The morning after the night before… Making the best of ‘Plan B’

May 11, 2012   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  30 Comments
HMS Queen Elizabeth - configured with for STVOL with F35B

Time to dig out the old mock-ups. HMS Queen Elizabeth with bow ramp and configured with for STVOL with F35B aircraft

Yesterday came the announcement of a very badly kept secret that the new RN carriers would not now be fitted with catapults and would fly F35B STVOL aircraft. It was a complex issue and we disagree with this decision. However the Royal Navy will do what it has always done; make the best of what it has, and maintain a positive ‘can-do’ attitude in the face of setbacks and go on to success. Like the failed battle to save the Harrier, we must accept what has happened and get right on with focussing on ‘plan B’. The Defence Secretary’s statement to Parliament (full video here) yesterday raised some interesting questions about the way forward for the carriers. This is a quick overview of some of those issues.

There is now no excuse not to commission both carriers

Under plans made in the 2010 SDR that still stand, the second carrier HMS Prince of Wales will mothballed and or even sold. It was hinted that this could be changed in the 2015 Review so that both carriers become operational. Hammond even stated that it has been costed at just £60 Million per year in additional running costs for the second carrier. (This is a surprisingly low figure, and this probably does not include maintenance and refit costs). To have a carrier continuously available requires at least 2 (ideally 3) ships otherwise one could be in refit or unready just when needed. For the carriers to be a credible deterrent and a reliable instrument for foreign policy requires 2 ships. Part-time carrier capability leaves us hoping we will get lucky with the timing of events. Hopefully the carriers will never fire a shot in anger but realistically that is wishful thinking and they are likely to be in big demand. RN carriers or amphibious ships have been used on some sort of active operation on average every 2 years since WWII. Hammond showed the total lack of understanding amongst politicians of the need for 2 carriers by admitting the second carrier would have been axed straight away in 2010, had BAE Systems not been canny enough to lock the MoD into an unbreakable contract. Having been denied the better option of catapault-fitted carrier(s) on supposed cost grounds then way is clear for government to ditch the half-baked single carrier option and plan to keep both.

How many F35Bs will the RN get?

The last quoted cost for an F35B from US Department of Defense is a whopping $150 million each. (approx £94million, depending on exchange rate). This cost will probably rise further but as Mr Hammond talked of flying up to 36 F35Bs from the carriers then we must assume the MoD is going to place an order for around 50. Has this £7.5 Billion been budgeted for? (remember this does not include aircrew training and the heavy maintenance costs of a complex STVOL stealth aircraft) Has a significant contingency been set aside to allow for the fact that unit costs may rise even higher? Despite assurances from the US Defense Secretary that all is well with F35B there still remains a chance that the US national debt problems could result in cancellation of F35B. Is there a contingency plan to deal with such a disaster? (EMALS anyone?)

Rebuilding the Fleet Air Arm starts here

Mr Hammond stated the F35s would be “jointly owned by the RAF and Royal Navy”. In the context of the F35B this is ominous. There is every reason for the RN to own and operate the F35Bs as Fleet Air Arm assets. The RAF will have their F35As. When the RN was forced to ditch the Sea Harrier and form the “Joint Force Harrier” with GR9s on an RAF base, they discovered the Harriers got precious little time at sea as RAF took control. The RN must run its own aviation as it understands the unique requirements of carrier operation and fleet air defence. It must not have to rely on the RAF being in the right mood or have to negotiate every time it needs to operate aircraft from the carriers. There is nothing wrong with RAF pilots operating within the FAA and learning naval aviation skills but the aircraft must be under RN control to maximize their potential. Will the planes be based at an RAF station or HMS Heron at Yeovilton?

