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 F35 “Joint Strike Fighter” which will fly from RN’s aircraft carriers has proved to be a hugely controversial aircraft. The switch from F35B variant to the F35C and back to F35B has already been covered in much detail but here we to look at the aircraft itself. The UK is now firmly committed to the vertical take-off F35B and it will eventually fly from Royal Navy aircraft carriers. In broad terms, the nay-sayers complain it is too expensive, over-complex, plagued with problems and is a mediocre airframe, while the proponents say the problems will be solved and it’s a quantum leap in capability, particularly in cockpit design, sensors and networking. Perhaps they are both right.
No going back
There are a few voices still valiantly calling for a return to a ‘proper carrier’ with Cats, Traps and F35C (or even abandoning F35 in favour of much cheaper F-18 Super Hornets). There is no question that an investment in 2 carriers with EMALS catapults and traps together with a fully balanced RN air group would have served future UK interests far better than the political and inter-service fudge we are now confronted with. However the commercial interest of BAE, the related employment and political aspects together with the self-interested agenda of the RAF mean there is absolutely zero chance of re-visiting this debate within the MoD. In addition, against a backdrop of austerity and spineless government considering yet further cuts to the defence budget, there is simply not the financial flexibility. Phillip Hammond is committed to a short-term book balancing act which saves the upfront cost of fitting cats & traps to the carriers while neatly deferring the greater cost (and lesser capability) of purchasing and maintaining the F35B as a future problem for one of his successors. We are locked into F35B and that is that.
From the perspective of many Western governments, the JSF is a project that simply cannot be allowed to fail. The JSF is scheduled to replace a whole raft of 3rd and 4th generation aircraft serving in Western airforces and navies, without it there will be a yawning gap in defences that can only be plugged for so long by ageing airframes. At the start the JSF project seemed to offer great savings and efficiencies by producing a single aircraft (in 3 variants) to replace many types of aircraft in service world wide. However by setting very ambitious specifications and trying to meet such a variety of needs, the world’s largest defence project quickly ran into serious problems. Cost inflation and development issues are very common in complex military programmes but the scale and eye-watering costs have brought many unwelcome headlines. Unfortunately as the cost has risen the number of planes on order inevitably has declined, further adding to the unit cost. Australia is nervous about the programme and has ordered Super Hornets as a sensible stop gap and there is also very hot debate in Canada about whether it will buy F35. In a time of economic crisis and defence cuts, a wildly expensive aircraft project is the last thing we all need. From an industrial perspective, the JSF is keeping many hard-pressed Americans in employment. In the UK the project is also estimated to be worth at least £2 Billion to the economy. With the full might of the US military-industrial complex behind it and so much dependent upon it, the F35 is going into service, whatever the final cost and whatever its failings, indeed the US Marine Corps expects to have operational aircraft by 2015. There remains the spectre of US sequestration which would impose heavy automatic cuts on the US defence budget. Although F35 will undoubtedly survive, the F35B variant for the USMC is a possible target for these emergency cuts. In the event that the F35B was axed by the US, the UK government would be in a very embarrassing position which could require another u-turn back to F35C or even the death of the carrier project.
