Will British aircraft carrier replace US warship in Red Sea?

Military in-fighting and political indecision could block warship deploying to Middle East when USS Eisenhower leaves

The Royal Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth could be used to replace an America's ship in the Red Sea but dithering in the government could leave it in dock. PA
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When the British Defence Secretary heads to the US this week he will discuss operational updates in the Red Sea mission amid suggestions a Royal Navy warship could replace America’s aircraft carrier.

It is expected Grant Shapps will be asked by the White House for Britain to potentially plug a gap in the region when the USS Dwight D Eisenhower sails home in the next three to six months.

Britain has two aircraft carriers – the Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales – readily available to fill the hole but there is a lack of evident enthusiasm to send them to the Middle East.

While Armed Forces Minister James Heappey has suggested a warship might go, there is understood to be both a political and military hesitancy for action.

Britain may “co-operate with the Americans”, Mr Heappey said, and step in to “plug a gap” in the Red Sea “when the Eisenhower goes home”.

The politician’s words have led to intense speculation that a British aircraft carrier would be sent to the Middle East, yet that prospect is now being played down.

Warring military

There is a fractious argument within the armed forces over whether a ship should be deployed, The National has been told.

Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, Chief of the Defence Staff, and nearly all naval officers are eager to go but others in the military are less keen.

They cite the navy’s commitment to the major Nato exercise Steadfast Defender to be conducted later this year in northern Europe as a signal to deter Russian aggression and “CSG 25”, another carrier-led power projection to the Far East next year.

“The navy wants the Queen Elizabeth out the door and have done for weeks as, with caveats, she can be deployed and be useful in the Red Sea right now,” said former Royal Navy Commander Tom Sharpe.

“But there is a military lobby that doesn't want to go, the ones who want to protect their exquisite programmes that are mapped out years in advance, such as Steadfast Defender and CSG 25. There’s simply not enough military unity to persuade the politicians.”

Military analyst Tim Ripley agreed that sending a ship to the Red Sea was “not beyond the realm of possibility” as they were fully crewed and had solved technical issues.

“The question remains – is there a political will to resource, organise and dispatch the ships? Because it will involve a massive effort from other parts of the British armed forces, which requires a political decision from the very top,” he added.

Apathy in the UK

Such political will appears to be lacking, according to one Royal Navy officer who condemned No 10 Downing Street and the Treasury’s “apathy” at a time when the situation in the Middle East was “significantly hotting up”.

“We have all these military factions playing off against each other and a lack of direction at the top of the shop,” he said. “We’ve even had a senior American naval officer come over here basically telling us all off that we're not trying hard enough and I think he's right.”

The Foreign Office is also thought to be uncertain which faction to back and there are widespread fears that without enough escort vessels, the British carrier could be vulnerable to Houthi missiles.

The loss of a capital ship would be a major political and military blow to Britain’s global standing.

Carrier complement

It is understood Adm Radakin wanted to send the Queen Elizabeth to the Middle East in December straight after an exercise off Norway but the idea was rejected.

Having the ship in the region now would have a significant effect on combat operations against the Houthis, as the Royal Navy’s advanced F35 fighters have significant surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

“If she was there now, Queen Elizabeth could really complement the fleet by sailing in the Gulf of Aden while the Ike [Eisenhower] is in the Red Sea,” said Cmdr Sharpe. “The F35s can be doing an awful lot of intelligence gathering for American F-18 strikes, which would give you a proper joined-up, punchy war-fighting ability, as well as political options.”

The ship would potentially add to the deterrence value against further Iranian action either via Hezbollah or other proxies as two American aircraft carriers have done since October.

Pilot shortage

Another significant issue is that while either of the £3.1 billion ($3.94 billion) warships can set sail from Portsmouth fairly rapidly, they do not have enough aircraft for major operations.

The National understands there are only 12 pilots from the RAF and Fleet Air Arm who are fully trained on F35s.

The Navy would have to borrow a squadron of fully trained US Marine Corps F35B pilots, even though it currently has 32 functioning F35s.

There is also a military question on whether one of Britain’s 65,000-tonne carriers with a maximum of 24 fighters could replace the 103,000-tonne Eisenhower with its estimated 44 F-18 Super Hornet jets plus many other aircraft.

It would, according to a Cmdr Sharpe, be the equivalent of taking “my Ford Fiesta for a replacement at the Rolls-Royce garage and saying ‘would you mind using my Ford’?”

Britain does not have enough supply ships to keep a carrier functioning on extended combat operations, although again, it could turn to US resources for help.

Typhoons from Djibouti?

With significant effort required to deploy a carrier, there is a suggestion the British could instead simply send a squadron of Typhoon fighters stationed in Djibouti to be on close hand to strike Houthi targets.

“You could do the whole thing without the carrier for a fraction of the cost and the grief,” said Mr Ripley.

But an added bonus of deploying a carrier on combat operations would be the possibility of retaining sailors in the service weakened by a 22 per cent decline in recruits last year, as well as many resignations, falling well short of its required 32,000 personnel total.

“People on the Queen Elizabeth are saying if you send a ship on good operations, that's retention positive,” said Cmdr Sharpe. “If she went through the Suez now and started bombing the Houthis, no one would be resigning because that’s what you join up for.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “As Mr Heappey set out, any decision as to whether to deploy the carriers will be made in conjunction with our allies and based on operational need.”

Updated: January 31, 2024, 6:44 PM