Like its Sea Harrier predecessor, the F35B is a ‘swing role’ aircraft ie. a plane that is both a fighter, reconnaissance and a strike aircraft. Here we take a cursory look at how the F35B may fit into these roles in UK service.
Given that most recent conflicts involving the UK have not involved confronting nations with a serious airforce, air defence for the fleet has been sometimes overlooked. With the premature and ill-advised withdrawl of the Sea Harrier FA2 in 2006 the RN effectively lost the ability to intercept enemy aircraft, the most important part of layered defence for a naval task group. (The remaining Harrier GR9s were essentially ground attack aircraft with a minimal air defence capability). If the RN and its allies are ever to operate against nations with even a rudimentary airforce then it would be most unwise to rely purely on ship-mounted weapon systems. History has shown that without air superiority (or at least parity) provided by carrier-based aircraft, ships are very vulnerable.
A good fighter aircraft generally has a slim fuselage, relatively large wings and a good power-weight ratio, rather the opposite of the F35. As a stealthy strike aircraft, it needs a bulky fuselage to encase weapons. It is not especially manoeuvrable and ‘old school’ fighter pilots are unimpressed. Where the F35 supposedly has the edge over virtually all adversaries is in its sensors, communication and avionics. With a very advanced radar and 10 million lines of onboard software allied to powerful computers, the pilot is presented with complete situational awareness though a single large touch-screen display. The helmet will provide 360º view, wherever the pilot looks so he can even see through the cockpit floor. With data links via satellite the F35 can obtain, analyse and share information about a vast battle space. Using long-range missiles the theory is that the F35 will not need get into close-quarters dog-fights, destroying the enemy aircraft beyond visual range (BVR).
As far back as the Vietnam war this kind of combined radar and missile BVR air-air combat was envisaged but in practice close-quarter engagements developed with missiles often being of secondary importance to guns. Obviously technology has advanced a long way since then but total reliance on gadgets ahead of pilot skill and aircraft agility seems questionable. While the old Harrier could not reach supersonic speeds like the F35, it had a few dogfighting tricks thanks to it’s VSTOL design. For example the Harrier could ‘slam on the brakes’ at high-speed by pointing its jet nozzles forward but the F35B cannot do this. With its delicate engine ‘doors’ it must reduce speed before gentle transition to hover. Exactly how the F35B would perform if it was ever forced into high-G dogfighting manoeuvres has yet to be tested but don’t be surprised if is out-performed by other fighter aircraft upto 20 years older, whatever Lockheed Martin may claim. The crux of whether the F35B can provide effective air-superiority at sea is how reliable will this new generation of electronic technology performs. If it works as advertised, the F35 pilot on combat air patrol (CAP) can supposedly cruise around relaxed, pushing a few buttons when prompted with enemies despatched at distance. Most modern Western fighter aircraft are currently superior to the Chinese or Russian designs flown by potential adversaries but it would be unwise to assume that the technological lead can always be taken for granted. Given the many known failures in cyber security and the persistent criminal hacking activities sponsored by the Chinese government, is it possible that information that could compromise the F35′s much-lauded stealth, networking & sensor capabilities has already been obtained by China? Even if they don’t have the ability to interfere with aircraft in action, they have probably freely obtained some of the complex technical data needed to start make their own copies.
The ‘strike’ mission
Sometimes it maybe that the deterrent effect of an aircraft carrier sitting off a coast is enough to prevent conflict or achieve strategic aims. Should this deterrence fail, going by recent history, the most likely ‘live’ combat mission for an F35B launched from HMS Queen Elizabeth in the early 2020s would be precision bombing of a specific target on land. The strike mission is the key role of the aircraft and the F35 will probably prove to be a better bomber than fighter, especially given the incredibly sophisticated and accurate air-dropped munitions that are now available. Its superior stealth, supersonic speed and increased range should help it evade defences and quickly hit targets far beyond the capability of the Harrier GR9. The ‘strike’ mission can be divided it to 3 main types. Tactical or close support of troops on the battlefield, strategic bombing of targets deep in enemy territory and attacking enemy ships.
Tactical bombing and close support is a vital role and gives far greater threat and edge to the RN and its allies amphibious power. The ability to pinpoint and destroy individual tanks, artillery and formations in close proximity to advancing troops is decisive but requires practice and superb communication, ideally with a tough aircraft that can survive damage and provide a stable weapons platform in the more turbulent air at low-level. As the photo above shows, the F35 is fragile and complex. (Although ease of maintenance, self-diagnosis and support logistics have been given a high priority from the start of the program). Never the less, lacking basic cannons, being so frail and expensive, it is unlikely to be sent to mix it at low-level over the battlefield where a single bullet from a $100 rifle could bring down a £143Million aircraft. In Afghanistan, jets mostly delivered precision munitions from high level. (Fine where there is no serious air defence). The US Marine Corps is building landing ships specifically to carry the F35B and it will be interesting to see how their doctrines evolve for supporting amphibious operations using the aircraft.
