F35B in Focus (PART 3) Ownership and operation

Some background – a potted history of the destruction of the Fleet Air Arm

The Fleet Air Arm was remarkably successful in WWII despite the obsolete aircraft it was equipped with, a tribute to the aircrews courage and resourcefulness. In the 1930s & 40s RAF aircraft were given absolute priority by the British aircraft industry which produced outstanding successes such as the Spitfire, Mosquito and Lancaster. Meanwhile the Royal Navy only regained control of its aircraft in 1937 and began the war flying ancient bi-planes and second-rate aircraft. It was not until late in the war that the Americans were kind enough to let the RN have some decent aircraft. The FAA had its ‘heyday’ in 1950s and early 60s operating many squadrons of dedicated naval fighters, bombers and specialist aircraft together with a fleet of carriers. The cancellation in 1966 of the CVA-01 carrier project signalled the end of the FAA as a global force. Fundamentally the UK chose a continental strategy in the Cold War ahead of its traditional and successful maritime strategy, prioritising forces in Germany hoping to stem the Soviet tide for a few days at least. (This may have been the right choice at the time but the lingering outdated influence of that continental mindset remains). (For more detail RAF and RN 1945-70 here).

The RN managed to cling to carrier aviation by the skin of its teeth for nearly 3 decades with the Harrier and the 3 Invincible ‘pocket’ carriers and again achieved incredible things with tiny resources. The RAF finally achieved its long-held ambition to neuter the FAA in 2000 by taking control of fixed-wing flying. The RN was foolish enough to accept the creation of the “Joint Strike Wing” with a mix of RAF and RN squadrons flying Sea Harriers and Harrier GR9s from RAF bases under RAF command (but with an RN Admiral on staff). The Sea Harrier FS2 fighter was then axed in 2006 thus leaving the fleet with no fighter cover. The Admiral’s post on the staff of the “Joint Force Harrier” was quietly abolished and the Harriers got precious little time at sea. In 2010 the RAF ensured it was the Harriers that were axed in the Defence Review ahead of the Tornado. Thus today there is no UK fixed-wing flying from ships sea at all and with the ‘precedent’ of the JFH established, the RAF have positioned themselves to have the controlling interest in the F35B that will fly from the new carriers.

Generations of hard-won skill and experience and a great fleet of specialist aircraft and ships has been gradually whittled down to a small helicopter-only force. Successive governments have almost destroyed Britain’s single most flexible and powerful conventional defence asset. The order for the 2 large carriers in 2006 signalled some hope that FAA could once more make a come-back and seemed to be a rare political endorsement of maritime power. Sadly political stupidity and service rivalries got to work right away, not helped by economic turmoil and have already severely reduced the great potential of the project with further avoidable problems brewing.

A marriage of inconvenience

Without the main armament of fixed-wing planes the carrier would just be a ridiculously over-sized helicopter carrier. The F35B is therefore the cornerstone of the Royal Navy carrier project and they will be “jointly operated” with the RAF. We reject this fudge and advocate that to make best use of this large investment the Royal Navy and its specialist naval aviators in the Fleet Air Arm should own and operate the aircraft that fly from the carriers.

The carrier project sits at the most sensitive interface between the 2 services, at a time when both are starved of funds. By under-funding defence, governments conveniently ‘divide and conqueror’ by setting the services against each other. The problem is rooted in poor government as much as the RAF’s adgenda. This is a failure of leadership, trying to appease the RAF, smudging over a lack of funds to replace Tornado and admitting that aside from the Typhoon/Storm Shadow lash-up, most future strike missions could now be done by unmanned aircraft, naval aircraft or sea-launched Tomahawk missiles with their better global reach.

Questioning the purpose and direction of the RAF on this blog has often generated accusations of ‘cap badge politicking’ or stirring up some bitter crusade against the RAF to boost Royal Navy prestige. Although there is good reason for historical grievances, we are not ‘anti-RAF’ as such and fully recognise the RAF has a lot of brave and hard-working people, every bit as dedicated as the RN and it offers UK defence many useful capabilities. However the narrow self-interest of the leadership has been distorting what is best for UK defence as a whole for many decades and the state of the Fleet Air Arm is just one symptom of this. It is hard to comprehend how the Royal Navy, inventor and pioneer of carrier aviation is now reliant on RAF ‘advice’ and agreement to make a success of Britain’s most important conventional defence project since the war.

Carrier aviation - how hard can it be?

The argument against RAF co-ownership of the F35Bs is pure logic, underpinned by the fact in every single other carrier operating nation in the world they have decided the navy must own its carrier aircraft. Why has every other nation come to this conclusion?

The RAF sees the carriers simply as mobile airfields upon which the F35B may or may not be deployed. The RN views the carrier and its aircraft as a complete and integrated weapon system. As a properly functioning weapon system the aircrew need to be trained and worked up with carrier-specific skills and fit into the naval ethos and environment.

Carrier-specific flying skills are an addition to regular combat flying skills and naval pilots are generally considered an elite. The pilot must cope with the obvious challenges of landing and taking off from a moving, pitching deck and a much smaller runway with no room for error. There are also additional navigation challenges, posed by a moving base – a 30knt carrier can move to anywhere within a 700sq mile circle within a half an hour. The F35B with its advanced avionics will reduce the difficulty of these evolutions to some extent. The vertical landing is assisted by an auto-pilot for example but it would be foolish to rely entirely on automation – good combat pilots must still be fully trained  to cope with failures, battle damage or extreme conditions. The F35B as a VSTOL aircraft presents several additional flying challenges, the most demanding is the Shipborne rolling vertical landing (SRVL) which will supposedly allow the F35B to return to the ship with unused weapons or fuel if too heavy for vertical landing.

