine the first Chinese LHD (let’s call it Type 081) to be much larger than this (30,000 to 40,000 in displacement) and able to hold carry more helicopters and armored vehicles. I personally think PLAN has studied USMC long enough that it would also want the LHD to be able to support STOVL fighter jet. Such a ship would be much more complex than Type 071, but is well within the technical capabilities of Chinese shipyards.” 

It really is important to know the location of your liferaft station.
It really is important to know the location of your liferaft station.

In addition, “Falklands-Style” campaigns depend on a capable nuclear-powered submarine force. Argentina withdrew its surface fleet after the cruiser Belgrano was sunk by the SSN HMS Conqueror, which provided the Royal Navy the freedom of action for amphibious landings. If you want your subs to go to places, you need nuclear power. Recently the PLAN has demonstrated that her SSNs are able to reach the Indian Ocean. In contrast to the Royal Air Force in 1982, China is incapable of undertaking long-range airstrikes in order to support expeditionary operations. Its so-called Xian H-6 “bombers” (combat radius 970nm) are a further-developed Soviet Tupolev TU-16 aircraft. These are supported by very few aerial refueling capabilities and have no operational experience at all in conducting long-range airstrikes. Operational experience matters, as can be seen in the discussions about the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran.

Finally, “Falklands-Style” wars and expeditionary operations also require a lot of operational experience. Officers and crews need to be able to deal with and adjust to friction immediately. The service (wo)men must have a pragmatic problem-solving attitude because rapid help from home is unavailable. The Royal Navy had such a capacity, gained over decades of experience leading to 1982. China today is working from slight operational experience developed by anti-piracy operations, regular drills, and friendly ports visits, but is far away from the human skills navies like the U.S. or British posses.

What the Falklands Analogy Really Tells Us
Discussing where Chinese “Falkland-Style” wars could take place is just like reading tea leaves. Will China raid Diego Garcia or Darwin in case of a fight against the U.S.? Could Pacific Island states Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, or Mauritius somehow become objectives of PLAN amphibious invasions? Will China strike Persian Gulf or East African countries in order to secure their resources? Nobody can know for certain. We will see when we (don’t) get there.

What the analogy really tells us is where China is going in the hierarchy of navies. Geoffrey Till emphasized that the most sophisticated attempt ever undertaken at classifying navies was done by Eric Grove (Till 2013: 114). In 1990, Grove classified navies from a Rank of 9, “Token”, to a Rank of 1, “Major Global Force Projection – Complete” (Grove 1990: 237-240). Of course, Rank 1, until present, was only achieved by the U.S. Rank 2 Major Global Force Projection – Partial was achieved just one time by the Soviets during the 1980s until 1991/92, but never again by any country.

Relevant for the given case are Rank 3, “Medium Global Force Projection”, and Rank 4, “Medium Regional Force Projection.” Rank 3 means that a navy posses at least one carrier, amphibious capabilities, SSBN, SSN and a larger number of surface warships like destroyers and frigates. According to Grove, a Medium Global Force Projection Navy would “be capable of conducting one major ‘out of area operation and (…) would be capable of engaging in high-level naval operations in closer ocean areas” (Grove 1990: 238). Thus, Britain in 1982 has to be understood as a Rank 3 case.

Grove considered the PLAN to be a Rank 4 Medium Regional Force Projection case (Grove 1990: 238). With no carriers or expeditionary amphibious capabilities, the PLAN was able by its submarines and surface warships to exercise maritime power in the West Pacific, but not beyond.

The Pentagon’s Annual Report is talking about China “becom[ing] a stronger regional force that is able to project power across the globe for high-intensity operations over a period of several months” (p. 38). Hence, the Pentagon’s analysis matches exactly with Grove’s criteria (surprise, surprise?). Most remarkable is that even in 1990 Grove foresaw that China could become a candidate for Rank 3 “in the medium- to long-term” and could even move “into Rank 2, but not for several decades” (Grove 1990: 238). Now – 23 years after Grove’s excellent classification – China is on the way to move(sic) from Rank 4 to 3. However, it is not there yet. The criteria for operational carriers is not fulfilled. Moreover, the main reason why I personally would not rank China a 3 is that its military has had no combat experience since 1979. Therefore, what the Pentagon’s analogy and Grove’s classification really tell us, is how hard it is to climb up the Ranks in the hierarchy of navies.

How Europe Should React
China’s expeditionary ambitions are more westward looking than eastwards. As the Report outlines, Beijing’s areas of concern are the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and even the Mediterranean. The Times of India, for example, reported something similar:

“(…), and the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is expected to grow. David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador in Africa, expects China’s navy to make more frequent visits to port cities across the Indian Ocean – in South Asia, the southern Middle East and on the east coast of Africa – within the next 10 years and to expand its reach to North African ports on the Mediterranean Sea.” 

Thus, Europeans should pay as much or even more attention than the U.S. to what the Chinese are doing. Given that the U.S. really continues to retreat from the Middle East, the Western Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf will become areas of major concern in particular for Europe.

Instead of living in the world of political correctness and talk about utopian ideas, said German EU-Commissioner Günter Oettinger in May, many Eurocrats from the Brussels Bubble must abandon their geostrategic blindness. Except for themselves, in real life nobody outside Europe cares that the EU is promoting human rights, environmental protection, and gender equality. Europe will never become an international actor taken seriously on other continents as long as geopolitical, geostrategic, and strategic thinking only happens in Paris and London. Therefore, it is not a surprise, that China’s media scoffs about European decline and tells the Europeans to shut up.

However, there is no need for unconditional surrender. Many useful things can be done today. Maritime cooperation between NATO and China has already started and seems to work. Thus, this program should be continued and extended to build mutual trust. Moreover, Chinese and European interests for safe and secure sealanes in the Indian Ocean are the same. Some kind of permanent maritime security cooperation, maybe even including India, would absolutely make sense.

To implement this, Europeans must in composite preserve a Rank 3 status as a “Medium Global Force Projection Navy”; either uni-/bilaterally by France and Britain or by a broader European coalition. If Europe would be unable to deliver significant maritime power eye to eye with China, leaders in Beijing with command over a Rank 3 navy (maybe moving towards Rank 2) would tell the Europeans to simmer down when Brussels calls for a “political solution” or “multilateral dialogue” about the Indian Ocean.

Britain and France will continue their fight not to drop down to Rank 4. The UK’s coming Queen-Elizabeth-Carriers are definitely a boost to British (and European) power-projection capabilities. However, the economic and financial situation raises large questions as to whether both countries will be able to sustain their levels of defense spending, especially France. While London has, Paris has not undertaken any serious cuts yet. Needless to say that France’s terrifying financial and economic situation will bring the question of cutting defense spending on the table. The most likely scenario is that Britain and France will continue to go together, whenever they cannot go alone. However, due to harsh cuts in the French military budget, the time could come, where Anglo-French cooperation will not be enough anymore. Without any U.S. military bailout in sight, a pivotal indicator for Europe’s future as a maritime power is whether countries like the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and in particular Germany are more willing to pool and share substantially and to go to places together.

By Felix Seidler, Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany / German security affairs  writer. This article appeared in original form at his website, Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik.

Grove, Eric 1990: The Future of Seapower. Annapolis.
IISS 2013: The Military Balance. London.
Till, Geoffrey 2013: Seapower. London.

Coal to Oil and the Great Green Fleet

HMS BARHAM, a QUEEN ELIZABETH class Battleship, one of the Royal Navy's first oil-powered ships
HMS Barhham,Queen Elizabeth-class battleship, one of the Royal Navy’s first oil-powered ships

It has been more than a month since the Senate failed to pass legislation that would have blocked U.S. Navy efforts to develop and use biofuels.  This passage of time means it might now be possible to make a less emotional and more measured comparison of the Navy’s “Great Green Fleet” to the decision-making processes behind previous similar historic transitions in propulsion.

The stated goal of the Great Green Fleet is to fuel an entire Carrier Strike Group with “alternative sources of energy” by 2016 (the definition of which helpfully includes nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines).  Most of the controversy surrounding the project has been over the amount spent developing sources of biofuels ($170 million), a main focus of the Navy’s drive to find half its fuel from “alternative sources by 2020”.

