Monday, 8 September 2014

Overview of Europe’s aircraft carriers

When it comes to bringing considerable firepower to a distant battlefield nothing beats an aircraft carrier as the most dominant tool of power projection. Capable of transporting a certain amount of aircraft freely across the globe, only dependeding replenishment at sea to sustain its operations, the aircraft carrier allows countries to execute airstrikes almost wherever and whenever they want or need it. Unlike aircraft based on land, Carrier-based aircraft operate from a secure base at sea only to be threatened by the naval assets of an opponent it is always protected by a carrier battle group that is tailor made to give a carrier the maximum of protection.
Of all the aircraft carrier forcess in the world the US Navy is the most dominant. It operates 10 nuclear powered Nimitz class carriers, each capable of transporting and operating the amount of aircraft that is equal in size to a medium sized country’s air force.
As aircraft carriers are the most dominant tools of power projection it is no wonder that every serious navy tries to build and operate them. India and Russia are both long term carrier operators and China has made its successful first steps in operating a carrier and plans to build more of them. So in light of established and rising sea powers, each with the tools of projecting power and influence across large areas of the world, what are the carrier forces the European Union (EU) can count on and in extension, the carrier forces that the EU can use in NATO operations.?

United Kingdom
Once the world’s biggest navies, the Royal Navy has been suffering from major budget cutbacks. At the moment, the UK has no operational carriers in its service. It is however currently building two conventional powered carriers of the Queen Elizabeth class. With 65.000 tons, these ships are at the limit of tonnage for conventional powered carrier although the design has taken in account that over her service life the carrier could be remodeled and have a displacement of 70.600 tons. The 70.600 ton displacement puts this carrier at the limit of what can be conventionally powered without reducing its speed too much. Anything bigger would be insufficient powered and move to slow to create enough wind over the decks to launch aircraft, unless a nuclear propulsion plant is installed.
The first ship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth was officially named on the 4th of July 2014 and will be commissioned in 2017. The second ship, the HMS Prince of Wales, will be commissioned in 2020.
Both ships will have a planned carrier air group of 36 F-35’s and 4 helicopters. However, delivery of the F-35 to the Royal Navy is only scheduled to happen in 2020 so both carriers will only become fully operational in 2020 and off course that is if the F-35 program isn’t cancelled due to its high cost and many drawbacks and failures.

Of all the EU’s nations, France is the only nation with a nuclear powered aircraft carrier and indeed the only nation in the world besides the United States to operate a nuclear powered carrier. The Charles De Gaulle has a displacement of 42.000 tons, making her very small for a nuclear powered carrier that could sustain a weight of 3 times more. Launched in 1994 and commissioned in 2001 this carrier has a lifetime that can span into the 2040-2050 time-frame before the carrier is worn down and forced to be decommissioned.
The carrier air group of this carrier is composed of 28 – 40 aircraft, depending on what the composition of the air group is. The main fighter aircraft on board is the Rafale, backed up by  E-2C Hawkeye aircraft.
France normally operated two aircraft carriers in order to make sure that at least one was available when the other underwent repairs or modernization programs. As of 2013 however, the French government decided to scrap the plans for building a second aircraft carrier due to the high costs and budget restraints.
Charles de Gaulle, the EU's only nuclear aircraft carrier: Layout of flight and hangar deck

Italy operates 2 small carriers, the Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Cavour.
The Giuseppe Garibaldi is STOVL carrier with a displacement of 14.000 tons and commissioned in 1985. Her carrier air group is composed of 18 AV-8B Harrier aircraft.
The Cavour was commissioned in 2009, has a displacement of up to 30.000 tons fully loaded. Her carrier air group is smaller in size then the one of the Giuseppe Garibaldi with only  8 AV-8B Harrier aircraft or 15 F-35B’s in addition to her 10 helicopters. Although termed as a carrier, the Cavour can also double as a landing platform helicopter (LPH) amphibious warship. If given a 40 to 50 year lifespan for a capital ship undergoing proper maintenance then Italy could operate the Giuseppe Garibaldi until the 2025-2035 time-frame and the Cavour until the 2050-2060 time-frame.

Spain only operates one ship that can function as an aircraft carrier, the Juan Carlos I. Although in design the ship is an amphibious assault ship, her ski-jump ramp on the bow enables it to operate STOVL aircraft.  Conventionally powered and with a displacement of 26.000 tons this ship can serve as a light aircraft carrier with a carrier wing of 10 to 12 AV-8B Harrier aircraft or F-35B’s in addition to 10 helicopters. As the ship has been commissioned in 2010, it will be operational, if probably maintained, for the 2040-2050 time-frame as its projected lifespan is envisioned as maximum 40 years.
The Juan Carlos I design has been opted by Turkey as the basis to build an amphibious warship for the Turkish Navy. Although Turkey plans to use the ship as an amphibious assault ship to assist in humanitarian ops, it would give Turkey also a platform to operate aircraft from should the circumstances require it. In this case, NATO could count on one more carrier in its alliance that operates in European waters

Only 4 nations are capable of giving the EU the tools for projection power with aircraft carriers and unlike their massive US counterparts these aircraft carriers are small in comparison. Of the 6 carriers in total, only 1 is nuclear powered and 2 are not available until 2020, giving the EU at the moment only 4 small carriers. Cuts in defense budgets among the EU member states have deprived the EU of deploying hard power when it is needed. This was seen clearly during the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya where only the Charles de Gaulle and the Cavour operated as EU carriers.
Due to the resurgence of Russia at the EU's borders, resulting in the Ukraine crisis, and other nearby crises in the Mediterranean such as Libya and Syria, as well as Iraq further into the Middle east and a potential showdown in the Arctic, the EU finds itself in a weak position to back up its military power. Like all European defense projects and the creation of a EU army, the creation of a EU navy will be very troublesome and will face many delays. However, should the EU succeed in creating a EU navy it will be one that finds itself deprived of the hard power tools such as carriers to project its power across the oceans.

HMS Queen Elizabeth
HMS Prince of Wales
36 F-35B
36 F-35B
Charles de Gaulle
20-40 Rafale
Giuseppe Garibaldi
18 AV-8B Harrier aircraft
8 AV-8B Harrier aircraft  or 15 F-35B
Juan Carlos I
10-12 AV-8B Harrier aircraft
6 carriers
72-87 F-35B
28-38 AV-8B Harrier aircraft
20-40 Rafale
Table I: Overview of the EU aircraft carriers and their carrier air groups

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