On Monday, the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong and her escorts exited the South China Sea south of Taiwan out into the Western Pacific. Eight more People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships sortied past Taiwan to the north, via the Miyako Strait. Altogether the Taiwanese government counted 20 Chinese warships in the waters around it on Tuesday, and many of these are moving to join up with the Shandong group as this article is written.
It’s the largest carrier group exercise by China seen to date – if it is an exercise.
In fact China would probably see this an operation not an exercise, though probably not a full blown combat op – not this time, anyway. It’s a piece of sabre-rattling intended as a response to several recent US-led manoeuvres with other nations in the region. From the Chinese point of view those came to a head last week with a transit of the Taiwan Strait by a US destroyer and a Canadian frigate, exercising their right of free navigation on the high seas under international law.
Xi Jinping doesn’t much care about international law, which has been largely torn up by Vladimir Putin. China doesn’t accept that Taiwan is independent, and Xi doesn’t like the fact that it is a strong industrial democracy which makes much of the world’s supply of microchips. He isn’t pleased that Taiwan makes extensive use of Western-controlled technology in doing this, which nowadays limits the supply of chips to Chinese industry. Not only the US but Britain is particularly involved here, due to the popularity of chip designs licenced from Cambridge-based Arm. The UK makes a lot of money on Taiwanese-fabricated chips.
China isn’t ready to invade Taiwan. Chinese missile and air forces are not yet strong enough to suppress those of Taiwan and make the Strait safe for invasion troops to get across. They certainly aren’t ready to face the US forces in the region. And quite aside from military matters, China’s already tottering economy is totally dependent on iron ore from Australia, and there is no realistic alternative supplier today. Xi cannot yet make any move that might force Canberra to cut off that vital trade.
But the Chinese navy has been the biggest in the world for a few years now by count of warships, if not by tonnage or firepower. The Shandong and her group are to the east of Taiwan, and Chinese warships more or less surround the island at the moment.
Taiwan itself may not be in peril, but people in the shipping industry whose business depends on moving all those microchips and other vital cargoes to and from Taiwan will be watching the situation very closely this week. A blockade of Taiwan’s sea trade is well within the PLAN’s capabilities, much as it might be against international law.
But not to worry! We need not fear that yet again it will be up to the USA to make sure all is well. Last Friday, the Carrier Strike Group of the Royal Navy put to sea on its first major deployment since 2021, led by the carrier Queen Elizabeth.
“It is great to see HMS Queen Elizabeth deploying once again to exercise and operate with our allies and partners, demonstrating our commitment to maintaining free and open use of the oceans for all,” commented Admiral Sir Ben Key, First Sea Lord.
Back in 2021, the “Big Lizzie” deployed to the Far East and into the South China Sea, though she didn’t transit the Taiwan Strait. The British carrier is a big ship of 65,000 tonnes, built to carry a strong force of 36 combat jets and four radar aircraft. The radar aircraft are vital, as they permit the task force to see beyond the horizon and detect any incoming threats while they are still far off enough to be intercepted: the Royal Navy learned this lesson at a terrible, bloody price in the Falklands. Up to 60 aircraft can be carried in some circumstances.
There was some carping back in 2021, however. One criticism of the Lizzie is that she has no catapults, and thus cannot operate fully capable jets. In fact the only plane she can operate is the “jump jet” B version of the F-35. This is not as good as other F-35s, or other combat jets generally, because it is burdened by its heavy, bulky vertical-thrust equipment. This means that it cannot carry as much fuel or weaponry as a normal combat jet. It also costs a lot more to buy and to fly.
In fact it costs so much that Britain, embarrassingly, had just eight jets to put aboard the Queen Elizabeth in 2021. The big ship’s lack of catapults also meant that high-flying, long ranging radar planes as used by the US and French navies were not an option: instead lower-flying helicopters, unable to see as far or operate as far from the mother ship, had to be employed. The “Crowsnest” helicopters’ limited capabilities didn’t matter in the event, as they didn’t work at all: their software kept crashing.
Still, that was two years ago. Surely the Royal Navy will be putting up a better show this time?
Not so much.
We still don’t have a credible force of F-35 jumpjets. Once again, the Lizzie has gone to sea with just eight of them. Usually our carriers don’t have any planes at all: during 2022, there were jets embarked aboard UK carriers on just 18 days, less than 5 per cent of the time.
There’s more. This time instead of three Crowsnest radar choppers, Queen Elizabeth will have only two, with a correspondingly low likelihood of being able to maintain a 24-hour airborne watch. The Crowsnest project finally achieved “Initial Operating Capability” (ie, working to some degree but not yet properly) in July this year. Full Operating Capability is expected in 2024. Or 2025.
It’s fair to say that the Lizzie doesn’t have even a vaguely credible, combat-worthy air group aboard, then. The Shandong, built to a 1980s Soviet design, has her problems too – she doesn’t have catapults either, meaning that her J-15 jets can’t get airborne with full combat loads. But at least China can put a strong force of planes aboard the Shandong: and, crucially, China’s naval jets can refuel each other in mid-air, yet another vital capability that Britain doesn’t have and one which hugely increases a carrier’s operational reach and effectiveness.
