Does anybody still need aircraft carriers?

Computer-generated image issued by the MoD of an aircraft carrier

A major piece of Britain's new one has arrived at a dockyard, China is testing one, but 100 years after the concept was invented, does anybody still need aircraft carriers?

They are floating airfields that can deploy a nation's military might across the world's oceans.

In May 1912, the first plane took off from a moving warship, HMS Hibernia, temporarily adapted for the purpose. The idea of dedicated floating platforms had been mooted in 1909, but it wasn't until 1918 that HMS Argus became the first proper carrier.

Today, ownership of a carrier for fixed-wing aircraft admits a nation to an elite club, but the US has more than everyone else in the world put together.

The UK is currently not a member, but this month has seen a significant milestone on the country's journey to retaking its place.

Giant jigsaw puzzle

Construction details

Graphic on A mind-boggling construction job

  • Pieces built at six shipyards around the UK and slotted together at Rosyth in Fife
  • 10,000 workers employed on the £5bn project

Part of the hull of Queen Elizabeth has arrived at Rosyth where it is to enter the dry dock for the rest of the ship's construction. The ship, which left BAE Systems' Portsmouth yard, is due to be finished in 2017 and will be followed by sister ship Prince of Wales.

The Ministry of Defence says the ships and jets will cost £7bn, leading some newspaper columnists to argue that they are both an unnecessary expense and no longer strategically necessary for the UK.

For the Guardian's Simon Jenkins it is the "greatest waste of public money" of any government programme. The Times's Matthew Parris argued that the action in Libya had not shown the need for a UK carrier.

There have been sceptics for some time. In 1981, David Howarth wrote in Famous Sea Battles that "the only practical value of carriers in the future will be in simply existing, not in fighting". To use them in anger would be to trigger a nuclear war, he argued.

But just a year later, the UK's carriers ensured that the Falkland Islands were regained.

Different nations take different approaches to carriers. The US owns 11, or 20 if plane-carrying amphibious assault ships are counted.

Hull section of aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth passes under the Forth Bridge Part of HMS Queen Elizabeth en route to Rosyth

Its 10 Nimitz class carriers are floating cities - the size of four football pitches - each housing 5,000 crew and 80 strike jets.

By contrast, Spain and Italy have miniature carriers with around a dozen planes, while China has only one ex-Soviet model, preferring to put its defence budget into missile technology.

After the US, France has the only serious naval aviation, according to IHS Jane's Fighting Ships.

Thailand has a very small carrier, which is not thought to have launched aircraft for some years. India is using the UK's former HMS Hermes and an ex-Russian carrier, and Brazil's is an ex-French vessel.

But does any country need aircraft carriers?

The US doesn't need so many, says Prof Andrew Lambert, a naval historian at King's College London.

USS Makin Island, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, anchored in Hong Kong - the ship resembles a small aircraft carrier The US has amphibious landing ships larger than some nations' aircraft carriers

But for the Americans it is about projecting power around the globe. And they see the aircraft carrier as the best equipment for their global role, Lambert says.

The logic for carriers is very simple. It allows a nation to take air power around the globe without having to worry about countries in between who might refuse the use of ground bases or airspace.

Bosnia was such a case, says former Royal Marine Major-General Julian Thompson.

"The Italians said you aren't going to fly from our airfields or over Italy." And he points out that the only enemy planes shot down by British aircraft since WWII have been by the Fleet Air Arm based on carriers.

Key naval battles

  • 31BC: Actium - galleys
  • 1571: Lepanto - galleys with guns
  • 1588: Spanish Armada - sailing ships
  • 1905: Tsushima - ironclads
  • 1916: Jutland - dreadnoughts
  • 1942: Midway - aircraft carriers

But have things changed in the age of the nuclear submarine, precision missiles and the unmanned drone?

Unlike "pointless" frigates, carriers are still as relevant as ever, says Lewis Page, a former naval officer and author of Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs: Waste and Blundering in the Military. The drone might be all the rage but you still need somewhere to launch it from.

Nuclear submarines are "excellent" at many things. Their Tomahawk cruise missiles flew hundreds of miles to knock out Colonel Gaddafi's air force.

"But a submarine can't tell you where the targets are. And they can't be easily rearmed apart from at a naval base."