A balanced airgroup

Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft are almost as vital as the fighters in protecting the fleet as they hugely extend the radar horizon to warn and assess threats before they can get too close. Without catapults the carriers now no longer have the ideal option of launching a long endurance, all weather, fixed-wing aircraft such as the Hawkeye and will need an aircraft that can land vertically. Currently the RN operates the Sea King ASaC7 helicopter in this role but they are aging and will need replacing. There are 2 realistic options. Either a modified Merlin helicopter or an adaption of the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor which offers greater endurance, speed and range than a helicopter. US carriers operate fixed-wing CoD (carrier onboard delivery) transport aircraft. There is a very good case for the RN being equipped with a handful of the highly versatile Chinook helicopters that could be permanently embarked and would be extremely useful in transporting stores, troops and personnel, as well as medevac and RAS roles.

Train them up…

With Harrier pilots and swathes of experienced aircraft maintainers and handlers made redundant when the Harrier was axed, the RN now faces a challenge to re-build and re-learn its hard-won STVOL aircraft operating experience. There are a few RN pilots in the US flying F-18s but this now becomes of little relevance. The RN will need help from the US Marine Corps to build up its STVOL skills and in bringing the F35B into service. The RN has stated that if both carriers are to be commissioned it will need more manpower. As it is currently in the process of cutting it’s manpower by 5000 through voluntary or compulsory redundancy it would help if government committed to the second carrier as soon as possible. The additional skilled manpower cannot be whistled up overnight and some long-term thinking on this needs to start now.

So we now look forward to the carrier(s) coming into service. If we were to be as optimistic a Phillip Hammond, HMS Queen Elizabeth flying F-35Bs will be fully operational by 2020. The Royal Navy must now successfully negotiate the 2015 Defence Review unscathed, (hopefully a review that will not be as rushed and botched as 2010) and we hope, against a background of a more stable economy and reduced deficit. Mr Hammond we applaud your determination to make the MoD fit for purpose and bring competence, accountability and discipline to defence procurement. A big test of the ‘new’ MoD will be if it can oversee the completion of the highly complex carrier programme and deliver at least 13 capable Type 26 Frigates, on budget on time and up to scratch.

30 Comments

  • An ‘Adaptable’ Aircraft Carrier design’ has been one of the carrier project’s Key User Requirements- as established by the MoD- since before December-2002…

    IE: the new carriers would be designed and eventually constructed with specific provisions that would enable and cost-effectively simplify their fitting in future- after construction- with aircraft launch catapults and landing equipment (‘cats and traps’):

    “Royal Navy’s adaptable CVF”, Nov/Dec-2002:
    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb3126/is_668_57/ai_n28969725/?tag=content;col1

    An impartial, public investigation into the veracity of the MoD’s recent claims that it would cost upwards of 4 billion pounds to fit both of the undergoing construction carriers with cats and traps needs to be carried out!!!

  • Links for earlier posted comment:

    France;s “PA2″ aircraft carrier designs were, until 2009, copies of UK’s CVF designs:

    * http://navy-matters.beedall.com/pa2-1.htm

    http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/france-steaming-ahead-on-pa2cvf-carrier-project-01621/

  • France’s 2008 Defence White Paper:
    http://www.rpfrance-otan.org/IMG/pdf/Dossier_de_presse_Livre_Blanc.pdf – (pages 116-118):

    “After analysis, the decision on the construction of a second aircraft carrier (PA2) is postponed (to 2012)….

    “… – Economic conditions have changed since the 2003 election… (the costs) of conventional propulsion for (France’s) new aircraft carriers (has risen) and further studies are now needed to assess the balance of conventional and nuclear propulsion options …”

    http://navy-matters.beedall.com/pa2-1.htm
    http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/france-steaming-ahead-on-pa2cvf-carrier-project-01621/

  • I’d post links to documents supporting my most recent post but this web site does not always work…

  • It should be remembered that, up to 2009, the designs for France’s planned new aircraft-launch-catapult-equipped aircraft carriers (PA2) were copies of designs for the UK’s new without-aircraft-launch-catapults carriers*…

    France’s planned PA2 carriers were to share 90 percent commonality with the UK’s new flat tops…

