Nuke the Prinz Eugen!

In July 1946, the United States of America detonated two nuclear weapons on the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen as part of Operation Crossroads. You can read the history of Operation Crossroads here, but the BLUF is that the Prinz Eugen was awarded to the United States at the end of World War II as war reparations. The Prinz Eugen was the last of the Kreigsmarine’s ultra-modern heavy cruisers and represented the pinnacle of German naval engineering. The truth of the matter was that the United States didn’t really want the Prinz Eugen, but the ship was a liability and security risk that needed to be disposed of quickly. The solution, nuke it.

The ex-German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen sitting at anchor in Bikini Atoll.

The ex-German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen sitting at anchor in Bikini Atoll. National Archives Photo 6234453

In the naval history of World War II, few ships are as storied as the Prinz Eugen. Commissioned as a Hipper-class heavy cruiser soon after the start of the war, the Prinz Eugen’s first combat operation was to accompany the ill-fated battleship Bismarck into the North Sea in 1941. The Battle of the Denmark Straight is well documented and Prinz Eugen acquitted itself well. The heavy cruiser spent most of the war sitting on the coast of France as a deterrence to Allied invasion before accompanying the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in what became known as the Channel Dash. By May of 1945, Prinz Eugen was the last major ship of the Kreigsmarine still afloat and carried out combat operations against Soviet forces until the final days. Upon the surrender of Nazi Germany, her crew sailed the ship to Denmark for internment in a neutral country.

What to do with the surviving warships of Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan became a major post war issue for the victorious allied powers. The issue was settled at the Potsdam Conference where the Allied nations agreed to establish the Tripartite Naval Commission to oversee a fair sharing of captured vessels. The foreign ships were worthless to the United States and Great Britain who had large and capable fleets. To the surging Soviet Union though, the opportunity presented by these ownerless warships was the chance to become a first rate naval power overnight. The Soviet Union had already captured the unfinished German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin and large numbers of highly advanced U-boats. Soviet engineers crawled all over these ships and the more they learned, the more they wanted. It didn’t take long before Comrade Stalin made demands for major warships that were in the possession of the United States and Great Britain.

The unfinished German Aircraft Carrier Gra Zeppelin under Soviet control in September of 1945.

The unfinished German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin under Soviet control in September of 1945. At the stern and bow of the ship, the flight deck has been blown upward and off the hull from demolition charges placed by her crew. Soviet forces quickly salvaged the ship but they were prohibited from keeping the vessel by the Potsdam Conference as the damage was considered too extensive. The Graf Zeppelin would have been a major asset for the Soviet Navy if they had been able to incorporate it. The aircraft carrier was 95% complete when Adolf Hitler ordered construction stopped. If it had been equipped with a proper air wing and support vessels, the carrier would have rivaled the American Essex-class carriers in capability. Instead, the Soviet navy filled the ship full of explosives, towed it out to sea and expended it as a target. It would be another two decades before the Soviet Union built an aircraft carrier. Navy History and Heritage Command Photo 78310    

The United States and Great Britain had spent most of World War II doing their best to keep advanced naval technology out of the hands of the Soviet Union. As part of the lend lease program, both countries were required to supply the Soviet Union with naval vessels. The ships that were sent were predominately World War I ear vessels. Notably the United States lent the Soviet Union the Omaha-class light cruiser Milwaukee and Great Britain sent the Revenge-class battleship Royal Sovereign. These vessels were commissioned into the Soviet Navy as the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk respectively. Both were old, worn out and thought of limited value. Despite their short comings, the Soviet navy used the vessels to tie down a significant amount of German forces.

The real warning came on August 18, 1945 when the Soviet Union invaded the Kuril Islands off of Japan. The invasion came as a surprise to the United States who inadvertently made the invasion possible. The United States was desperate for the Soviet Union to enter the war against Japan. Stalin agreed but as part of the deal, he demanded 180 vessels from the United States. In what became known as Project Hula, the United States turned over 180 frigates, minesweepers and transport vessels to the Soviet Union and trained 15000 Soviet naval personnel in Alaska to man them. It was thought that the ships, which were again, mostly warn out old vessels, would be of little use to the Soviet Union. Soon the United States was fearing that the Soviets might invade mainland Japan before they could get there.

