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 and has withdrawn from the programme and Canada will surely follow, it has entered something of a cost/death spiral. 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 £150M 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 (coming soon) we will look at the roles of the F35 and its ownership and operation.
- F35B images and videos – Pinterest board
- Royal Navy pilot in F35 jump jet flight – British Forces News (bfbs.com)
- Philip Hammond Unsure About F-35 Order (news.sky.com)
- Lockheed Martin F-35s Approved by House Spending Panel (nosint.blogspot.com)
Prevarication leaves another crucial ‘capability gap’
Key assets for the Royal Navy are it’s Airborne Early Warning helicopters, i.e. search radar-equipped helicopters that can give the fleet much greater coverage than ship-based radar limited by the curvature of the earth. During the Falklands war this lack of coverage left the fleet in fear of Exocet missile and aircraft attack, with just seconds to react and it cost ships and lives. In a classic piece of British ingenuity the problem was solved by fitting a radar to a Sea King helicopter in just a few weeks. The much-loved, but now knackered Sea King helicopters will have to be retired by 2016. Despite being fully aware of this, the MoD project “Crowsnest” to develop a replacement has only just begun assessment phase. Almost certainly the solution will be to take some of the precious few (30) anti-submarine Merlin Mk2s currently in RN service and add radar in a very similar way to the current solution. Crowsnest is not expected to deliver until 2022, thus leaving the RN carrier(s) at sea without vital radar coverage for at last 4 years. Since 1982 the AEW helicopter has seen its role expanded and they have proved useful in Afghanistan and other non-maritime environments where their tracking and surveillance capability provides vital intelligence on the ground. It is the complacency & penny-pinching of successive governments that have, yet again, created a situation where the RN will have a another very significant ‘capability gap‘. Crowsnest’s lack of urgency is typical of so many MoD-managed programs and it is unclear why something that was solved in a few weeks in 1982 will take up to 10 years in the 21st century!
RAF plans to royally screw up the aircraft carrier project remain on track
Having succeeded in “advising” government to ditch catapults & traps for the aircraft carriers so the range of aircraft they carry will be much diminished, the RAF recently proposed the RN’s new 65,000 ton carriers should only “routinely embark 6 aircraft”. Whoever made that proposal is either an idiot or deliberately trying to sabotage the carrier project. The defence secretary later announced that he expects 12 aircraft to be routinely embarked, still a very silly number for a large carrier designed to operate at least 36 aircraft. As we have continually highlighted, the RAF now see the F35B as a replacement for their Tornado aircraft when in fact the F35B is really the successor the Sea Harrier and Harrier GR9. The F35B has “60% RAF ownership” and will probably be based at RAF Marham. It is not hard to imagine the RN will continually struggle to be allowed to operate the aircraft carriers main armament if the RAF have other plans. It is a crazy situation to build carriers then cripple them with bizarre aircraft operating arrangements. The F35B should be allocated to the Fleet Air Arm who fully understand what is involved in carrier aviation. If the RAF must maintain their questionable ‘deep strike’ role then they should lobby government to buy the F35A. A recommended read is the excellent article in the December issue of Warship International Fleet Review magazine by Commodore Steve Jermy who brilliantly explains the complexities of naval aviation and why in every carrier-equipped nation in the world (except the UK), the Navy owns and operates its aircraft.
Astute class subs – serious problems but still world-beaters?
Recently The Guardian gleefully reported on the many problems of the Astute submarine project. Late and over-budget, the Astute program can indeed find a place in the MoD’s Top 10 All-Time Greatest Procurement Fiascos. That said, there are now 2 boats in the water and the Astute class is beginning to deliver on the huge potential it always promised. These boats will be a great asset to the nation and the Royal Navy and ultimately are worth the cost and unfavorable media coverage. Nuclear submarine construction is one of the most demanding engineering challenges known to man and it is unsurprising that the first of class has encountered problems. We can be confident that the problems are slowly being solved and Astute is amongst the quietest subs ever built, offers many new capabilities and has already impressed when tested against the latest US Virginia-class boat. The main concern is possibly with propulsion and a mis-match between her very powerful reactor and the drive train. However this kind of detail must remain highly classified and it’s impossible to speculate in an informed way.
