Today, in the closing statement of the NATO Summit in Newport, Wales, British Prime Minister David Cameron, among other things, announced that the Queen-Elizabeth class aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, would not be mothballed after all, as had been suggested in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.
Under severe budgetary pressure, the incoming Conservative-led coalition* sought to scrap the second aircraft carrier entirely, but it was discovered that the contract they had inherited from their predecessors included clauses that made it more expensive to cancel it than to let it be built.
I wrote about the long and winding road to the ocean its sister ship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth has travelled, in one of my first pieces for NATO Council of Canada – you can find that here. A lot of the criticisms levelled at that process apply to the Prince of Wales, though I’m gutted I didn’t make any bold predictions as to its future back in July.
Now, the HMS Prince of Wales will enter service with the Royal Navy when it is complete, giving Britain continuous carrier strike capability**.
The statement was limited in details, so several questions remain – I’ll try and update this post when the government release more information.
UPDATE: Update the post I have, but it’s not for government information so much as Twitter information. A very informative conversation over there cleared up some doubts and confusions I had. I’ve flagged updated bits.
- Will the HMS Prince of Wales, as planned, be built with catapults and arrestors (CATOBAR***)? This sounds trivial, but it’s probably the most important question. The CATOBAR system, used on US and French aircraft carriers, would allow the Royal Navy to launch a variety of jets from its decks, including the F-35C. There had been plans to adapt the Queen Elizabeth to a CATOBAR system, but as costs mounted, these were cancelled (I explain it in slightly more depth in the above article). This leaves the carrier unable to fly anything other than Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) jets, which, for the foreseeable future, means the Lockheed Martin F-35B. If the Prince of Wales, as expected, goes with a CATOBAR system, not only would the Royal Navy have more strategic options, but the Ministry of Defence would have more procurement choices – there are a lot more options for fighter jets that can be launched by catapult than there are STOVL ones. EDIT: I may have gotten lost in the twists and (u-)turns of the carrier saga here. I had assumed HMS Prince of Wales was being designed from the ground-up with catapults and arrestors – turns out it’s subject to the same costly modifications that did for the Queen Elizabeth. So it looks pretty likely that it’ll be the exact same model as its sister ship.
- Following on from the previous question, and largely contingent on it – what will it fly? Will the government need to order more Joint Strike Fighters, or will it just spread the existing purchase across the two carriers (I suspect the latter, but you never know). EDIT: To be clear, there’s also, I think, a question of what to fly – if they have different launching systems, will they fly different planes? As was pointed out to me in that Twitter conversation, since the carriers are meant to be interchangeable (to ensure continuous availability), it would make most sense for them to have the same air wing, etc.
- Where will the money come from? The HMS Prince of Wales was to be mothballed to cut costs. While the government has promised that they have finished their defence cuts, and budgets are set to rise in the next few years, this is certainly a turnaround, and may require extra spending or cuts elsewhere in the armed forces.
This was a surprising announcement, but, generally, a positive one. There doesn’t seem to be much clearer a statement of British commitment to its own defence than ensuring the Royal Navy has the means to project power across the globe, all year round.
PS: In the ongoing tale of my descent into weird military fetishism this past year or so, getting excited over the announcement of a really expensive piece of military hardware may mark a nadir.
PPS: I mean technically I don’t even think the HMS Prince of Wales has been put together or even built, let alone ever floated but this was a far more exciting title than just “removed from hypothetical mothballing”
*these days, I keep forgetting the Lib Dems are even a thing
**with only one carrier, the need for maintenance, training, etc. would mean there would be stretches of time where the carrier was unavailable.
***the most conversational military acronym I think I’ve heard