Is Britain dooming herself to repeat the mistakes of the past?

Posted on November 27, 2010


Author: Alexander Clarke (Principle Researcher)


In 2018, perhaps 2020 or later whenever the new carriers are made operational, Britain, if it continues on its present path will once again be carrying out an experiment in carrier aviation – an experiment which it, and only it, has done before and found that it did not work. As it did in 1918, it will put the Royal Air Force in charge of the Fleet Air Arm. This will have occurred by default due to the disbanding of the Fleet Air Arm Harrier squadrons which will undoubtedly decimate the fragile morale of that organisation already much mismanaged by successive British governments – and something which will result in the pilots, the observers, the fitters, the engineers and all their collective experience & understanding of both the capabilities and the intricacies of carrier air power leaving the Royal Navy.

Lessons of the History: Splitting Naval Air Power Long Term

During the Napoleonic wars it was the custom of Britain to appoint a dual command of expeditions if they contained both Army and Navy contingents; that experience, later re-affirmed by World War I, is what lead to the modern command structure where, in amphibious operations, the Naval commander is both the equal and the senior officer – holding the two hats of Amphibious Task Group Commander and Naval Task Group Commander. At much the same time, as the finite details were being worked out on this command structure the Royal Navy was involved with creating another dual command structure.  However, this one was more difficult to agree due to the fact that instead of it being of a tactical disposition it was seen as a strategic and ministerial one. This is where the trouble begins, not just on a practicable level but also on a theoretical one.  There are air power theorists and there are sea power theorists, and maritime air power is the application of one theory in the context of another – whilst there have been and will continue to be debates about which is which, one rests in the theory of the unity of the air, the other rests on the fact that the whole air business is a tactical part of a sea power operation. The justification for an air force separate from the Army or Navy rests on its ability to provide strategic air power; if that air power is subject to another service the justification for their independence becomes tenuous.  Therefore whilst not doing anything actively to the detriment of national security – they have tended to deride and demean the importance and capability of carrier air power to such an extent that it is a wonder they do not feel a little confused when, at the same time, they demand control of it[1].

Even now with the future of the Queen Elizabeth’s class carriers secured, the idea of leaving only 12 aircraft on them and quickly deploying more is being bandied about as viable. The RAF is treating the carriers as if they are air fields to which aircraft only need be deployed, not as highly complex machines in their own right[2]. They are also missing the point that, when problems arise, the first thing a government will want to do is to secure its position in the area preferably requiring the minimal footprint foot print to do so; i.e. not having to beg for tankers, landing or over flight rights of governments to allow Britain to arm its most powerful tactical strategic asset. If the policy of only putting 12 aircraft is actually acted upon it would seem to negate the very advantages that carriers offer over land bases – i.e. not requiring all that political handcuffs and logistical footprint. It also forgets that to operate from a carrier is not in any way as simple as operating from an airfield.   The aircrew need to be experienced and trained to a high level to operate from an airbase which moves in 6 planes simultaneously on a good day; let alone on bad days, although of course carriers like Illustrious showed that when the Icelandic volcano grounded all UK base air defence, they can just move to somewhere else to provide the air defence.

This will sound a little strange but one of the most crucial roles for the personnel on the ship is damage control & repair, whilst the RAF has specialist fire-fighters and limited general training, in the Royal Navy everyone is by necessity a very well trained fire-fighter, carpenter and damage controller. Furthermore, on top of all that, the Royal Navy personnel are able to draw on years of knowledge and experience of ships systems, and integrated understanding of a vessel’s organs. Yes, it would be possible to train RAF personnel in the fire-fighting skills, but RAF personnel move around their service and in their whole career they might not spend more than 9 months assigned to a carrier. If each were trained to the level at which they would be able to assist in these duties would take 3 if not 6 months on average, even then we could not be really sure as to the success of the training till something happened.

 There is another problem, especially in these times of defence stringency; there is a greater cost, the reason being that more officers are needed. Royal Navy aircrew simultaneously fulfil their roles within air group and can also integrate into the ship’s team to provide watch officers, boarding officers, officers of the day– positions which all require years of naval experience.  This is something which, of course, RAF officers just don’t have, principally because there would be no need for them to when flying from an airfield, whereas for a Royal Navy officer its part of their in-service career and promotion. As the positions have to be fulfilled whatever, it therefore means that in the context of an aircraft carrier a Royal Navy officer represents better value for money as they can be used to fill both the required general pool and their own special function.