The looming threat of Scottish independence
With referendum on Scottish Independence looming in 2014, the horrible possibility exists that the RN’s key submarine base at Faslane and primary warship builder in Glasgow will suddenly be in a ‘foreign country’. Although opinion polls seem to suggest that the majority of Scots will see sense and reject the idea, it would seem wise for the MoD to start making contingency plans. Apparently the ‘do nothing and hope it goes away’ approach is being applied by the MoD. (although one would hope the RN is at least looking at its options behind closed doors) In fact, the plan to transfer the remaining Trafalgar class subs from Devonport to Faslane is still going ahead. In the calamitous event of Scottish Independence, the nuclear deterrent would be in serious problems, although basing the entire submarine fleet in Devonport is a realistic possibility, the vast cost of replicating the weapons handling facility at Coulport would be a major obstacle and could even spell the end of the UK nuclear deterrent. There are lots of other nightmare issues to consider such as which defence assets and personnel would Scotland demand? Would the RN still build is warships in Scotland and are there any affordable alternatives? Franky independence would be an exercise in silly local pride, there is enough division and splintering in this world and we are better off and stronger together. Let’s pray the Scots vote no to what would be an disaster for them, the Royal Navy and everyone in the UK.
Portsmouth shipbuilding yard saga lurches towards disaster
We have been warning and campaigning against the closure of BAE Systems shipyard in Portsmouth for several months. All indications are that BAE seem set to announce the yard will close very soon. Due to a total lack of coherent industrial strategy on the part of this government and its predecessor, when the aircraft carrier work is complete the yard will have no work (at least for several years until the leisurely-paced Type 26 frigate programme starts). The yard is ideally suited to building small, relatively cheap Offshore Patrol Vessels which the RN really needs. Instead of placing an order for a couple of OPVs to fill the gap in work, government complacency and dogma dictates they will let the yard close. Ministers talk of there being “no business case” to keep the yard open – of course there is no business case if their main customer won’t even place a small order! Besides, the importance of an island nation’s ability to build warships goes beyond short-term business arguments. This pathetic laissez-faire approach to vital national strategic assets is indefensible and hard to understand, given the relatively small mount of money needed to keep it afloat. The financial argument does not even add up as it will actually cost more to close the yard than the cost of a couple of small ships!
Economic problems – more defence cuts on the way?
With the UK economy showing no signs of recovery and public borrowing not significantly reduced, apparently the armed forces may face another round of cuts. Defence has been cut, cut & cut again even in “good times” under Blair & Brown and there is absolutely nothing left to cut without really endangering UK security. Most politicians pay lip service to the fact that the first duty of Government is to afford protection to its citizens but the reality is that defence is a low priority for them as they have a short-term focus on re-election. Most politicians simply assume there are no votes in defence (apart from dishing out employment-related equipment contracts). It is shabby political cowardice & dereliction of duty on the part of government not to ‘ring fence’ the already inadequate defence budget, like it has with more politically-sensitive budgets such as overseas development, education and health.
Remember Timmy MacColl
Leading Seaman Timmy MacColl failed to return to his ship HMS Westminster after a night out when the ship was docked in Dubai in May this year. Despite exhaustive searches, nothing has been seen or heard of him since. Our thoughts go to his family and children as they face their first Christmas without him. www.bringtimmyhome.co.uk
Some Christmas cheer
Despite all the problems there are many reasons for the RN to remember 2012 with some satisfaction. The failure of G4S to provide sufficient security guards for the Olympics meant the armed forces stepped in and did a brilliant job, the unintended side-effect was a big PR boost for the forces fed by the feel good factor around a highly successful Olympic games. The RN also did a fine job in providing the security cordon around the Olympic sailing events off Dorset. HMS Daring made her debut as the first Type 45 deployed to the Gulf and operated successfully with the US fleet. Despite the ridiculous hysteria about her deployment from Argentina, HMS Dauntless completed a lengthy Atlantic tour although she was only in the vicinity of the Falklands Islands for a few weeks.
The major RN exercise of the year was Exercise Cougar 12 which saw the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) deploy to the Mediterranean. The most notable feature was jointly working with the French Navy. (Our new best friends in a shot-gun wedding of convenience brought on by austerity?) The RFTG concept was proven although rumors the ships could be deployed to the Syrian coast for an evacuation or humanitarian operation proved unfounded. Notable was the absence of any RFA tankers or stores support ships. The RFA is so busy covering important jobs that are really the work of now non-existent warships, that there was not a single one available for this major exercise. On a positive note, 4 new RFA tankers were ordered from South Korea although this rather good news was lost in the hysteria surrounding their construction abroad. The Type 26 Frigate programme reached another encouraging milestone as the latest design was revealed it also seems possible that some foreign orders or collaboration maybe possible which could help keep costs down, however it will be at least 2020 before the first ship is delivered to the RN and the numbers have yet to be decided.
The Royal Marines continue to serve in Afghanistan with 40 Commando currently in theatre. Keep safe and best wishes for 2013 to all RN and RM personnel, particularly those serving overseas and away from family this Christmas.
- 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