Actual carrier-based operations, integration with the naval task group has to be practiced and carefully laid down operating procedures established for their and control and communications, working with other ships and aircraft to co-ordinate a variety missions. This won’t happen overnight and is an area where new technology makes little difference – it is the skill and experience of the aircrews and the operations room personnel that must be honed together.

Complex flight deck and hangar choreography is required in maintaining, handling and preparing of aircraft before and after flying within the confined space of the carrier. In high-intensity carrier operations sortie rate can be decisive and it takes a skilled team to ensure the right number of serviceable aircraft at the right place at the right time. Whether it is RAF erks or RN wafus doing the job they will need to be worked up to high level of competency just to ensure safe operations. This niche skill is currently being kept alive by a small number of FAA aircraft handlers serving with the US Navy. RAF personnel are included in the programme with around 300 personnel expected to be trained by the end of the decade.

Shipboard life. Although the carriers will have very high accommodation standards compared to previous ships, essentially everyone is still living mostly below decks in a tin can with 1500+ people and on occasions it will move about considerably, depending on sea state. Sailors are used to this but for RAF personnel this will be a significant adjustment. They will also have to learn at least basic ship routines, drills and become reliable members of a ships company for periods. There is also the thorny issue of different career paths and “harmony” guidelines between the 2 services. As it stands, those in the RAF can expect more time off and far less frequent deployments abroad than their RN counterparts. None of this is insurmountable with time and the right attitudes but it again demonstrates the how a carrier is not just another airfield and it would make more sense to have an entirely RN ships company.

Consider why the QE carriers have 2 islands. A cynic might suggest this ‘innovation’ reflects the schizophrenic character of the aircraft ownership. The flight controllers are back aft in the “control tower” well away from the RN “fish heads” up front on the bridge doing their ship-driving thing. This dual-island design is unique to the world’s aircraft carriers. In every other aircraft carrier design, the ‘flyco’ is co-located with the navigation bridge as tight co-ordination is required between the ship and its aircraft. This is not to say the new design can’t be made to work, just that a really convincing reason for the 2 islands has yet to given.

What is clear is that the whole environment is all very different to land-based aircraft operating from large airfields. RAF personnel cannot just rock up to the carrier and expect things to be run much the same as at RAF Marham. It is not that RAF pilots shouldn’t fly from Royal Navy carriers – many have in the past, indeed there are many skilled RAF pilots who will be a great asset to the carrier force. By far the biggest problem is with RAF involvement higher up in the chain of command in tasking and training with the F35Bs. With the perishable skills discussed, carrier pilots and the carrier crew need to spend as much time at sea as possible exercising if not on active operations. There is no place for a ‘part-time’ naval aviator who may dabble in a bit of carrier flying from time to time if allowed.

Questions on F35B in shared operation

Maybe the RAF will accept the arguments above and the carriers air group will always have priority for both training and operations. However with so few aircraft (A maximum of 48 F35Bs seems likely) this creates great pressure for the RN & RAF to agree on tasking priorities. The RAF initially proposed just 6 F5Bs would routinely be embarked, presumably some heads were knocked together an announcement that 12 will be the routine compliment has been made. This is a reasonable bare minimum for training but the 65,000 ton carrier designed for at least 36 aircraft may find it’s decks may look rather empty. Rather silly to invest £6Bn in large carriers then not field sufficient aircraft because they are being tasked by the RAF for other things. (Even the very small Invincible carriers routinely embarked 8 Harriers – this lack of numbers was a big reason for replacing them with much larger ships). 2 squadrons totalling 24 aircraft would seem like a sensible minimum standard.

There are many questions around who will train for what missions – will pilots be expected to be ‘all rounders’ who can master the multiple missions and environments of the F35B or will there be specialist carrier pilots etc? It is also unclear at this stage if there will be a split of two RN and two RAF manned squadrons or whether personnel will be mixed and spread across squadrons. Doubtless these difficult issues are being painfully thrashed out behind closed doors at the MoD right now. Rumours / wishful thinking for a future order for additional F35As for the RAF might ease the pressure (although whether the great cost of procuring more land-based manned deep strike is worthwhile is another discussion).

Basing and support

A big factor used to justify RAF co-ownership of the carrier aircraft is that the Fleet Air Arm now lacks the people and infrastructure to support the aircraft is service. This is largely true since the Sea Harriers departed from RNAS Yeovilton. The RAF will have alot of unemployed people when the Tornado finally goes in 2019. It make sense to employ RAF personnel on the F35B at least initially. Clearly they cannot be volunteered to transfer en mass to the FAA and it would be silly to try. However RAF personnel could go through natural wastage new recruits could come from the RN. Surely it is logical to have crews trained as sailors from the outset to serve on the carriers? Successive cuts have left the RAF plenty of under-used airfields so there is some reason in the choice of RAF Marham. As a minor point Marham is hardly convenient for aircraft embarking aboard the carrier which will most often be heading West from Portsmouth. Ultimately the colour of the uniform worn by those maintaining the aircraft is not critical. It is the command and control of the planes that really matters but while they operate from an RAF base that will surely affect the mind-set of all concerned, possession being 9/10ths of the law. RNAS Marham anyone?

So in our brave new world of ‘jointness’ will the carrier project be a wonderful example of inter-service co-operation or decent into a chaotic rivalry and farce? Lets hope it is a great success but the risks in this very expensive ‘experiment’ could be avoided by making sensible decisions now.

“During the Falklands War [RN task force commander] Sandy Woodward had to fight 3 battles; against the Argentines, against the staff at Northwood and against the RAF”
A naval officer serving with the task force