Where are the Carriers?

Affirming and Preserving NATO Air Power from the Sea

By Lieutenant Commander

By Lt Cdr



, IT


Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2012-2016)

 September 2014
Warfare Domains: Maritime Operations


‘Where are the carriers?’ This same question sprang to Tom Clancy’s mind back when he introduced his book ‘Carrier’ in 1998. The author borrowed that question from many previous US Presidents as they asked it whenever an international crisis involving US interests broke out in any part of the world. It is not difficult to imagine an appetite for such a powerful tool felt by politician- and decision-makers alike whenever their nations are about to face a crisis situation, either in­dividually or in an Alliance framework, that requires prompt military intervention.

On the other hand, the same decision-makers are ­having difficulty with declining defence budgets that are becoming more and more affected by the world economic crisis and the resulting fiscal austerity in their countries. If sometimes it is challenging to even justify the need for costly military equipment in general (in voters’ eyes), the matter becomes particularly difficult as the same eyes are easily attracted by the magnitude and majesty of their pet projects. Nevertheless, at the 2012 Chicago Summit, NATO acknow­ledged that security challenges will not diminish in times of economic and financial austerity or in an increasingly complex and globalized international environment. During the Annual JAPCC Joint Air and Space Power Conference a few months later, Diego Ruiz Palmer (Special Advisor to the Secretary General for Economics and Security) assessed the risk, stating that ‘because of declining defence spending, capable and deployable NATO air forces and naval air services become non-usable in expeditionary operations’. This so-called ‘Air Power Paradox’ affects the realm of ­Aircraft Carriers as well. In other words, the effort to preserve sea-based Air Power capabilities is consistent with this same paradox and consequently should be dealt with while the Alliance is setting the route to transform itself to meet the challenges of 2020 – 2040 and beyond.

The paradox we are facing is complex and complex problems often require complex solutions. Unfortunately, where to apply our efforts is not the only question that air power advocates should address. In the case of the ‘carrier’ we must ask some additional ones, such as why, what, when and how must we focus our efforts to address this issue. By looking at recent history and strategy as our background, some answers may be found by assessing if recent crisis or conflicts have rejected or reaffirmed the need for this tool.

The Foundation on Strategy (The ‘Why’ Question)

Two NATO Strategic Concepts were signed1 since the end of the Cold War. Both of these Strategic Concepts stressed the importance for NATO to ‘maintain the ability to sustain concurrent major joint operations and several smaller operations for collective defence and crisis response, including at strategic distance’2. Additionally, expeditionary operations from the maritime domain are emphasized in the Allied Maritime Strategy (AMS) as an Alliance’s requirement for an ­immediate crisis response capability. In other words, if the latest Strategic Concepts set Crisis Management as one of NATO’s core tasks, the AMS reinforces this concept by referring to the unique capabilities of maritime forces (and their organic air services). These include flexibility, mobility, agility, sustainability and freedom of access. To answer the ‘why’ question, the expression ‘at strategic distance’ can then be interpreted as a synonym for ‘with minimal or no host ­nation support’. Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) are the most, and sometimes the only suitable and approp­riate tool to fulfil operational tasks that may turn into strategic ones, especially in some early stages of a military intervention. With this regard, some important insights can be found by analysing the military intervention in Libya, especially during the initial phase (circa mid-March 2011).

Lessons From Recent Operations (‘What’ Carriers and ‘When’?)

The Libyan campaigns3 offered significant data for analysts in their effort to revitalize the discussion on the importance of sea-based Air Power. The list below summarizes some of the most significant ones:

  1. Air-to-Air Refuelling tankers were identified as a critical shortfall. Only the US was able to provide an adequate number4;
  2. Looking at the fleet of at least 20 warships that ­assembled off the Libyan coast from March 2011 and on, the operation was the first major conflict in decades that did not involve any of the 11 US Navy ‘Supercarriers’;
  3. According to British sources5,6, ‘within an impressive thirty-five minutes of UN Resolution 1973 being signed’, Harrier AV-8B aircraft flown off the pre-­positioned USS Kearsarge7, shortly followed there­after by air strikes from French Rafale jets from the carrier Charles de Gaulle8 considerably contributed in destroying the majority of the Libyan air-defence network9;
  4. Throughout the sustained phase of the conflict, sea-based sorties flown from the available small carriers were an example of ‘economy of force’. Due to the shorter distance to the target objectives, they did not need long transits and Air-to-Air Refuelling (unlike most of the land-based aviation).