1918: The aircraft carrier Argus - painted in dazzle camouflage - on the Firth of Forth HMS Argus was the first dedicated carrier

Nuclear weapons give a nation "cachet" says Lambert. But carriers give a nation "capability", he argues.

Take a scenario where Iran decides to close the Straits of Hormuz, Lambert suggests. Any such closure would have an immediate effect on world energy supplies.

Flat-top ships of 10,000+ tonnes displacement

Country In service

Source: IHS Jane's Fighting Ships








Two (helicopters only)















South Korea

One (helicopters only)

Iran has about 1,000 fast patrol boats that can offer a new kind of asymmetrical warfare. By operating as a swarm, a frigate or destroyer would be overwhelmed by the sheer number of attackers. Whereas a carrier some way from the threat could pick off the attackers by scrambling its jets.

So it's easy to agree with the naval experts who say you need carriers to be a power on the seas. But does the UK have that need?

As an island, there is a particular case for the UK to have carriers, says Lambert.

"If we're not secure at sea we risk starvation. Out of a population of more than 60 million we can probably feed 25 million ourselves," Lambert says. And 95% of the nation's imports arrive by sea, including much of its energy needs from the Middle East.

But there will be those who would suggest the UK's diminished military power makes carriers unnecessary.

"Any major conflict in the Straits of Hormuz or the Gulf won't be decided by Britain," argues Parris. "It will be decided by the US."

But the UK does take part in coalition actions, and for the advocates its carriers would be one of the things giving it a say.

For a nation with a proud maritime history there's also a question of image. Lambert says naval power is "a quintessential expression of what it means to be British."

Their sheer size as they cut through the ocean, the scream of planes taking off and coming into land, makes them an exciting, visceral experience, says Thompson.

USS Abraham Lincoln in the Indian Ocean The US Nimitz-class carriers are like floating cities

"The deck when launching planes is frenetic and extremely noisy. It's like a ballet - a triumph of everyone knowing their job. If you screw up you can have your head cut off by a rotor blade."

And the powerful imagery and symbolism of carriers will continue to play a part in the debate.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 553.

    549, Agreed, though now we are back to VSTOL for CVF's with both to be completed, they can do part of this role. The Invincible's have done when Ocean is in refit. I understand that a direct LPH replacement for Ocean is at the study stage, for mid 2020's completion, something around the same size. Not likely to be ordered until very late this decade, Ocean can operate until the early 2020's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 552.

    A world with growing populations, rogues and tyrants armed with nuclear weapons, desperate economies may become extremist -rising nationalism - international tensions.. history dear people has a certain habit of repeating..the UK might need 6 carriers - the future is certainly carriers, amphibious landers.. a robust submarine fleet..the Royal Navy needs to reverse its decline NOW.

  • rate this

    Comment number 551.

    The ability to not just supply a military action anywhere but all the other things that a vessel of that size can also do. The humanitarian capability shouldn't be over looked. Also the image of this humanitarian aid to the rest of the world. If people see the benefit we can and do give other nations perhaps they will think twice about strapping on some explosives and flying to the UK??

  • rate this

    Comment number 550.

    I don't see any reason why we shouldn't have one, there is still trouble is this world which could lead to any manner of conflicts and the sea routes still need to be protected.

    I would like to ask where the author of the title on the front news screen comes from when this article is headlined "Does we still need aircraft carriers", luckily it is the correct wording above.

  • rate this

    Comment number 549.

    The RN badly needs a second purpose-built LPH to partner HMS Ocean.This vessel has been in almost constant demand since her entry into service,and at less than 25,000 tonnes is less than half the size of the new carrier. Ocean has proven to be extremely versatile everything from disaster relief in Belize to supporting the fight for freedom in Libya.A new, modern LPH would be money well spent!

  • rate this

    Comment number 548.

    454, even after the cuts, the RN will still have sufficient T45 Destroyers and T23 Frigates - to be replaced by T26 next decade, to allow 2 T45's and 2 to 4 Frigates to escort a carrier, with plenty left over for other work and refits. That 'little lot' already exists. Two CVF's allows one to be available most, if not all the time. Now they are VSTOL again, not having one built but never used.

  • rate this

    Comment number 547.

