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)
Naval conflict in the Gulf?
In a recent speech in Washington, Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond stated that any attempt to block a key trade route in the Gulf will be met with military force from the Royal Navy. “Our joint naval presence in the Arabian Gulf, something our regional partners appreciate, is key to keeping the Strait of Hormuz open for international trade.” Of course protection of trade is the fundamental role of the Royal Navy, but have successive governments so hollowed out the navy it is now unable to fulfil that role?
Like in most conflicts, war with Iran will mean everyone loses in some way. Iran’s fragile economy would be destroyed and because it would have no allies, would ultimately suffer military defeat. Make no mistake, the Iranians have the ability to sink ships and kill sailors. However it would be madness for them to block the Strait of Hormuz through which 20% of the world’s oil passes. The US and UK would respond and have support across the region and even from China which is now the biggest customer of oil passing through the Strait. Oil prices would rocket, further damaging the fragile world economy and the UK could suffer gas shortages as we are heavily reliant on supplies of Liquid Natural Gas from the Middle East. And of course the UK can ill-afford another conflict, even the ‘relatively simple’ Libya campaign may have cost the UK around £1.75 Billion. War with Iran could be much more dangerous and costly.
Unfortunately logic may not be enough to prevent the unstable and sometimes crazed Iranian regime lurching to war. Further provoked by Israeli assassinations of key nuclear scientists, the mad mullahs and extreme elements may be gaining the upper hand, even Iranian students are marching to “Give war a chance”.
So where are the Royal Navy’s big-hitters?
As the Mr Hammond contemplates the appalling prospect of war with Iran, it’s clear the Royal Navy would be very much in the front-line with the US Navy. Having hastily axed the UK strike carrier capability (until at least 2020), we would again be reliant on expensively deployed land-based aircraft and US naval airpower. Due to the short-sighted decision not to fit the Type 45s with Tomahawk, we will have only 1 or 2 submarines as launch platforms to attack Iranian land targets such as naval installations, airfields or missile sites.
Type 45 destroyer HMS Daring will arrive in the Gulf in February and will replace HMS Argyll. (part of the routine cycle of RN warships present in the Gulf since 1980). If the Type 45s work as advertised they should have few problems dealing with missile and air attack and should be able to provide area defence for a large group of ships. The Type 23 frigates with upgraded SeaWolf missiles should also be effective against missile attack but they can really only defend themselves or another ship in very close company. RN presence in the Gulf is significant but inadequate to make much difference without international support. Simple lack of numbers is the problem – just with 1 Destroyer or Frigate, 1 Submarine, 4 Mine hunters & 3 RFAs. Of course the RN could send more ships but there are precious few available.
The biggest threat to RN surface ships and merchant vessels is probably from Iran’s midget submarines which would be incredibly hard to detect in the warm shallow waters of the Gulf that cause problems for both passive and active sonars. Swarm attacks by multiple small craft or suicide boats may also be hard to counter and there is no navy in the world that has significant experience of dealing with this. At least 13 oil or gas tankers per day would require escort through the Straits, and even in convoys they it will require a lot of capable surface escorts.
Modern mines are also a serious threat but the RN’s small mine-hunting force is probably the best in the world and has extensive experience operating the in Gulf, dealing with many mines in the aftermath of the first Gulf war. The RN has been gathering very accurate seabed surveys over that last decade which are very helpful in mine warfare.
2010 Defence cuts, unwise then, frightening now
While this government justifies its defence cuts with the dogma “our most important strategic aim in to maintain our triple-A credit rating by cutting the deficit” they may like to consider the state of our strategic interests around the world. As discussed above, a naval conflict with Iran in the Gulf is quite possible this year. Despite the vague intention to leave Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban seems far from defeated (43 UK troops killed in 2011). At a time when the UK has wisely begun to distance itself from the basket-case that is the European Union, the US has announced it will be more focused on the Pacific and rightly expects European nations to do more to defend themselves. Argentina is becoming more belligerent over the Falklands which David Cameron has promised to vigorously defend. It is possible that international intervention in Syria may become necessary in order to protect the population from it’s increasingly violent government. The RN is committed to providing a significant contribution to security for the Olympics in London this summer. It is time for the government to take bold, possibly unpopular decisions and get to grips with defence funding & procurement and re-build the Royal Navy for the safety and security of the nation.
- MoD confirm the Type 45 destroyer will join British presence in the region (Daily Mail)
- Britain threatens military action with Iran (Telegraph)
- Captain says ‘we’re ready for anything’ as HMS Daring heads for Gulf (Portsmouth News)
- Warning over the size of the Royal Navy (Portsmouth News)
- Maritime Media Awards 2013: Securing the Seaways
- Mercy mission to the Philippines – in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy
- We will remember them – Remembrance 2013
- A story that needs telling – Royal Navy Submarines in the Cold War
- 10 good reasons UK should NOT take military action in Syria
- Gibraltar and the Royal Navy
- F35B in Focus (PART 3) Ownership and operation