Do the British carriers make sense?

The article

"Floating mausoleums to political vanity: Our two new aircraft carriers cost almost £8 billion to build but, with the Middle East on fire, they're languishing in Portsmouth. We'd be better off selling them, says DAVID PATRIKARAKOS"


creates a bit of a stir.

Some online responses claim that it's error-ridden while agreeing somewhat. 

I would certainly have edited the part about the missile threat to carriers; the anti-ship cruise missile threat appears to be in check IF the attacked ship or a well-positioned escort is on alert. The old and neglected Moskva probably didn't even have effective combat systems and no proper damage control preparations when it was struck by two missiles.

I would point at the "ballistic" anti-ship missile threat instead; the British carriers (and the American ones!) may be kept out of the range of Houthi ballistic anti-ship missiles because they pose too much of a risk. The British escorts are likely less well-equipped to deal with that threat than the American ones, at least that's what I read from the success of American-made SAMs against ballistic missiles and the development of a new generation of Aster missiles (the British escorts' SAM) to improve anti-ballistic missile ability.

I picked the British carriers as examples for the cost of carrier aviation relative to land-based airpower about 15 years ago. The high costs were never a secret or news.

Nor was the issue of the British not really buying enough F-35 for two carriers to make sense any insider knowledge:

There's not really much new about the naval vs. land-based aviation argument.

The American carriers are instruments for land attack against countries that cannot effectively defend themselves against it, and it's been that way since late 1943. Most other carriers showed marginal utility since then.

Land-based aviation has come such a way that bombing Afghanistan from Diego Suarez and Kuwait was more practical than bombing over Afghanistan using carrier-based aircraft. Midair refuelling is the key, and navies try to ignore it because midair-refueling using converted (plentiful) airliners extends the airpower-dominated maritime areas so much that surface fleets make very little sense in a peer war. They need to be either awfully far away from hostile land or enjoy land-based assistance by fighters (which usually means that the carrier isn't needed as a base in the scenario).

Personally, I think that CROWSNEST (having an airborne early warning helicopter) was the brightest part of the British carrier investment effort of the past 20 years (albeit it's apparently technically not terribly great). Rotary AEW assets coupled with lock-on after launch surface to air missiles can substitute for carrier fighters in the defensive role, and likely cope much better with surprise saturation attacks than carrier fighters could. Admirals would prefer to have the fighters as additional defence layer (and their radars as additional sensors), but admirals are not known for being good at allocation of scarce resources (budget) for very good reasons.

A small carrier with affordable combat aircraft (Harrier II with APG-83 and modern air-to-air missiles) might nevertheless make much sense in some scenarios, but only so if ambition and costs are kept small. A few such 15,000 tons carriers with enough aircraft for three on station and three on 5-minute readiness as interceptors could make quite a difference as escort carrier between Japan and Hawaii. The Americans have no need for these, as they could improvise with land-based AEW and their amphibious carriers, of course.

So what's a single French carrier good for? Launching a few airborne missiles throughout four decades of service? That could be substituted for by a chartered small cargo ship and some containerised cruise missiles.

What are two British carriers with effectively one air wing good for? The British delude themselves into thinking they can do American-style land attack in every year (the French cannot when their carrier is in the shipyard for maintenance). That's it. Again, buying some standard (not capsuled for submarine use) surface-launched cruise missiles to be launched from some otherwise non-combat ships (volume and deck area on frigates and destroyers is too scarce) would yield about the same land attack capability, especially paired with midair-refuelled land-based combat aircraft being in range (within thousands of kilometres and if necessary overflight rights).

Other (online) commentary I saw recently called for a British focus on the naval realm, at the expense of the land forces. But what could be achieved in the naval realm? Russia has a crap navy and China has a navy on the far side of the globe that could very largely be neutralised by land-based aviation. So what's to be gained by adding a couple more British warships? Prettier naval parades for more tourism? Navy enthusiasts being happy? (Navy enthusiasts always want more, though. They're never happy!)

Here are musings about what could/should have been done for security in Europe instead, spending-wise:


That would have been much less "sexy" than aircraft carriers that could fit tennis courts inside.














The victim card was played too brazenly

It appears that playing the victim card to get a carte blanche to commit offences yourself doesn't work so well for Israel any more. They're so much used to it that they don't seem to be able to follow a different approach, though.