    471, Queen Elizabeth is an old Navy name for capital ships going back centuries, the previous was a lead in a class of Battleships that served from WW1 to the end of WW2, was also to be the first in a class of carriers cancelled in the 1960's.
    460, F-35B could NOT use a current carrier, bigger than you think, I've seen the prototype, plus the weight, use of lifts, hangar space below, no chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 546.

    Carriers are mostly about power projection and protecting assets. Not in a kinetic sense necessarily, but in just being a presence. That is the very reason for China's ballooning defense budget - with Libya being the prime example. Lost in all of that was that China lost billions in contracts. And the examples to suggest carriers are not needed are poor. Just look at the Strait of Hormuz issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 545.

    I was onboard HMS Hermes in the Falklands Conflict, and despite all the other ships in the area it would have been impossible to take back the islands without air support from HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. Of course we need carriers, always have done, always will do!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 544.

    We (and presumably the USA) already have stealth aircraft that can hover motionless and fly silently at extremely low altitudes, with infinite acceleration, and the ability to appear and disappear or instantly leave the atmosphere from an height of 100ft or less. Well, I think they're ours, if not whose?

  • rate this

    Comment number 543.

    Nostalgia? Britain's time has passed. It can never return to being a lone super power. A carrier or two might help give Brits the illusion that they are still amongst the world's super powers. No way. US, China, Russia, Brazil and I dare say, even India, are either way ahead of you or set to overtake you. Just accept the new world order and rely on US for defense in the event of an attack.

  • rate this

    Comment number 542.

    Logistics for keeping carriers at sea, and airborne radar existed for our previous carriers - why does Wise Owl think it's not possible now? Ignorance.

    Important point: like Trident, and Eurofighter, these things take YEARS to develop. If you need it quick, and you don't have it, then you have a problem. And no one knows what foreign situations can develop within a few short years. Insurance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 541.

    We must have aircraft carriers-2 probably isn't enough.They are the most important of all modern weapons.Without carriers we cannot credibly defend the Falklands,the rest of the naval fleet from air attack nor intervene in international crises without a friendly airbase.It keeps us at the top table militarily.If you want cuts-get rid of the nuclear submarine fleet - an unnecessary cold war relic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 540.

    He UK needsa navy to protect its ships and goods that are conveyed via the sea.
    A Navy needs air support as was found in WWII when a fleet with ou air support was sunk by Japanese aircraft.
    What the governent has got wrong is to scrap the carriers before there is any credible replacement. G Osbornes economic OCD has put lives at risk. Next a cut in H&S finance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 539.

    With respect It’s a British i.e. Wales, English, Scots partly Irish Military not just an English, and I dare you to say otherwise after all the last person killed from our military was from Cardiff aka Wales, Please stop the whole ENGLISH only thing show some respect, Wales has / dose provide per head of population more personnel for the UK Military than any other home nation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 538.

    481, a fair point, but since 1982 Argentina has scrapped it's amphibious ships, carrier, much of it's fleet, subs no longer operable, same aircraft as in '82. Mt.Pleasant was designed to be very difficult to knock out by either air or land assault. The numbers of troops there is small, they however are battle hardened, well equipped, plus the SAM's at least 1 RN Frigate or Destroyer, patrol ships.

  • rate this

    Comment number 537.

    Of course we need Carriers.It was plain stupidity to get rid of them before the newones were ready.WE SHOULD be looking at the next (3rd) carrier.We have a perfectly good carrier in the Ark and should be useing it until the replacements are ready. I am sure that there are still some Harriers available to protect our Navy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 536.

    The UK does need aircraft carriers to have a say in international buisness. Also there is to much pride among the English people about therer long maritime history. Giving up carriers completely would be foolish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 535.

    Instead of Aircraft carriers we should think about “Hyper-Sonic”, Aircraft, they could reach Australia in less than 2 hours from the UK, it the Aussie's ever needed help and yes we owe them for the whole ANZAC thing, not the point however. "Hyper-Sonic’s” are the future, but for now, and until they are viable to use as a military platform then “YES” we need carriers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 534.

    Submarines and ballistic missiles are nice, but you still need aircraft to help them find their targets. Even with US support - it still makes sense for the UK to maintain carriers and air power projection. Not only to protect its assets, but also to give it the means to act quickly, without having to petition and wait for a foreign government's assets.


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