The Libyan crisis was a good opportunity to demonstrate the utility of small aircraft carriers and am­phibious assault ships (LPH / LPD)10. From the joint perspective, the latter provided a good example of their utility as they allowed the launch of Army Aviation sorties to support combat operations. British ‘Apache’ and French ‘Tiger’ and ‘Gazelle’ Army helicopters were ­embarked, respectively, on LPH ‘Ocean’ and LPD ­‘Tonnerre’. This ‘experiment’ proved successful and ­allowed a very precise and selective air support.

Ultimately, operations in Libya substantiated that maritime strike operations are an essential capability for NATO. Had the same crisis occurred out of reach of land-based tactical aircraft, Maritime Air Power would have been the sole available option to conduct many missions. Extending this idea, every crisis scenario where NATO cannot rely on the proximity of allied bases would require the majority of aviation sorties to be sea-based.

ECGII and SCTI (The ‘How’ Question)

As a solution to the ‘how’ question (in terms of ‘how to do things together’), NATO and EU navies’ enterprises stood up since 2009 (in line with both the ‘Smart ­Defence’ / ‘Pooling and Sharing’ concepts and the Connected Forces Initiative, CFI), have sought to ­increase their operational and training synergy. For example, bilateral agreements are in place between the UK and French Navies that emphasize working ‘closely on carrier group cooperation and on coordinating maritime security patrols in the Atlantic to deliver maximum effect’11. On a more extended scale, the ‘European Carrier Group Interoperability Initiative’ (ECGII) and the ‘STOVL12 Carrier Training Initiative’ (SCTI) are worth a deeper discussion. Both initiatives have common goals, such as:

  • rationalizing, by a holistic and synergistic approach, the use of aircraft carriers and their integrated weapon system (consisting of aircraft and the related support);
  • enhancing interoperability by participating in joint operations and exercises across the full range of multi-role tasks (the cornerstone of the ability to project power over the sea and from the sea);
  • facilitating the exchange of knowledge and lessons learned on doctrinal, operational, technical and logistical aspects, in order to enhance standardization.

As the words themselves suggest, the ECGII is a European enterprise created to enhance interoperability and capability in amphibious and carrier strike group operations through fostering enhanced cooperation and joint training and exercises at both the tactical and operational levels. The rationale behind this is to allow for more rapid and effective CSG deployments during EU or NATO operations. Since its inception in 2012, ECGII continues to progress. In October 2012, a large Franco-Italian battle Group with participation of the French Carrier Charles de Gaulle and the Italian Carrier Cavour practiced its interoperability for 11 days in the Mediterranean Sea during Exercise Levante. The exercise offered the two navies the opportunity to achieve a high level of mutual understanding, cooper­ation and interoperability, particularly in imple­ment­ing carrier aviation capacities. This exercise marked an initial major achievement and paved the way for the future of the ECGII initiative.

SCTI is a project developed by the Italian Navy, with the goal to enhance training for STOVL aircraft and carriers, through exchange activities and interaction with the involvement of all NATO / EU navies operating STOVL aircraft. From the very beginning, SCTI received considerable interest by all participants (FR, US, UK and SP). Initially defined with a draft Operational Agreement prepared by the Italian Navy, it was presented at the first SCTI Conference, held at the Italian Naval Air Station in Grottaglie back in April 2009. The initial agreements included the establishment of procedures and regulations, as well as identifying op­portunities for joint training. Meanwhile, a specific doctrine (which will presumably be called APP13-18) is currently being developed by the Royal Navy. This doctrine is aimed at defining minimum standards for a STOVL flight detachment to embark on another nation’s carrier.