The Soviet Union had hoped to keep a large number of German vessels but the United States had worked a trump card into the negotiating for the Tripartite Naval Commission. Any ships that couldn’t be repaired in a short period of time, had to scrapped. The Soviet Union had limited dry dock and shipyard facilities to make extensive repairs to vessels and they found themselves being forced to scrap prized vessels that they had hoped to incorporate into their own navy in accordance with the Potsdam Conference. The United States and Great Britain took advantage of this clause and declared most of the vessels in their possession as extensively damaged and scrapped them. The problem though was that everyone knew that Prinz Eugen was undamaged as her arrival in Denmark was well documented by the media.  The United States didn’t want the Prinz Eugen but the ship was equipped with radar and sonar systems that were a full generation ahead of anything the Soviet Union possessed. The United States took possession of the Prinz Eugen and for a short time she carried the moniker “USS Prinz Eugen” as  she was sailed to the U.S. East Coast where she was evaluated before transiting the Panama Canal. While the Prinz Eugen was officially U.S. government property, under the terms of the Potsdam Conference, the U.S. Navy was supposed to make the ship available to Soviet intelligence experts upon request. The easiest way to prevent that was to keep the ship unavailable for them to analyze.

Prinz Eugen transiting the Panama Canal

The USS Prinz Eugen transiting the Panama Canal in 1946 on her way to the Pacific Coast. Her forward most 8-inch turret has been stripped of its guns which were kept for evaluation on the East coast. The last of her German crew was removed at this point and she proceeded to Bikini Atoll with an American only crew that had trained with their German counterparts. Prinz Eugen was plagued by engine trouble and spent much of this time being towed to where she needed to go. Naval History and Heritage Command Photo 80-G-365071

After the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one of the great unanswered questions was how a nuclear blast would affect a ship at sea. The U.S. Navy took up that challenge in 1946 and began prepping for Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. An entire fleet of 95 ships was assembled at Bikini Atoll that consisted of surplus U.S. ships as well as captured warships. Prinz Eugen was anchored in the harbor in good company. Nearby was the Japanese battleship Nagato, from whose bridge Admiral Yamamoto had directed the Pearl Harbor attack. Next to the Nagato was the Japanese super cruiser Sakawa that had been completed shortly before the end of the war but had never sortied due to lack of fuel. In addition to this was battle hardened aircraft carrier USS Saratoga and Pearl Harbor survivors USS Nevada and USS Pennsylvania, the battleship USS Arizona’s sister ship.

Soviet actions in early 1946 sealed the fate of the Prinz Eugen and other captured warships. The former German light cruiser Nurnberg and the Italian battleship Guilio Cesar had been awarded to the Soviet Navy as war reparations and they promptly commissioned both into service. Soviet naval engineers were reverse engineering advanced German U-boats and creating the design that would become the Whiskey-class submarines (of note, some Whiskey-class subs are still in service with North Korea to this day, almost 70 years after being built!). Allowing the Soviets access to the Prinz Eugen would give them a ship that was still better than anything they had in service or planned for development. On July 1, 1946, Test Able was conducted and Prinz Eugen was nuked.

The Italian battleship Guilio

The Italian battleship Guilio Cesare was a truly remarkable ship. It had originally been built as a dreadnought type battleship before World War I. The Washington Naval Treaty and the subsequent London Naval Treaty placed a prohibition on building new battleships but did not prohibit modernizing existing battleships. In the 1930’s the Italian navy cut the Guilio Cesare in half and significantly lengthened the hull. In this extra space they put all new machinery and in effect turned Guilio Cesare into a fast-battleship. During World War II her career was a roll call of essentially every battle in the Mediterranean Sea. Interned at Malta after Italy surrendered, the ship was turned over to the Soviet Union as a war reparation. The Soviet Union commissioned the battleship as the Novorossiysk in its own Navy and it served as flagship of the Soviet fleet until it strayed into a minefield in 1955 and sank with a large loss of life. It was the Soviet’s success in incorporating foreign warships like the Italian Guilio Cesare and German light cruiser Nurnberg into their navy that strongly influenced the United States and Great Britain to immediately scrap or sink all the foreign warships in their control so the Soviets couldn’t demand them as tribute. Naval History and Heritage Command Photo 111420 

There were several important lessons learned from Operation Crossroads. Probably the two most important was that a ship with its stern to a nuclear blast will usually receive very little damage. Prinz Eugen made it through two tests at Bikini Atoll and the only damage was a broken main mast. To this day it remains standard Navy operating procedure to turn a ship away from a blast in the event of nuclear attack. The second important lesson learned is that while a ship may get very little damage, it can become so contaminated with radiation that the entire crew could be killed within two days of the blast. This was one of the realizations that led to the development of nuclear, biological and chemical filters for ships ventilation systems.

