Government U-turn on carriers means less capability and long-term costs

May 9, 2012   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  15 Comments

Today in the much-anticipated new episode of the hilarious black comedy “Carry on Carrier” the government announces it shall reverse its decision to fit at least one aircraft carrier with catapults (EMALS) and angled decks for launching conventional aircraft and revert to the original plan to purchase vertical take-off and landing F35B aircraft.

Yes David, all around the world they are laughing at us.

While the media is focussed on the political embarrassment of David Cameron’s ‘U-Turn” on this issue, no one is paying much attention to the damage to the capabilities of the carriers, supposed cornerstone of UK defence policy. Despite the hysteria in political circles when someone changes their mind, there is nothing wrong with making U-turns, it is wise to admit ones mistake and seek to correct it before compounding the error. However this U-turn is away from common sense makes us the laughing-stock of the world. The hasty 2010 Defence Review was a massive series of errors with one good decision – the change to F35C and cats and traps for the carriers. This government’s track record on defence can now stand completely ‘unblemished’ by any good decisions, consistent solid 100% cock-up. This is a strategic mistake and a failure of leadership. David Cameron seems personally far more excited about the return of some RAF Spitfires – WWII relics, from Burma than ensuring that the future Royal Navy is equipped with the best aircraft to serve the nation’s interests.

The F35B is really an advanced Harrier replacement and represents a lost opportunity to have fully capable strike carrier – the carrier programme is now seen as a monumental fiasco, damaging to the RN’s reputation and embarrassing to the UK. This is no longer a ‘deep strike capability’, more close support for an amphibious landing and fighter cover for the fleet. Better than nothing but a massive unnecessary come-down from what could have been. Why build very large strike carriers when they can’t operate true strike aircraft and a fully balanced airgroup?

Why the U-turn?

The Secretary of State for Defence, Rt Hon Phi...

Secretary  of  Defence,  Phillip Hammond MP - Balancing the MoD finances for now, while we face the consequences later

Temporary ‘book-balancing’ is the primary driving force behind this decision. By saving the (disputed) upfront cost of fitting EMALS to the carriers and loading the extra costs of operating F35B onto future governments, Phillip Hammond and the Treasury can make savings now, claim to have reduced the deficit and make the MoD’s finances look a bit tidier. However the financial arguments don’t add up in the long term. Not only will the RN have a less capable aircraft, but the more complex F35B is at least £20million more expensive per aircraft and costs 25% more to maintain than the F35C. Assuming the RN gets 50 F35Bs (Being wildly optimistic) that’s and extra £1Billion in purchase cost plus a much larger on-going maintenance and fuel bill throughout the 30 or so years the planes are in service. Over time this will exceed the supposed cost of fitting EMALS to both ships.

We can only speculate but it would seem that instead of the respecting the views of the naval staff, academics, historians & former officers, government is listening to ‘special advisers’ and a toxic mix of land-based airpower and aerospace industry lobbyists. The First Sea Lord is now excluded for the Defence Council which advises on these matters. The only military representative is the Chief of Defence Staff (who is currently an Army General Sir David Richards who is not best qualified to argue case for naval aviation) Of course military advice is probably largely ignored anyway as political concerns about jobs backed by the powerful noise of arms manufacturing always come first.

We are not privy to all that has gone on behind the scenes in this decision but it is plain to see that it is not in the commercial interest of BAE Systems for anything other than F35s to fly from the carriers. Despite the very strong practical & financial case for buying F18 Super Hornets or even French Rafales (at least in interim until F35 proven). Those aircraft are definitely ‘not invented here’ with no fat profits to be had and no attractive British jobs headlines. BAE quoted £1.8 billion to fit EMALS to HMS Prince of Wales. It does not take great expertise to recognise this as suspiciously high (the US Navy has stated the cost of EMALS system is approximately £400m and they are so keen that the UK carriers have them they even promised to underwrite the costs).