Finally, there is the simple fact that RAF personnel do not sign up for sea time. Royal Navy personal may be based at either Plymouth, Rosyth, Portsmouth, or wherever, but as long as they are assigned to a ship (which most are) they will spend months of every year if not years at sea, be home for a few weeks/couple of months and go out again. The RAF and the Army are not like this.  The Harmony Rules for each service are quite different.  In general the Naval Service works far harder in the sense of separation from home life. In fact with the RAF and Army being pulled back from Germany they are going to become even more ‘home-based’ organisations, and once Afghanistan is over they will hopefully get a time of rest and respite. In contrast The Royal Navy will continue as it has since the times of Nelson & Napoleon, providing constant patrols at the disposal of the British government across the world as well as task groups able to respond to the constant fluctuations of world politics – well, it will as long as it’s given the funding to do so.

Rebuilding Naval Air Power

However the biggest problem will not be the control of naval aviation.  Whilst that will undoubtedly create problems it will be nothing compared to the problem of rebuilding the entire thing basically from scratch. To start preparing for operating larger carriers, the Royal Navy has been pursuing a program of active engagement with the USN for the last 5 years in order to be able to smooth what was expected to be a not too difficult transition from operating the small carriers of the Invincible class to operating the larger more capable and more complex carriers of the Queen Elizabeth class. Now, all that will have been lost, not just the aircrew but the fitters, deck hands, air traffic controllers.  The RN will do its best to keep the skills going with what ships and capabilities it has, but their experience of supporting fixed wing aircraft to provide a constant CAP as well as Carrier Strike will be largely based in theory or more senior personnel. When the government says the aircraft will not be procured till 2020, and that is if the F-35 is delivered to the new schedule, then it will take at least 5 if not more years before the carrier aviation is once again at the efficiency and level of skill needed to make it truly effective.


So, currently Britain is staring a crossroads moment in the face.  In its course of history this moment will be remembered as when a government either sacrificed its influence, the survivability and therefore the lives of its forces for a pieces of silver which equalled less that a 10th of what it spends every year in foreign aid or danegeld – depending on your perspective. A government which rather than learning the lessons of the past has repeated its mistakes – placing public faith in future equipment which it may well not deliver at the expense of current equipment which is required for use now.

Options for the Preservation of Carrier Air Power

The options for preservation are as follows, laid out in order of effectiveness:

  1. Rethink the decision, maintain a reinforced squadron of Royal Navy Harriers in service, and let the Royal Navy continue to build on its multi-role F/A-18 Super Hornet experience by forming up 2 operational and 1 headquarters squadron as outlined in a ‘better option’[3], to deploy those squadrons on USN carriers and speed up HMS Queen Elizabeth to get her in service as soon as possible.
  2. Keep a squadron of 18 Harriers (with 24 pilots, this is a few more than usual to provide for more personnel when it becomes necessary to expand) going in RNAS and keep the same number of pilots with the USN.
  3. Buy a squadron of 18-24 F/A-18 Super Hornets for deployment on USN ships when they have space, and also to protect the Falklands.  These aircraft, unlike the Harrier, Tornado or Typhoon are multi-role and can not only fight air to air but also attack ships and ground targets.  Use this squadron to keep the pilots, fitters and other personnel going but also still keep a large number of pilots and other aircrew in separate service with the USN.

These recommendations are not plucked from thin air; they are based in the experience and knowledge as represented in other works produced by the Phoenix Think Tank [4]


Boyle, Andrew. Trenchard. London: Collins, 1962.

Dyndal, Gjert Large. Trenchard and Slessor: On the Supremacy of Air Power over Sea Power. Trondheim: Tapir Accademic Press, 2007.

Friedman, Norman. British Carrier Aviation. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1988.

John, Rebecca. Caspar John. London: Collins, 1987.

Johnstone, E G, ed. Naval Eight. London: The Signal Press, 1931.

Saward, Dudley. Bomber Harris. London: Cassell Ltd, 1984.


[1] (Boyle 1962, Dyndal 2007, Saward 1984, John 1987, Johnstone 1931), the author could write a thesis on the topic, in fact a large part of his thesis is on this topic, and whilst there are many occasions when they have worked well together as a rule of thumb the RAF and the Royal Navy have never been that keen on each other – perhaps because they are too alike, both being highly technical services, whilst the army could never challenge the RAF on technicalities the Royal Navy with its history of technology and specialisation can, whilst at the same time the army could never challenge the Royal Navy on its wider strategic role, whereas the RAF has often made ground by at least pretending and sometimes being able to.