The Able test conducted

The Able test conducted on July 1, 1946 was an aerial drop. A 23-kiloton plutonium device similar but much more powerful than the device dropped on Nagasaki was used. The Prinz Eugen survived this detonation with minimal damage. National Archives Photo 6217458

It was expected that soon after the blast salvage crews would board and take control of Prinz Eugen for a journey back to the United States. A salvage crew was put on board and promptly removed after efforts to scrub the ship clean failed. Nothing could remove the nuclear contamination that the Prinz Eugen had been exposed to. Prinz Eugen was towed to Kwajalein Atoll and anchored there pending a determination of what to do. (Interestingly, there is a 121 minute film of the Prinz Eugen being towed to Kawajalein that was shot by the U.S. Navy. This remains on film and has not yet been digitized, National Archives Identifier 81224 ).  In the end, lack of maintenance determined Prinz Eugen’s fate. On December 22, 1946, the ship that had dueled with British battleships and had battled Soviet forces to the last days of the war, capsized and sank from a minor water leak. The ship was to irradiated to try to save and the only effort made when it was clear she was sinking was to try to pull the ship ashore, that too failed. Prinz Eugen settled into the sea bed and with that, any chance of the Soviets getting their hands on her vanished.

The Baker test conducted on July

The Baker test conducted on July 26, 1946 was an underwater detonation. The Prinz Eugen is among the ships anchored around the plume and survived this second blast with minimal damage. One theory as to why Prinz Eugen eventually sank is that this blast may have caused micro-fractures in the hull that allowed sea water to slowly creep into the cruiser. Regardless, the ships was so radioactively hot that no one was willing to go on board to find out. National Archives Photo 6234446

In the end, Prinz Eugen served a noble purpose for science and that may be her greatest contribution to the world. The wreck today is still radioactively hot but the levels are low enough that you can safely dive on the wreck. The once feared cruiser is now an artificial reef and is slowly being claimed by marine growth. Two of her propellers still sit above the waterline as the third was salvaged for a memorial back in Germany. If you’re ever in the Marshal Islands, the wreck of the Prinz Eugen is accessible to everyone from snorkelers to advanced divers. A dive on the wreck will give you a better view of the ship then the Soviets ever got. That is unless the U.S. Military is testing a ballistic missile and the entire atoll is closed. Calling ahead is advised.

Salvaging a Crashed C-5 Galaxy

A Lockheed Martin C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft crashed at Dover Air Force Base on April 3, 2006 and required extensive salvage work to clear the wreck. You can read the story here, but the BLUF is that there was a problem with the number 2 engine on the C-5 Galaxy and the crew accidentally shut down the number 3 engine, leaving the transport flying on two engines. The U.S. Air Force investigation showed the crew then applied excess flaps on approach to the runway and caused the C-5 to lose lift, stall, and crash. The end result was a complete air frame loss but luckily none of the 17 crew and passengers on board was killed. In the aftermath of the crash, the U.S. Air Force was left with the hulk of one the largest aircraft in the world that had to be demolished and recovered.

Rescue Personnel walk away from a crashed C-5B Galaxy at Dover Air Force Base. U.S. Air Force Photo

The C-5 Galaxy is a big plane. It’s not the largest in the world but the C-5 is the largest aircraft currently operated by the United States of America and has provided excellent service since the Vietnam War. The C-5 Galaxy that crashed at Dover Air Force Base was a “B” model. The C-5B was a heavily upgraded version of the original C-5 and 50 were produced in the late 1980’s. The modifications gave the C-5 stronger and more efficient engines that allowed the C-5B to carry more cargo and go further distances. The C-5B is still the mainstay of the C-5 fleet but there is an ambitious upgrade program to refit the entire C-5 fleet to the “M” standard which will see the C-5 become an ultramodern aircraft that can carry cargo directly from the United States to the Middle East without stopping.