Comparisons between the U.S.’s current naval situation and that of Great Britain a century ago may be so common now as to be cliche (a topic I’ve dabbled in myself on a few different occasions), but this potential change in the preferred source of propulsion for the surface fleet is reminiscent of the Royal Navy’s shift from coal to oil before the First World War.  Convinced that oil was necessary to make new ships that would outperform and outfight those of the Germans, Winston Churchill, civilian head of the Royal Navy as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915, created a commission led by then-former First Sea Lord Admiral Jackie Fisher with instructions to figure out how to implement the change: “You have got to find the oil; to show how it can be stored cheaply: how it can be purchased regularly & cheaply in peace, and with absolute certainty during war.”

Some of the factors used by the leaders of the U.S. Navy today in evaluating the fuel issue echo the way that it was framed by Churchill a century ago, with the performance implications of the fuel, costs, and the security of supply informing the decision-making process to different degrees.

Since the biofuels to be used by the Great Green Fleet are interchangeable with current oil-derived fuels, the actual performance benefits for the U.S. Navy are minimal, and the difference between old and new fuel sources ought to be transparent to the operator.  There were significant performance advantages associated with a switch from coal to oil by the Royal Navy, however.  While coal was less prone than oil to explosion if struck by enemy fire, this was greatly outweighed by oil’s much diminished labor requirements – no need for stokers to haul coal from storage spaces to the plant – and ease of refueling at sea.  On a pure performance comparison, oil-driven engines also generally allowed ships to go faster and further.

Although the cost of oil was not necessarily the biggest issue in debates over the switch from coal in the early twentieth century it has been the main item of contention surrounding the Great Green Fleet.  Biofuels for the Great Green Fleet have regularly been described as four times the cost of regular fuel.  The Secretary of the Navy has countered that the high costs associated with the initial investment will be worthwhile because the investment will help make alternative fuels “more commercially viable” and cheaper in the long run.  While biofuels are much more costly now, price volatility means that oil’s current price advantage is not always guaranteed.

In fact the vulnerability of the global oil supply is the primary issue both debates considered, although each set of decision-makers reached an opposite set of conclusions.  While the U.S. is not necessarily dependent on oil extracted in the Middle East, the volume of oil originating from major suppliers like Saudi Arabia has a significant impact on its price, which in turn affects the American economy and consumers (including the military).  In its public pronouncements on the Great Green Fleet, the U.S. Navy has made such a consideration clear, arguing that “the purpose of these energy goals is to improve our combat capability and to increase our energy security by addressing a significant military vulnerability:  dependence on foreign oil.”  “Market volatility” in its own right has been a significant Department of Defense cost,  with price increases alone accounting for a $19 billion bill in 2011.

Skeptics of the Royal Navy’s proposed switch to oil propulsion had serious reservations about its supply.  Wales was a rich source of the high-grade coal used by warships of that era, and the U.K. at the time had no domestic source of oil (Jackie Fisher famously stated that “Oil don’t grow in England.”).  Fortunately, oil exploration had just seriously begun in the Middle East, and Britain “solved” its oil supply problem by government investment in the new Anglo-Persian Oil Company and an agreement for a twenty year oil supply.  A revisionist assessment also puts the supply question on its head, holding that British leaders, fearful of labor unrest, felt Middle Eastern oil was a more secure commodity than coal taken out of the ground.

"Oil! Glorious, Oil! Hot, sweet crude in barrels!"
“Oil! Glorious, Oil! Hot, sweet crude in barrels!”

