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Aircraft Carrier (CVS)

Since the end of the Cold War, the role of the Invincible Class aircraft carriers (CVS) evolved from one of sea control to maritime force projection. In order to meet the needs of this shift in role, the CVS fleet has undergone a series of modifications and now embarks a Tailored Air Group (TAG). The TAG principle achieves total flexibility and mission focus, the fixed wing element borne from an amalgamated force - known as Joint Force Harrier (JFH) - consisting of aircraft from both Royal Navy FA2 (until OSD 2006) and Royal Air Force GR7/7A Harrier squadrons. The primary mission for the CVS is to deploy JFH and Fleet aircraft in pursuit of national objectives. This mission can be broken down into 5 key roles:

  1. Maritime Strike (MarStrike) - In the past, prior the the retirement of the Harriers in 2010, the primary role for the CVS concerns the conduct of air operations against land targets, while minimising the dependence on host nation support. Missions would include: Air Interdiction (AI) of enemy supply routes and lines of communication; Close Air Support (CAS) of deployed friendly ground forces; Defensive Counter Air (DCA) using the FA2 to repel enemy air attacks; and Offensive Counter Air (OCA) in order to render the enemy's air assets useless. Increasingly, these missions will require the use of precision and discriminatory weapons delivered by JFH aircraft, supported by the Sea King ASaC MK7 helicopter.
  2. Littoral Manoeuvre (LitM) - Another major role for the CVS concerns the use of support helicopters in aid of amphibious or other air manoeuvre operations - not dissimilar to how HMS Ocean operates as a Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH). This role is not compatible for a CVS tasked as a MarStrike platform, however, in times of operational need, a strategic decision to re-roll a CVS as a second LPH could be taken.
  3. Optimised Access - In order to succeed in either the MarStrike or LitM role, the CVS will need to operate effectively within the littoral environment (defined as coastal sea areas and that portion of the land, which is susceptible to influence or support from the sea). To achieve this, sea lines of communication between support vessels and the battle area/theatre of operation need to be protected at all times. Integrated with other task group units, aircraft, such as the Merlin HM Mk1 and Sea King ASaC Mk7, will be used to achieve the sea control (or freedom of action to use the sea for our own purpose) necessary to assure littoral access. Optimised Access is thus a concurrent role and CVS are capable of supporting this task regardless of other activity.
  4. Command and Control (C2) - In circumstances where there is a need to reduce the land footprint of allied forces on allied / hostile territory, the capacity to direct and co-ordinate the battle from onboard the CVS may become a priority. The flexibility of the CVS in supporting Maritime Component Commanders at sea has already been successfully demonstrated, and work to further refine this capability is currently underway.
  5. Other Additional roles for the CVS include wider Defence Diplomacy, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief, Evacuation and Peace Support operations. These tasks would be achieved by adapting the CVS and embarked aircraft capabilities to support the required mission. Although considered to be tertiary roles, any available CVS could be tasked at short notice without specific training, equipment or logistic modification to undertake such a mission.

With the creation of JFH and the increasing emphasis on Maritime Power Projection, the previous approach of preformed Carrier Air Groups (CAG) attached to each CVS was obsolete. Instead, a Tailored Air Group (TAG) was created from JFH, Naval helicopters and other assets, for each operation. The nature of the TAG demands that the CVS is flexible and capable enough to provide the facilities to support the mission. Recent conflicts in Iraq and the Balkans continue to demonstrate the versatility and importance of the CVS as a national defence capability. Their ability to operate and be sustained indefinitely without host nation support makes a key pillar of Britain's Maritime Strategy.