Soon after the C-5B crashed at Dover Air Force Base, rescue personnel were on scene and put out a fire but there was no question that the entire C-5 was a loss. The nose and tail had both separated from the body and there was extensive structural damage. The U.S. Air Force began a process of reclamation and demilitarization of the aircraft. Any parts that could be used to service other C-5 Galaxy’s was stripped from the frame and cataloged. Parts that were unserviceable and what was left of the body were broken down with heavy equipment and transported to DRMO facilities for processing and recycling. In the end, the entire air frame was removed.

U.S. Air Force personnel begin the process of evaluating the C-5 Galaxy for reclamation and demolition. The C-5B Galaxy was carrying 17 passengers and 110,000 pounds of cargo bound for Germany before it crashed. The combined weight and impact caused fatal structural damage to the aircraft that could not be repaired. U.S. Air Force Photo

One of the more interesting aspects of recovering the Dover C-5B Galaxy was its command deck. The broken off C-5 nose remained intact after the crash and the command deck was in pristine shape. U.S. Air Force Personnel stripped the command deck from the nose section and loaded it into another C-5 Galaxy. The command deck was transported to Macon-Robbins Air Force Base in Georgia where it was converted into a highly realistic and sophisticated simulation and training module for C-5 Galaxy pilots. This simulator is still in use today and will be for the foreseeable future as the C-5 Galaxy is now projected to remain in service through 2040.

The salvaged command deck of the crashed Dover C-5 Galaxy is loaded into another C-5 Galaxy for transport to Georgia. U.S. Air Force Photo

Let’s Make a Deal, Argentinian Food for Russian SU-24 Fencer Bombers

Argentina may be finalizing a deal to lease SU-24 Fencer bombers from Russia in exchange for shipments of Argentinian beef and wheat. You can read the article here, but the BLUF is that Argentina is seeking to equip its military with long range aircraft to remedy the short range deficiency of its current fleet that cost it dearly during the Falkland Islands War. While the SU-24 Fencer is an older model, when equipped with modern Russian made AS-17 Krypton missiles, it becomes a potent standoff weapon that is more capable than any aircraft in the Argentinian inventory.  The potential acquisition of the SU-24 is causing the United Kingdom to reevaluate its defense strategy of the Falkland Islands. As recent years have shown though, this is just the latest escalation in tensions over the Falkland Islands.

A Russian SU-24 variable-wing bomber flying at low speed. The SU-24 is similar in function to the now retired American F-111 Aardvark and has side-by-side seating for the pilot and weapons officer. The SU-24 excels in maritime interdiction and can carry the full array of Russian precision munition weaponry for ground attack. Photo by Alexander Mishin and via Wikipedia

The current Falkland Islands crisis started in 2012 when a massive oil deposit was found under the islands. Up to 8.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil could be tapped beginning in 2017. That’s enough oil to secure the United Kingdom’s energy independence for the foreseeable future and could be the first of several deposits in the Falkland Islands exclusive economic zone. The coming economic boom for the Falkland Islands has rattled Argentina, who maintains an ownership claim to the islands, and has been undergoing an economic crisis and contraction of its economy. The current socialist government in Argentina has made threats of fines and imprisonment to any oil company and its workers who drill the deposit but the threats were mostly hollow until this announcement.

A graph created by The Heritage Foundation in 2013 showing the extent of oil exploration around the Falkland Islands.

Despite a worsening economic climate, Argentina’s socialist government has massively increased defense spending as a way of intimidating potential oil partners. The Argentinian military today is less capable than it was at the time of the 1982 Falkland Islands War but the socialist government is trying to acquiring newer and more capable aircraft designs.  Argentina tried to acquire Saab Gripen fighters through Brazil, but that was blocked by the United Kingdom. It next tried to acquire modern Mirage fighters from Spain, upgraded Kifir aircraft from Israel, and J-17 fighters from China. Given the deteriorating financial situation in Argentina it was believed that none of these deals would come to fruition and that is why the proposed transfer of 12 SU-24 bombers to Argentina came as a shock.