Regardless of why the decision to adopt oil propulsion was made, its implications (oil historian Daniel Yergin called it “Churchill’s great gamble”, pushing “for conversion to oil before the supply problem had been solved”) were significant, committing Britain to maintaining a secure supply line to the Middle Eastern oil fields in order to keep its military machine going.  This may not have necessarily been a major new commitment when Britain still maintained India and a variety of other Asian territories as part of its Empire, but it was a significant geopolitical decision, one mirrored decades later by the U.S. when President Carter outlined what has since been labeled as the Carter Doctrine, a policy of U.S. military commitment to the region that has been acted upon by each of his successors.  Carter stated in his 1980 State of the Union address that:

“An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and any such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

Ironically, the British shift to oil-powered ships had little to no impact on the fight at sea during the First World War.  In fact, the Royal Navy was faced with shortages caused by German U-Boat attacks on tankers, resulting in extended stays in port and speed limits on some ships.  To Winston Churchill, however, the tactical advantages of oil outweighed other considerations like the cost of oil and any potential supply vulnerabilities.  He felt that oil would help the Royal Navy win a war at sea with Germany and that “Mastery itself was the prize of the venture.”

The relevant question today is whether the strategic calculus has changed since that time.  To the Royal Navy a century ago, the risk of an uncertain supply of fuel was mitigated by the expectation of better fighting ships.  Does the current uncertainty associated with oil make it a vulnerability to the fleet, and can that vulnerability be managed or hedged against by biofuels or other energy sources?

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence officer currently serving on the OPNAV staff.  He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and onboard USS Essex (LHD 2).  The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the US Government.

The Carrier and National Security Variables


Worth the price of influence?
Worth the price of influence?

The report At What Cost a Carrier? published by CNAS and written by CAPT Henry J. Hendrix contains all the necessary ingredients for a simple model-structuring discussion about the validity and viability of the “Carrier Force” concept. With such a model, individual variables can be discussed or discarded without undermining the need to answer the leading cost question or the model itself. These are the basic variables we get with a carrier:

  • Influence: The amount of influence a navy can project on the world is indirectly measured by carrier military power – sets of “90,000 tons of diplomacy” – and not limited to it. In fact, the rest most of the world uses other means to influence events in order to achieve favorable outcomes.  Other nations may want a carrier but, because they cannot afford one, have to look for alternatives.
  • Cost: The cost of achieving a carrier’s desired capabilities, whether measured by the price of procurement, life-cycle cost, or the cost to restore damaged capabilities during armed conflict. Inversely, not building carriers incurs the cost of losing industrial base and know-how.
  • Risk: This is commonly understood as vulnerability from a lack of assets (the risk of going without), but there are also consequences of losing a carrier. The magnitude of lost military power, cost, influence, and image in such a case would enormous.

Military effectiveness-related attributes, like striking power and affordability, are relatively easy to measure and remain at the center of discussions. On the other hand, political-value calculations are less structured (and harder to quantify) but probably represent the biggest threat to the carrier-centric concept, especially if linked with a shift in strategy. What is the acceptable Cost to have X amount of Influence? Or to reduce X amount of Risk? Is increasing Influence worth increasing Risk? What is our strategy to have Influence on opponent?

There are many examples of proposals aimed at undermining the delicate balance between the above attributes.

During the 1980s, Surface Action Groups (SAGs) built around battleships (then still in service) were considered partial substitutes for Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs). It was a compromise, which in effect supplemented carriers but did not replace them.

In the same category we can place contemporary “Influence Squadrons.”

“If the Navy rethinks the role of Carrier Strike Groups (Ferrari) and deploys new, scaled-down Influence Squadrons (Ford), the result will be 320 hulls in water for three-quarters the price,” said Capt. Hendrix. This fits well with the trends of other nations, purchasing LPH-class helicopter carriers as affordable naval air power, and spurs grim predictions for carriers from bloggers:

Were Humphrey a betting man, then he’d be willing to place a small wager that within 20 years, there will be six nations operating aircraft carriers (down from nine today), and only two of them will be in the West…

Sir Humphrey depicts the world (almost) without carriers and shows how easily – through the cascading effects of delayed deployments, reduced training, and backlogs in nuclear refueling – sequestration could drastically reduce U.S. naval air power (or its useful part). In this context, if the variables above are the right ones, than DF-21 is the modern equivalent of the Star Wars project and cruise missiles from Cold War-era. Development of these weapon systems created such strong financial pressures on their opponent that they ultimately put the enemy’s whole system on the edge of collapse. DF-21 is presented as a weapon targeting carriers’ vulnerabilities, but in a way it becomes strategic weapon with political calculations behind it.

