Britain orders two massive new aircraft carriers

Today, the British government announced a twenty percent increase in military spending over the next three years. This amounts to an extra £7.7 billion (€11.5 billion) in funding, which will take the national defence budget up from £33 billion (€49 billion) in 2007 to £36.9 billion (€55 billion) in 2011. Not only will this additional funding sustain Britain’s position as the world’s second biggest military spender, but it will also pay for two massive new aircraft carriers, the first of which was ordered today by the Ministry of Defence for the Royal Navy. Costing nearly £2 billion (€2.98 billion) apiece, these vessels will be by far the largest and most powerful ever operated by the United Kingdom—or any other part of the European Union.

Set to be named HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, the new aircraft carriers will greatly improve Britain’s ability to mount expeditionary warfare in foreign lands and seas. As Des Browne, the defence secretary, said:

The carriers represent a step change in our capability, enabling us to deliver increased strategic effect and influence around the world at a time and place of our choosing.

Each carrier will displace 65,000 tonnes, making them the second largest warships in the world after the Nimitz carriers of the United States Navy, which weigh 90,000 tonnes each. Nearly four times bigger than any one of the Royal Navy’s Invincible class aircraft carriers, which weigh only 22,000 tonnes each, the new British carriers will provide 13,000 square metres of deck space, equivalent to three football pitches or forty-nine tennis courts. The vessels’ hangers will be larger than twelve Olympic swimming pools, and the radar system will be comparable in size to a large mobile home. The electrical generators for either ship will produce 108 megawatts of electricity, enough to power a large town the size of Swindon. And with a high level of automation, the new warships will only need twenty percent more crew than Britain’s current aircraft carriers.

The power projection capabilities of either ship will be formidable. Both carriers are to be equipped with thirty-five to forty Lightning II Joint Combat Aircraft, the latest innovation from an Anglo-American programme to build sophisticated stealth jets to replace the Sea Harrier. With a speed of Mach 1.8 and a combat radius of 1,100 kilometres, seventy percent of the world’s population centres and industrial infrastructure will be within their reach—a sobering thought for any potential opponent foolish enough to resist British power and authority. Capable of firing a plethora of advanced ordnance, the Lighting II will be able to mount tactical bombardment of land and sea targets, as well as aerial interdiction missions. A small sample of weaponry to be carried by the warplanes includes a twenty-five millimetre cannon, cruise missiles, precision bombs, anti-air rockets and, further ahead in the future, perhaps even directed energy weaponry like lasers. It is fair to say that these warplanes, costing £10 billion (€14.9 billion) for a squadron of 150, will be the best in the world, capable of subduing any rival aircraft or land- or sea-based unit.

The British aircraft carrier programme also provides great potential for Anglo-French naval collaboration, for France has decided to build a vessel to complement its current aircraft carrier, the nuclear powered Charles de Gaulle, which weighs approximately 45,000 tonnes. France has already purchased the designs for the British warships from London, with plans to modify them more in line with the requirements of the Marine Nationale. The interoperability between the two designs will allow for greater economies of scale, and considerable potential for both future European Union foreign military operations and defence industrial cooperation. Aircraft carriers are the backbone of any modern ‘blue water’ fleet, and are the prerequisite of global power status. Only the United States and the European Union hold these elite vessels in large numbers; America has twelve and Britain, France, Italy and Spain have six between them. But in comparison to the huge American vessels, Europe’s are currently dwarfed. Here, the new warships on order in France and Britain will reduce the mismatch, which will be further compounded by new larger aircraft carriers being brought into operation by the Spanish Armada and Italy’s Marina Militare. What is clear is that the European Union’s military capabilities are being gradually enhanced, and in many cases, quite dramatically.

We should welcome today’s announcements in Britain, and also the programmes underway in France, Spain and Italy. Defending ourselves from external enemies both existing and potential is the first duty of our governments—and is also now a role for the European Union. With the growth of chaos and extremism in the Middle East and Africa, an ever more wild and truculent Russia, and an expansionist China, Europeans need their armed forces to be strong, ready and capable. But more than that, armed forces are symbols of determination and strength; weak militaries on our part can lead enemies into miscalculation, inadvertently enhancing the likelihood of conflict and war. That is to say, armed forces are needed as much for the strategic operation of foreign policy than defending our homeland from attack. We must therefore be willing to support and fund our armed forces, meaning that the progressive boosting of European defence budgets is needed—particularly those of France and Britain, but also Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and Poland.

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