Author: Sharkey Ward
This paper briefly discusses the manner in which the new UK-France Defence Accord could be developed to provide cost savings in defence expenditure whilst retaining the necessary military capability that is required to satisfy national strategic objectives.
It then examines in detail the utility of cross decking carrier aircraft and/or Carrier Air Groups to French aircraft carriers.
It addresses the advantages to be gained from a short term/emergency cross decking capability (which are proven through experience and provide for a useful element of flight safety) and then looks at the considerations, limitations and implications of the longer term transfer of one nation’s Carrier Air Group to the deck of another nation’s aircraft carrier.
The recent UK–France Defence Accord or the “porte-avion entente cordiale” would appear to be a useful step towards the closer integration and mutual support of European military assets. It appears to have been spawned by a desire to reduce national defence costs by sharing these assets.
This raises the important question of which assets can be reasonably shared without losing any overall national defence capability. As a vehicle for fiscal efficiency, the Accord should indeed prove advantageous in the longer term provided that operational considerations and global national interests are not forgotten.
Within the context of existing and planned UK military forces and national defence strategy, it will be important to define what roles can be shared efficiently and how this would affect our national military capability. It is therefore for consideration that the starting point for “sharing” should be an in-depth look at where our national defence imperatives are the same as those of the French. Having isolated these as the “areas for sharing”, a logical assessment of whether “sharing” will be operationally advantageous and cost-efficient can be made.
Arguably, there are three areas in which the sharing of responsibilities and assets could be realistically and cost effectively realised (this paper presents these for consideration but does not address them in detail):
v Air Defence of the Homeland base.
- Although there is no military air threat perceived against either the United Kingdom or France, each nation invests considerable sums of money and arguably a disproportionate share of national defence budgets in the procurement of land-based air defence fighters. A mutual reduction in the numbers of these fighters could be justified and achieved under the Accord with, for example, Britain concentrating its attention on the North and the North West approaches and France concentrating its attention on the West and the Southern approaches. A co-ordinated UK/French international military airspace would reduce the task of the individual air forces and merit a reduction in the overall number of fighters needed to satisfy the joint National need.
v The maintenance of adequate land forces to deter any aggression against Europe.
- The overall strength of both nations’ land forces could be refined particularly in those areas where mutual support would be advantageous from a cost and operational point of view.
v The policing of the world’s maritime trade routes.
- Although each nation has differing offshore interests and responsibilities, the allocation of active or latent trouble points to individual navies would reduce the operational commitment and stretch of each Navy. For example, the French Navy could be allocated the piracy zone immediately to the east of Suez and in the Royal Navy could be allocated the Far East and the South Atlantic.
National defence imperatives would suggest that the two nations have differing responsibilities and perceptions concerning offshore operations; such as defending overseas territories and essential food, fuel and material supplies. It is in these key areas that any thought of “sharing” must be carefully considered in relation to maintaining a full capability for independent action.
It is in the latter context that this paper addresses the suggested “sharing” of Carrier Battle Group assets through the medium of cross decking between each nation’s aircraft carriers.
1. It is assumed that:
- British National Defence Strategy will not be driven by this agreement.
- British National Defence Procurement Strategy will not be driven by this agreement.
In either instance, that would be ‘putting the cart before the horse’ and prejudicing our sovereignty.
2. Britain’s Defence Strategy will continue to include:
- The ability to conduct effective and independent Expeditionary Task Force Operations.
- The protection of our Sea Lines of Communication and Trade and our other offshore interests, notably our overseas territories
3. For the purposes/intent of this paper, “Cross-decking” refers specifically to the operation of conventional take-off and landing manned fighter aircraft (although many of the issues discussed can be read across to other aircraft types, including helicopters).
General Considerations, limitations and Implications.
The Royal Navy’s ability to conduct effectively national maritime strategy rests on being properly equipped with reliable ships and weapon systems to do the job demanded of it. Historically, our aircraft carrier/naval aviation capability has been underfunded as a result of the strategies adopted during the Cold War. In spite of this and with limited assets, it has responded to the national need effectively and reliably whenever called upon to do so – as have the Royal Marines.
