Regional Powers, Carriers, and “State Yachts”
By Taylor Marvin
Does Angola want to purchase the former Spanish aircraft carrier Príncipe de Asturias? A recent piece by veteran defense reporter David Axe suggests that Angola may be interested in acquiring the STOVL carrier decommissioned from Spanish service early this year, but the rumors are probably untrue. Axe concludes that “no, this does not make a lot of sense,” and notes that the carrier would require nearly all of the Angolan Navy’s manpower to operate. The piece is sourced to the Portuguese-language defense blog Pássaro de Ferro, which in turn cites a report in the Spanish newspaper El Confidencial. Pássaro de Ferro claims that the carrier — which would otherwise be scrapped — may be sold to Angola as part of an acquisition that would also include four Spanish patrol vessels and would be refitted in Spain, though the piece admits that the news has not been confirmed by official sources. El Confidencial bases the story on the reported visit by two Angolan admirals to Spain to inspect the ship, but also acknowledges that Spanish Navy spokespeople have not commented on any potential sale.
However, Axe does point out that the overly-ambitious acquisition by Angola — a country of 20 million — would be “consistent with the country’s ongoing re-armament, which also includes a squadron of Russian-made heavy jet fighters formerly used by India.”
Robert Farley dismisses the story as “too crazy to be true,” but admits that “watching Angola build not only a navy but also a naval aviation branch from scratch would be remarkably interesting.” In the comments on Farley’s piece many note that the Angolan government is flush with oil revenue, which may lead it to judge itself capable of operating a carrier. In particular, commenter LFC of the IR blog Howl at Pluto writes that “this acquisition (if the story is accurate) is not as insane or unlikely as R. Farley suggests … Rulers and [governments] care about status, and weapons — even if operated on a somewhat token basis due to shortage of trained personnel etc. — continue to confer status.” While given the story’s uncertainty I agree that Angola is unlikely to actually acquire and operate the Príncipe de Asturias, LFC has a point. Aircraft carriers are potent status symbols, and for many regional powers — especially those not operating within a capable military alliance — the draw of acquiring a carrier is this symbolic value, rather than any real capability gain. If these countries are interested in defending their maritime interests, it makes far more sense to invest in submarines rather than second-hand Western carriers, which are optimized towards power projection. But submarines are — literally — far less visible than carriers. For governments seeking to solidify their status as widely-recognized emerging powers, this visibility is very important.
Several countries have acquired aircraft carriers despite lacking the financial and institutional resources to operate them effectively. As Axe cites in his piece, since the late 1990s Thailand has struggled to routinely operate its carrier flagship Chakri Naruebet, itself based on the Príncipe de Asturias. Similarly, in 2000 Brazil acquired the former French carrier Foch, renamed in Brazilian service the São Paulo. However, as another piece by Axe notes, Brazil has found the São Paulo challenging to operate. After two major fires, the ship’s “effectiveness is extremely limited,” according to Warships International Fleet Review — mirroring Brazil’s experience with its previous carrier Minas Gerais, which was unable to operate fixed-wing aircraft for a significant period of its later career. (It is worth noting that with a GDP comparable to both the UK and France, Brazil likely could invest in gaining the institutional skills to effectively operate a more capable carrier, if it chose to do so. However, Brazil’s defense spending is lower than both the UK and France, both in total spending and as a percentage of GDP, and indeed lower than other BRIC countries.)
Like the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov, both Thailand and Brazil’s aircraft carriers are far more important as status symbols than as practical military assets. In Brazil and Thailand’s case, neither of these countries are interested in actually projecting power, and Thailand’s carrier is often disparaged as a “royal yacht” due to its frequent duties transporting the Thai royal family. While this purpose is less blatantly visible elsewhere, other regional powers’ carrier aspirations are similarly best thought of as “state yachts” — expensive, high profile status symbols whose prestige is far greater than their military capabilities. While Angola may or may not be interested in acquiring the Príncipe de Asturias, I think it is reasonable to assume that many navies in the developing world will seek to acquire and operate carriers in the years to come, if for prestige alone. Given the challenges of naval aviation, this is likely to be a bloody process.