LONDON, July 3 (UPI) -- Britain's Defense Ministry says it wants two new, high-tech aircraft carriers -- its largest ships built since World War II -- but behind the grand design is a price tag that may prove too tempting for Labor pocketbooks eyeing hospitals, transport, schools and other such projects.
Proponents argue that at stake is both the ability of Britain, and by extension Europe, to project its long-range power forcefully and rapidly around the world as well as the growing gap in military capability between them and their American counterparts. Whatever the outcome, the implications are transatlantic.
The Defense Ministry launched a pre-emptive political strike in announcing Tuesday where it plans to base the project -- a move defense analysts said was aimed at building support, not least among the ranks of Britain's struggling shipyards, before the Treasury tries to cancel it. The Portsmouth shipyard received the nod, with additional dock space likely at Southampton, said ministry officials.
"The anti-carrier lobby hasn't got organized yet, thank goodness," said one senior naval official. "But there is no doubt that 13 billion pounds ($21 billion) buys a lot of schools and hospitals, and there are any number of people in those government departments who would love to get their hands on the carrier money. We just have to get out there and make a case for it."
But Defense can't help but consider that, just as the incoming Labor government of Harold Wilson scrapped the navy's big new carrier CVA-01 in 1966 in order to concentrate on defending Europe from the Warsaw Pact, so the changing threat of terrorism may generate a declining interest in such conventional war-fighting capabilities. At the same time there is rising demand for domestic civil programs.
At $21 billion the two carriers and their aircraft account for the largest single defense project in Britain and Europe that is yet to be financially committed. With only France's Charles de Gaulle carrier otherwise able to fulfill Europe's long-range carrier-based power around the world -- and France has no budget for a second carrier -- European military officials see the British ships as important symbols of European power.
Endorsed by the ministry's Strategic Defense Review in 1998, the two carriers are intended not only to replace the Royal Navy's three Invincible class ships by 2012 and 2015, respectively, but to far surpass them in power.
Each will be at least 50,000 tons and carry up to 48 combat planes. That is only a little more than half the weight and plane numbers of the U.S. Navy's Nimitz-class carriers, but it is two and a half times the size of HMS Invincible. The new carriers' decks will be only a little shorter than the Nimitz, they will have less than one-third the number of personnel than Nimitz, and the Joint Strike Fighters they will carry will be greatly more powerful than the Harrier jump jets now on board.
The intention is to keep one carrier at sea at all times, as the navy does now with its three ships, but to provide a strike force with far better range, bombing power and enough automated fuel and ammunition to provide 500 bombing sorties over five days.
The ships, however, are the largest Britain will have built since at least World War II, and there is no longer any single dockyard that can build them. The government's strategy to share the work around all five of the nation's remaining yards -- involving each to build sections of the ships and then join them together at one site -- therefore suits a particularly Labor Party policy of providing government aid to the shipbuilding industry whenever it can.
Some 6,000 people will be directly employed by one of two competing consortia: one led by BAE Systems, the other by French-based Thales. While the international politics of a winning Thales bid might suggest Britain and France join to build three common carriers, one of them for the French Navy, Thales officials insist this bid is for Britain alone and reiterate that the French government has no money anyway for a second carrier.
The CVF project is, in fact, already more of a transatlantic one than a pan-European one. BAE Systems, for instance, is involving such U.S. companies as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Since the ships will be all electric powered, rather than steam-generated or nuclear, the latest electric propulsion systems devised by Rolls Royce and America's Westinghouse are involved. And with 70 per cent of the value of the carriers in electronic systems, enter again both continents with computer and electronic firms.
Key to the design, however, is what aircraft the carriers will fly, and that is far from clear. Although the choice of Joint Strike Fighter -- Short Take Off and Landing or conventional carrier (STOVL or CV for short) -- is due to be decided early this autumn, initial conclusions they would definitely be STOVL carriers appear to be premature.
Britain got onto the ground floor in development of the JSF with its historic expertise in STOVL -- it designed the Harrier jump jet -- and sweetened it with 2 billion pounds' worth from the British government. Britain's initial requirement was for about 150 JSFs, half for the navy and half for the Royal Air Force, and the two gave solid support for the U.S. Marine Corps demands to prioritize a STOVL plane for it too.
But in spite of design improvements that reportedly enable the STOVL version to carry an equal payload to the CV version the U.S. Navy wants, the British navy increasingly sees that the CV version is cheaper, flies further and carries more.
Thus both BAE Systems and Thales are now designing carriers that are 10,000 tons heavier than previously thought, may have angled flight decks to allow arrester wire landings, and flexible room to add a catapult take-off -- either steam powered or electromagnetic rail gun -- at a later time.
"The requirement is value for money," said Commander Ron Finlayson, in charge of the Royal Navy's surface ship capabilities. "We plan to run these ships for 50 years and in cooperation with other navies. We wouldn't expect to regularly run U.S. Navy F/A-18s or French Rafales off them, but do we want to be locked into a configuration that only STOVL aircraft can use?"
Still to be decided is the maritime patrol or early warning aircraft the carriers will fly. The easy choice with catapult take-offs is U.S.-made E2C Hawkeyes, but Finlayson said a decision on that need not be made until 2008, by which time unmanned drones or vertical lift Osprey aircraft may be options.
The fundamental question remains, however, whether the CVF project will really be money well spent. The Navy is adamant that in this uncertain world where threats are focused far from home waters, carriers are vital floating airfields that not only serve to be present military strike options but help in civilian crises too. Without the carriers Britain -- and by implication Europe -- will be ever more dependent on the United States for their security.
There are slow-growing fears in some quarters, however, of a rising spread of long range sea-skimming cruise missiles that could sink a carrier, or a terrorist launch packed with explosives that could badly damage it. Why, therefore, put so many eggs into one basket, especially for a country that only plans to have two carriers?
While such fears have so far not been publicly expressed in Britain, a potential new challenge is emerging from the RAF, which sees a possible new rapid-reaction long-range strike role for its new Nimrod MR4 maritime patrol aircraft. The plane, with a 4,500-mile range, is being considered to carry three or four 400-mile-range Storm Shadow precision-guided missiles, plus additional weapons in its depth-charge bomb bay.
Some RAF officials have observed their American counterparts' B-2, B-1 and B-52 long-range missions, and have ruefully noted that the last time the RAF did such missions was in 1982 when Vulcan bombers flew 8,000 mile missions across the South Atlantic to attack Port Stanley in the Falklands Islands. There are no plans for a new strategic bomber force, but the very fact such musings have arisen in the RAF suggests the future of Britain's long-range strike capability are not yet resolved.