Friday, 13 August 2010

Lies Damned Lies And Aircraft Carriers


In the 1960s the British Royal Navy was expecting to receive two new large aircraft carriers,C.V.A.01 and C.V.A.02.

These two ships were eventually cancelled as the Royal Air Force claimed it could supply global air power from a number of island bases.

This claim was supported by a map on which Australia had,allegedly,been moved 500 miles West.

The acrimonious interservice rivalry of the 1960s has not gone away.

Ever since the new Queen Elizabeth class carriers were mooted there have been many false claims made denigrating aircraft carriers.

Often such remarks are made by members of the Royal Air Force.

One would hope such inaccuracy is the result of being ill informed rather than any attempt to mislead.

Decisions on military matters are a matter of life and death to many young men and women.

Debate about such matters should be based on fact not fiction.

The following is a list of the most often heard examples of false claims about aircraft carriers.


Carrier aircraft needed more refuelling during the invasion of Afghanistan.


During the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 carrier based F18s of the United States Navy were operating from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea,about 100 miles from Pakistan and 750 miles from Kabul.

Land based F15 and F16 aircraft of the United States Air Force operated from bases in Kuwait,about 1,800 miles from Kabul while B1 and B52 bombers flew from Diego Garcia,about 2,900 miles from Kabul.

All aircraft routinely topped up their tanks with aerial refuelling before entering "the box" over Afghanistan.

As there were far more carrier aircraft flying far more sorties each day,there were also far more refuelling "hook ups" by carrier aircraft.

The F18C Hornet,used by the United States Navy in that campaign,is also a famously short ranged aircraft.

However,there can be no question that land based F15s and F16s flying from bases in the Gulf required far more refuelling per sortie than the F18s flying from carriers in the Northern Arabian Sea as they were operating well beyond their unrefuelled tactical radii.

The biggest gas guzzlers of all were the B52 and B1 bombers flying from Diego Garcia.

The B52's tactical radius is also not sufficient for it to bomb afghanistan without refuelling.

The fuel required to top up the tanks of just one B52 which has just flown 2,600 miles before entering Afghanistan,over 50 tonnes of fuel,is probably sufficient to top up about 20 F18s.

B52s were refuelled twice on every sortie.

British E3D Sentry Airborne Early Warning aircraft also needed to receive 60,000lbs of fuel per sortie to stay over Afghanistan for just 8 hours.


Carrier aircraft generate lower sortie rates than land based aircraft.


The cost of airpower is defined by the number of aircraft a nation must keep in service to satisfy peak demand during major warfighting operations.

The number of aircraft a nation must keep in service to satisfy peak demand during major warfighting operations is defined by the number of sorties which are required each day divided by the number of sorties each aircraft can fly in a day.

More sorties flown per aircraft per day means fewer aircraft are required.

A requirement for fewer aircraft means a smaller,lower cost combat aircraft fleet.

In every major air war which the United Kingdom has been involved in since 1945,carrier based aircraft have generated far higher sortie rates than land based aircraft of the Royal Air Force.

During the Suez Crisis in 1956,carrier based aircraft of the Royal Navy generated twice as many sorties per aircraft per day as the land based aircraft of the Royal Air Force.

During the Falklands War in 1982,carrier based Sea Harriers of the Royal Navy generated thirty times as many sorties per aircraft per day as the land based bombers of the Royal Air Force.

During the liberation of Kuwait in 1991,carrier based aircraft of the
U.S.S.Midway,U.S.S.Ranger and U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt generated 40% more sorties per aircraft per day than the land based aircraft of the Royal Air Force.

During the bombing of Serbia in 1999,carrier based aircraft of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt
generated twice as many sorties per aircraft per day as the land based aircraft of the Royal Air Force.

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003,the carrier based aircraft of U.S.S. Kitty Hawk generated twice as many sorties per aircraft per day as the land based aircraft of the Royal Air Force.