The death toll of the October 7th attacks by Hamas appears to be roughly 1/3 combatants (I'm not sure whether this includes deaths among those who were taken prisoner by Hamas fighters and other Gaza Strip inhabitants).


This compares very unfavourably (for Israel) to the ratio of civilian to non-combatant deaths in Gaza Strip by the counteroffensive.


Moreover, Israel keeps producing evidence that its armed forces are intentionally destroying the real estate in Gaza Strip, including all universities.


The demolitions were actual demolitions, by a long shot not all damage done during combat. Many already swept buildings were destroyed by demolition charges, which is hardly ever justifiable.


The conflict in the levante is a conflict of counterviolence to counterviolence. Any claim that a particular action is a response to an original aggression is laughable. The people who started the conflict were already disposed of by biology. There's little point in trying to figure out who is more at guilt than the other in such a cycle of counterviolence. Words don't matter much, either - actions matter. Israel is killing way more civilians, and has been doing so for decades already. It couldn't have come this far without playing the victim card so effectively for so long, and it won't get much farther if that doesn't work any more.

Israel should stop being drunk on its perceived power and mind the fate of the crusader states: They didn't collapse because the Arabs beat them in battle; they dwindled away when the overseas allies lost interest in supporting them. Their overseas allies lost interest in supporting them because they lost confidence in that crusades were a worthy cause.





A Personal Defence Weapon


Personal Defence Weapons (PDWs) are weapons meant for soldiers who do not have shooting at the enemy with small arms as an important part of their job description. Support troops, tank crews, helicopter pilots and even infantry platoon leaders qualify.

Early examples of de facto PDWs were the revolvers or pistols used by officers and the relatively weak M1 "carbines" of the U.S. Army in WW2.

Germany used UZI submachineguns for that purpose during the Cold War and introduced the dedicated PDW "MP7" with its tiny bullet since. The pistols in use with the Bundeswehr are not really de facto PDWs; their primary utility is in being guns with ball cartridges for escorting men outside of barracks who carry war small arms with useless blank cartridges. This way nobody shoots a gun with deadly munition while thinking it's loaded with blanks and there's still protection against people with pitchforks overwhelming and robbing an entire infantry platoon on a foot march.

PDWs are not really meant to be used against hostile troops even in wartime. They would only be used to shoot in anger under extreme circumstances. Most likely, the user would stand no chance due to morale, (lacking) combat training, lacking night vision and/or circumstances anyway.

PDWs do serve purposes, though. They make the user feel armed (and thus respected as a soldier) and they may be used to control prisoners of war or to scare away civilians who interfere with military operations.

PDWs do thus not need to be very powerful or high end. NATO was famously looking for PDWs that can penetrate a certain bulletproof vest concept (titanium plate + aramid layers) at a useful distance. this ruled out submachine and probably served no other purpose.

The cheapest way to create a PDW would be to build some super-cheap submachinegun such as a modern Sterling submachinegun. It would fail to be perceived as a respectable military weapon nowadays, though - and thus fail the morale job of the PDW.

In practice you could use just about any assault rifle or battle rifle (G3, FAL) to equip non-infantry and non-dismounted scout troops, but those would be quite cumbersome practically all the time they are carried. Thus they would not be carried for almost all the time.

I pondered about the concept of a PDW long before I started this blog in 2007, and just in case I ever need a blog post and can't come up with any decent topic I'll write down my currently favoured concept for a PDW (unless the armed forces have enough old assault rifles / carbines in their stocks):

It shall be

  1. lightweight
  2. cheap
  3. not cumbersome
  4. respectable
  5. with good ergonomics
  6. fully sable in all seasons
  7. built for their users (who don't get much small arms training)

