What’s next for Britain’s Royal Navy fleet?

Military experts identify strategic raiding role for the UK’s newest warships

(FILES) In this file photo taken on August 16, 2017 Armed police officers patrol the quayside next to the moored  65,000-tonne British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth after it arrived at Portsmouth Naval base, its new home port, Portsmouth, southern England. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will on Thursday, November 19, unveil what is being billed as Britain's biggest programme of investment in the armed forces since the end of the Cold War. / AFP / Ben STANSALL
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Britain’s aircraft carriers are likely to be used for “strategic raiding” in future wars against targets such as Iran’s underground submarine base, an influential military think tank has proposed.

With threats around the world changing, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has argued that the Royal Navy's new 65,000 tonne carriers, which become fully operational next year, could be used in "pulse attacks" against enemies.

It has suggested that the warships, which can carry 36 advanced F35 stealth fighters, will assist in short, sharp attacks similar to the assault on Pearl Harbour in World War Two.

The report, Persistent Engagement and Strategic Raiding, is part of the RUSI’s analysis of ways that the Navy can fulfil the potential of its two new aircraft carriers.

It raised the possibility that warfare could break out in the ‘Great Power competition’ between Russia, China and America, each equipped with advanced weaponry.

“The ability of both attackers and defenders to deliver crippling firepower at range means that opportunities for engagement are likely to be fleeting,” the paper said. “The side that wins the battle of the first salvo will prevail. In essence, early results will likely prove decisive.”

As a result, navies will seek to “deliver large volumes of firepower from the air, surface and subsurface” quickly, on the basis of fleeting information before communications are cut. They will seek to achieve maximum damage in short time, the paper said, adding that aircraft carriers will deliver “short but intense pulses of force before departing the theatre of operations”.

The strategic raiding concept will replace that of the steady carrier strike operations, such as those during the 1991 Gulf War when hundreds of US jets bombed Iraq from warships in the region over six weeks. “In short, the future of carrier warfare looks more like Taranto or Pearl Harbour than Operation Desert Storm,” the report said.

In one scenario put forward, one of the Queen Elizabeth class carriers could assist in commando raids against targets in Iran such as Qeshm naval base if the Strait of Hormuz were closed.

“Iran’s submarines are well-defended in underground shelters in bases such as Qeshm. Raids involving company-sized force backed by carrier strike from further afield… may well be necessary to neutralise hardened assets on redoubts such as Qeshm and Abu Musa.”

The operation would use the carriers F35s, either in a bombing or electronic jamming capacity, to support the raid, possibly carried out in conjunction with the US Marine Expeditionary Force. The forces could also target Iran’s many mobile missile launchers and provide intelligence for further F35 strikes on targets such as surface-to-air missile batteries.

“Maritime forces are relatively easy to insert and withdraw from a theatre, which serves the end of limited-aims warfare,” the paper said.

In another scenario, the report suggested that if Russia obtained a naval base in Egypt, emplaced its hypersonic P-800 Onik anti-ship cruise missiles and threatened Mediterranean shipping, these could also be the target of a “strategic raid” by carriers.

“It would not deny Russia the base but would constrain the ways in which it could be used,” the think tank said. “This would involve the use of force in a manner sufficiently deniable to allow an opponent to save face and limit escalation, coupled with the presence over-the-horizon of a heavier force to act as a damper on further escalation.”

The warships could also launch raids from the Eastern Mediterranean against Russian naval facilities such as Sevastopol which “could well damage both expensive vessels and critical infrastructure that is difficult to replace and, most importantly, prestige in a competition”.

The ability of carriers to move a strong force quickly between operational theatres, such as from the Mediterranean to the South China Sea, will also characterise future operations.

In that scenario, the carrier strike group could send a formation of four F35 with air-to-air refuelling for a long-range sortie, while the carrier strike group “loitered beyond the edge of the theatre to deter counter-escalation without a large, publicly visible regional presence”.

The Royal Navy’s carriers gave it the ability to pressurise the navies of Russia and China outside their home waters acting as “deterrence and coercion”. This was the historic British way of warfare, the report said. “Rather than confronting enemy strengths, naval power allows force to be concentrated against weaknesses.”