Carrier aircraft generate lower sustained sortie rates than land based aircraft


Sustained sortie rates generated by the Royal Air Force in Afghanistan or Iraq are no higher than those generated by an American aircraft carrier on a typical cruise.

In fact,American aircraft carriers often generate sustained sortie rates during routine cruises which are higher than the sortie rates which the Royal Air Force surges during major combat operations.

For example,during the 192 day MED 05 deployment of the American aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt,Carrier Air Wing Eight (C.V.W. 8) flew 16,000 sorties.

A rate of 1.1 sorties per aircraft per day sustained for over six months.

Which is a higher sortie rate than the Royal Air Force has generated in any major air war since Suez in 1956.

A typical American carrier cruise is also a month or two longer than a typical Royal Air Force rotation through Afghanistan.


Aircraft carriers are more vulnerable than land bases


Since 1945,hundreds of air bases have been damaged,destroyed or overrun by the enemy in wars all over the World.

It is far easier to find and attack a fixed airbase than a moving aircraft carrier surrounded by escorts.

This was demonstrated by the Taliban when they recently destroyed Royal Air Force Harriers on the ground in Afghanistan.


An aircraft carrier is a self licking ice cream cone which needs to dedicate most of it's air power for self defence.


As the enemy knows the location of fixed land bases,he can dedicate all of his resources to attacking them.

Consequently they require more air defence sorties to protect them than would be required by a moving carrier whose location is unknown to the enemy.

Unfortunately neither the Royal Air Force nor the British Army has the resources required to protect air bases and their supporting infrastructure in even a moderate threat environment.


Aircraft carriers are bankrupting the Royal Navy.


The annualised lifecycle cost of the Royal Navy's new aircraft carriers is about £200 Million a year.

That is about 2.5% of the Royal Navy's £7,500 Million (all figures from the 2008/09 budget).

That is a small fraction of the £1,800 million a year spent on surface combatants or the £2,000 Million a year the Royal Navy spends on submarines,it is less than the £500 Million a year spent on amphibious ships,less than the £300 Million a year spent on replenishment ships,less than the £320 Million a year spent on mine hunters and patrol ships,less than the £620 Million a year spent on the Royal Marines and little more than the £180 Million a year the Royal Navy spends on it’s survey vessels.

Strangely,none of these more expensive items is ever described as "killing the Royal Navy".

Some might suggest that is because the Royal Air Force does not regard the navy's submarines as "competition".

Aircraft carriers are one of the Ministry of Defence's cheapest major procurements.

Aircraft carriers need to return to port regularly to replenish.


During the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt spent 159 days continuously at sea.

That is,159 days at sea conducting carrier operations without putting in to port once.

During the Falklands War on 1982,the British Aircraft carrier Her Majesty's Ship (H.M.S.) Invincible spent 166 days at sea.

Which compares well with the length of major air wars the United Kingdom has been involved in since 1945:

Korea,1950-53,1127  days;

Suez 1956,5 days;

Falklands 1982,42 days;

Kuwait 1990,42 days;

Kosovo 1999,78 days;

Afghanistan 2001,78 days;

Iraq 2003,31 days.

Only during the Korean War did major war fighting operations exceed the duration of a carriers endurance.

As most land bases were overrun by the enemy during that conflict British forces relied on carrier based air support.


Aircraft carriers can't conduct sustained bombing operations without frequently returning to port because they don't carry enough bombs.


The biggest bombing campaign waged by the Royal Air Force since 1945 was during the 78 day long campaign to liberate Kuwait in 1991,to quote the Royal Air Force's own history:

"The RAF deployed 158 aircraft in support of Operation GRANBY,and flew over 6,000 sorties in theatre between the start of hostilities on 17 January 1991 and the cessation on 28 February 1991.

 Offensive sorties by Tornado GR1s and Jaguars totalled over 2,000.These aircraft delivered more than 3,000 tonnes of ordnance,including some 6,000 x 1,000lb bombs,(over 1,000 of which were laser guided),over 100 anti-radar missiles and nearly 700 air-to-ground rockets."

