Last Monday the new aircraft carrier for the Royal Navy, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, made its maiden voyage. The British Defense Secretary, Michael Fallon, has made remarks about the beauty of the new vessel, which notoriously contrasted with the derisive terms he had used to describe the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which earlier this year returned home from the Syrian coast, in a voyage that was plagued by breakdowns and accidents. He even said that the Russians would now be feeling some envy towards the British.
This Thursday, the Russian Ministry of Defense issued a response in which the British carrier was described as a “big convenient target” and that the words of the British secretary reflect his ignorance of military science, the Telegraph reports.
The Russians further added that the “beauty” of the HMS Queen Elizabeth should not come too close to their own vessels. The statements were surprisingly strong-worded, even in the tense times we live in, but amidst the war of the words what is lost in the rhetoric is that if a shooting war actually happened between the Russian and British fleets, both carriers would be “big convenient targets,” and that has much to do with the nature of modern naval warfare.
The Admiral Kuznetsov is an old vessel, laid down in 1982 and commissioned in the last days of the Soviet Union, back in 1991. Displacing around 55,000 tons, she is powered by steam turbines and is armed with a wide array of missile and ballistic systems for self-defense. She can also carry about 40 aircraft, including jet fighters like the Su-33 and the MiG-29K, and several types of helicopters. The complement is comprised of 1,690 men.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth is much more modern. She was laid down in 2009, and is heavier than the Russian counterpart, displacing 70,000 tons. She is powered by gas turbines and is armed only with close defense systems. The air complement is also comprised of around 40 airplanes, which will include the controversial F-35B stealth fighter. The crew will amount to 1,000 people, according to BBC.
Like any aircraft carrier in modern navies, such vessels are supposed to be the hearts of their fleets. Their aircraft have more range than any weapon systems carried by modern ships short of intercontinental ballistic missiles and can carry precision ammunition. Operations like the one enacted by the Admiral Kuznetsov in Syria, or those made by American aircraft carriers all over the world, show the capacity that such vessels bring to a fleet, but also its issues.
Late last year the Russian carrier was first deployed to the Mediterranean to help in the war effort over Syria. During the deployment, there was a series of incidents which caused the loss of two fighters and forced the air wing to redeploy to airbases on land. This was blamed on technical malfunctions, but it was evident that there was a lack of experience in the operation of such a vessel on the part of the Russians. Nevertheless, even US aircraft carriers are known for having their fair share of accidents and incidents.
Because of how important they are, though, these vessels are also important targets for any opposing navy. Although countries like the People’s Republic of China are ostensibly planning a strategy to counter American carriers by launching volleys of missiles into them from air and surface platforms, there is a weapons platform that can be even more dangerous: the submarine.
The British, of all people, should know this well. At the outbreak of the Falklands War, the Argentine Navy had a massive cruiser in service, the ARA General Belgrano. On May 2, 1982, the cruiser was attacked by the British submarine HMS Conqueror and was sunk along with 323 men. The Argentinian Navy barely left port for the rest of the war because of the fear of the submarines.
Back in World War II, German submarines caused havoc among the Allied shipping, and sunk several carriers, marking them as prime targets due to their capabilities. Although air power concerns military strategists to the point that there are ships designed mostly for antiaircraft defense, submarines force navies to spend enormous resources to counter them.
Because they move underwater, submarines can be surprisingly difficult to detect and intercept. New technologies help destroyers and dedicated aircraft to detect these vessels, but improvements in ship design make modern submarines stealthier.
Moreover, good tactics can increase the efficiency of older vessels, and it is known of instances where old submarines bested even the greatest navies, “sinking” their carriers during military exercises.
Both the Russians and the British employ effective submarine fleets, with Moscow holding the numerical advantage. However, even single units can be dreadfully dangerous, maybe even more so because they are so much harder to detect. As the old submariner saying goes, “there are two kinds of ships: submarines and targets.”
In essence, in spite of the war of words between the British and the Russian Ministries of Defense, their prized carriers require large fleets of secondary vessels to defend them from all the perils of the modern battlefield. To any opposing fleet, their aircraft carriers are convenient targets, and their strategies for defense must reflect this thought.