  • 5.56x45, 5.45x39 or 5.8x42 mm calibre (depending on standard calibre in use with the armed force)
    • reason: lightweight cartridge, small recoil, penetrated soft body armour, flat trajectory makes aiming relatively easy out to 200 m at least
  • chrome-lined barrel of about 28 cm (about 11") length
    • reason: That's long enough for the purpose with 5.56x45 mm at least, especially with a high pressure cartridge such as EPR
    • chrome lining more to preserve the weapon during 50+ years of use than to enable more shots fired
  • barrel should be of lightweight construction ("pencil" barrel, outer diameter ~ 16 mm (0.625") and does not need to be armourer-level exchangeable
    • few practice shots per year on average, as most PDWs would be stored for mobilization, not be in use by active duty troops
  • assumed munition loadout: 20 rounds in loaded magazine (wartime only), twice 30 rounds in pouches, maybe another 20 rounds in stripper clips in a pouch
    • infantrymen would carry much more munitions, support personnel would certainly not carry more on the body most of the time! Cartridges in stripper clips are a very lightweight reserve just in case the more readily usable cartridges in magazines were spent very quickly.
    • 20 rds magazine loaded becuase this protrudes less than 30 rds magazine; less bulky
  • an effective (but preferably short) flash hider
    • the shortness of the barrel makes the muzzle flash worse, so a basic flash hider such as A2 is unsatisfactory
  • handguard around the barrel with M-LOK interface on top and bottom
    • just in case upgrades (or iron sights) are later deemed advisable, more lightweight than NATO rails
  • forward hand grip in front of magazine well
    • improving ergonomics of shooting at marginal additional weight
    • least protruding solution
    • example picture; shaping should be integral with magazine well rather than an aftermarket solution, of course
  • short stroke gas operated system
    • no direct impingement to reduce need for cleaning, quite lightweight
  • closed bolt operation
    • necessary for sufficiently small dispersion out to respectable 200 m
  • bolt catch; bolt remains in sprung position after last cartridge
    • so the user immediately notices when the magazine is empty
    • so the user doesn't need to repeat manually after changing the magazine
  • larger tolerances than with infantry & scout assault rifles
    • for reliability when dirty and lower costs, leading to a MOA (dispersion) of 2 or 2.5 (2.5 for air force and navy personnel other than guards)
    • this should also reduce production costs
  • suitable design and oil for reliable operation at -30°...+50°C operation at any humidity and the use of manually repeating weapon should be possible down to -40°C
    • four seasons lubricant and four seasons cleaning oil
  • no touching of metal parts necessary for combat use
    • in case it's freezing cold and the user has no or only thin gloves
  • good (nowadays ordinary) ease & quickness of assembly, cleaning and disassembly
    • better odds of good-enough care even if the NCOs fail to enforce it
  • for aiming just a cheap AAA battery-powered red dot sight on a NATO rail, flip switch for on/off (explanation later)
    • red dot sight because this requires the least training and is the easiest to use under stress, a really cheap one suffices
    • red dot suffices for effective range of 200 m due to flat bullet trajectory with this cartridge & barrel combination
    • AAA instead of AA battery for less weight and bulk
  • red dot size 2.5 MOA
    • suitable for 200 m
    • large and thus easy enough to see for close fights
    • 2.5 MOA happens to be close to the dispersion MOA value of the gun
  • sight line protected against smoke from hot barrel and possibly evaporating weapon oil
  • trigger group with fire select trigger (single shot and either burst or full auto, depending on the armed service's preference - I would go for a 3...5 rds burst)
    • mostly meant to make it easier for already terribly stressed users in close combat defence situation
  • safety lever and all other interfaces in ambidextrous design
    • ergonomics for right handers and left handers
    • this includes symmetrical grip shapes
  • ejection of spent cases can be changed between left and right by unit armourer, ideally without requiring spare parts
    • ergonomics for right handers and left handers
  • comfortable resting location for the index finger to promote safe behaviour (again ambidextrous)
  • all interfaces and trigger guard designed with possible use of winter gloves in mind 
  • a short buffer spring
    • so unlike with AR-15 design you may use fully folding shoulder stocks
  • a fully top-folding stock, unfolding it should switch the sight light on and folding should switch it off
    • example (for a shotgun) here. I understand this is not exactly top ergonomic, but it doubles as mechanically protective cover for the red dot sight
    • minimizes the folded length (shorter than telescopic stock)
    • narrower than side-folding stock
    • it discourages the shooting while folded unlike the ergonomically similarly bad underfolding stocks, as it would obstruct the sight and would be very visible on top
  • the stock would be angled when unfolded
    • so the sight line is directly above the barrel and no bulky carry handle on top would be needed to raise the sight line as with a straight stock
    • happens to reduce the silhouette when shooting aimed shots over a cover compared to straight stock weapons with their sights mounted high over the barrel
  • no use of a sling, but multiple carrying solutions; the most relevant one would be a cushioned carrying on the back parallel to the spine with magazine well facing outwards (with a quick release interface!), ideally with other things (counterweights) worn on the other side of the spine such that you could even sit comfortably in a (vehicle) seat with the PDW on the back
  • cleaning kit either stored in the primary hand grip or stored in the carrying interface
  • no such thing as a forward assist
    • marginal utility
    • understood to be unnecessary in all rifle families but one
  • compatible with all cartridges of the calibre at least with unit armourer-level adjustment of the gas operation
  • steel parts gunmetal-finished, all other parts in a brown matte unicolour camouflage
  • steel magazines
    • cheap and durable
    • I understand this is an exception from the rule to not need to touch metal in freezing temperatures
    • unit-level armourer should be able to measure & replace magazine springs that were worn out
  • availability of easy-to-use dry zeroing device on the small unit level
    • important for maintaining zero and thus trust in the guns

