Ready for Take-Off? The Next Generation of UK Maritime Air Power



HMS <em>Queen Elizabeth</em> returns to Portsmouth after her maiden operational deployment in Portsmouth, United Kingdom, December 9, 2021, p

HMS Queen Elizabeth returns to Portsmouth after her maiden operational deployment in Portsmouth, United Kingdom, December 9, 2021

Photo by PO Jenkins/Royal Navy/Open Government Licence

by James Black

December 10, 2021

On 22 May 2021, the United Kingdom's Carrier Strike Group (CSG) sailed from Portsmouth and embarked on its maiden operational deployment (CSG 21) led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, which at 65,000 tonnes and 280 metres in length, is the largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy (RN).

Escorting this new flagship were two Type 45 air warfare destroyers, two Type 23 frigates, the American destroyer USS The Sullivans, the Dutch ship HNLMS Evertsen, two Royal Fleet Auxiliary support ships and an Astute-class nuclear attack submarine. Between them, they carried 3,700 personnel, including Royal Marines from 42 Commando, as they headed on a 28-week deployment that would take them to 40 countries and the waters of the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, Philippine Sea, and South China Sea.

As hailed by the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace MP, this was the “largest concentration of maritime and air power to leave the United Kingdom in a generation.” For the next six months, the flight deck of the £3.2 billion (37 billion NOK) carrier would be home to a small menagerie of aircraft from a mix of squadrons, services, and nations. This included 18 F-35B Lightning II fighters—8 from the Royal Air Force's 617 Squadron, 10 from the U.S. Marine Corps' VMFA-211 Squadron—along with 4 Wildcat maritime attack helicopters from 815 Naval Air Squadron, 7 Merlin Mk2 anti-submarine and airborne early warning helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron, and 3 Merlin Mk4s from 845 Naval Air Squadron (part of the Commando Helicopter Force, which supports the Royal Marines). These were joined by unmanned systems and target drones, including the jet-powered, parachute-recovered Banshee.

While the United Kingdom continues to invest in new capabilities—including acquiring more F-35Bs—and further develop its operating concepts, both for individual platforms and for the CSG at large, this deployment represented the culmination of years of procurement, testing, and preparation. The fanfare also celebrated a return to UK carrier operations after a decade-long 'capability holiday'—the RN having been forced to scrap its Invincible-class light carriers and Harrier jump jets in 2011 amid sharp cuts to defence spending in the austerity years that followed the 2008 financial crisis.

Rebuilding this capability has consumed a large portion of the RN's bandwidth and resources. It has also not been without its share of controversy. This includes doubts over affordability, especially at a time when the United Kingdom is also recapitalising much of its surface fleet, military aircraft, and nuclear deterrent. Questions have also been asked about the survivability of large and 'exquisite' platforms such as aircraft carriers in a fast-changing threat environment. Concerns have similarly been raised about the burdens that a CSG places on the wider Navy, affecting the United Kingdom's ability to generate sufficient crew and platform availability for other tasks given its limited fleet of ships and subs.

So why has the United Kingdom bet big on carrier strike? And what does its return after a decade of capability gaps mean for the future of maritime airpower—not just for the United Kingdom, but also for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and key allies such as Norway?

Role and Significance of Carrier Strike

Given the pressures outlined above, and the enduring interservice rivalries, there are many within the United Kingdom—and some even within the Navy—who advocate spending money on other areas of capability instead. Various alternative proposals have been put forward: foregoing carriers in favour of buying more frigates, destroyers, and submarines; reversing cuts to the size of the British Army; or spending money on new fighters for the Royal Air Force (RAF) without the restrictions of operating a carrier-capable fleet. The latter choice would have enabled the United Kingdom to purchase the F-35A, which is more affordable, less complex, easier to maintain, and more capable in terms of range, gun, and payload than the Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing variant, the F-35B, required for operations from the RN's carriers (which lack the 'cats and traps' needed to launch and recover the F-35C in service with the U.S. Navy).

Others have argued that resources should be redirected towards new and emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, unmanned systems, or hypersonics. Some query whether the very idea of carrier operations might seem out of date—even quaint—given the latest trends in complex areas such as space, cyber, and information operations, or the increasing focus on the murky world of 'hybrid warfare' and subthreshold competition in the 'grey zone.'

The UK Ministry of Defence sees carrier strike as having enduring tactical, operational, and strategic relevance in the 21st century.

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The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), while recognising these other threats and competing priorities, nonetheless sees carrier strike as having enduring tactical, operational, and strategic relevance in the 21st century. So how is its role—and that of maritime airpower more broadly—evolving?

Above all, the return to UK carrier operations must be understood in the context of a wider shift in the focus of UK defence strategy, policy, capability, and force development priorities, and overall posture. In March 2021, the UK Government published its long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy, entitled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age.” This document sets out a high-level blueprint for the United Kingdom's ambitions and levers of influence in a post-Brexit world marked by increasing great power competition, most notably with Russia and China.

Within this context, the ability to deploy a CSG and associated maritime airpower is understood as contributing to a vision of “Global Britain”—that is, a globally-oriented medium power with ambitions to project power and influence not only in its Euro-Atlantic backyard, but also further afield, so as to defend democratic values, support allies and partners, and set the conditions for economic prosperity. This imbues the carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales with symbolic as well as more practical value; a political statement of the United Kingdom's ambition to remain a “tier-one” military power and to support a “tilt to the Indo-Pacific,” projecting not only force but also diplomatic and economic influence, as shown in the use of CSG 21 to promote support for post-Brexit trade deals.

Focusing more narrowly on the military role of the United Kingdom's new carrier strike capability, the CSG and its contingent of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft are intended as key components in a wider modernisation of UK maritime and air power. There is increasing awareness of the threats posed by Russian (and to an increasing extent, Chinese) naval and air assets to sea lines of communication (SLOCs), which are vital to the security and prosperity of an island nation such as the United Kingdom. The UK military also has obligations to ensure its ability to generate and deploy forces beyond the North Atlantic region in a contingency, for example to protect the Falkland Islands or other Overseas Territories around the world.

Contributing to NATO

The United Kingdom views its investment in maritime airpower as an important part of its contributions to the NATO Alliance. In 2020, it committed the CSG to the NATO Readiness Initiative, alongside other inputs such as the British Army's leadership of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in Estonia. Reflecting its historical areas of strength, the United Kingdom also hosts Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) in Northwood, England, and the RN regularly contributes to the Standing NATO Maritime Groups and Standing NATO Maritime Countermeasures Groups. The RAF is similarly active in supporting NATO exercises and air policing missions.

Rebuilding the capability to deploy a CSG with embarked F-35Bs and a mix of helicopters presents not only the United Kingdom, but also NATO, with a new range of tactical options. This includes the added operational flexibility that comes with increased capacity (or 'mass') and new ways of bolstering the NATO Alliance's conventional deterrence and defence posture.

The United Kingdom views its investment in maritime airpower as an important part of its contributions to the NATO Alliance.

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This enhancement in European NATO Allies' contributions to NATO maritime airpower—alongside the smaller and older carriers operated by France, Italy, and Spain—comes at a time when the U.S. Navy's own (much larger) fleet of aircraft carriers is facing growing demands from other theatres. Most notably, the U.S. military is increasingly having to juggle its ongoing presence and commitments in Europe with efforts to deter China's fast-growing People's Liberation Army, Navy, and Air Force in the Western Pacific. The return to United Kingdom carrier operations therefore presents opportunities for the RN and RAF to 'take some of the slack' from their U.S. counterparts, either by deploying the CSG within Europe or by taking up station elsewhere—for example, in waters off the Middle East—to help free up a U.S. task group for operations in other parts of the world.

It also comes as Russia continues to develop and deploy capabilities intended to deny NATO access to waters and airspace off Norway in the event of a conflict (so-called 'anti-access, area denial'), securing Russia's northern bastion and approaches and making any Allied reinforcement of Norway a more complicated and risky undertaking. Russia's naval and air forces similarly hope to contest NATO's access and control as far as the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, directly threatening the SLOCs of the North Atlantic that lie beyond. These waters are vital to NATO's broader strategy and resilience, enabling the safe and timely movement of troops and materiel from North America to reinforce the European theatre in the event of a crisis or full-blown conflict.

