Britain’s New Aircraft Carriers: The Pride of Airstrip One

Why are the British government and media so passionate about their new aircraft carriers Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales? The ships are being celebrated as an icon and manifest expression of the renewal of British resolve and glory that started 40 years ago with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But in reality they embody the opposite. They are an expression of how vulnerable, weak, ineffectual and just plain ridiculous Britain has become in the 21st century.

When Gavin Williamson, Prime Minister Theresa May’s ludicrous little boy-toy secretary of defense recently visited Washington he pathetically displayed his military and strategic illiteracy by boasting at public events on how the Queen Elizabeth, at 65,000 tons (50 percent heavier than the Titanic) by far the largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy alongside its sister vessel the Prince of Wales, would enable Britain to project power around the world, second only to the US Navy.

Williamson gloried in how this capability would make both the new British aircraft carriers worthy partners for the US Navy, keeping Britain as America’s trusted partner in running the world.

Or, as a senior political adviser to Prime Minister Thatcher memorably once boasted to me: Britain’s enduring role in the world is being the loyal sidekick to the hero in a Western movie or TV series, being the Native American partner Tonto to America acting as the world’s global policeman, or “Lone Ranger.”

The reality could not be more different: Far from Britain once again boldly strutting across the world stage as America’s partner, it is trotting along as America’s poodle, her little pet dog.

Like every British prime minister in the past 80 years starting with the revered Winston Churchill, Mrs. May has eagerly accepted Britain’s role as Airstrip One to America’s globe-strutting Oceania in George Orwell’s darkly prophetic classic novel “1984”. (I suggest future editions, at least within Britain, be called “2024” in tribute to the ever increasing power of the British as well as US Deep States and the unending passion of British leaders for stirring up unnecessary wars around the world).

Even as a floating, mobile accessory to Airstrip One, the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales, as Russian and American naval experts recognize (but are usually too polite to say publicly) are ludicrous jokes.

For while Britain busted its defense budgets for most of a decade to build the two carriers at 3.1 billion pounds ($4.6 billion) for each ship, it could not afford a penny more to build the aircraft they are designed to carry or the screening task forces they desperately need to survive in any full-scale war.

The Queen Elizabeth has at last finally carried out operational flight trials off the East Coast of the United States. But the US Marine Corps had to give the Royal Navy a squadron of its own ultra-expensive, problem-plagued and far too few US-built F-35B VTOL Lightning II Joint Strike Aircraft to operate. They had absolutely no aircraft of their own left that could do the job.

Also, if it came to any war against a significant power, the Royal Navy cannot afford to project around the world long range anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces adequate to protect its new carriers from the fleets of lethal, fast and difficult to detect (and also cheap to build and buy) diesel submarines that powers from India to Israel now operate.

And against an opponent like Iran, the British carriers would have to operate from well over 1,000 miles, or around 1,700 kilometers offshore to be safe from land-based anti-ship missiles that could destroy them.

How then, can Britain safely and effectively operate these enormous obsolete white elephants? There is only one way: They will have to be integrated into US carrier task forces to augment their striking power and it is highly debatable if the US admirals will even want them.

For US super-aircraft carriers are nuclear powered and they do not need to be constantly refueled as the old-fashioned oil-turbine powered new British carriers do.

Far from augmenting Anglo-American ties, the new British carriers look certain to erode them by repeatedly displaying to the US Navy how much smaller and more obsolete the British vessels are. Ironically, they will revive experiences of “Special Relationship” naval cooperation – and lack of it – 74 years ago.

In the closing days of World War II, the British Pacific Fleet was unable to keep up with the far more numerous, more powerful and far bigger and faster US Essex –class aircraft carriers and their battle groups in the later naval operations against Japan, generating operational difficulties that endlessly outraged US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King.

Mrs. May and Defense Secretary Williamson (who eerily echoes US Senator Marco Rubio in his “boy toy” characteristics and utter ignorance of serious military affairs) remain oblivious to all such issues. The victims of their pride and incompetence will likely be the 3,200 Royal Navy personnel that crew the two leviathans.

Like the vote for Brexit – for Britain to leave the European Union – the building of the two new aircraft carriers was a decision by the British to embrace ancient dreams over sober contemporary realities.

The British Empire is dead. The 100- mile-long line of warships off Spithead that honored Queen Victoria at her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 has been scrap iron for more than a century. It is time for Airstrip One to wake up and recognize its real place in a very different world.