Today in the much-anticipated new episode of the hilarious black comedy “Carry on Carrier” the government announces it shall reverse its decision to fit at least one aircraft carrier with catapults (EMALS) and angled decks for launching conventional aircraft and revert to the original plan to purchase vertical take-off and landing F35B aircraft.
Yes David, all around the world they are laughing at us.
While the media is focussed on the political embarrassment of David Cameron’s ‘U-Turn” on this issue, no one is paying much attention to the damage to the capabilities of the carriers, supposed cornerstone of UK defence policy. Despite the hysteria in political circles when someone changes their mind, there is nothing wrong with making U-turns, it is wise to admit ones mistake and seek to correct it before compounding the error. However this U-turn is away from common sense makes us the laughing-stock of the world. The hasty 2010 Defence Review was a massive series of errors with one good decision – the change to F35C and cats and traps for the carriers. This government’s track record on defence can now stand completely ‘unblemished’ by any good decisions, consistent solid 100% cock-up. This is a strategic mistake and a failure of leadership. David Cameron seems personally far more excited about the return of some RAF Spitfires – WWII relics, from Burma than ensuring that the future Royal Navy is equipped with the best aircraft to serve the nation’s interests.
The F35B is really an advanced Harrier replacement and represents a lost opportunity to have fully capable strike carrier – the carrier programme is now seen as a monumental fiasco, damaging to the RN’s reputation and embarrassing to the UK. This is no longer a ‘deep strike capability’, more close support for an amphibious landing and fighter cover for the fleet. Better than nothing but a massive unnecessary come-down from what could have been. Why build very large strike carriers when they can’t operate true strike aircraft and a fully balanced airgroup?
Why the U-turn?
Temporary ‘book-balancing’ is the primary driving force behind this decision. By saving the (disputed) upfront cost of fitting EMALS to the carriers and loading the extra costs of operating F35B onto future governments, Phillip Hammond and the Treasury can make savings now, claim to have reduced the deficit and make the MoD’s finances look a bit tidier. However the financial arguments don’t add up in the long term. Not only will the RN have a less capable aircraft, but the more complex F35B is at least £20million more expensive per aircraft and costs 25% more to maintain than the F35C. Assuming the RN gets 50 F35Bs (Being wildly optimistic) that’s and extra £1Billion in purchase cost plus a much larger on-going maintenance and fuel bill throughout the 30 or so years the planes are in service. Over time this will exceed the supposed cost of fitting EMALS to both ships.
We can only speculate but it would seem that instead of the respecting the views of the naval staff, academics, historians & former officers, government is listening to ‘special advisers’ and a toxic mix of land-based airpower and aerospace industry lobbyists. The First Sea Lord is now excluded for the Defence Council which advises on these matters. The only military representative is the Chief of Defence Staff (who is currently an Army General Sir David Richards who is not best qualified to argue case for naval aviation) Of course military advice is probably largely ignored anyway as political concerns about jobs backed by the powerful noise of arms manufacturing always come first.
We are not privy to all that has gone on behind the scenes in this decision but it is plain to see that it is not in the commercial interest of BAE Systems for anything other than F35s to fly from the carriers. Despite the very strong practical & financial case for buying F18 Super Hornets or even French Rafales (at least in interim until F35 proven). Those aircraft are definitely ‘not invented here’ with no fat profits to be had and no attractive British jobs headlines. BAE quoted £1.8 billion to fit EMALS to HMS Prince of Wales. It does not take great expertise to recognise this as suspiciously high (the US Navy has stated the cost of EMALS system is approximately £400m and they are so keen that the UK carriers have them they even promised to underwrite the costs).
Phillip Hammond recently wrote; “The UK is committed to JSF (rather than, for example, F18) because we are partners in the project and, so long as we remain in, UK companies are entitled to a share of approximately 15% of the industrial work of the entire project, likely to comprise some 3,000 jets over a thirty year period – worth many high-quality jobs in our aerospace industry.” Effectively admitting that commercial profits and the employment benefits of the F35 are far more important than what is actually best for UK defence and the Royal Navy. The RN will have to make do with the F35B, however late, insanely expensive and deficient it maybe.
The RAF fear that if F18s or Raflales were purchased this might delay or mean the abandonment of UK F35 purchase. The RAF are now jolly keen on the F-35 because the generation of aircraft beyond them could be un-manned. (This does not go down well with the fast-jet jockeys who want to keep up their giddy aerobatics for as long as possible). The RAF really want their hands on a 5th generation aircraft and see the purchase as a replacement for their crummy Tornadoes. In the decisions about procurement and operation of the carrier aircraft, the views of RAF are irrelevant and should not be required by ministers. In an ideal world it should have been purely a decision for the naval staff.
Further twists and U-turns to come?
The colossal cost, unsolved engineering challenges ahead and delays surrounding the F35 have been highlighted extensively already on this blog and by many commentators elsewhere. There would have been many advantages to having an aircraft carrier with EMALS, most significantly the ability to operate a much wider range of aircraft.
The government is gambling – the carriers are now totally dependent on the successful development of the F35B. There is a very real possibility that the US will cancel the F35B as they will to have to start to address their colossal national debt. If the US Congress fail to agree a new budget soon then there could be “sequestration” in 2013 which will mean automatic widespread cuts to the Pentagon budget with F35B top of the list of expensive programmes ripe for axing. Should the F35B be axed then the UK carriers would be in serious trouble. How much more embarrassing and expensive could be for this or the next government to have to do another U-turn and return to plan to fit EMALS!
This carrier debacle encapsulates Britain’s terrible inability to manage its defence. Our national decline is more about lack of leadership than lack of funds. Phillip Hammonds’ acountancy-driven approach to defence procurement offers a short-term ‘feel good’ factor but is a strategic disaster. We must live within our means but we must define affordable national objectives first and then buy the appropriate equipment. If we are building carriers because we have (wisely) decided we need carrier strike capability (A cornerstone of UK defence policy) then we need true strike aircraft. The defence budget is too small but the more serious problem is the lack of - planning or strategy, too much money allocated to land-based airpower, poor management of big programmes, further undermined by the interests of business.
“Always look on the bright side of life”
- In the words of a Royal Navy officer “at least we still get fast jets at sea”
- HMS Queen Elizabeth may not have to be immediately mothballed on completion and could embark F35Bs as soon as 2018 (if they are not canceled and the development programme delivers on its promises)
- The carriers are at least being built and without cost of EMALS there is a better chance of keeping both carriers
- F35B will hopefully be a purely Fleet Air Arm asset and fully under RN control. (Everything must be done to ensure the RAF do not interfere in the operating and tasking of these aircraft as happened with the “Joint Harrier Farce”)
- STOVL aircraft have additional flexibility as they can operate from small ships and land on rough terrain or restricted landing areas
- There maybe some advantages in air-air combat due to additional maneuverability
- Interoperability with US Marine Corps (although this is far less useful than being interoperable with USN strike carriers)
- A few more British jobs in Bristol are secure making additional vertical thrust engines
- The carriers could last 50 years and if ever a climate of sanity were to return to defence procurement one day the possibility remains they could be upgraded to be true strike carriers.
Despite this setback we remain firmly supportive of the carrier programme and continue to support the embattled Naval staff. As in so many times in the past, the Fleet Air Arm will undoubtedly make a success of the project even if hamstrung by the wrong equipment. The carriers are at least being built and but the battle over the aircraft that fly from them may not yet be over.
- About-turn on new variant of carriers’ fighter plane (Daily Telegraph)
- U-turn over fighter plane choice (BBC Video)
- Reversion to the F-35B would be wrong for Britain. (Sharkeys World)
- F-35 U-Turn is a Huge Mistake (Sharkeys World)
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)
- UK fixed-wing naval aviation in the 2020s – F35B in focus (PART 1)
- 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