A single American Nimitz class aircraft carrier carries about 3,000 tonnes of ordnance.

The replenishment ship which accompanies the carrier has a similar amount again.

A carrier task group carries with it more bombs than the Royal Air Force has dropped in any major air war in the 65 years since 1945.

Unlike the Royal Air Force,the carrier will not need to use VC10 transport aircraft to deliver bombs to it's air bases at great expense.


The Royal Navy neglected naval aviation between the World Wars.


The Royal Naval Air Service (R.N.A.S.) was incorporated into the Royal Air Force on the first of April 1918.

The Royal Navy did not regain control of the renamed Fleet Air Arm (F.A.A.),until 24th of May 1939 as a result of the Inskip Award.

By that time the Second World War was about to start and priority for aircraft production had been given to building fighters for the Royal Air Force.

The Royal Navy was more interested in building battleships than aircraft carriers between the World Wars.


As a result of the London and Washington naval conferences the United Kingdom was limited by treaty to building no more than 6 aircraft carriers and 2 battleships between the wars.

The Royal Navy built all 6 carriers it was allowed before the Washington Treaty was rescinded in 1936.

By the start of the Second World War in 1939 the Royal Navy had 7 aircraft carriers,more than any other navy in the World had at that time.

The Royal Navy will never have enough aircraft for the aircraft carriers.


The Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers require an airgroup of 36 F35Cs for major combat operations.

During the Falklands War of 1982,the Royal Navy had 82% (28 out of 34 aircraft) of it's Sea Harrier fleet in combat.

If those figures were replicated,it would require just 44 aircraft to surge a 36 strong carrier wing for major warfighting operations.

Alternatively,the Royal Air Force generally maintains 4 out of 7 of it's combat aircraft with frontline squadrons.

Applying that metric suggests that a fleet of just 63 F35Cs would be required to sustain a 36 strong carrier air wing.

Such a carrier wing could generate as many daily sorties as were flown by 66 land based aircraft of the Royal Air Force during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Sustained long term commitments do not require a full 36 strong carrier wing.

For example,there are just 8 Royal Air Force Tornados conducting sustained long term operations in Afghanistan.

A single carrier wing of F35Cs would have been capable of delivering all the combat aircraft sorties which British forces have generated in every combat operation ,surged or sustained,since 1991.

Since 1945 there have only been two occasions on which British forces have required more sorties than a single carrier wing could generate.

The first was Suez in 1956 where British and French aircraft flew about 5,000 sorties in 5 days.

This number is of little relevance as back then it required dozens of sorties to destroy a target which today would be taken out by just one bomb from a single aircraft (On 13 May 1972,the  Thanh Hoa Bridge in Vietnam was destroyed by guided bombs,earlier attempts with dumb bombs,dating back to 3 April 1965,had consumed 873 sorties and cost 11 aircraft.).

The only other time British forces have required more sorties than a single Queen Elizabeth class carrier could deliver was during the liberation of Kuwait in 1990-1991.

British fast jets flew an average of 72 sorties per day during this conflict.

A mixture of "dumb" and "smart" bombs were delivered,though the majority were unguided.

With greater availability of suitable guided weapons,fewer sorties would be required today.

 A single carrier could generate all of those sorties.

Which begs the question of why the United Kingdom spends so much money on maintaining a fleet of over 300 combat aircraft when all it needs is a single carrier wing?


Britain does not need aircraft carriers because it has never been refused Host Nation Support (H.N.S.) for it's land based aircraft in 30 years.


British Jaguar combat aircraft of 54(F) Squadron Royal Air Force were based at Incirlik in Turkey up to March 2003.

They were there to enforce the Northern "No Fly Zone" over Iraq under operation Resinate North.

In March 2003 British forces invaded Iraq but the Jaguars of 54(F) squadron took no part in operation Telic:

"On February 6th 2003 the British Defence Secretary announced the deployment of 75 RAF aircraft to the Gulf region, including reconnaissance Jaguars.