Phillip Hammond recently wrote; “The UK is committed to JSF (rather than, for example, F18) because we are partners in the project and, so long as we remain in, UK companies are entitled to a share of approximately 15% of the industrial work of the entire project, likely to comprise some 3,000 jets over a thirty year period – worth many high-quality jobs in our aerospace industry.” Effectively admitting that commercial profits and the employment benefits of the F35 are far more important than what is actually best for UK defence and the Royal Navy. The RN will have to make do with the F35B, however late, insanely expensive and deficient it maybe.

The RAF fear that if F18s or Raflales were purchased this might delay or mean the abandonment of UK F35 purchase. The RAF are now jolly keen on the F-35 because the generation of aircraft beyond them could be un-manned. (This does not go down well with the fast-jet jockeys who want to keep up their giddy aerobatics for as long as possible). The RAF really want their hands on a 5th generation aircraft and see the purchase as a replacement for their crummy Tornadoes. In the decisions about procurement and operation of the carrier aircraft, the views of RAF are irrelevant and should not be required by ministers. In an ideal world it should have been purely a decision for the naval staff.

Further twists and U-turns to come?

The colossal cost, unsolved engineering challenges ahead and delays surrounding the F35 have been highlighted extensively already on this blog and by many commentators elsewhere. There would have been many advantages to having an aircraft carrier with EMALS, most significantly the ability to operate a much wider range of aircraft.

The government is gambling – the carriers are now totally dependent on the successful development of the F35B. There is a very real possibility that the US will cancel the F35B as they will to have to start to address their colossal national debt. If the US Congress fail to agree a new budget soon then there could be “sequestration” in 2013 which will mean automatic widespread cuts to the Pentagon budget with F35B top of the list of expensive programmes ripe for axing. Should the F35B be axed then the UK carriers would be in serious trouble. How much more embarrassing and expensive could be for this or the next government to have to do another U-turn and return to plan to fit EMALS!

This carrier debacle encapsulates Britain’s terrible inability to manage its defence. Our national decline is more about lack of leadership than lack of funds. Phillip Hammonds’ acountancy-driven approach to defence procurement offers a short-term ‘feel good’ factor but is a strategic disaster. We must live within our means but we must define affordable national objectives first and then buy the appropriate equipment.  If we are building carriers because we have (wisely) decided we need carrier strike capability (A cornerstone of UK defence policy) then we need true strike aircraft. The defence budget is too small but the more serious problem is the lack of - planning or strategy, too much money allocated to land-based airpower, poor management of big programmes, further undermined by the interests of business.

“Always look on the bright side of life”

  • In the words of a Royal Navy officer “at least we still get fast jets at sea”
  • HMS Queen Elizabeth may not have to be immediately mothballed on completion and could embark F35Bs as soon as 2018 (if they are not canceled and the development programme delivers on its promises)
  • The carriers are at least being built and without cost of EMALS there is a better chance of keeping both carriers
  • F35B will hopefully be a purely Fleet Air Arm asset and fully under RN control. (Everything must be done to ensure the RAF do not interfere in the operating and tasking of these aircraft as happened with the “Joint Harrier Farce”)
  • STOVL aircraft have additional flexibility as they can operate from small ships and land on rough terrain or restricted landing areas
  • There maybe some advantages in air-air combat due to additional maneuverability
  • Interoperability with US Marine Corps (although this is far less useful than being interoperable with USN strike carriers)
  • A few more British jobs in Bristol are secure making additional vertical thrust engines
  • The carriers could last 50 years and if ever a climate of sanity were to return to defence procurement one day the possibility remains they could be upgraded to be true strike carriers.

Despite this setback we remain firmly supportive of the carrier programme and continue to support the embattled Naval staff. As in so many times in the past, the Fleet Air Arm will undoubtedly make a success of the project even if hamstrung by the wrong equipment. The carriers are at least being built and but the battle over the aircraft that fly from them may not yet be over.


  • […] Save the Royal Navy on the F35 U Turn […]

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  • [...] succeeded in “advising” government to ditch catapults & traps for the aircraft carriers so the range of aircraft they carry will be much diminished, the RAF [...]

  • Absolutaly pathetic.