Ballistic missiles represent yet another area of exploration, which potentially could result in changing the prime positions of carriers in a national defense portfolio. We’ve lately seen the latest attempts to reinvent conventionally armed Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs). These concepts are not new and in this case risk-calculation will probably prevail, as launching ballistic missiles from submerged submarines creates a danger of triggering nuclear conflict as the adversary may have a hard time differentiating the conventional launch from the nuclear variety.


Challenging the old calculus.
                             Challenging the old calculus.

The impression is that there is no threat today to aircraft carriers’ primacy because they still represent such a large capability to influence events. Experimenting with other alternatives shouldn’t be viewed as a budgetary threat to carriers but rather as a way to limit the risk if an opponent changes the balance between Influence, Cost, and Risk in favor of other means or weapon systems. The time elapsed between construction of HMS Dreadnought and the Jutland Battle was only 10 years. In the battle, the British Grand Fleet validated the concept of the distant blockade of Germany, but at the same time forced Hochseeflotte to switch resources toward U-Boats, which in turn made the Grand Fleet obsolete in maintaining a distant blockade. Preparing defensive measures against the new threat was costly during the war and forgotten in peacetime.

Przemek Krajewski alias Viribus Unitis is a blogger In Poland.  His area of interest is broad context of purpose and structure of Navy and promoting discussions on these subjects In his country

USS Enterprise – A British Memoriam

           We are Legend; Ready on Arrival; The First, the Finest; Eight Reactors, None FasterBig EWhen a crisis confronts the nation, the first question often asked by policymakers is: ‘What naval forces are available and how fast can they be on station?’
                 – Admiral C.A.H. Trost, USN Chief of Naval Operations Proceedings, May 1990


In December 2012, in execution of the recommendations set down in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the fiscal year 2010, the world’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN-65), was ‘inactivated’ at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. Such ceremonies are always poignant events, a mixture of sadness and celebratory reflection on a ships life and achievements. It is estimated that some 100,000 American men and women had served on her during a distinguished 51-year career and many of them turned out to say farewell to this extraordinary warship.

She is not only extraordinary in her length of service in the U.S. Navy but also in her size and capabilities. She is 1,123 feet long (331 feet shorter than the height of the Empire State Building). Her displacement is 95,000 long tons, 4.5 times larger than the recently decommissioned Royal Navy Invincible-class carriers and still 25 – 30,000 long tons larger than, the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, the first of which will enter service in 2018, 60 years after the hull of Enterprise was laid down in a Virginian ship yard. Her 8 nuclear reactors allowed her to ‘steam’ at up to 35 knots, and meant she never had to refuel. She had a ships company of over 3,000 and could carry up to 95 aircraft. I often remember fondly a story my father told me in which he recalls acting as plane guard to a Nimitz class carrier in the Persian Gulf in 1991. In command of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Scylla (F71), he was struck by her effortless acceleration, while he practically had to burn the wardroom furniture to keep up. Even if not Enterprise, I imagine many a naval officer around the world has similar, lasting impressions of an American nuclear powered carrier.

Big E 2By any yardstick Enterprise is an impressive military asset, and all the more so when you consider she was laid down just 13 years after the end of the Second World War. Since then she has been involved in almost every major conflict since, beginning with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, including;

• Six deployments in support of Operations in Vietnam, during which she survived a devastating fire.
• Operation Frequent Wind (1975); the evacuation of U.S. citizens and at-risk Vietnamese citizens during the North’s invasion of the South.
• Operation El Dorado Canyon (1886); the bombing of Libya.
• Operation Earnest Will (1988); escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers during the Tanker Wars.
• Operation Preying Mantis (1988) in response to the Iranian mining of an American warship during Earnest Will.
• Operation Classic Resolve (1989); demonstrating American support to Philippine President Corazon Aquino during an attempted rebel coup.
• Operation Joint Endeavour (1996) & Operation Southern Watch (1996); enforcing no fly zones over Bosnia and Iraq respectively.
• Operation Desert Fox (1998); launching airstrikes against targets in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq following his continued flagrant disregard for UN sanctions.