The Charles de Gaulle and French Naval Air Power.
If we are to continue operating effectively with limited resources, it will be necessary to be able to rely upon all elements of core naval forces; including naval air power. The in service history of the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier gives little confidence that it could be relied upon “when Britain needs it most”, i.e. when rapid deployment of visible British force is required.
In September 2007, it underwent a major 15 month overhaul including the refuelling of its nuclear power plant (a necessary step after 6 years in service). The ship required major modifications to allow operation and maintenance of the new Rafale F3 fighter and associated weapons and weapons systems. Shortly after completion of this refit, the carrier had to return to Toulon for in-depth repairs following technical problems. In October of this year, a four-month planned deployment was cut down to a single day when the ship suffered further technical problems (an electrical fault in its propulsion system). Beset with problems, it is not an aircraft carrier that can be safely relied upon to be available when we need it. The next planned prolonged absence from service of the carrier will be from 2015 until at least 2017. In the light of its record to date, it seems likely it may well be out of service for considerable periods between now and 2015.
One could be forgiven for assuming that, as France is not an island nation with total dependence upon the sea for its trade and economic prosperity, its carrier battle group capability does not benefit from any priority over other more close to home French defence assets.
This should be borne in mind when considering sharing Britain’s offshore responsibilities with the French Navy.
Cross Decking with the French Navy.
There are two types of cross-decking to be considered:
- The short term/emergency contingency
- Sustained operational embarkations/detachments.
Short Term/Emergency Cross-Decking.
Within the modern NATO navies of the world, it is normal practice for a carrier of one nation to provide a ‘spare deck’ for the aircraft of another nation’s carrier particularly when no land-based airfields are available for emergency use. This type of operation does not require any substantial support from the host carrier of the cross decking aircraft. However, for it to be possible at all, it does require:
- Common aircraft catapult configuration and arrester gear compatibility.
- Common refuelling capability.
- Common aircraft start-up capability; including electrical supplies, etc.
- A common language for the safe direction and understanding of aircraft and personnel on the flight deck.
This practice represents a sensible flight safety capability – providing a diversion for airborne aircraft when their own deck cannot receive them. When the host carrier is ready to receive its aircraft back, the aircraft will return for a normal turnaround including refuelling, re-arming and scheduled/fault rectification maintenance.
The availability of this facility is extremely useful in the context of operating in conjunction with United States Navy carriers that maintain an almost continuous presence close to the various trouble spots around the world. The likelihood of a British carrier operating in conjunction with a French carrier is arguably remote even under the terms of the Anglo-French agreement. Therefore, equipping our carrier air groups for the latter contingency rather than for operating with U.S. Navy carriers would be counter-productive.
Sustained operational cross-decking embarkations/detachments.
Relevant Experience to Date.
For sustained operational cross decking embarkation / detachments, there are a multitude of considerations, limitations and implications to be addressed. This can be exemplified by recent experience within the Royal Navy when the Sea Harrier was withdrawn from service and our Invincible class carriers had to be modified/reconfigured to support properly a different type of Harrier, the GR7/9. This was an expensive procedure in spite of each aircraft being of the same generic VSTOL type. It is understood that the cost to the taxpayer for converting Invincible class carriers for Harrier GR7/9 use was in excess of £120 million.
Each aircraft had completely different weapon system and flight system (including navigation) configurations which meant that the engineering support spaces and equipments had to be significantly modified and re-equipped to cater for the new version of the aircraft. Ordnance supply and storage facilities also had to be re-assessed/modified.
De facto, such considerations and others (please see below) have prevented any sustained operational cross decking embarkations/detachments between NATO Navy carriers in the past and, for the most part, militate against their realisation in the future.
Attempting Sustained Embarkations/Detachments.
Further to the requirements for short-term/emergency cross decking given above, there are significant considerations, limitations and implications attached to sustained cross decking operations, particularly during active combat operations or during the graduated response build up to such operations.
The National Interest.