    France’s apparently abrupt cancellation** of the joint UK/France build arrangements for the 2 countries’ 3 new carriers, in July-2008, was publicly said to be due to the then France govt’s concerns about national budgetary constraints and the effects that proceeding with construction of France’s “PA2″ carrier would have on domestic spending commitments…

    In order to counterbalance the UK MoD’s recent, plainly absurd claims that fitting the 2 undergoing construction aircraft carriers with aircraft launch catapults, landing & associated equipment would cost upwards of 4 billion pounds- mainstream news media and interest groups should attempt to obtain documents and records from France- and the UK govt & MoD- regarding

    1) ‘what were the estimates in 2008 of the costs of building the PA2 carrier??’ and

    2) ‘of these estimates, how much was associated with the fitting of aircraft launch catapults, landing & associated equipment to France’s PA2 carrier??’

    “UK & France sign carrier deal”, 06_03-2006:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4780630.stm

  • SeaPower June-2012:

    “Airpower From The Sea, 70 Years After Midway”:
    http://www.seapower-digital.com/seapower/spsample/#pg26

  • The aircraft carrier designs that were agreed to and paid for by the previous Labour govt between January-2003 and July-2008 (when the then UK govt approved construction-funding) had provisions that would make the 2 new ‘big deck’ carriers ‘adaptable’ in future- after construction- to be fitted with aircraft launch catapults and landing equipment ‘cats and traps’ )…

    Now- it seems as a way of making their recently alleged 2 billion pounds per-ship cat and trap conversion cost claims appear believable- MoD and UK govt representatives are claiming that the carriers’ designs don’t have and never had provisions for the fitting of cats and traps + landing equipment:

    On May 15-2012 Peter Luff MP, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology and Bernard Gray, Chief of Defence Materiel testified before the House of Commons Defence Committee about the aircraft carrier project and cat and trap issues-

    UK Defence Committee hearing, May 15-2012 (Video):
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/hi/house_of_commons/newsid_9720000/9720798.stm

    Carrier project mainly from 2:09 … adaptable carrier design evidence from about 2:21 …

    UK Defence Committee hearing, May 15-2012:
    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmdfence/uc9-ii/uc901.htm

    “Q153 Thomas Docherty: The concern is that a vastly significant decision was taken… to change the carrier- not just the carrier itself, but the things that rolled on from it, which I will not list because of the time- without… firm, solid numbers. Please tell me that you are never doing that again.

    “Peter Luff: “…. If I am honest with the Committee, and I must be, I think the fundamental misunderstanding that many of us had (CAUSED BY WHAT??!!!! rvl) was that these carriers would be relatively easy to convert and had been designed for conversion and for adaptability…

    “That is what we were told (BY WHOM??!!!!- rvl). It was not true. They were not…

    “They were physically big enough to accommodate conversion, but it came at a higher price than was apparent at the time when the decision was taken…

    “Q154 Chair: Having been ‘designed for conversion’, and conversion having proved far more expensive than we expected, do we have any comeback against those companies that did the design?

    “Peter Luff: It is not my belief that they were genuinely designed for conversion, or that the contract allowed them to be designed for conversion (BELEIFS ARE IRRELEVANT… WHAT ARE THE FACTS??!!! MAKE THE CONTRACT PUBLIC!!- rvl).

    “It was an assertion that was probably unfounded. That is my view (MP’s ‘VIEWS’ ARE NOT RELEVANT, FACTS ARE!!- rvl)…

    “Bernard Gray: They had the physical space. They are, as we all know, very large. However, because the decision to go STOVL was taken in… 2002, no serious work had been done. It had been noodled in 2005, but no serious work had been done on it…. (GRAY’s TESTIMONY DIRECTLY CONTRADICTS LUFF’s TESTIMONY ABOVE!!- rvl)

    “It was not a contract-quality offer; it was a simple assertion that that could be done, but nobody said, ‘It can be done at this price’, and certainly nobody put that in a contract…”

    PROVE IT- MAKE THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER PROJECT’s CONTRACTS PUBLIC!!!