Although France does not possess STOVL aircraft, as part of the ECGII the French Navy was also involved in the SCTI. From the training perspective, SCTI and ECGII can be viewed as two faces of the same coin (SCTI being the specialized reference forum for the core training activity of STOVL air wings).

Different History, Different Options

With few exceptions, fiscal austerity has become an overarching issue whenever the future challenges for military procurements are addressed. Yet, just to put things in perspective with regards to the exponential evolutions in technological innovation, we would discover this is not the first time in history that military expenditures are being put under close scrutiny due to an economic crisis. The strategic environment prior to World War II was shaped by the negative effects of constrained military budgets. These were amplified by the restrictive treaties in force during the interwar period … certainly not the most favourable circumstances to make big plans! Yet, it was during this time that, in the wake of Eugene Ely’s exploits14, the ‘marriage’ between naval and Air Power, already underway15 before World War I, reached its maximum expression with the inception of aircraft carriers.

In those days, every nation developed pioneering ­solutions on its own to gain predominance in a world characterized by interstate conflicts. Nowadays, alliance frameworks offer a better background for innovative opportunities aimed at preserving, maintaining and enhancing this crucial capability more than 100 years after its initiation. European carrier strike capabilities have gradually developed, as demonstrated with the deployment and combat experience of the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle, HMS Ocean and ITS Garibaldi in support of coalition operations in Libya. The path is set and European defence planning should stay focused and keep developing carrier strike capabilities as a common effort. With this regard, an important goal can be reached in the short- too medium-term if new and future platforms will be operating the same (or a fully interoperable) fighter aircraft. Initiatives such as ECGII and SCTI, will be force multipliers in fostering this progress.


Powerful and complex instruments such as sea-based Air Power are not something that can be developed overnight. On the contrary, it took (and would take) de­cades to mature from the initiation to a meaningful level. It is for this reason that it is vital to assess and re­affirm the strategic value of this capability, recognising the pro­gress and achievements that NATO European Nations have reached. It is in this context that sea-based Air Power is a clear example of the required proactive attitude towards creating a more balanced burden sharing approach between the two sides of the Atlantic. The future of naval air services embracing multinational initiatives such as ECGII and SCTI is already in line with the path set forth by Smart Defence and CFI.

North Atlantic Council (NAC) meeting in Washington, 24 Apr. 1999 and NATO Summit in Lisbon 19 – 20 Nov. 2010.
‘Active Engagement, Modern Defence’. Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Adopted by Heads of State and Government at the NATO Summit in Lisbon 19 – 20 Nov. 2010.
Odyssey Dawn, Unified Protector, Ellamy, Harmattan.
‘Present Paradox – Future Challenge’, Future Vector Project.
‘Leveraging UK Carrier Capability – A Study into the Preparation for and Use of the Queen Elizabeth-Class Carriers’, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), www.rusi.org.
‘Defence Committee – Ninth Report Operations in Libya’, written evidence from Admiral Sir John Woodward GBE KCB and colleagues, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmdfence/950/950vw09.htm.
Wasp-class carrier.
The first non-US aircraft carrier over Libya.
A significant role was played by the employment of cruise missiles launched by US and British destroyers and submarines.
Landing Platform Helicopter and Landing Platform Dock.
France-UK Summit: 31 Jan. 2014: Declaration on Security and Defence (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-france-summit-2014).
Short Take Off and Vertical Landing.
Allied Procedural Publication.
On 14 Nov. 1910, Ely’s ‘Curtiss Pusher’ aircraft succeeded in making the first take-off from a ship, the light cruiser USS Birmingham at Hampton Roads, VA. Two months later, on 18 Jan. 1911, Ely made a safe landing on the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay, the arresting equipment working perfectly.
Most of the Naval Air Arms in the western countries celebrated their 100 years’ anniversary in the latest years: UK (2009), France (2010), USA (2011), Germany and Italy (2013).
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Lieutenant Commander
Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2012-2016)

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