A launch in uncertain timesThere was much pomp and ceremony recently at Rosyth Dockyard on the Firth of Forth in Scotland as the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth was named on 4 July. She is the largest warship ever constructed for the British Royal Navy and will be followed off the production line by HMS Prince of Wales. While watching the scenes from Rosyth, I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to another famous aircraft carrier – HMS Ark Royal – whose final trip to the breaker’s yard I observed along with thousands of others standing on the shores of Loch Ryan (south west Scotland) in late 1980.
Back in those days the British Navy (and wider armed forces) had a more strongly defined role than now and still retained significant capability – enough to reclaim the Falkland Islands a few years later in 1982 after the Argentinian invasion. HMS Ark Royal, having been ordered during World War II and launched in 1950, represented a link back to a period of British history when the need for a substantial defence and wartime capability was well understood.
Compare that with the context in which HMS Queen Elizabeth has been launched: successive Strategic Defence Reviews have sent out mixed messages about what the UK’s armed forces should be trying to achieve. In fact, the last review considered the cancellation of the second carrier ordered (HMS Prince of Wales) only to discover that contractual clauses would render the cancellation more expensive than going ahead with the construction. While the launch of HMS Queen Elizabeth gave much cause for celebration – particularly in the historic shipyard locations where it was assembled in Portsmouth and on the Forth, Clyde, Mersey and Tyne – almost unbelievably it will not have operational capability with the necessary aircraft until 2020.
Not only is Britain’s defence strategy disjointed, it also shows no obvious tie up with its foreign policy aspirations or commitments. The world continues to be an uncertain place, most recently with the growing tension in Ukraine following the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17 flight. I recently studied the website for ‘Aircraft Alliance’ – the consortium of major suppliers such as BAE, Babcock and Thales who are involved in the construction of the two carriers. The claim is made that these carriers will enable ‘the delivery of increased strategic effect and influence around the world’.
I am sure that I am not the only interested observer who wonders exactly what such a vague phrase means or is totally unsure as to the basis on which British foreign and defence policy is being taken forward into the next decade and beyond of the 21st century?HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR