2013 was another busy year for the Royal Navy diligently serving UK interests around the world with its usual can-do attitude, despite its over-stretched resources. Notable maritime security successes include a dramatic reduction in Piracy around Somalia and significant drug-busts involving HMS Lancaster in the Caribbean. The annual deployment of the “Response Force Task Group” (RFTG) on the exercise “Cougar 13” again proved its worth, not only as a great training exercise but by having RN assets deployed and able to respond to events. The RFTG was on standby for action in Syria, had David Cameron got his way and pursued a military option for intervention in this vile civil war. Fortunately sense prevailed and the UK has not become embroiled. In the end the RN’s main contribution was HMS Dragon returning early from her Gulf deployment to bolster the air defences of Cyprus in case of Syrian attacks. An RN warship will be escorting cargo ships carrying decomissioned Syrian chemical weapons that will be destroyed at UK facilities next year. The Cougar group continued as planned into the Persian Gulf making the largest RN presence there for sometime. The Gulf look set to become increasingly a ‘centre of gravity’ for UK forces in future.
The tensions with Spain over Gibraltar have been further ratcheted up this year with more frequent and serious incursions into Gibraltar’s waters. The two boats of the RN Gibraltar squadron have been at full stretch, walking a dangerous diplomatic tightrope at times. This lingering issue looks likely to fester and there are increasing calls for a more heavyweight and long-term RN presence around Gib.
The design of the Type 26 frigate is reaching maturity and orders for some long-lead items were placed this year. The Trident submarine replacement programme is well on track with further contacts placed. Every contract will make it harder to cancel this vital project, should the political winds change. The last Type 42 destroyer, HMS Edinburgh decommissioned this year, marking the end of an era. A heavy burden now falls on the 6 Type 45s that replaced them and the final ship, HMS Duncan, commissioned this year. Lets hope the Type 45s prove to be mechanically reliable and able to maintain the high operational tempo that will be required.
As predicted, the Government casually allowed BAE Systems to shut their Portsmouth ship building yard. This is both a political fudge and strategic folly which the Royal Navy will suffer from and the nation may well regret. There does seem hope the yard may survive in another form and we will be observing and commenting on this next year. Part of the closure is tied up with the looming spectre of Scottish Independence referendum (in Sept 2014). Should Scotland decide to break away from the UK, the Royal Navy will probably be the single British institution to suffer the most. Independence is a grave threat to the RN and security for the whole UK and we hope it is avoided at all costs.
‘Operation Patwin’ saw the Royal Navy respond rapidly to the crisis in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. HMS Daring happened to be in the Far East on a rare RN deployment to the area and was quickly on the scene to help. HMS Illustrious made a 10-day dash from the Horn of Africa and her helicopters proved very useful in the aid effort. Both ships will be amongst the 20 naval vessels away from the UK over the holiday season, 6 of which will be at sea on Christmas Day. Our best wishes go to the approximately 3,400 sailors and marines on duty somewhere in the world this Christmas.
2014 and hopes for SDSR 2015
The decommissioning of HMS Illustrious in 2014 will mark the beginning of a particularly dark period for the RN in terms of frontline strength, with no new warships due to join the fleet until HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2018. There also follow several years of trails and work up before she is fully operational. The RFA fleet will also shrink even further before the first of the new ‘MARS’ tankers arrive in 2016. While it is lean times for now, the defence review (SDSR) due in 2015 may offer some hope that things may get a little better. With a small improvement in the economic situation, the MoD budget “under control” and the costs of the Afghanistan operations fading, there will be no excuses for further cuts and a strong case for addressing some of the many serious gaps in UK defence. A realistic and affordable wish list for the Royal Navy could look something like this
- The retention of both aircraft carriers – Reversing the ludicrous decision to sell or mothball HMS Prince of Wales must be top of the list. This will only cost around £70M per year and would make the carrier project far more credible and flexible. As the French have discovered, having a single carrier leaves you gambling it will be available when needed.
- RN manpower will need to be increased, at least by a small amount, if both Carriers are retained. Furthermore the carriers planned complement is an extremely lean 679. It is likely that experience will show the ships company will need to be increased to operate effectively and safely for extended periods. Of course having made 5,000 RN people redundant in 2010, it is slightly embarrassing for this government to have to now address the problems that has caused.
- The leasing or purchase of a long-range maritime patrol aircraft preferably the Boeing P8 Poseidon. History, if not logic, will probably dictate they will be operated by the RAF but the important thing is the UK restores this capability as a matter of urgency.
- The ‘Crowsnet’ project to provide Airborne Earing Warning radar coverage for the needs to be brought forward so the carriers go to sea with this key capability from day one. We will probably have to accept that this will be based on the Merlin helicopter (ideally adapted Mk1 airframes currently in storage) as the affordable option. A solution based on the V-22 Osprey would be more capable but far more expensive and Hawkeye is of course not possible.
- Fitting of Tomahawk land attack missile (TLAM) to the Type 45s and increasing both submarine and ship-launched stocks of this missile. Tomahawk should have been fitted to the Type 45s from the start but retrofitting it is a matter of urgency for this most critical of all UK weapons. Only RN submarines can fire TLAM at present and the commitment to keep one East of Suez puts huge pressure on the tiny submarine force. In time we expect to see the Type 45 and the Type 26 carrying TLAM and providing great flexibility and a very useful deterrent capability.
- Fitting of Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) to the Type 45s, Type 26s and the carriers. This electronic sharing of data between ships would help mitigate for the RN’s lack of hulls, increase effectiveness of naval task groups and make operations with our key ally, the US Navy much easier.
- Start work on MHPC project to replace minehunters and survey ships and commit to funding and in service dates. This project, if imaginative and properly managed (famous last words) could be very affordable by using modular systems and reliant on long range UUVs for mine hunting and disposal.
- Aviation training ship with an excellent medical facility, RFA Argus needs replacing – this could be done cheaply, possibly with another merchant ship conversion. We would also like a dedicated hospital ship paid for from the Overseas Development budget mainly for humanitarian missions but available to support military operations.
- The order for 3 new OPVs to be built in Glasgow seems mainly to be a political decision to keep the Scottish yards in work between the carriers and the Type 26. Obviously any new ships are good news but they will have little impact on RN strength if they are just replacements for the existing 3 River class OPVs used for UK territorial waters patrols. The relatively new River class should be retained and the 3 new OPVs could then provide a valuable addition to the RN surface fleet and could be deployed overseas.
- A ‘big ticket’ item which we assume is already at least in the MoD’s long-term plan is the Type 26 frigate. We demand a cast-iron commitment to build at least 13 Frigates. Ordering them in just 1 or 2 batches would help keep costs down, allow the RN and industry to plan and give the project credibility which may encourage export orders.
- Finally on the list would be development of a long-term coherent foreign policy and defence strategy, ideally with cross-party support and stating what our forces will be expected to do and most importantly, what they will not be expected to do. From that could be developed a coherent industrial strategy … but maybe to desire such common sense from our politicians is to depart from what is realistic to the realms of fantasy…
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)
- Farewell HMS Illustrious good & faithful servant
- Carrier countdown (Part 2): Their point, purpose and power
- Carrier countdown (Part 1): Debunking the hype, mis-information & nonsense
- Outlook on current ‘hot topics’ for the Royal Navy.
- 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