• Toby Irwin

Carriers and Offensive/Defensive Interplay

The military-strategic landscape is an ever-evolving mechanism, characterised by a constant interplay between innovations in offensive and defensive capabilities. Any advancement in the former demands a response in the latter field. With this in mind, one can look at the role of an aircraft carrier, a 20th century innovation, and question its relevancy to today’s strategic environment. One should further be concerned with this given the recent launching of the UK’s second aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, and the prominence of these warships to Britain’s wider defence strategy. After all, a recent government report emphasised the short comings of the National Security Strategy to fully address “the changing strategic balance of power”, in particular the relative decline of the United States and the relative ascendancy of China (1).

While the UK were the ones first to innovate and experiment with the idea of a carrier, it was the United States who capitalised on the new technology and most effectively implemented Carrier Strike Groups into the post-World War 2 organisational naval structure. Since then, they have proved pivotal in their ability to project air dominance across the world in theatres as varied as Korea to Afghanistan.

To muse whether the innovative offensive edge that these carriers provide is to question whether the defensive capabilities available today are sophisticated enough to deter their deployment. In every conflict they have thus far been used, the defending state has not possessed the ability to deny the very presence of the carrier itself. What, then, might happen if the next required conflict involved the offensive capabilities of the US/UK carrier strike groups against an adversary actually capable of threatening the very presence of the carrier?

Sophisticated Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBMs) and Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs) pose a significant threat to the large and slow-moving carriers and their escorts. If a defending state can establish a strong enough Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) to deny the presence of the carrier’s aircraft, then the carrier loses its offensive capabilities. Consider for a moment the prospect of Chinese air dominance in the South China Sea thanks to the establishment of artificial islands and air bases. In such a scenario, should the advanced combat aircraft like the F-35 become rendered inoperable, then the carrier strike groups become prime targets for ASBMs and ASCMs.

Such a scenario might even be able to deter the very deployment of the carriers in the first place, where politicians and military strategists make the decision that deployment is too dangerous on a cost-benefit analysis. This is particularly evident given both the high cost of each carrier as well as the high personnel count onboard (for HMS Queen Elizabeth it is £3 billion and 700 crew) (2).

One of the prime questions worth considering is whether so few states are developing carriers because of its obsoleteness, or due to the difficulty of its integration and high cost. Consider China again. While Beijing is indeed concerned with the creation of its own carrier fleet, the integration into the Chinese Navy’s organisational structure as well as high cost will inevitably divert funds and attention away from its submarine and missile programs, something Michael Horowitz believes will actually in the long run weaken China’s ability to deny the US and its allies entry to the region (3).

Therefore, one can question whether China is trying to mimic the offensive innovation of a carrier strike group, or is more concerned with the defensive innovation of preventative action. What might prove more interesting in the future, and more effective on deployment, is more substantial innovations to both the carriers and the aircraft that are projected. How might incremental aircraft innovations help deny defensive capabilities of defending nations, and indeed how might fundamental changes to aircraft design reshape their own defensive capabilities?

It seems a fair conclusion to suggest that while the carrier is becoming an increasingly costly and risky investment, they are far from obsolete. A number of variables will confound any analysis on their usefulness, principally their own extensive offensive capability (their aircraft). Thankfully, the UK’s carriers operate the latest and most technologically advanced aircraft available. Until this technology is diffused sufficiently enough to render its own deployment irrelevant one can foresee a place for the carrier group in any near-future conflict.

(1) https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt201719/jtselect/jtnatsec/2072/207205.htm

(2) https://www.forces.net/news/hms-queen-elizabeth-all-you-need-know-about-britains-aircraft-carrier

(3) Michael Horowitz’s The Diffusion of Military Power (2010)

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.