The Royal Navy Fleet Weapon System is geared to worldwide rapid response to international situations/developments that might threaten any of Britain’s global interests. This Fleet Weapon System has been developed from decades of successful combat and peace-keeping experience and is made up of many inseparable and interdependent parts, all of which need full integration in order to be effective.
For years, we have heard of the “indivisibility of air power” which was the phrase used by the old Air Ministry to lend credence to the existence of the Royal Air Force (rather than the latter being subsumed by the Army and the Royal Navy). That phrase transfers directly to the fleet weapon system today – it too is generally “indivisible” although occasional departures can be accommodated. It behoves us now to understand more clearly “the indivisibility of sea power”.
The proposed embarkation of a British Carrier Air Group in a foreign naval vessel (such as the French carrier Charles de Gaulle) for sustained periods of time is a strictly political strategy that appears to pays little attention to the need for such a Group to be fully integrated into that foreign navy’s fleet weapon system in order to achieve full operational effectiveness (please see Logistic and Training section below). It also transfers sovereignty over that air group to the host nation. This immediately presents a significant conflict of interest that will come to the fore whenever the two participating nations have different views on the manner in which their Navy can or cannot commit to the resolution of an international incident.
Of the many different threat scenarios facing the UK, probably the most realistic would be a second Falklands conflict. Arguably, the French or any other Navy might well withdraw its air group from a British carrier if the latter was dispatched in a task force to oppose an invasion of the Falklands by Argentina. In the same vein, a French carrier with a British air group on board would probably be withheld from supporting such an operation.
Logistics and training.
The term, Logistics and Training, covers a myriad of topics/issues that are appropriate to this discussion.
Some of these are:
Designated carriers would require a complete set of engineering workspaces, hangar and flight deck equipment tailored to the needs of the embarking aircraft. Each carrier would be required to hold on inventory a complete set of air stores for servicing the aircraft need: from electronic weapon system parts through to spare engines and associated jigs. A formal interface between each ship’s Air Engineering Officers and the embarking Squadron Air Engineering Officers would need to be established and agreed. (Each set of air engineers is essential for the proper running of the carrier and the Squadron.) This is likely to be a complex and unrewarding exercise that would be particularly compounded by any language barrier and by differences in supervisory roles, standards and regulations. Achievement of operational efficiency in such circumstances would be prejudiced. Further, additional Royal Fleet Auxiliary support and capability may well be required at additional cost.
Designated carriers would need to embark and store the ordnance required by the embarking aircraft for its role-specific operations. Carriers usually have a defined air weapons storage capacity and this would be likely to limit the number of weapons to be embarked for use by the visiting air group. Further, more ordnance would have to be held in total inventory to satisfy the extra logistic need of possible cross decking – again at additional cost. A formal interface between each ship’s Gunnery/Ordnance Department and the embarking Squadron/Air Group would need to be established and agreed. As with engineering, this is likely to be a complex and unrewarding exercise that would be particularly compounded by any language barrier and by differences in supervisory roles, standards and regulations. Achievement of operational efficiency in such circumstances would be prejudiced.
Security. Many of the UK’s air weapons are highly classified. Advanced Air to Air Missiles have highly secret parts (example: radar systems, warhead, fusing, inertial navigation platforms etc). Most of our “smart” air-to-ground weapons are also highly secret (guidance sensors, crypto loads, warhead / fuse). Storing munitions like this on a foreign vessel poses problems that could be insurmountable. It requires the “store man” to understand what you can and cannot do with them, how they should be moved and so forth. Munitions do not always get stored in one completely made up unit; instead they are put together from highly sensitive and component parts when required for use. Despite being partners in Afghanistan with (for example) France, the Americans are unlikely to share technology with us if we leave that technology unattended on a foreign (or French) warship. Indeed, we might also have our own restrictions as would indeed the French. The French CAG may wish to bring with them their ‘first strike’ nuclear and cruise missiles – the ASMP-A nuclear missiles and SCALP EG cruise missiles. It is more than likely that there will be political difficulties in making our carriers ‘nuclear capable’ (and deciding who would have the final control of any suggested launch of a nuclear missile).