Cost and Risk
One of the many criticisms of the project is the spiralling unit cost of the planes and that no one will give a final exact price. Current estimates are around $220 Million (£143M) ‘fly-away’ cost for each plane. (Incidentally an F35 is also estimated to cost around $32,000 per hour to fly, although there are many variables that will affect this figure in UK service.) Just consider that figure £143 Million. Modern jets have always been expensive but this is a whole new paradigm. A single fighter/strike aircraft that costs as much as a small warship, a couple of hospitals… etc, A plane so precious and costly that it cannot be unduly risked? Although modern simulators will be able to prepare new pilots to a very high standard before they take the controls of a real plane, sooner or later they will have to fly real training sorties, and take the risks that accompany any flight in a fast jet. Even masters of aviation, the RAF have managed on average to lose at least one Tornado through accidents each year since it came into service. Sooner or later F35s will have very expensive training accidents, it is a fact of military flying and most definitely a fact of carrier aviation. The cost will severely limit the number of planes we can buy and the training hours available to pilots. An older pilot’s view of this situation is that while an aircraft maybe superb and the simulators can help, there is no absolutely substitute for experience & realistic training. The counter to this argument is that in an era of unmanned aircraft the F35 is so sophisticated, and the flying controls so simple, that even a very average pilot flying and F35 will still have the edge. Is this an over-reliance on technology or has technology developed so far that the human is becoming semi-redundant? And what effects will the value of these planes have in combat? Will we have to decline critical missions due to the unacceptable economic impact of the loss of an aircraft? Weighing up risks has always been a big part of military operations but by placing so many eggs in one basket we further narrow the commanders options. The loss of one or more £143M aircraft could be such a serious a strategic loss that it may outweigh any tactical gain. The attraction of purchasing 2 or 3 times the number of ‘cheaper’ F-18 Super Hornets which are more dispensable, can be risked and deploy in greater numbers while flown by pilots with more training hours is obvious. Currently the UK has only actually purchased 3 F35Bs and the MoD remains vague about the number the UK will order. A figure of 48 has been mentioned but as yet there is no firm commitment to what would be an approx £7Billion purchase. In addition there will be the costs of training, spares, support infrastructure and integration of various UK air-launched weapon systems.
The F35B has little in common with its predecessor the Harrier other than its ability to take off and land vertically. This allows it to land in very small spaces and take off over short distances thus saving the complexity of equipment for launch and recovery of a conventional aircraft carrier. There is some additional operational flexibility that allows VSTOL aircraft to land on small ships or without a runway on improvised landing pads. Whether these incredibly expensive and fairly delicate aircraft will be used for very close-support missions in rough and ready fields seems unlikely but maybe one day it will come in handy. In theory the RN could use smaller carriers, HMS Ocean or even converted merchant ships as temporary homes for the F35Bs. This flexibility is useful but must be set against the considerable disadvantages of the VSTOL variant. The engine and jetpipe require many more moving parts and is more complex, costly and will require more maintenance. This engine is also larger and heavier, reducing weapons payload and operating range. Although an advance on the Harrier the reduced range is an issue especially as without Cats and Traps the carrier can’t operate dedicated air-air refuelling tankers. There have been laughable claims that land-based RAF or allied tankers can always be on hand to provide support when required. Not only is this a mis-understanding of independent carrier operations, but flies in the face of historical precedents where naval operations dependent on land-based air support ended in disaster. When trying to find a small carrier in a very large ocean every drop of fuel becomes important. While VSTOL offers a kind of operating flexibility on one hand, we have sacrificed range and the reach of the carrier’s power while adding to the cost and maintenance headaches.
The F35 is a “stealth” aircraft – this does not mean it is completely invisible to radar, rather at some angles it is virtually undetectable by radar. Technically it is “Very Low Observable” but the KPIs for stealth have been revised downwards as the aircraft has developed. Obviously being hard to spot on radar is a big advantage either when fighting other aircraft or attacking defended targets. However it comes at great cost, requiring expensive, hard-to-repair composite materials for the outer surfaces and compromises on the size and shape. To maximise stealth all the weapons must be stored internally in small bays which both complicates launching and reduces payload. Stealth is undoubtedly a big contributor to the vast cost of the F35 but as yet it is hard to really analyse whether it is worth it. It also seems likely that radar systems will also evolve over the lifetime of the aircraft reducing its effectiveness.
In Part 2 we look at the roles of the F35
- F35B images and videos – Pinterest board
- How the U.S. and Its Allies Got Stuck with the World’s Worst New Warplane
- Royal Navy pilot in F35 jump jet flight – British Forces News (bfbs.com)
- Philip Hammond Unsure About F-35 Order (news.sky.com)
- The spectre of Scottish independence – implications for the Royal Navy
- HMS Alliance to be re-commissioned into active service with the Royal Navy
- 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