  • Due to govt imposed less-than-desireable project management the carriers’ original 2002-203 designs have been so stripped out and over-economized it is likely that even with cats and traps they’d still be not fit for purpose in 21st century naval warfare, emergency response roles:

    “Pride of the fleet”, August 29-2003 -

    Chief naval architect Simon Knight talks about the planned new carriers’ ‘adaptable-for-future-fitting-of-cats-and-traps’ design AND about the immense cuts and deletions-from-the-originally-agreed-aircraft-carrier-design that had been occurring since January-2003 in order to meet unrealistic UK govt/MoD budget parameters…
    As part of strategies to further develop & enhance the UK’s defence & high-technology industries- & their capacities for exports- the UK govt/MoD ought to commission UK firms to design new models of economical-to-operate big deck aircraft carriers that are both nuclear powered & catapult-equipped + both bigger AND smaller in displacements than the currently underway carrier project’s 65,000 tonne vessels….

  • MoD should have to explain what are the design requirements & technical hurdles that would have to be surmounted in order to fit the UK’s 2 undergoing construction aircraft carriers with aircraft launch catapults and landing equipment…

    Do the UK’s planned carriers even have the energy generation capabilities required to operate electromagnetic aircraft launch catapults- particularly in combat situations- while the ship’s engines are still providing power for the ship’s propulsion??

    Would the fitting of electromagnetic aircraft launch catapults and landing equipment to the UK’s planned carriers have so adversely affected these vessels’ centre of gravity and at-sea-stability that their sea worthiness would have been reduced to an unworkable level??

  • Got to say I disagree – the decision to go to F35B has probably saved CVf for the RN and ensured the RN stays in the carrier business. It wasnt an easy decision to make, but it was the right decision.

    I run a small blog on defence matters, and a link to an article I wrote on this can be found at

    • Sir Humphrey

      Perhaps the saddest point of all is that you are probably right in the narrow and warped terms of Whitehall politics and MoD procurement.

      Better to have 2 STOVL dog’s breakfasts rather than outright cancellation of CATOBAR carriers (or more likely sale upon completion to a foreign power) because we haven’t gone with an initial F-18 squadron and don’t have excess steam from nuclear propulsion….

      But it is just the latest sorry tale in RN naval aviation. F-35Bs don’t need to operate from supercarriers and replacement (slightly larger) through deck cruiser platforms would have sufficed……

      • So we can finally undo the CVA-01 mistake of 1966 with a mid-life upgrade to EMALS CATOBAR of HMS Queen Elizabeth/HMS Prince of Wales (oh is there irony in the second carrier’s name – let’s just go the whole hog and rename her HMS Indomitable!!) circa 2050 and when it comes to replace F-35Bs…….? You couldn’t make this up….

        • Tom Harwood.

          Better to have a dog’s breakfast (STOVL) than no breakfast at all (CATOBAR) – hardly a Nelsonian rallying cry from Whitehall!

          Nuclear powered (EMALS or steam catapult option), CATOBAR jets (F18 and/or later F35C)/AEW/UAV/refuelling) with cross deck interoperability with US/French carriers, with sufficient Type 45s/26s – really shouldn’t be that difficult for a country with our level of Govt spending?

  • perhaps if the government got rid of BAE , and started all over with a proper British technology, British know how, we might be better of, our boat yards have not much work, our steel is not much,
    in the 1930s to stop a double recession, Britain started to re-arm and this is what we should do now, build more ships, , but of course our government is answerable to a higher authority, despite denials,
    It seems we can’t fart without European permission,
    He says we are tied to Europe, then perhaps it’s about time we become UN tied, before they drag us down with them,

    But all the do gooders will say, we have no money,
    We have lots of money, if only we stopped giving it to others, and used it on the British people instead,
    For Christ sake give UKIP a chance,
    but no, despite all the moaning and crying, despite all the rubbish about labour or the coalition, come the next election, the indoctrinated British voters will line up to vote for them AGAIN and AGAIN and AGAIN .
    We need change, we need a new way of doing things, we need a British government that will put Britain first, and give us back our once proud military, instead of a fishing fleet,
    We need more ships more planes more troops, a better defence, and most important we need it to be British if possible .