Equally, NATO has enduring requirements for projection of air and maritime forces beyond the United Kingdom's immediate neighbourhood, including to support expeditionary operations in other regions. Investing in carrier aviation provides new options for delivering strike, as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, without reliance on land-basing. Relatedly, the United Kingdom is developing a role for its new carriers in supporting amphibious and littoral operations—a priority area for the NATO Allied Leaders Expeditionary Symposium, which is seeking to reinvigorate the Alliance's capabilities and readiness in this regard, as well as for individual nations such as the United States or the Netherlands.

The RN and Royal Marines are currently developing concepts for Littoral Strike, complementing the new CSG with Littoral Response Groups (LRGs) bringing together different amphibious assets. One (LRG North) is to be focused on the Euro-Atlantic region, and another (LRG South) is reportedly to be stationed in the Middle East and spend time as far afield as the Pacific. The United Kingdom's carriers will have an important role to play, for example deploying the CSG alongside LRG (North) in event of NATO amphibious operations in the High North and enabling aerial missions in support of forces deployed on shore. In June 2021, the United Kingdom conducted tests involving RAF Chinooks and Apache attack helicopters from the Army Air Corps' 656 Squadron operating from the deck of HMS Prince of Wales. This presents new options for deploying rotary-wing assets in support of NATO operations in littoral environments, such as through resupply or land attack.

Finally, the United Kingdom also envisages maritime airpower as having an important role to play in providing a more flexible and agile set of response options to deter or deal with threats to NATO that fall below the threshold of triggering a full Article 5 response. The United Kingdom leads the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), acting as framework nation for a mix of Allied nations (Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and Norway) and NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partners (Finland and Sweden) with a common interest in the security and stability of the Nordic-Baltic region.

The JEF is intended to provide a flexible and voluntary framework through which likeminded nations can deploy joint forces and take collective action to deter and deescalate a regional crisis quickly—providing 'first mover advantage' and enabling a military response before political consensus is achieved among all 30 NATO Allies to trigger action under Article 5. The RN's new carriers and their F-35Bs and helicopters are envisaged, along with LRG (North) and the United Kingdom's other air and maritime assets, as key potential building blocks of any future JEF deployment.

Implications for Norway

Against the backdrop of these sizeable UK investments, there are concrete opportunities for enhanced cooperation with Norway. The CSG and LRG (North) have direct relevance to Norwegian security in the event of any conflict, given the geography and political and military ties between London and Oslo. Norway could potentially provide escorts to these task groups and continue to participate actively in the JEF and joint air and maritime exercises, as well as initiatives such as hosting the Royal Marines' cold weather training in Arctic Norway.

With both nations operating the F-35 and the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, there is the chance to deepen UK-Norwegian cooperation on tactics, training, simulation, and concepts of operation for both aircraft, as well as trilaterally with the United States. There is similarly a strong incentive to work together, and through NATO, on how best to integrate so-called fourth- and fifth- generation aircraft, given the Alliance's air forces are likely to involve a mix of both for decades to come. The advent of uncrewed systems of various types—whether in the air, above or below the waves, or on land in coastal areas—also presents an area of potential future collaboration.


The recent deployment of a Carrier Strike Group represents a marked shift in the United Kingdom's ambitions and capabilities for power projection in both the maritime and air domains. Looking to the future, the United Kingdom is hoping to work closely with NATO Allies such as Norway to enhance the Alliance's collective ability to deploy maritime airpower—either operating from land or carrier flight decks—as part of a flexible posture that can deter and respond to threats both close to home and far afield. The advent of new technologies, most notably autonomous systems, presents challenges, such as around integration, but also offers opportunities for innovation, reducing costs, and increasing mass. As the United Kingdom's Future Maritime Aviation Force begins to take tentative shape, there is a chance for Norway to support and influence these ongoing efforts, to the wider benefit of collective security in the Euro-Atlantic region.

James Black is a research leader in the defence, security, and infrastructure group at RAND Europe.

This commentary originally appeared in LUFTLED (PDF) on December 3, 2021

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.