Failure of political strategy, lack of vision and poor planning leaves the aircraft carrier project facing more problems
A US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet prepares to launch during a test of the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) that under current plans will supposedly be fitted to the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers Image: US Navy
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 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.
- Cost of refitting Royal Navy aircraft carrier trebles (Telegraph)
- Carriers’ precise future is still up in the air (Portsmouth News)
- The F-35C Lightning II: Is this the correct choice for our new carriers? (Sharkey’s World)
- IN FOCUS: Royal Navy chief looks to the future with carrier, F-35 programmes (Flight Global)
- Delay concerns about the Royal Navy’s new jets (Portsmouth News)
- Letter Raises Possibility U.K. Could Return to STOVL F-35 (Warship Discussion Boards)
Naval conflict in the Gulf?
In a recent speech in Washington, Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond stated that any attempt to block a key trade route in the Gulf will be met with military force from the Royal Navy. “Our joint naval presence in the Arabian Gulf, something our regional partners appreciate, is key to keeping the Strait of Hormuz open for international trade.” Of course protection of trade is the fundamental role of the Royal Navy, but have successive governments so hollowed out the navy it is now unable to fulfil that role?
Like in most conflicts, war with Iran will mean everyone loses in some way. Iran’s fragile economy would be destroyed and because it would have no allies, would ultimately suffer military defeat. Make no mistake, the Iranians have the ability to sink ships and kill sailors. However it would be madness for them to block the Strait of Hormuz through which 20% of the world’s oil passes. The US and UK would respond and have support across the region and even from China which is now the biggest customer of oil passing through the Strait. Oil prices would rocket, further damaging the fragile world economy and the UK could suffer gas shortages as we are heavily reliant on supplies of Liquid Natural Gas from the Middle East. And of course the UK can ill-afford another conflict, even the ‘relatively simple’ Libya campaign may have cost the UK around £1.75 Billion. War with Iran could be much more dangerous and costly.
Unfortunately logic may not be enough to prevent the unstable and sometimes crazed Iranian regime lurching to war. Further provoked by Israeli assassinations of key nuclear scientists, the mad mullahs and extreme elements may be gaining the upper hand, even Iranian students are marching to “Give war a chance”.
So where are the Royal Navy’s big-hitters?
As the Mr Hammond contemplates the appalling prospect of war with Iran, it’s clear the Royal Navy would be very much in the front-line with the US Navy. Having hastily axed the UK strike carrier capability (until at least 2020), we would again be reliant on expensively deployed land-based aircraft and US naval airpower. Due to the short-sighted decision not to fit the Type 45s with Tomahawk, we will have only 1 or 2 submarines as launch platforms to attack Iranian land targets such as naval installations, airfields or missile sites.
Type 45 destroyer HMS Daring will arrive in the Gulf in February and will replace HMS Argyll. (part of the routine cycle of RN warships present in the Gulf since 1980). If the Type 45s work as advertised they should have few problems dealing with missile and air attack and should be able to provide area defence for a large group of ships. The Type 23 frigates with upgraded SeaWolf missiles should also be effective against missile attack but they can really only defend themselves or another ship in very close company. RN presence in the Gulf is significant but inadequate to make much difference without international support. Simple lack of numbers is the problem – just with 1 Destroyer or Frigate, 1 Submarine, 4 Mine hunters & 3 RFAs. Of course the RN could send more ships but there are precious few available.
The biggest threat to RN surface ships and merchant vessels is probably from Iran’s midget submarines which would be incredibly hard to detect in the warm shallow waters of the Gulf that cause problems for both passive and active sonars. Swarm attacks by multiple small craft or suicide boats may also be hard to counter and there is no navy in the world that has significant experience of dealing with this. At least 13 oil or gas tankers per day would require escort through the Straits, and even in convoys they it will require a lot of capable surface escorts.
Modern mines are also a serious threat but the RN’s small mine-hunting force is probably the best in the world and has extensive experience operating the in Gulf, dealing with many mines in the aftermath of the first Gulf war. The RN has been gathering very accurate seabed surveys over that last decade which are very helpful in mine warfare.
2010 Defence cuts, unwise then, frightening now
While this government justifies its defence cuts with the dogma “our most important strategic aim in to maintain our triple-A credit rating by cutting the deficit” they may like to consider the state of our strategic interests around the world. As discussed above, a naval conflict with Iran in the Gulf is quite possible this year. Despite the vague intention to leave Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban seems far from defeated (43 UK troops killed in 2011). At a time when the UK has wisely begun to distance itself from the basket-case that is the European Union, the US has announced it will be more focused on the Pacific and rightly expects European nations to do more to defend themselves. Argentina is becoming more belligerent over the Falklands which David Cameron has promised to vigorously defend. It is possible that international intervention in Syria may become necessary in order to protect the population from it’s increasingly violent government. The RN is committed to providing a significant contribution to security for the Olympics in London this summer. It is time for the government to take bold, possibly unpopular decisions and get to grips with defence funding & procurement and re-build the Royal Navy for the safety and security of the nation.
- MoD confirm the Type 45 destroyer will join British presence in the region (Daily Mail)
- Britain threatens military action with Iran (Telegraph)
- Captain says ‘we’re ready for anything’ as HMS Daring heads for Gulf (Portsmouth News)
- Warning over the size of the Royal Navy (Portsmouth News)
- 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
- The Type 26 Frigate – Key to the RN’s future surface fleet
- Say no the closure of England’s last complex warship builder