 In the event no Jaguars were deployed, as the Turkish government had banned the use of its airbases for the attack on Iraq.

 Operation "Resinate North" had seen four Jaguars deployed to police the northern no-fly zone in Iraq.

 When Operation "Telic" started,the four Jaguars at Incirlick returned to RAF Coltishall, where they remained for the duration of hostilities in a pool of aircraft ready for deployment if required."

The Turkish government had refused to allow coalition forces to use it's bases for the Iraq invasion.

This demonstrated that even reliable allies cannot be relied upon.

The following was said by the then Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon during a press conference after the start of operation Telic:


"Yesterday the Foreign Secretary confirmed that you have been negotiating with Turkey over the use of air space.

 Have you got any response from the Turkish government, and how important is it for the British forces to use Turkish air space?

 And is it true that the British and American forces have stopped using the Incirlik air base as far as the Operation Northern Comfort is concerned?"

Mr Hoon:

"I have just come from a meeting with the Foreign Secretary at which that was discussed.

 All I can say to you at this stage is that discussions with Turkey continue,Turkey is a NATO ally,we are good friends, we work together and I expect that we will continue to cooperate together."

Turkey is a long standing North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (N.A.T.O.) ally of the United Kingdom.

The Americans were relying on access to Turkey for their invasion of Northern Iraq:

"On March 1,2003 the Turkish Parliament voted not to allow US Forces to use Turkish bases
during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.

This vote stunned the United States.

The United States and Turkey have been close partners since the beginning of the Cold War and the common
perception was that, at the last minute,Turkey would allow the US to use its land and sea ports."

As a result of Turkey's refusal of access to it's territory,the American 4th Infantry Division could not invade Northern Iraq and had to sail to the Persian Gulf arriving late for major combat operations.

In addition many combat and support aircraft had to be rerouted and rebased.

This resulted in aerial refuelling aircraft flying from bases in Italy to refuel aircraft over Iraq.

Aircraft from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea had to support operations in Northern Iraq due to the lack of Turkish bases for land based aircraft.

It was a similar situation with Saudi Arabia in both 2001 and 2003.

On both occasions they refused to allow their bases to be used for "offensive operations" against Afghanistan and Iraq.

This was despite the Americans having spent thousands of millions of dollars building air bases in Saudi Arabia.

In 2001 the Americans had just built a brand new Combined Air Operations Centre (C.A.O.C.) in Saudi Arabia at Prince Sultan Air Base.

This was also the location of Headquarters Joint Task Force – South West Asia (H.Q. J.T.F-S.W.A.) and the Joint Intelligence Center (J.I.C.).

British forces were also stationed at this facility which was the main theatre air war command centre.

As a result of Saudi Arabia's lack of cooperation the C.A.O.C. was relocated to Al Udeid in Qatar in 2003.

Numerous other nations have refused basing or overfly rights to Western forces over the last 65 years.

During the 1999 bombing of Kosovo,Italy was on the verge of withdrawing Home Nation Support.

As many of the aircraft involved were operating from Italian bases this would have been a major problem had diplomacy not won the day.

American aircraft flying to Afghanistan have been turned around in mid air when countries on their flight path have refused them access.


Chuck Hill said...

Sorry if I embarrassed you that was certainly not my intent.

Excellent points in this post. Your countrymen might do well by naming you Defense Minister.

tangosix said...

Hello Chuck Hill,

no problem at all,I must have at least a dozen half finished posts I have not gotten round to posting yet.

It doesn't take too long to write a post but finding all the links to back it up and pictures to illustrate it properly takes a while.
I will flesh this one out over time.

Any carrier myths I missed?


Chuck Hill said...

We appreciate the effort, thanks.

The main question regarding carriers which might still need to be addressed is the Carrier's vulnerability once it is located.

Submarine torpedoes, cruise missiles, ASBMs, etc.

Largely conjecture at this point but a question in many minds.

Personally I have a lot of confidence in their toughness.