Russia has been experiencing hyperinflation due to declining oil prices and international sanctions for its actions in the Ukraine. One of the side effects has been an increase in food prices in Russia. This would seem to be a deal made in heaven as Argentina has a surplus of food and Russia has a surplus of military equipment that it doesn’t need. Russia has some 250 SU-24 bombers in active service and almost twice that many in storage. It costs Russia nothing to supply these aircraft to Argentina while it gets food essentially for free to artificially lower food prices. The deal also forces the United Kingdom to increase its defense spending while potentially delaying exploitation of its oil fields in the Falkland Islands, causing the United Kingdom to buy more oil from Russia.

 

A Russian SU-24 slightly pulled out of its storage bunker. The Russian Air Force has upwards of 500 SU-24 Fencer's sitting in secure storage sites like this around Russia. Photo by P.King via Photorama

A Russian SU-24 slightly pulled out of its storage bunker. The Russian Air Force has upwards of 500 SU-24 Fencer’s sitting in secure storage sites like this around Russia that could be used to supply Russian client states if needed. Photo by P.King via Photorama

Argentina knows that the United Kingdom will be without an aircraft carrier until 2023 at the earliest and that it has a unique window of opportunity where if they could reclaim the islands, the United Kingdom would have no capability for recovering them. In response to the growing aggression, the United Kingdom has deployed four ultra-modern Typhoon fighters to the Falkland Islands and 600 additional Royal Marines. While the Typhoon fighters are capable, the United Kingdom recognizes that any attack would likely be preceded by a massive incursion by Argentinian Special Forces who would attempt to destroy the aircraft on the ground and disable the runway they operate from. This threat may result in the United Kingdom increasing the number of troops and aircraft it maintains on the island which will only further escalate the situation.

While an actual conflict is unlikely at the moment, the United Kingdom recognizes that SU-24 would give Argentina the ability carry out hit and run attacks using the Fencer’s supersonic speed to fly-in, launch missiles, and flee back to the safety of Argentina before the United Kingdom’s Typhoon fighters could respond. This will likely result in the United Kingdom upgrading its air defenses from the current Rappier missile systems to something with longer range like the American Patriot missile system. Protecting its warships though will be more difficult as the SU-24 has a range of 2000 miles and unlike the 1982 conflict, could attack any relief fleet long before it reached the islands. The Argentinian air force made good use of the limited number of Exocet missiles it had in 1982 and sank three Royal Navy ships. The AS-17 Krypton is a much more capable missile coming in both an anti-shipping variant and an anti-radiation missile (ARM). It’s still not certain if Russia will supply the AS-17 to Argentina as part of the deal but there are a number of countries who might be willing to supply them.

The AS-17 is a sea skimming missile that was specifically designed to counter the American AEGIS air defense system.  In a potential attack, the SU-24 would launch a combination of both types so that any targeted ship would be forced to keep its radar active while it engaged incoming missiles. Even if the ship successfully destroyed the anti-shipping missiles, it would then be faced with having its radar destroyed by the ARM variant, leaving the ship defenseless to a follow-up attack. Argentina’s 12 SU-24’s could launch 24 AS-17 Krypton missiles in a single attack. These missiles would be flying just above the water at mach 3.5, much faster than the United Kingdom’s anti-missile systems are designed to counter.

For now, the Falkland Islands are secure with the current English garrison. So while the SU-24 is not necessarily a game changer in the Falkland Islands, it is a threat to the United Kingdom that can’t go unanswered. The real threat to the United Kingdom is if this deal is just the first step in Argentina becoming a client state of Russia. Nothing would benefit Russia more than a potential conflict between the United Kingdom and Argentina and Vladimir Putin is a smart enough leader to subsidize the Argentinian military. A handful of Russian SU-30 fighters to back up the SU-24’s, a couple of Aist-class hovercraft, some air-defense systems , and a few modern Kilo-class submarines would be enough to completely change the dynamic in the Falkland Islands.