In the ‘strategic’ bombing role the F35B appears fairly well suited, although the reduced range of the B variant reduces the radius for ‘deep strike’ significantly. What is more questionable is the strategic mission itself. Obviously it maybe desirable at times to be able to knock out command centres, military facilities, terrorist bases etc at considerable distance (as in the liberation of Libya). In contrast, the bombing of cities (such as the “shock and awe” raids prior to the invasion of Iraq) maybe both morally questionable and counter-productive. Destroying utilities and transport infrastructure will probably hinder the progress of the army it is supposed to assist. The inevitable killing of civilians (‘collateral damage’) will mean troops arrive to face an angry population understandably keen to take revenge, sowing the seeds of future terrorism and conflict. It is this dubious ‘deep strike’ bombing role that is the main raison d’être of the UK’s Tornado force. The F35 is seen primarily by the RAF as the Tornado replacement, rather than the aircraft carrier’s main armament. This situation will be at the root of many problems which we will discuss in Part 3.
The Royal Navy now has only 2 heavyweight weapons for use in the anti-shipping role. The most effective way to sink ships is by torpedo but with the tiny attack submarine force (currently down to 5 and unlikely to rise above 7 in the 2020s) there are precious few submarines to fire torpedoes. The other option is the ageing Harpoon surface to surface missile carried by the Type 23 frigates (and possibly to be fitted to the Type 45s). Although Harpoon has a range of around 60 miles, its basic design is 30 years old, it is not especially fast or manoeuvrable and maybe defeated by modern warships countermeasures. There are of course the 4.5″ guns but gunnery duels with enemy warships would be unlikely and an option of last resort. The helicopter-launched Sea Skua (and its promised replacement) are very useful anti-surface weapons but are only for use against small vessels. The F35 therefore offers a 3rd and important option for taking out warships. To destroy large vessels requires at least a 500lb or ideally a 1000lb bomb hit which the F35 could deliver. To sink a modern warship would require a very well coordinated strike with multiple aircraft to have much hope of success and would probably result in the loss of aircraft. Ideally a stand-off anti-ship missile would be used but the RN lost this capability with the demise of the Harrier and the Sea Eagle missile. The F35 could possibly carry (externally) the air-launched variant of the Harpoon or its successor the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) currently in development in the US. However there are no existing MoD plans to add this capability, particularly as surface-surface warfare is becoming something of a forgotten art, way down a very squeezed priority list.
The carriers will initially go to sea without dedicated Airborne Early warning aircraft. (The Government complacency and mismanagement behind the lack of this relatively cheap and important capability has been well covered elsewhere). Without in-depth radar coverage, the carrier and its naval task group are at risk. The F35 does have an exceptional radar and this may at least be able to partially off-set the blindness left by lack of AEW but the F35 is not really designed for this persistent surveillance mission and there will be precious few spare aircraft anyway. A basic function of carrier aircraft is simple reconnaissance and it is always useful for naval commanders to have intelligence gathered by the ‘Mk1 eyeball’. Like many modern fighting aircraft, the F35 has sophisticated electro-optical cameras that can beam high quality images back to the ship.
The unmanned future?
The political implications of an expensive plane being shot down and the death or capture of its pilot has been an increasing factor in limiting the use of strike aircraft. The development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) offers the attraction of reduced cost and the elimination of risk to a pilot. UAVs have been in action around the world for more than 10 years, the majority are unarmed and mostly used for intelligence gathering but there are a few land-based drones such as the RAF’s Reapers that are weaponised. It is virtually certain that UAVs will be an increasing feature of naval warfare and it is likely the RN’s carriers will be routinely operating them at some point alongside the F35 and one day manned military aircraft may disappear entirely. Unfortunately the loss of cats and traps means the RN’s carriers will not be able to launch long-range, heavily armed UAVs such as X-47B being developed in the US. Until either a heavyweight VSTOL UAV is developed, or cats and traps are fitted to the carriers the RN will be limited to smaller UAVs with minimal or no armament and will thus be heavily reliant on the manned F35B for many years to come.
In Part 3 (coming soon) we will look at the ownership and operation of the aircraft.