  • Good grief it gets worse! So now the F-35B is to be purchased. Not much range, small weopon bays and a
    messy STOVL system which (when compared to the Harriers elegant Pegasus powerplant) looks like a committee has been at it. Also I have heard that the down blast of the B variant is almost volcanic and
    could melt the deck of any carrier it operates on, so more steel skinning on the flight deck please! Going back to the powerplant again its too complex. Clutches, shafts and doors which all must work if you
    don’t want to swim or walk back to the carrier. One AK47 round from a Afghan mountain man in the wrong place and its game over. I note that the trident sub fleet has survived unscathed the recent
    cuts. If a few warheads were cut the savings could be used to speed up the carriers/frigates build and allow a replacement aircraft to be slotted in quickly if the F-35B goes belly up. I know many in the
    goverment/services like Trident as it’s Britain’s last bit of greatness (how it can be great to murder millions and spread lethal fallout around is a mystery to me and if used against a nation with similar you risk the same back on your country) now that the empire’s gone and its good to swagger about at the UN with the nuclear big boys but the real defense systems have been sacrifices on the altar of Trident. Nimrod, Harrier and many more. And now it would appear the RN is next. It’s not even independent the missiles from the subs are maintained by Lockeed Martin in America. If Britain was truly great it would have a all British aircraft to fly off its strike carriers but I fear the legacy of Mr D.Sandys has put
    payed to that.

  • Right, the decison has been made, now let us fight the next battles.

    1. We need 2 carriers not one to allow for continuous at sea capability.

    2. These carriers need a range of capability, AEW cannot be compromised which means fighting for V22 AEW or AW609 which have the range and height to be effective and not a Merlin half measure. EW much also be provided again either by V22, UAV or by an adapted F35B.

    3. Escorts, we neeed to ensure there are sufficent at sea to suppport a the carrier /expeditionary group .

    4. Begin to develop new doctrines that support the goal of expeditionary warfare. Win the arguments that these carriers provide the focus of expeditionary warfare and become a genuinely capable and adpatable force element to all future plans.This will bring the army on side. Without the carrier group they don’t go overseas. If this means using them diffrently to the US doctrine , good. It. It will allow us to take the lead in novel tactics.

    5. Don’t let the savings be lost, ensure that this naval sacrifice is spent on naval equipment or maritime supporting equipment ( Nimrod’s replacement)

    6. Command and control of the F35B, ensure FAA lead get men into the right jobs in DE&S, MOD and Joint Organisations to fight and keep fighting the corner that expeditionary air is a FAA task.

    The war is not lost, we have a chance for 2 carriers how we mould them is up to us.

    • The trend in defence worldwide is to back towards maritime after 100 years of Army and latterly Air focus.

      Spain, Italy have each recently acquired a second carrier, Thailand (and Japan kind-of) have entered the carrier game in last 10 years. China, India, Brazil continue to invest/expand. The French have kept faithful, and several nations are edging towards more potent helo carrying capabilities – the Dutch and even the Danes with the “Absalon”.

      The Navy has to give the Army concrete reasons to support it. The Royal Marines are clear demonstration that the Navy’s own people share exactly the same land warfare risks.

      The Navy also has to support the Army in acquiring air assets, and help the artillery and armour find new roles with integrated air support using both UAVs and manned aircraft.

      A quick first win would be to reinforce the idea that unmanned air reconnaissance should be embedded with each & every land and sea unit.

  • This morning I awoke and realised the Tories really do not care about this country, and have no ability to stand up for anything they might believe in, no matter how sensible or uncontroversial amongst the public.

    What did they think was going to happen if they equipped the carriers with catapults and long-range radar to save lives – that there would be rampaging mobs of RAF officers running up Whitehall going to light candles in front of Butcher Bomber Harris’ statue?

    Why would I vote anything other than UKIP in Euro 2014 now?

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