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 (This may have been the right choice at the time but the lingering outdated influence of that continental mindset remains).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.
A naval officer serving with the task force
- Royal Navy pilot in F35 jump jet flight – British Forces News (bfbs.com)
- Statement to Parliament on orders for the F35B ( TheyWorkForYou.com)
- CVF, the NAO and a lot of missing capability (Sir Humphrey)
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 to 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. Although all the world’s best fighters have BVR capabilities, air combat may not always develop that way – why else do other aircraft designers put so much effort into building agile planes? 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 reliably 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 anti-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 we 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)
- The case for building a British hospital ship
- Happy 350th birthday Royal Marines, but mind the gap
- Review: the Royal Navy 2013 – 2015
- Maritime Media Awards 2013: Securing the Seaways
- Mercy mission to the Philippines – in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy
- We will remember them – Remembrance 2013
- A story that needs telling – Royal Navy Submarines in the Cold War