Sadly, I do lack both the artistic talent and graphics software skills to illustrate such a PDW concept.

In the end, such a PDW would be more expensive than mass-produced assault rifles unless it is mass-produced itself as well. There's good reason why a PDW would be mass-produced; the vast majority of military personnel are neither infantry nor dismounted scouts. Those are a minority even in an infantry brigade.

One problem remains; non-combat and non-scout troops don't have much night fighting ability. Their NCOs may use flare guns for illumination and there may be some lights (essentially state of art of early WW2), but the expensive, fragile and scarce 3rd generation night vision devices and the thermal vision devices (which discharge batteries quickly) would be limited to infantry and scouts. The typical PDW user small unit is thus* at an even more pronounced disadvantage against infantry at night than at day. One could use cheap digital night vision with some illumination, but would that really be in stock for reservists throughout the 'lifetime' of a PDW (which could be 60 years)? Electronics don't last as long as guns, even when stored properly and separately from batteries.

And then there are other challenges for non-combat troops who need to defend themselves against infantry or scouts. In the end, nothing much more successful than a modest 'always carry' PDW with basic night vision will prevail due to the expenses involved.



*: With PDW or an assault rifle like G36 or HK 416 doesn't matter - it's almost entirely about the night vision, training, mindset, organisation and the other weapons.



Houthis again


Some ships were attacked by Houthis while they were still south of Aden.


Regarding geography: This means Houthis attack ships that are on the far side of their domestic Yemeni enemies. They do clearly attack without any line of sight between territory controlled by Houthis and the targeted ship.

Well, one of the Houthi targets bombed by the U.S. was a radar installation that monitored maritime traffic from onshore. It appears the Houthis can attack ships without such a station. One could argue that they could attack more easily with such a radar installation, but wasn't the purpose of the bombing to end the attacks rather than to make them just a bit more challenging to the Houthis?

Frankly, here's how I imagine the bombings came to happen:

  1. Houthis commit piracy in Red Sea and send missiles towards Israel.
  2. Sustained attacks on ships by Houthis, mostly defeated by naval air defences.
  3. How can they be so disrespectful?
  4. We need to do something!
  5. What's "something"?
  6. Out of the box answer is to bomb some brown people.
  7. CENTCOM gets tasked to create a target list for air strikes.
  8. CENTCOM cannot exactly offer a strategy with a perspective to achieve much of anything, but it creates a target list with items plausibly linked to the attacks on ships and/or Israel. 
  9. Some targets of the target list get bombed.
  10. CENTCOM declares success, invents a figure of by how much the Houthis' attack potential was reduced.
  11. Houthis continue to attack ships.
  12. More Houthis targets get bombed.
  13. Houthis continue to attack ships.

Sounds kinda like the Kosovo Air War escalation and two decades of assassination-by-air phony war on errorists campaign.

It's almost as if the establishment was only mildly intelligent.



Response to Houthi piracy


I wrote during the times of Somali-origin piracy that the patrolling mission was stupid. It was known by collected intelligence that almost all piracy could be traced back to three coastal villages (at some point in time - this may have changed later).

The hugely successful (and rapid!) anti-piracy campaign of Pompey the Great cleared the Mediterranean off the pirates plague for centuries to come. It involved a fleet, but the fleet actions were rather supportive of using infantry to clear out the piracy bases. Eventually, some cornered pirate ships stood up for battle and were destroyed.