In more recent years, Enterprise was first to provide direct air support for Operation Enduring Freedom, the 2001 invasion of land-locked Afghanistan, delivering 700 seaborne airstrikes in just 3 weeks. She would later provide continued air support for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. She has even supported operations off the Horn of Africa against Somali pirates, quite a contrast to her baptism of fire off Cuba. I only list the most salient operations in which she played a significant part, but this list – by no means exhaustive – is sufficient to demonstrate the flexibility and utility of such a vessel. The above record also does not account for the ever-valuable ‘showing the flag’ missions, a task for which she would have had a powerful talent. One must never underestimate the diplomatic leverage a warship with such destructive potential can afford, either sitting offshore or docked in harbour; wherever she is in the world she is a potent expression of America’s engagement with that region. There is something sublime and deeply affecting in the design, scale and military capability of a carrier such as Enterprise.

But she is more than a military asset; she is also an American icon. She has hosted rock concerts, she had starring roles in the films Top Gun and Hunt for the Red October, and of course, her futuristic namesake explores the final frontier. She and her sister ships not only define how America prosecutes defence, but also help to shape an understanding of American culture and international identity. When commissioned in 1961 Enterprise was the embodiment of the post-war American spirit, powerful, flexible, responsive and technologically innovative, characteristics that all contributed to an over-arching commitment to global security1. She was a clear demonstration of America’s post-1945 ambitions and more significantly for a Brit like myself, a clear indication that the Royal Navy had been conclusively usurped as the world’s preponderant naval force (however I am yet to concede the title of the finest!). Seapowers around the globe still aspire towards what Enterprise defines. You only need to look to the shipyards of China, India, Russia and indeed, the United Kingdom, to get an appreciation for the far-reaching legacy of this ship, laid down half a century ago.

Big E 3Her inactivation has not hugely impacted America’s seaborne air-power capabilities. The U.S. Navy still operates 10 carrier battle groups across the globe (each purported to cost the equivalent of the entire Italian defence budget), capable of responding swiftly to any emergency, be it military or humanitarian. These groups continue to define America’s global defence posture. The Nimitz-class carriers, and the new generation currently under construction, present a clear indication that Washington still has an intention to remain a global presence to shape its and the world’s future from the sea and not from protracted and costly wars ashore.

At the de-commissioning event in December, Captain William C. Hamilton, Jr., the twenty-third and final commanding officer of Enterprise reflected on the ships history, “Enterprise is a special ship and crew, and it was special long before I got here”.

“Before I took command of this ship, I learned the definition of ‘enterprise’, which is ‘an especially daring and courageous undertaking driven by a bold and adventurous spirit.’ Fifty-one years ago, this ship was every bit of that definition.”

“Here we are 51 years later, celebrating the astonishing successes and accomplishments of this engineering marvel that has roamed the seas for more than half the history of Naval Aviation. Daring, courageous, bold, and adventurous indeed.”2

It is hardly surprising, and a reflection of the impression Enterprise has made on the American psyche, that a recent announcement declared that the latest Gerald R. Ford-class carrier will be named Enterprise, the 9th American warship to bear what has become a legendary title. When one considers the contribution of Big E to American security, diplomacy and military operations over the last half century, who can argue, as some are tempted to do here in London, if not in words but in their actions, that seapower is becoming less and less relevant to present and future global security?

 Simon Williams received a BA Hons in Contemporary History from the University of Leicester in 2008. In early 2011 he was awarded an MA in War Studies from King’s College London. His postgraduate dissertation was entitled The Second Boer War 1899-­1902: A Triumph of British Sea Power. He organised the Navy is the Nation Conference, which was held in April 2012 in Portsmouth, UK. The aim of this event was to explore the impact of the Royal Navy on British culture and national identity.

1. I must add at this point however that the USN relies heavily on RN mine-countermeasure vessels to ensure safe passage of his big-ticket assets in hostile waters.

2. ‘Enterprise, Navy’s First Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrier, Inactivated’