If the two carriers were ever to fight, things might go very badly for the British ship.
Fortunately that doesn’t seem likely to happen this year at least, because a carrier strike group needs a solid stores ship full of food, munitions etc if it is going beyond easy reach of friendly harbours. Britain only has one such ship, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Fort Victoria, whose presence allowed the 2021 deployment to take place. She’s currently laid up with only a skeleton crew, awaiting yet another round of dockyard maintenance next year (the Fort Vic has spent a significant amount of her life in maintenance).
Lacking a stores ship and with only a handful of aircraft, it’s clear that the Carrier Strike Group is not equipped for a real operational deployment and it is not, in fact, making one this year. The Lizzie will not go beyond the North Sea, Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic. She’ll have just two British escort warships with her, though various allied ones will be attached at various points. A lot of port visits will be made. It’s basically a show-the-flag cruise, in safe waters close to home.
The Ministry of Defence says this will all be sorted out in 2025: that year our other carrier, Prince of Wales, will go to the Pacific with 24 British F-35s aboard (the previous “24 for ‘24” promise only having been missed by one year). A proper escort group will be found, and the Fort Vic will have been fixed up for the occasion.
But the carriers will still have been built for 36 jets, not 24. We’ll never see one operate with a full air group – let alone both of them. Proud as the Royal Navy is that both are at sea right now, one is empty and the other is almost empty. In 2025, F-35Bs will still be expensive and feeble compared to proper catapult carrier jets. We still won’t have air to air refuelling or proper radar platforms.
By that time China’s third carrier, the Fujian, is likely to be operational. She has catapults and will be able to operate fully capable jets, soon to include fifth-generation ones on current Chinese plans. In 2025, a mere eight years after their long delayed arrival in the fleet, British carriers may be more or less ready to tackle the primitive Shandong. They won’t be ready to face the Fujian and her yet-more-capable, possibly nuclear powered successors.
The central blunder that has crippled British carrier capability, and with it the Royal Navy, was and still is the fact that our ships don’t have catapults, as they were planned to have until 2012.
Catapult ships would have permitted us to buy cheap, powerful F-18 Hornet jets as favoured by Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick. The Hornet is still the mainstay jet of the mighty US Navy and various allied nations, and will be through the 2020s. Hundreds have been made, so it is cheap to buy and operate. The Hornet can do air-to-air refuelling, too.
In time, once it became affordable, we could also have started to introduce the catapult C version of the F-35, which is much better and much cheaper than the F-35B: a fully capable fifth-generation stealth jet, in fact.
This would have saved so much money compared to what we have done – we wasted £1.6bn just on delaying the carriers’ build to wait, not long enough, for the F-35B to arrive – that we could easily have afforded the catapults, proper radar planes, plenty of jets, stores ships and still have made a saving compared to what we actually did.
Despite desperate attempts by the bungling Whitehall mandarins responsible for the no-catapults decision to claim they got it right, the navy has now openly stated that it needs to put catapults on the carriers: of course it does. The ships were always designed so that they could have catapults added, not only during their building, but at any point in their 50 year service lives: this was clearly specified in writing by the builders, the government and the navy.
When HMS Queen Elizabeth gets back from her unarmed show-the-flag trip, she goes into the yard for her first major refit: a perfect time to fit her with catapults. As for finally getting a decent number of carrier planes, the F-18 Hornet production line is still open: it will close in 2025 if it gets no more orders, so there are excellent deals to be had. The US Marines would take our F-35Bs, and we could get F-35Cs in a while when their advanced capabilities might actually be needed.
Some people wouldn’t like this plan, of course.
A British F-18 force would be terrible news for the outrageously expensive, not-particularly-good Eurofighter Typhoon, the primary warplane of the RAF and perhaps the greatest British defence procurement disaster ever (and that’s saying something). We’d use the F-18s for everything just to save operating costs, even if we didn’t need the carriers. If we had any sense we’d get rid of the remaining airworthy Typhoons very soon in that scenario (a lot of ours are already permanently grounded, for all that it’s a fairly new aircraft).
And yes, a future force of F-35C fully capable fifth-generation stealth jets would cast serious doubt on the need for the current Tempest project, set up to repeat the colossal disaster of Typhoon all over again. But there are reasons to drop that idea anyway. The people working on Tempest are the same ones who brought you Typhoon and the even more catastrophic Tornado F3 before it. All these pointless partly-British white elephants were and are completely reliant on US and other foreign technology, so we gain no sovereignty by building them “ourselves”. You can’t even sell a Typhoon without US (and several other nations’) permission, and the same will be true of Tempest.
We should just buy American for things like this, and buy British for things we are actually good at – of which there are plenty. Earlier this summer, to give just one example, it was announced that the vaunted US Navy SEALs will soon be getting a “dry” mini-submarine which will finally let the frogman commandos travel secretly to their objectives without freezing half to death on the way in. Various US defence mammoths have been trying to achieve this for decades, delivering some expensive failures, but it is MSubs of Plymouth, England, that has cracked the problem at last.
Real British manufacturing doesn’t need constant handouts from the Ministry of Defence budget, and does just fine without them.
It’s not too late to sort this mess out.
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