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)
Photo: Defence Images via flickr
In 1982 foolish cuts to the Royal Navy by a Conservative government were seen as a green light by the Argentines to invade the Falklands. 2012 is the 30th anniversary of a short but bloody war that had a big impact on British history. Fundamentally it was a triumph for the Royal Navy and the lessons from the conflict profoundly influenced the shape of the RN for the following 20 years.
In the last 10 years many defence pundits and journalists have written endless articles asking “Is the UK capable of re-fighting another Falklands War?” This is a rather tired debate but in light of recent Argentine belligerence and the 2010 defence cuts it is an issue worthy of re-consideration and which raises 2 fundamental questions. (1) Are the Falklands properly defended and (2) could they be recovered if invaded?
Defence is possible,
Recovery is not
The RN has maintained at least 1 warship and 1 RFA in the South Atlantic (in addition to a permanent Falklands patrol ship HMS Clyde and Antarctic patrol ship HMS Protector) ever since 1982 and they usually rotate every 6 months. This single warship is supposed to cover this vast area that includes not just the Falklands, but South Georgia and West Africa. The main permanent defence for the islands supposedly rests with just 4 Typhoon fighters based at RAF Mount Pleasant. Their main strength would be intercepting invading aircraft but 4 aircraft is a tiny number to defend an area the size of Wales. Essentially there is a bare minimum of defensive assets around the islands but defending Mount Pleasant and the rapid arrival of reinforcements would be the key to defence of the Islands, in the unlikely event of attempted invasion.
Should Argentina manage to invade and take Mount Pleasant, there is no hope the UK could mount a recovery operation. In reality the UK gave up any hope of being able to mount an independent Falklands ’82-type operation when Tony Blair’s government decommissioned the Sea Harrier FRS2. The Sea Harrier was a fighter aircraft, critical to the air defence of the fleet and it was the handful of Sea Harriers made the 1982 victory just possible. The axing of HMS Ark Royal and her GR9 Harriers in 2010 was just the final nail in the coffin. The GR9s were essentially ground attack aircraft with only limited air defence capability. The shrunken Royal Navy, lack of RFAs and merchant ships and an Army and Royal Marines committed in Afghanistan mean the cupboard is bare. The long-term decline in the RN can be illustrated in simple numbers – in 1982 the RN possessed about 90 major warships, currently there are around 35 and crucially no fixed wing aircraft carrier (until 2020 at least!).
Are we ‘militarising’ the Falklands?
Even if it were true that the UK is ‘militarising’ the Falklands as Argentina recently claimed in the UN, there would be every justification given President Kirchner’s recent threats. The Argentines have also made much of HRH Prince William’s arrival in the Falklands saying it’s “provocative” even labelling him a “Conquistador”! He could hardly be less belligerent, flying a bright yellow helicopter and rescuing people. On closer inspection it’s clear the defences of the islands have changed little in the last decade. In fact Britain is busy ‘de-militarising’ itself and although the defensive forces around the Falklands remain much the same, the naval forces required to reinforce them in the event of a conflict are much-diminished.
The deployment of HMS Dauntless to the South Atlantic in April was leaked to the press prematurely on January 31st (Although long-planned and the ship’s company knew before Christmas, the RN had not planned to make the announcement until much closer to sailing) The Argentines seem to think HMS Dauntless’ deployment is some kind of deliberate escalation. In fact her programme is quite routine and she is simply replacing HMS Montrose on the Atlantic Patrol Task South (APTS). HMS Dauntless is a more powerful ship than the ship she replaces on station but the new Type 45s were always destined to become part of the regular cycle of RN warships deployed (HMS Daring left for the Gulf in January relieving a Type 23 frigate). The media coverage of this diplomatic row is set to make HMS Dauntless Britain’s most famous warship, before she has even sailed from the UK on her maiden deployment. The arrival of Dauntless will strengthen the radar surveillance, anti-aircraft and anti-missile defences around the islands but it could also be argued that the departure of HMS Montrose weakens anti-submarine defences. Argentine claims that naval power around the islands has been “quadrupled” are as ridiculous as the over-blown claims that Dauntless could “shoot down the entire Argentine airforce” and putting too much reliance on a single new and untested warship is very unwise as history has shown.
In an a break from the usual policy of not commenting on RN submarine operations, it has been confirmed that a submarine has been despatched to the South Atlantic. (Either HMS Tireless or HMS Turbulent). Again this is fairly routine as there have been RN submarines in the South Atlantic since 1982 although the shocking decline in RN submarine numbers in the last 5 years mean that a continuous presence has not been possible. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, the permanent presence of a submarine could only be maintained in future by abandoning the commitment to have one on station in the Indian Ocean. Back in 1977, the RN’s first nuclear submarine HMS Dreadnought was dispatched to the Falklands (operation Journeyman) in response to Argentine threats and her presence prevented any further aggression at the time. Argentine suggestions that an RN Trident submarine is in the South Atlantic with nuclear weapons targeted at South America is utter hysteria. The whereabouts of the ballistic missile subs are a closely guarded secret but even if there was one in the South Atlantic, the UK will NEVER use a nuclear weapons first. They are a deterrent aginst other nations with nuclear weapons and are of absolutely no relevance or concern to Argentina, whatever happens in the Falklands.
A second Falklands war?
The reality is that Argentina is not (yet) equipped to attack the Falklands even if it has the political will. However with a planned increase in defence spending of 50%, development of cruise missiles and even wildly optimistic talk of developing its own nuclear submarines, its military may start to present a very credible threat in the next 5-10 years. While the 1982 Falklands conflict was described as “2 bald men fighting over a comb” the situation has changed with the discovery of oil and the “bald men” could be fighting not just over a moral principle, but enough money to make a dent in their respective large national debts. History has shown that the most effective response to the diplomatic crisis is to maintain the peace through strong deterrence.
- Argentine foreign minister complains of ’4-fold increase’ in UK military presence in South Atlantic (bbc.co.uk)
- Royal Navy to send HMS Dauntless to Falkland Islands (Telegraph)
- HMS Dauntless to deploy to the South Atlantic (Daly History Blog)
- Argentinians label Prince William ‘The Conqueror’ over his posting to the … – Daily Mail (dailymail.co.uk)
- Argentina has no more claim to the Falklands than Canada does to Alaska (Merco Press)
- 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
- Say no the closure of England’s last complex warship builder