- F35B images and videos – Pinterest board
- Royal Navy pilot in F35 jump jet flight – British Forces News (bfbs.com)
- WARPLANES: Harrier Rescues The F-35B (strategypage.com)
- The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: simply a phenomenal flying machine (telegraph.co.uk)
Prevarication leaves another crucial ‘capability gap’
Key assets for the Royal Navy are it’s Airborne Early Warning helicopters, i.e. search radar-equipped helicopters that can give the fleet much greater coverage than ship-based radar limited by the curvature of the earth. During the Falklands war this lack of coverage left the fleet in fear of Exocet missile and aircraft attack, with just seconds to react and it cost ships and lives. In a classic piece of British ingenuity the problem was solved by fitting a radar to a Sea King helicopter in just a few weeks. The much-loved, but now knackered Sea King helicopters will have to be retired by 2016. Despite being fully aware of this, the MoD project “Crowsnest” to develop a replacement has only just begun assessment phase. Almost certainly the solution will be to take some of the precious few (30) anti-submarine Merlin Mk2s currently in RN service and add radar in a very similar way to the current solution. Crowsnest is not expected to deliver until 2022, thus leaving the RN carrier(s) at sea without vital radar coverage for at last 4 years. Since 1982 the AEW helicopter has seen its role expanded and they have proved useful in Afghanistan and other non-maritime environments where their tracking and surveillance capability provides vital intelligence on the ground. It is the complacency & penny-pinching of successive governments that have, yet again, created a situation where the RN will have a another very significant ‘capability gap‘. Crowsnest’s lack of urgency is typical of so many MoD-managed programs and it is unclear why something that was solved in a few weeks in 1982 will take up to 10 years in the 21st century!
RAF plans to royally screw up the aircraft carrier project remain on track
Having 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 recently proposed the RN’s new 65,000 ton carriers should only “routinely embark 6 aircraft”. Whoever made that proposal is either an idiot or deliberately trying to sabotage the carrier project. The defence secretary later announced that he expects 12 aircraft to be routinely embarked, still a very silly number for a large carrier designed to operate at least 36 aircraft. As we have continually highlighted, the RAF now see the F35B as a replacement for their Tornado aircraft when in fact the F35B is really the successor the Sea Harrier and Harrier GR9. The F35B has “60% RAF ownership” and will probably be based at RAF Marham. It is not hard to imagine the RN will continually struggle to be allowed to operate the aircraft carriers main armament if the RAF have other plans. It is a crazy situation to build carriers then cripple them with bizarre aircraft operating arrangements. The F35B should be allocated to the Fleet Air Arm who fully understand what is involved in carrier aviation. If the RAF must maintain their questionable ‘deep strike’ role then they should lobby government to buy the F35A. A recommended read is the excellent article in the December issue of Warship International Fleet Review magazine by Commodore Steve Jermy who brilliantly explains the complexities of naval aviation and why in every carrier-equipped nation in the world (except the UK), the Navy owns and operates its aircraft.
Astute class subs – serious problems but still world-beaters?
Recently The Guardian gleefully reported on the many problems of the Astute submarine project. Late and over-budget, the Astute program can indeed find a place in the MoD’s Top 10 All-Time Greatest Procurement Fiascos. That said, there are now 2 boats in the water and the Astute class is beginning to deliver on the huge potential it always promised. These boats will be a great asset to the nation and the Royal Navy and ultimately are worth the cost and unfavorable media coverage. Nuclear submarine construction is one of the most demanding engineering challenges known to man and it is unsurprising that the first of class has encountered problems. We can be confident that the problems are slowly being solved and Astute is amongst the quietest subs ever built, offers many new capabilities and has already impressed when tested against the latest US Virginia-class boat. The main concern is possibly with propulsion and a mis-match between her very powerful reactor and the drive train. However this kind of detail must remain highly classified and it’s impossible to speculate in an informed way.
The looming threat of Scottish independence
With referendum on Scottish Independence looming in 2014, the horrible possibility exists that the RN’s key submarine base at Faslane and primary warship builder in Glasgow will suddenly be in a ‘foreign country’. Although opinion polls seem to suggest that the majority of Scots will see sense and reject the idea, it would seem wise for the MoD to start making contingency plans. Apparently the ‘do nothing and hope it goes away’ approach is being applied by the MoD. (although one would hope the RN is at least looking at its options behind closed doors) In fact, the plan to transfer the remaining Trafalgar class subs from Devonport to Faslane is still going ahead. In the calamitous event of Scottish Independence, the nuclear deterrent would be in serious problems, although basing the entire submarine fleet in Devonport is a realistic possibility, the vast cost of replicating the weapons handling facility at Coulport would be a major obstacle and could even spell the end of the UK nuclear deterrent. There are lots of other nightmare issues to consider such as which defence assets and personnel would Scotland demand? Would the RN still build is warships in Scotland and are there any affordable alternatives? Franky independence would be an exercise in silly local pride, there is enough division and splintering in this world and we are better off and stronger together. Let’s pray the Scots vote no to what would be an disaster for them, the Royal Navy and everyone in the UK.