Historically, piracy wasn't defeated by patrolling. Close blockades of piracy/raider ports was somewhat effective, attacks on raider ports were somewhat effective, but only ending war or at least temporary taking the piracy bases promise a lasting solution to a piracy or raider problem.

So I denounced the Atalanta mission and argued that piracy should be attacked at its bases.


15 years forward, the Houthis commit piracy a little farther north (and there's STILL ships patrolling off Somalia!). It is piracy because the Houthi forces are not recognised as state actors (state forces cannot commit piracy by definition).

The USN had destroyer(s) in the area and shot down some anti-ship missiles of multiple types (drones mostly with 127 mm guns). Still, the Houthis captured a car transport as an early success (by helicopter, which is impractical now with destroyers securing the route). Western Yemen enjoys a couple thousand new cars.

Is this the time to go for the piracy bases?

A land war or even only major raids seem out of question; the relevant hardware of the pirates. The U.S. and UK opted for air attack(s).

First off regarding the legality; I'm confident the internationally recognised government of Yemen was fine with the strikes. Even if it wasn't, the piracy may have provided a legal basis for the strikes (though I have no reliable info that either the U.S. or UK or their ships were attacked).

The practical considerations are more interesting.

What's the point of bombing other than to vent frustration or do business as usual?

The justifiable purpose of bombing (and the associated risk to protected persons a.k.a. civilians on the ground) would be to reduce or end the threat to ships at sea, the piracy threat.

  1. Does the piracy threat get reduced?
  2. Was or will it be ended by air strikes?
  3. Could it have been neutralised by defensive action (escorting convoys as most navies think or area defence as the USN appears to prefer)? Keep in mind defensive action does not endanger civilians on land.
  4. Could/should the piracy be ended by accepting the political demands (~ending Israel's Gaza war)?

1) Maybe, but it depends on how much the agitated Houthis will react with increases of capability. Their  reaction to air strikes might overcompensate for the loss of hardware.

2) This is almost impossible hardware-wise, and most unlikely as a political reaction.

3) So far the defences were very effective (and some of the attacking missiles very inaccurate). The biggest problems were the costs of the missiles used and the risk the seamen (especially of the cargo ships) were exposed to.

4) IMO not a promising approach. The issue would likely flare up again even if the demands were met by now - regardless of whether as a deal or just by coincidence.

I was and am not in favour of the air strikes. They're a primitive out of the box action by utterly unimaginative and strategy-free establishments. Reasons:

a) The Houthis have been bombed for years by the Saudis with American tech and they adapted already. The hardware that threatens the ships can very largely be hidden almost anywhere in Houthi territory. I have very little confidence in the ability to reliably find and positively identify the proper targets. The risk of civilian casualties is very high. Keep in mind the Americans once mistook a fertilizer factory for a poison gas factory and had a long, long string of poor targeting choices ever since. I don't expect these attacks to get rid of much of the relevant Houthi arsenal. I've seen claims that 25% of the hardware for piracy was eliminated, and I'd rather consider "the 5% most easily found piracy-related targets were hit" as plausible.

b) Where's the smartness in just blowing stuff up? Let's have a look at the Houthis' interests. They want to rule over all of Yemen. How about reversing the unification of Yemen and the Northern Yemenis (~Houthi movement area) simply govern themselves again as a non-secular people many of whom belong to a different Muslim sect than their neighbours? A de-unification seems to be the only way to calm the conflict in the region (of which piracy is but a small episode) anyway.

So let's put of incentives towards an internationally recognised, not sanctioned, sovereign North Yemen where the Houthis rule over themselves and their kin. They might also be given some other (free) bargaining chips, such as a coincidental end of the bombing of Gaza (which is to be expected as soon as Israel has swept the remaining smaller part of the Gaza Strip anyway).

Add disincentives towards continuing other (unacceptable) paths. The Houthis sure don't want weapons and munitions given to their enemies. They don't want a naval blockade against themselves. They don't want the Saudis or anyone else to fight them.

And most of all: Make that piracy the problem of Egypt. Shame Egypt's junta publicly into action and withhold military aid from them for good (same with Israel, obviously.

Sometimes we get told that smart security policy experts, foreign policy experts, experienced career people, smart admirals, smart generals and smart think tankers are behind what Western security policy does. I do very much doubt that, because primitive stuff like this bombing campaign could be made-up by some drunk low-IQ people just as much.