100 Years Since the 1914 Christmas Truce

There has been a lot of play in the media about the 100 year anniversary of the 1914 Christmas Truce. You can read the story here and here, but the BLUF is that troops on both sides of the front laid down their arms and refused to fight on Christmas 1914. During the short ceasefire, they reportedly sang “Silent Night” in both English and German before having an impromptu soccer game. Some have said the Christmas Truth is a myth, but there is eye witness corroboration of the event. You can expect a fair amount of myth mixed into the story 100 years later but there is always a little bit of truth mixed in with the best myths. The last veterans of World War I may have passed on but they continue to inspire. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and best wishes for 2015.

U.S. Marine Corps’ F-35 Lightning II’s On U.K Aircraft Carriers

The Royal Navy has confirmed to the BBC that the only aircraft that will be flying off their newly commissioned aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth II and HMS Prince of Wales, will likely be F-35 lightning II aircraft flown by United States Marines through 2019. You can read the article here, but the BLUF is that due to financial constraints in the United Kingdom, Britain will be unable to purchase enough F-35’s to equip her carriers anytime in the next few years. As the carriers are almost ready to operate, the United Kingdom is now looking to allow U.S. Marine Corps’ aircraft operate off their flight decks as a way of gaining training for the crew’s while they await aircraft. While this is a temporary fix, the Royal Navy is afraid that under current budget constraints, they may never be able to equip their two fleet carriers with a full inventory of aircraft.

HMS Queen Elizabeth soon after launching and being moved to a dock in Portsmouth, England for fitting out. The Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are the largest warships ever built and operated by the Royal Navy. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense

The Royal Navy has an extensive history of operating catapult assisted take off – barrier assisted recovery (CATOBAR) fleet carriers. During World War II, the Royal Navy operated more than 20 fleet carriers, and dozens of smaller escort carriers, making it the second largest operator of aircraft carriers behind the United States. This capability allowed the United Kingdom to project force anywhere on the globe and they maintained fleet carriers in service up to the 1970’s. After a number of austerity measures cut funding to the Royal Navy, the last of her fleet carriers were to be culled in the early 1980’s. This would leave only the smaller and cheaper to operate “Baby Carriers” of the Invincible class to operate vertical/short takeoff and landing (VSTOL) aircraft like the Sea Harrier. In a changing world, the need for large fleet carriers was seen as diminishing and Great Britain was even arranging to sell her new baby carriers of the Invincible class.

In a tremendous show of firepower, HMS Victorious, HMS Ark Royal, and HMS Hermes sail together in 1960. By the 1981 Falkland Island war, only HMS Hermes would still be in commission. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense

That all changed in 1981 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The Royal Navy was unprepared for a major fleet action and only had two fleet carriers left, both of which were slated to be scrapped in the coming months. Of these, HMS Hermes had been converted to a helicopter carrier and had her CATOBAR gear removed, while HMS Bulwark had been seriously damaged by a fire that rendered her unfit for service during the Falkland Island conflict. The Royal Navy had a brand new aircraft carrier in the HMS Invincible but she was very small and the United Kingdom had already agreed to sell her to Australia. That deal was quickly rescinded. The Royal Navy equipped HMS Hermes with 16 Sea Harriers and 10 Royal Air Force Harriers while HMS Invincible carried an additional 8. Together, they set sail for the South Atlantic to face a numerically superior foe.

The video below shows the Invasion fleet sailing from England. Despite the patriotic fanfare, the fleet was hastily assembled and HMS Hermes was a rusting hulk.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DiZqtaySRI

Both HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes gave admirable service at the Falkland Islands and the Sea Harrier performed better than expected, downing a number of high performance Argentinian aircraft that outclassed them. While the performance of the Sea Harrier has become the stuff of legends, the truth of the matter is more stark. The Sea Harriers never secured the air space around the invasion fleet and almost daily attacks by Argentinian aircraft sank a number of Royal Navy warships. This was a glaring deficiency in the capability of the Royal Navy but after the Falkland Island conflict, HMS Hermes was decommissioned and sold to India and the Royal Navy would be forced to get by with the three baby carriers of the Invincible class while a new fleet carrier was developed and built.