Portsmouth shipbuilding yard saga lurches towards disaster
We have been warning and campaigning against the closure of BAE Systems shipyard in Portsmouth for several months. All indications are that BAE seem set to announce the yard will close very soon. Due to a total lack of coherent industrial strategy on the part of this government and its predecessor, when the aircraft carrier work is complete the yard will have no work (at least for several years until the leisurely-paced Type 26 frigate programme starts). The yard is ideally suited to building small, relatively cheap Offshore Patrol Vessels which the RN really needs. Instead of placing an order for a couple of OPVs to fill the gap in work, government complacency and dogma dictates they will let the yard close. Ministers talk of there being “no business case” to keep the yard open – of course there is no business case if their main customer won’t even place a small order! Besides, the importance of an island nation’s ability to build warships goes beyond short-term business arguments. This pathetic laissez-faire approach to vital national strategic assets is indefensible and hard to understand, given the relatively small mount of money needed to keep it afloat. The financial argument does not even add up as it will actually cost more to close the yard than the cost of a couple of small ships!
Economic problems – more defence cuts on the way?
With the UK economy showing no signs of recovery and public borrowing not significantly reduced, apparently the armed forces may face another round of cuts. Defence has been cut, cut & cut again even in “good times” under Blair & Brown and there is absolutely nothing left to cut without really endangering UK security. Most politicians pay lip service to the fact that the first duty of Government is to afford protection to its citizens but the reality is that defence is a low priority for them as they have a short-term focus on re-election. Most politicians simply assume there are no votes in defence (apart from dishing out employment-related equipment contracts). It is shabby political cowardice & dereliction of duty on the part of government not to ‘ring fence’ the already inadequate defence budget, like it has with more politically-sensitive budgets such as overseas development, education and health.
Remember Timmy MacColl
Leading Seaman Timmy MacColl failed to return to his ship HMS Westminster after a night out when the ship was docked in Dubai in May this year. Despite exhaustive searches, nothing has been seen or heard of him since. Our thoughts go to his family and children as they face their first Christmas without him. www.bringtimmyhome.co.uk
Some Christmas cheer
Despite all the problems there are many reasons for the RN to remember 2012 with some satisfaction. The failure of G4S to provide sufficient security guards for the Olympics meant the armed forces stepped in and did a brilliant job, the unintended side-effect was a big PR boost for the forces fed by the feel good factor around a highly successful Olympic games. The RN also did a fine job in providing the security cordon around the Olympic sailing events off Dorset. HMS Daring made her debut as the first Type 45 deployed to the Gulf and operated successfully with the US fleet. Despite the ridiculous hysteria about her deployment from Argentina, HMS Dauntless completed a lengthy Atlantic tour although she was only in the vicinity of the Falklands Islands for a few weeks.
The major RN exercise of the year was Exercise Cougar 12 which saw the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) deploy to the Mediterranean. The most notable feature was jointly working with the French Navy. (Our new best friends in a shot-gun wedding of convenience brought on by austerity?) The RFTG concept was proven although rumors the ships could be deployed to the Syrian coast for an evacuation or humanitarian operation proved unfounded. Notable was the absence of any RFA tankers or stores support ships. The RFA is so busy covering important jobs that are really the work of now non-existent warships, that there was not a single one available for this major exercise. On a positive note, 4 new RFA tankers were ordered from South Korea although this rather good news was lost in the hysteria surrounding their construction abroad. The Type 26 Frigate programme reached another encouraging milestone as the latest design was revealed it also seems possible that some foreign orders or collaboration maybe possible which could help keep costs down, however it will be at least 2020 before the first ship is delivered to the RN and the numbers have yet to be decided.
The Royal Marines continue to serve in Afghanistan with 40 Commando currently in theatre. Keep safe and best wishes for 2013 to all RN and RM personnel, particularly those serving overseas and away from family this Christmas.
- F35B in focus (PART 2) The multi-role marvel
- F35B in Focus (PART 1) Background and cost
- Reflecting on the life and times of the Type 42 destroyers
- A maritime-centered defence strategy for Britain makes sense
- Examining the options for increasing funding for the Royal Navy
- Royal Navy 2012 News Round-up
- Making the case for the Trident replacement