In the lead up to the formalised design of the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, then-design partner DCNS, now Naval Group, presented a medium-sized, conventionally powered aircraft carrier to support the French Navy’s Charles de Gaulle and the Royal Navy’s own carrier ambitions.
Throughout the history of naval warfare, platforms, doctrine and the very concept of maritime-based power projection and sea control have evolved as the ambitions and interests of nations did.
Beginning with the Second World War, aircraft carriers, advanced guided-missile cruisers, destroyers, frigates and, increasingly, conventional and nuclear-powered submarines emerged as the pinnacle of maritime prestige and power projection.
Unlike their predecessor, the battleship, aircraft carriers in themselves are relatively benign actors, relying heavily on their attached carrier air-wings and supporting escort fleets of cruisers, destroyers and submarines to screen them from hostile action.
In recent years, nations throughout the Indo-Pacific have begun a series of naval expansion and modernisation programs with traditional aircraft carriers and large-deck, amphibious warfare ships serving as the core of their respective shift towards greater maritime power projection.
Driving this change is an unprecedented period of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the growing capabilities of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
As part of this, China has begun fielding or preparing to field a range of power projection capabilities, including aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, fifth-generation combat aircraft, modernised land forces, area-access denial and strategic nuclear forces, combined with growing political and financial influence throughout the region.
Building on this, the long-term threat from North Korea has prompted South Korea to embark on a series of land, air and sea acquisition programs that support the Republic of Korea's transition towards developing a robust, deployable, conventional power projection and deterrence focused force.
The first stage of this redevelopment is the planned construction of a 30,000-ton short-take off, vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft carrier. This echoes recent confirmation that Japan would commence the modification of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force's two Izumo Class vessels, the Izumo and Kaga, to support STOVL 'B' variant of the F-35.
Indo-Pacific Asia's regional carrier race was preceded by a similar albeit, significantly more hospitable program on the other side of the world, both France and the UK began the pursuit of an enhanced aircraft carrier – the British to provide greater capability aggregation with the US and the French to support the Charles de Gaulle.
The Queen Elizabeth and Porte-Avions 2
Working collaboratively, the French and British narrowed down a number of design commonalities ranging from an original hull form, catapult-launched, barrier assisted recovery (CATOBAR) configuration and an agreement on conventional propulsion.
The requirement for the carriers was confirmed by then-president Jacques Chirac in 2004 for the centennial of the Entente Cordiale, and on 26 January 2006, the defence ministers of France and Britain reached an agreement regarding co-operation on the design of their future carriers.
France agreed to pay the UK for access to the design due to the investment made to date. These payments were £30 million in January 2006, £25 million in July 2006 and a further £45 million if France decides to proceed with the project.
While the FY2008 French Defence Budget allocated the necessary funding, €3 billion, for the ship, doubts within the Sarkozy government began a series of delays, which would eventually see the French withdraw from the joint effort, with the British charting their own course and developing what would become the Queen Elizabeth Class of aircraft carriers.
The British design would fluctuate in design basics several times, namely the back-and-forth regarding CATOBAR configuration to allow the deployment of F-35C and heavy carrier-borne airborne early warning, command and control aircraft like the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye, with costs and 'complexity' being cited as the reasoning behind settling on the short-take off, vertical landing (STOVL) configuration.
The French maintained that any future aircraft carrier, including the Porte-Avions 2 (PA2), would remain in the CATOBAR configuration, with nuclear propulsion again considered as a result of previous British concerns about the costs and complexity associated – nevertheless, the French eventually shelved plans for the PA2, leaving the French with the troubled Charles de Gaulle as the basis of their carrier capability.
Evolving PA2 and the conventional DEAC concept
First revealed in early-2014, the DCNS Evolved Aircraft Carrier (DEAC) emerged as a successor to the original PA2 concept, drawing on several design cues, with a focus on a conventional power source to make the platform more internationally marketable, with the French then focused on spreading development and acquisition costs with emerging powers like India and Brazil, which had previously purchased and operated the French carrier Foch.
It was expected that the displacement of the DEAC would be approximately 59,000 tons at full load. This building is, therefore, less heavy than the French variant of the Queen Elizabeth-based PA2 previously studied (65,000 tons).
However, the airwing capacity is identical to the original CATOBAR-designed PA2, with infrastructure sized for 32 Rafale, three E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning, command and control, and five NH-90/MRH-90 anti-submarine warfare helicopters.
In general, the boat has been optimised to meet the needs of the French Navy, but also with a very strong cost reduction perspective providing interesting avenues for international participation in the carrier program, drawing on the design and build experience of the French, enabling established middle and emerging great powers to establish and maintain a leading-edge carrier capability.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will yield unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.
We would also like to hear your thoughts as fixed-wing naval aviation and amphibious capabilities are key force multipliers reshaping the region.