Language and Aircraft/Equipment Control Routines.
Although French air traffic controllers are obliged to be able to communicate with all air traffic in English, this is not necessarily the case with naval Direction Officers and Approach Control Officers. Difficulties with understandable speech communication between a carrier and aircraft airborne on operations have the potential for disastrous mistakes and misunderstanding that could threaten the safety and survivability of all concerned: particularly when stress levels are very high e.g. by night and in bad weather during combat operations. The same is true for the congested operations that take place on the flight deck where poor communication can be directly related to “an accident waiting to happen”.
Security. Modern aircraft use classified mission planning computer hardware and software. Even if there was enough equipment available in our inventory to be left on a foreign vessel this would pose more security problems. Typhoon is not capable of landing on an aircraft carrier but presents an example of how secret their mission planning equipment is: it is Secret UKEO (UK Eyes Only), and on a need to know basis. In other words if you are British but not in the Typhoon force then you cannot have access to it. There are other secret and highly classified avionic systems on modern fighter aircraft such as GPS crypto loads, IFF and SIFF and other transponder codes, radars, secure radio crypto, etc, etc. All of these must be safeguarded.
Flight safety, Search and Rescue and Ship-Borne Safety.
The preservation of life and the prevention of loss or accident to expensive weapon systems (including aircraft) is of paramount importance and even more critical on-board a carrier than at a land base. Any form of language or procedural miscommunication mitigates against such flight safety considerations. There is also the question of commonality in equipment and training for search and rescue (recovering a ditched pilot from the sea) and the need for all the ship’s company, including visiting air groups, to be fully familiar with the ship and its damage control routines.
Essentially, prolonged embarkations by a British Carrier Air Group in a French carrier will require a level of interdependence that goes beyond the established NATO procedures and protocols. For the Anglo-French agreement to work it would mean the effective merging of the British and French carriers into a single fighting force. This would prejudice national political and operational freedom of action.
Rules of Engagement (ROE).
Rules of Engagement for a military force conducting combat operations are the prerogative of the national government and different nations’ governments have different views on such rules. Changing British rules to accommodate French government requirements would represent a clear abdication of responsibility and sovereignty. Nor would it be easy to find international agreement upon them.
The Nuclear Option.
The French Rafale F3 carrier borne fighter aircraft is fitted “for and with” the ASMP-A nuclear missile. Part of the Force de Frappe, in French nuclear doctrine it is the last-resort “warning shot” prior to a full-scale employment of strategic nuclear weapons. Would Britain be content to allow a sustained embarkation of a French carrier air group with this weapon and its associated strategic/political implications? If not, this implies that such embarkations would be subject to differing national defence policies and aims. This leads to the question of what other restrictions might the French wish to place on the roles and intent of any British carrier air group embarked in their carrier. To all extents and purposes, this could result in the political will of the French government deciding where and how British military forces may be engaged in our national interest.
The list above is not comprehensive but highlights some of the difficulties and the expense that would be incurred with the prolonged embarkation of a British fixed wing carrier air group in a French carrier. In peacetime, these difficulties might be overcome at the cost of overall operational efficiency in the conduct of flying operations. In a combat situation, many of these difficulties would be politically and militarily unacceptable.
As an island nation that is for the most part totally dependent upon merchant ships and trade, Britain should and does have an entirely different national defence perspective to that of a continental nation such as France. The majority of our vital energy supplies are delivered by sea and any interruption in such supplies would be devastating to our economy. This is not the case for France where much reliance is placed upon nuclear energy and land lines of supply, such as natural gas from Russia.
Therefore, although Britain and France both have commitments within NATO and a desire for a stronger, more integrated European Union defence capability (with less reliance upon the United States), Britain’s predominant global defence interests are clearly different from those of France and its continental neighbours. In order to secure these, our fleet weapon system and its integrated carrier battle groups must remain independent of the sovereign will of any other nation, including France. Our national defence focus should therefore be on the maritime sphere first and land-based assets second: this will ensure sufficient resources are available to avoid any disruptive and unworkable carrier sharing agreement with France.
