On 4 July, Queen Elizabeth II christened the first-ever aircraft carrier to bear her name. In a symbolic gesture to Scotland, where the ship was assembled, a bottle of whisky was smashed against the hull. World-class whisky and world-class shipbuilding blended together, said Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael.
The Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier is a technological marvel which represents the pinnacle of British design, engineering and manufacturing.
The carrier is twice the width, three times heavier and nearly 100m longer than the Invincible class ships it is replacing. It dwarfs every other aircraft carrier currently in service apart from the US Navy’s super-carriers.
HMS Queen Elizabeth will soon be followed by a carrier of equally massive proportions in the form of HMS Prince of Wales, although a final decision on whether to use the second carrier has been delayed until 2015.
But regardless of whether the Royal Navy has one carrier or two, the huge vessels signal that Britain is once again concentrating on a sea-based strategy, long neglected during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A formidable Royal Navy fleet
By 2020, the Royal Navy fleet will include an aircraft carrier, advanced Type 45 destroyers and nuclear attack submarines. By 2030, the service could have a second aircraft carrier and a fleet of new Type 26 frigates. It will be a formidable force.
With a complement of fifth-generation F-35B aircraft, HMS Queen Elizabeth will give Britain the capability to project high-impact, low-footprint military power across the globe. As recent interventions have shown, Britain still wants to be seen as a global player with influence.
Several significant British and European defence programmes are coming to maturity, but there is little evidence of a next generation of mega-projects coming through to replace them.
"It’s an attribute of a great power to have a carrier," said Rear Admiral Chris Parry, author of Super Highway, a study of 21st century sea power. "Britain could have been in a situation a few years ago where it wasn’t going to have them. We’d look pretty tiny as a country if that happened."
According to Parry, a former director general of the MOD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, aircraft carriers combine the sustainable reach of maritime platforms, the striking power and versatility of aircraft and the "multi-role possibilities of distinctly large chunks of deployable sovereign territory".
That trio of capabilities is needed to respond to an uncertain international environment where states are becoming more nationalistic and hard-headed. Recent events in Crimea and Ukraine as well as the South China Sea have given added weight to those geopolitical concerns.
Supporters of a maritime-based strategy also point out that 80% of the world’s population lives within 80 nautical miles of the coast, which makes them susceptible to influence from the sea.
Speaking at this year’s RUSI International Sea Power Conference in London, head of the Royal Navy Admiral Sir George Zambellas said the carriers will become "the beating heart of our strategic armada".
It will give Britain a global reach and, according to Zambellas, a platform to help shape and influence future international events. No longer will Britain have to depend on host nations to base aircraft or commit to drawn out land wars.
"Less boots on the ground – more boots from the sea," explained Zambellas. It’s a strategy which resonates with British politicians who do not want to get stuck in another quagmire such as Iraq.
Delays and the F-35B U-turn
The call for new aircraft carriers was articulated in the UK Government’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review. It was in 2007, nearly ten years later, that a £3.8bn order was placed for two carriers with Queen Elizabeth expected to enter service in 2014.
The entry into service date inevitably slipped to the end of the decade with construction beginning in 2009.
In the years between 1998 and 2007, the UK MOD decided the aircraft flying off the carriers would be the fifth-generation F-35. Importantly, it would be the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant similar to the Harrier jump jet.
The consequences of this decision are still being felt today. In the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the government decided it would scrap the F-35B and instead buy the more capable F-35C instead.
The C variant relies on a Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) system for take-off and landing. It also has a much greater range and weapons payload when compared to the STOVL variant.
But just two years later, in May 2012, the government made a U-turn on that decision when it was found it would cause further delays and cost increases.
"The F-35B will still provide an absolutely excellent and very high level of capability," said James Bosbotinis, an academic and associate member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies at King’s College London. "It’s a quantum leap above anything that we’ve ever operated before and it will be a fine aircraft, as long as technical risk is managed."
In a 2012 RUSI article, Bosbotinis said the shift back to STOVL "will impinge on flexibility, versatility and capability" delivered by carrier strike. It has ended any possibility of the Queen Elizabeth operating unmanned aircraft such as the X-47B or UCLASS platform, as they exclusively use the CATOBAR system.
Many experts point to the carrier as an example of MOD short-termism, especially when it comes to saving money.
For the first time in RIMPAC’s 43-year history China and India will participate, while Thailand and Russia will both be absent in light of recent political events. .
"These are 50-year national strategic investments, but they have been plagued on a number of occasions by short-term thinking. We’ve got to take a long-term perspective on them," said Bosbotinis.
The second carrier debate – mothball, sell or deploy?
With operations in Afghanistan taking precedent in 2010, the SDSR also indicated the second carrier would be placed into ‘extended readiness’ or could even be sold as a cost-saving measure, although the First Sea Lord has openly stated he wants the second carrier to be used.
Having just one vessel could damage a carrier’s deterrent effect, says Bosbotinis.
"With only one ship available – if one was mothballed or sold off – we wouldn’t have the continuous availability of a carrier-based capability, which doesn’t constitute a credible deterrent. A part-time capability is not going to be recognised by our friends or potential adversaries as credible."
There are other issues that remain on the table, such as the carrier’s lack of organic air-to-air refueling capability and the proposed size of a carrier air group.
Nevertheless, the aircraft carriers provide an opportunity for the intelligent integration of joint and multinational assets. For Rear Admiral Parry, the carriers could increase the opportunities for joint engagement and if successful, would confer a "triphibious" capability which could achieve significant effect across all dimensions.
"The country has got to get back on the maritime track again, that’s its heritage, that’s what we are good at," said Parry. "I don’t want the carriers to be a white elephant, I want [them] to be at the centre of a reinvigorated navy and I also want it to be a source of national pride."