The October 2010 Strategic Defense Review stated that "we will complete the construction of two large aircraft carriers. The Government believes it is right for the United Kingdom to retain, in the long term, the capability that only aircraft carriers can provide - the ability to deploy air power from anywhere in the world, without the need for friendly air bases on land. In the short term, there are few circumstances we can envisage where the ability to deploy airpower from the sea will be essential. That is why we have, reluctantly, taken the decision to retire the Harrier aircraft, which has served our country so well. But over the longer term, we cannot assume that bases for land-based aircraft will always be available when and where we need them. That is why we need an operational carrier. But the last Government committed to carriers that would have been unable to work properly with our closest military allies. It will take time to rectify this error, but we are determined to do so. We will fit a catapult to the operational carrier to enable it to fly a version of the Joint Strike Fighter with a longer range and able to carry more weapons. Crucially, that will allow our carrier to operate in tandem with the US and French navies, and for American and French aircraft to operate from our carrier and vice versa. And we will retain the Royal Marine brigade, and an effective amphibious capability."

The October 2010 Strategic Defense Review stated that "Decisions on defence equipment require judgements on what our Armed Forces will need 20 to 30 years from now. That is particularly true for large warships like carriers and the fast jets that fly off them. The previous Administration ordered two new carriers three times the size of our existing ones. It planned to equip them from a combat air fleet of around 150 fifth generation Joint Strike Fighters. This 20 billion programme was crowding out other important investment in the Armed Forces.

The National Security Council has therefore looked hard at the strategic, industrial and financial aspects of this programme, and has taken a number of difficult but necessary decisions to achieve by the 2020s an adaptable and effective carrier-strike capability in balance with the rest of the Armed Force structure. The key conclusions are:

There is a strategic requirement for a future carrier-strike capability. The Invincible-class carriers were designed principally to meet Cold War threats on the high seas, with short-range jets providing air defence for a naval task group, without the ability to interoperate aircraft with our key allies and whose primary mission was anti-submarine warfare. A Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, operating the most modern combat jets, will give the UK the ability to project military power more than 700 nautical miles over land as well as sea, from anywhere in the world. Both the US and France, for example, have used this freedom of manoeuvre to deliver combat airpower in Afghanistan from secure carrier bases in the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean. This capability will give the UK long term political flexibility to act without depending, at times of regional tension, on agreement from other countries to use of their bases for any mission we want to undertake. It will also give us in-built military flexibility to adapt our approach over the 50 years of the carrier's working life. In particular, it provides options for a coercive response to crises, as a complement or alternative to ground engagements. It contributes to an overall Force Structure geared towards helping deter or contain threats from relatively well-equipped regional powers, as well as dealing with insurgencies and non-state actors in failing states.

The current, limited carrier-strike capability will be retired. We must face up to the difficult choices put off by the last Government. Over the next five years combat air support to operations in Afghanistan must be the over-riding priority: the Harrier fleet would not be able to provide this and sustain a carrier-strike role at the same time. Even after 2015, short-range Harriers - whether operating from HMS Illustrious or HMS Queen Elizabeth - would provide only a very limited coercive capability. We judge it unlikely that this would be sufficiently useful in the latter half of the decade to be a cost-effective use of defence resources."

The cuts mean no planes will be able to fly from British aircraft carriers until 2019-2020. A group of former senior officers, including former commanders of the Royal Navy and Air Force, called the cuts a danger to Britain's national security. The officers argue that the decision to take Ark Royal out of service so quickly is foolish given newly discovered oil and gas reserves around the Falkland Islands, the South Atlantic territory Britain fought a war with Argentina over in 1982. Britain, in effect, is once again without the ability to provide air support to its troops at such distances. "In respect of the newly valuable Falklands and their oil fields, for the next 10 years at least, Argentina is practically invited to attempt to inflict on us a national humiliation" threatening "a blow . from which British prestige . might never recover." Lord West, Sir Julian Oswald, a former Admiral of the Fleet, Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, Vice-Admiral John McAnally and Major General Julian Thompson put their names to the letter.

Defence Minister Nick Harvey added: "The Falklands is a different situation now. We've got a company of troops there, we've got submarines. You can launch fighter jets from the land. Carrier strike is just one way of launching a fighter jet, not the only way."

Prominent Falkland islanders also dismissed fears of another attack from Argentina. Gavin Short, a member of the Falkland Islands Assembly, said: "It would be extremely foolhardy of any government to contemplate a foreign adventure here. "We are not concerned that the cuts will increase the possibility of a successful attack."




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