Britain needs two aircraft carriers to provide a credible answer to the global threat to maritime security, the head of the Royal Navy has said.
Admiral Sir George Zambellas, who is First Sea Lord and chief of the naval staff, said having two carriers rather than one – a topic still up for debate ahead of next year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) – would ensure continuous availability and the cost was "a modest extra premium to pay" for an "effective, credible, available, insurance policy".
His comments, while delivering the keynote speech at the Royal United Services Institutes (Rusi) International Sea Power Conference 2014 in Whitehall, come just days before the navy's new aircraft carrier and biggest ever ship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, is formally named by the Queen.
"Credibility also hinges on a carrier being available when the need arises," he said. "Hope is not a reliable method of ensuring capability availability when a crisis erupts. That is why we need the effects of a UK carrier – it's the wrong moment to find out that nothing happens when you push the carrier button.
"So to ensure continuous carrier availability that means having two carriers, not one – a decision for government in next year's SDSR of course, but this is a modest extra premium to pay, for an effective, a credible, an available, insurance policy."
HMS Queen Elizabeth will be formally named by the Queen on Friday, when she will smash a bottle of whisky against it at Rosyth in Fife, where the 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier has been assembled and fitted out.
The ship and a second vessel, the under-construction HMS Prince of Wales, are both termed Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers and are the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy. Assembly of HMS Prince of Wales is set to begin at Rosyth later this year.
Admiral Zambellas' comments echo those made by former head of the Royal Navy Admiral Lord West of Spithead, who last month said that without an increase in defence spending, the nation was "on the road to disaster" and "balanced on a knife edge".
Lord West criticised plans for the near-completed second aircraft carrier, which suggested tying the latter up or selling it for a "bargain basement price".
He said: "This means that instead of our nation having a carrier available 100 per cent of the time – and my goodness me in the next 50 years I promise you our country will need it, sadly we will – we will only have one available 80 per cent of the time and of course in a national emergency we could have had two carriers.
"All my experience and I'm sure many of yours tells you when a national crisis arises it will be in that 20 per cent of downtime. That is the way it goes."
Those behind the project, which costs an estimated £6.2bn overall, say the QE Class will be the centrepiece of Britain's naval capability.
Speaking at Rusi today, Admiral Zambellas said the same principle of "insurance" of having two carriers applied to the UK's nuclear deterrent.
"Credibility also means investment in ships, submarines and aircraft that are capable of credible standards of war-fighting,” he said.
"In our case, the Queen Elizabeth class carriers, Astute class submarines, the Type 45, the Type 26, Protected Mobility for the Royal Marines and Lightning II, plus the tankers. Because, to put it bluntly, in our line of business, there are no prizes for coming second. They all contribute to our strategic authority.
"As our CDS (Chief of the Defence Staff) has said, here at Rusi, 'If the United Kingdom wants to stay in the Premier League of smart power then it must invest in Armed Forces that can generate hard power capability that is credible in respect of conventional coercion and deterrence'."
Admiral Zambellas said the HMS Queen Elizabeth was "a clear statement of the UK's strategic maritime ambition" and a "return to the scale, professional complexity and responsibility of the carrier strike capability last operated by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force four decades ago".
Amid global threats, Britain's maritime forces must be sufficiently forward deployed, at high enough readiness, and enough scale, he said, adding: "For us in the UK, there is no question of retreating to our island fortress.
"We do have our own shores to protect but our key role is out there in the world – helping to shape and influence international events – that is where you will find our maritime forces."
HMS Queen Elizabeth infographic