If we are to link our integrated fleet weapon system and global maritime strategy to that of another nation, it would be prudent and sensible to choose a nation that actively pursues its global interests through a permanent and robust maritime presence: that is to say, the United States. The latter maintains a strategy of global maritime presence which is entirely in accord with Britain’s need to protect its trade routes, its overseas territories and to support our allies and Commonwealth.
Procurement/lease of the F 18 Super Hornet for our new carriers would ensure a compatibility with the U.S. Navy that would prove of considerable benefit on a global basis to our perceived maritime strategy and that would make the sustained embarkation of a carrier air group a more practical and realistic proposition. Such a way ahead would prevent the need for any further investment in carrier workspaces, etc and would therefore be extremely cost-effective – not least because the F 18, at $57 million per unit is markedly cheaper than any alternative.
What will determine the success or failure of the recent UK–France Defence Accord/porte-avion entente cordiale is the political will of the governments of Britain and France.
The agreement – and the political statements accompanying it – glossed over, to a certain extent, the issue of political will but political will could have massive implications for the success of the arrangement even if the training, logistics, and operational issues could be sorted by aviation specialists from both navies, which is doubtful. The problem is straight forward; what will be the political fallout if, once the carrier sharing is up and running, either Britain or France refuses to allow its share of the force to be used in support of an action that the other deems of vital national interest? Not only would such a decision have potentially terminal implications for the political future of the other government, but it would also prove to be a devastating blow to the morale and confidence of the joint UK/France carrier force.
Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to strength political trust between Britain and France; it is a commodity that is based as much on the personalities of senior politicians as it is on shared interests or a proven ability to make the sharing concept work operationally. Even if trust can be manufactured at a political level to the point where either country will guarantee to allow its naval aviation forces to be used as required by the other, a change of government could undo months, years or decades of work. The agreement will succeed therefore, not on the amount of trust Britain or France has in each other’s governments, but whether they feel that they will be able to work with the next government, and the one after that. This is a truly massive undertaking.
- Short term/emergency cross decking is a useful and well-practised flight safety option for fighter aircraft conducting non-diversion flying operations at sea.
- Sustained cross decking embarkations/detachments of a Carrier Air Group to another nation’s carrier that does not have a commonality of equipment, spares, ordnance, language and operational routines has not been practised in the past because it can raise very significant problems in terms of:
- Sovereignty considerations and national defence priorities.
- Engineering support.
- Ordnance Supply.
- Security implications for stores and avionic systems
- Language and Aircraft Control Routines.
- Flight safety, Search and Rescue and Ship-Borne Safety.
- Rules of Engagement.
- The Nuclear Option.
- Sustained cross decking embarkations/detachments of a British or French fixed wing Carrier Air Group to another nation’s carrier with a commonality of equipment, spares, ordnance, language and operational routines would be feasible if backed by sufficient political will to allow its operational use by the ‘host’ nation.
Whilst the Anglo-French Accord represents a positive way ahead and may in principle pave the way for better Anglo-French relations in terms of broad defence policy within NATO and Europe, it is clear that the suggestion of sharing the use of each other’s aircraft carriers for other than short-term/emergency cross decking procedures would be neither cost-effective nor operationally sound. It will not provide the same global operational capability that is available from independent Carrier Battle Groups. The national sovereignty associated with Britain’s ‘political will’ will be tainted.
 If the plan is to share our Carrier Battle Group resources and only have one carrier available for operations from both nations, then short term cross decking does not apply. If we are to have fully independent Carrier Battle Group resources, then our diverse national interests will probably dictate operations in separate parts of the world.
 It would be politically and militarily naïve to ignore the possibility of posturing and even a second invasion in the South Atlantic. Like it or not, Britain has moral and legal obligations to protect the Islands and their British inhabitants. It should also be noted that the latent wealth of the Falkland Islands and our Antarctic overseas territories continues to increase – becoming a prize worth fighting for.
 When Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac last launched an Anglo-French defence initiative in St Malo in 1998 it came unstuck when France refused to back the invasion of Iraq.
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