Failure of political strategy, lack of vision and poor planning leaves the aircraft carrier project facing more problems

It has just been revealed that fitting catapults to the new aircraft carriers has been costed at around 1.8 £Billion and the Minister of Defence considers this ‘unaffordable’. Reverting to the F-35B vertical take-off aircraft is being considered. This would conveniently avoid the upfront cost of the modifying the ships (to this government) but ultimately cost the nation more in the long-run because the F-35B will cost more to maintain and is a less capable aircraft. Phillip Hammond is seen as a ‘great accountant’ who has rightly attempted to balance the books at the MoD after the shocking financial mess left by the Brown government. However the ‘short cut’ of lurching back to F-35B would be very unwise and this post attempts to explain why in simple terms.

The Royal Navy’s 2 new aircraft carriers are currently under construction and were originally designed to carry the F-35B  Lightning STVOL (Short Take Off, Vertical Landing) aircraft, that would operate much like the now defunct Harrier. They do not require assistance to take off from the ship other than a simple ski-ramp. However among the many foolish decisions taken by the current government in the October 2010 defence review, one good decision was made. It was decided to order the conventional take off F-35C instead, this offers many advantages (discussed below) but would require the ship to be significantly modified with catapults to assist take off and arrestor wires for landing. As we have mentioned before, it is something of a miracle that the carrier programme, cornerstone of the Royal Navy’s future, survives at all. There is little understanding amongst politicians, public or media about the major advantages offered by carriers and the project continues, albeit never far from crisis, mainly for its employment benefits and because BAe Systems were wise enough to lock the government into a bullet-proof contract.

Why we should stick to ‘cats and traps’

  • Because the F-35B is required to take off vertically it is an inherently more complex and expensive aircraft than the conventional F-35C. This makes it heavier, able to carry less fuel and weapons over less distance and will require more time and money expended to maintain it. In addition to the extra upfront cost, over the lifetime of the aircraft this additional maintenance cost may exceed the cost of modifying the ships.
  • The concept of STOVL was brilliantly pioneered by Britain and the Royal Navy worked miracles with its relatively small force of Harriers, punching above its weight, maritime airpower on a shoestring budget. However the need for STOVL was dictated by the small size of the Invincible class carriers. Recognition that the Invincibles were small and restrictive led to the order for the new ‘full size’ carriers and this makes STOVL unnecessary.  There are some operational benefits to STOVL – less weather dependent and able to land on other platforms but given the choice, conventional aircraft offer far more power.
  • Catapults and arrestor gear would allow the RN to acquire a fully balanced airgroup including E2D Hawkeye-type AEW Aircraft. These are much more capable than the basic helicopter AEW aircraft currently operated by the RN. There is also a need for an EA-18G ‘Growler’-type Electronic warfare aircraft as well as the possibility of air-air refuelling aircraft that could operate from a conventional carrier.
  • In future, major operations will almost certainly be with our allies; the US and French navies. With conventional carriers the RN would be far better equipped to work with them, aircraft sharing decks and standard operating procedures.
  • In the event the US government loses patience and axes the F-35 completely (or the programme delivers a sub-standard aircraft) then a conventional carrier would allow the RN a wide choice of alternative aircraft . There is no VSTOL alternative.

F-35: expensive, delayed and unproven or F-18 Super Hornet: affordable, reliable and available?

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II, bu...

The F-35 Lightning – ‘eye wateringly’ expensive. Image via Wikipedia

The F-35 has a long way to go to overcome design issues including problems with its stealth features, a tail-hook that won’t catch the arrestor wire and electrical and structural problems. It remains to be seen how long they will take to fix. Most worryingly, no one can give a final unit cost for the F-35 at present but it will be upwards of £85 million each. This staggering cost raises questions about whether the RN will ever be able to afford to buy enough aircraft to field a credible air group while having reserves, training and testing aircraft. It is also likely that HMS Queen Elizabeth maybe completed before the F-35 is in production and we could have the embarrassment of owning the world’s largest helicopter carrier. A controversial but practical solution would be to delay the purchase of the F-35 and buy, lease or borrow F-18 Super Hornets, which are far cheaper, available and proven. Although they don’t match the promised capabilities of the F-35, will remain effective against most adversaries for the next 20 years. The US Navy obviously thinks so and plans to keep operating them until 2035 while Australia has already made the sensible decision to buy Super Hornets now instead of waiting indefinitely for F-35. It is even possible the Super Hornet could take off from the carriers without catapaults, should the long-term plan be to revert to VSTOL F35-Bs!

Funding problem solved: dispense with some RAF Tornados?

The case for carrier-based aircraft over land-based aircraft is overwhelming on both cost and flexibility ground as this was clearly demonstrated by operation off Libya. Before the 2010 defence review. it was widely expected the government would axe the 135 GR4 Tornados (saving £8.9bn over 5 years including upgrading engines). Instead at the last-minute, the Harrier fleet and HMS Ark Royal were axed for reasons that have never been properly explained. This crazy decision only ‘saved’ around £1.5 Billion and the folly was immediately exposed by the expensive Tornado circus flying UK epic round-trips to Libya when Ark Royal’s Harriers would have done the job at a fraction of the cost and effort. These Tornados “boring holes in the sky” over eastern England become more irrelevant to UK defence with every passing day. Reliant on epic air-air refuelling flights and the co-operation of foreign governments for over-flight and basing rights before thay can be on the scene of any likely action. Disposing of the some of the Tornados, cold war relics designed for low-level bombing (it was never even very effective in its intended role) and cancelling the engine upgrades would save more than enough to cover the cost of modifying the carriers. The government must see past RAF mis-information and put the carrier project front and centre of defence policy. Fund the RN properly to build and operate both carriers, fit EMALS catapults & arrestor gear and purchase an effective air group fully under RN control. Then the nation will have 2 flexible & powerful assets that offer real value for money over what could be a 50-year lifetime.