HMS Invincible returning to Portsmouth harbor after a refit. For the past three decades, the three baby carriers of the Invincible-class have born the brunt of the United Kingdoms force projection. The ships, originally designed for anti-submarine operations, have given valiant service in a role they were never meant for. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense

A replacement fleet carrier would be long in coming though and the three baby carriers of the Invincible class, which were designed for anti-submarine operations, remained the royal Navy’s only carriers until the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean was commissioned in 1996. By the early 2000’s, the United Kingdom was forced to admit that the Royal Navy, once the most powerful navy on earth, now lacked the ability to defend her territories in the event of an attack overseas. This resulted in the United Kingdom ordering two brand new fleet carriers in 2007 that would be larger than any aircraft carrier ever operated by the Royal Navy. The two new ships, HMS Queen Elizabeth II and HMS Prince of Wales, would be CATOBAR ships that would give the Royal Navy back its force projection capability for the next half century and could operate the newest and most capable aircraft.

A comparison between the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers vs. the older British fleet carrier HMS Eagle. The reduced aircraft load on the new Queen Elizabeth-class is the result of the increased size of combat aircraft. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense

There was almost immediate trouble with the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers as austerity measures again led to questions as to whether the ships would be CATOBAR carriers or large VSTOL carriers. Further economic downturns led to the suggestion that the second ship would be sold or immediately placed into inactive reserve status while only one ship was operated. It wasn’t until September 2014 that the Royal Navy officially announced that both ships would be accepted into service. In anticipation of the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers, the long serving Invincible-class carriers and their air groups of Sea Harriers were retired with the Harriers being sold to the United States Marine Corps. This left the United Kingdom without a functioning aircraft carrier for the first time in almost a century (the Invincible-class have been operating as helicopter carriers as a stop gap due to delays in commissioning the Queen Elizabeth-class).

In a sign of things to come, HMS Illustrious embarked 10 U.S. Marine Corps AV-8 Harriers in 2007 as part of a joint exercise. With the retirement of the Sea Harrier, the Royal Navy is left without a functioning combat aircraft to fly off of its carriers and is now reliant upon the U.S. Marine Corps to keep their air handlers trained. OGL Photo, U.K. Ministry of Defense

Now the United Kingdom has two modern fleet carriers but no aircraft to operate on them. The Queen Elizabeth-class is designed to carry 36 F-35 Lightning II fighters but the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense has announced that only 14 aircraft will be ordered over the next 5 years at the cost of 2.5 billion pounds. That amount includes some of the support costs for the joint strike fighter program but is a massive undertaking for a country as small as the United Kingdom. Critics of the Joint Strike Fighter have been quick to point out that the United Kingdom could purchase 50 brand new Boeing F-18 Super Hornets that have been upgraded to have F-35 like capabilities and reduced radar cross section for the same amount. That would be enough to completely equip one carrier and almost half the air wing of the second carrier with an aircraft that costs less to maintain, is almost as capable and would be ready for service within a year.

A Navy F-18 Hornet and an F-35 Lightning II fly together over Maryland. The Lightning is supposed to replace the F-18 in Navy service but Boeing has now offered an upgraded F-18 that has F-35 like capabilities at less than half the cost of the F-35. U.S. Navy Photo

One reason the United Kingdom is not worried with its rate of aircraft acquisition is that the United States will give them priority for aircraft delivery in the event of a crisis. There is precedent for this as the United States offered to give Israel priority for delivery of the VF-22 Osprey’s over the United States Marine Corps during Israel’s 50-Day Summer War in Gaza. That order was eventually cancelled as it was not needed but it was an option. In recent history though, the United States demonstrated its willingness to help the Royal Navy when the U.S. Navy prepared to transfer the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima to the Royal Navy as a backup carrier should either of theirs be damaged or sunk during the Falkland Islands war. This transfer would have included all of the USS Iwo Jima’s aircraft and hardware but was ultimately not needed.

In the event of a crisis, the United Kingdom would likely be able to rapidly acquire F-35’s from the United States by taking delivery of aircraft that were meant for the U.S. Marine Corps. U.S. Marine Corps Photo

For the moment, the Royal Navy is pushing forward with fielding the F-35, even as it is uncertain when enough of those aircraft will be available for service. Allowing the United States Marine Corps to operate off the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, while a novel training tool that also promotes international cooperation between military forces, is just a temporary measure that leaves the United Kingdom with two toothless tigers sitting in their harbors.