    SIMILARLY, MAKE THE MoD’s ‘REQUESTS FOR PROPOSALS’ AND CORRESPONDENCE RELATED TO THE CARRIER PROJECT FROM JUNE-2002 TO MAY15-2012 PUBLIC!!!
    =================

    … Considering the high-public-interest, couldn’t the House of Commons’ Public Accounts & Defence committees obtain and make-part-of-future-Committee-reports-about-the-aircraft-carrier-project evidence and information from sources other than UK govt and MoD officials??…

    Why couldn’t members of the Public Accounts & Defence committees travel to the U.S. and speak directly to/take evidence from the manufacturer of the electromagnetic aircraft launch catapults and landing equipment- General Atomics; F-35 main contractor- Lockheed; US Department of Defense officials; etc???

  • France has plans to build ‘big deck’ aircraft carrier(s)- that are fitted with aircraft launch catapults (cats & traps)- in the immediate future*…

    If, compared to the UK’s newly built aircraft carriers, France’s new cat & trap equipped aircraft carrier(s) are seen by overseas observers & potential buyers as:

    - substantially more proficient at crisis intervention, naval airpower sea patrol & general power projection duties;

    - higher-technology;

    - more responsibly armoured;

    - capable of deploying a much broader variety of and more highly capable fixed-wing aircraft & weapons; &

    … are fitted with significantly more capable sensors, weapons, communications & ship self-defence systems…

    … then which countries’- the UK’s or France’s aircraft carrier model (& other naval vessel types) will be most attractive to potential overseas purchasers???
    ———————

    * France’s 2008 Defence White Paper:
    http://www.rpfrance-otan.org/IMG/pdf/Dossier_de_presse_Livre_Blanc.pdf – (pages 116-118):

    “After analysis, the decision on the construction of a second aircraft carrier (PA2) is postponed (to 2012)….

    “… – Economic conditions have changed since the 2003 election… (the costs) of conventional propulsion for (France’s) new aircraft carriers (has risen) and further studies are now needed to assess the balance of conventional and nuclear propulsion options …”

  • NAO’s July-2011 Aircraft Carrier project report:
    http://www.nao.org.uk/idoc.ashx?docId=D144D7D9-E564-4C67-AE6C-107A24E714C7&version=-1 (opens in new window) -
    Page # 13 (15 in Acrobat reader)

    “… the (MoD) chose a carrier design which was ‘adaptable’ and could be fitted with alternative launch and recovery equipment (cats and traps) should the choice of aircraft change (from the STOVL F-35B to the CTOL F-35C)… )
    ——————–

    “Pride of the fleet”, August 29-2003
    http://www.theengineer.co.uk/in-depth/pride-of-the-fleet/279174.article -

    Chief naval architect Simon Knight talks about the carriers’ ‘adaptable-for-future-fitting-of-cats-and-traps’ design AND about the immense cuts and deletions-from-the-originally-agreed-aircraft-carrier-design that had been occurring since January-2003 in order to meet unrealistic UK govt/MoD budget parameters and ‘moving goal post’ capability requirements…

  • An ‘Adaptable’ Aircraft Carrier design’ has been one of the carrier project’s Key User Requirements- as established by the MoD- since before December-2002,

    IE: the new carriers would be designed and eventually constructed with specific provisions that would enable and cost-effectively simplify their fitting in future- after construction- with cats and traps **

    During 2002-2008 projected total costs for fitting the UK’s 2 new carriers with aircraft launch catapults and landing equipment (‘cats and traps’) were regularly quoted by MoD representatives as between 100 and 150 million pounds:
    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200102/cmselect/cmdfence/779/2042503.htm -

    “… there will be a capital issue of providing catapults and arresting gear. Probably with a couple of ships that might be 100 million…”

    So how did the UK govt and MoD go from a situation where fitting both new aircraft carriers with cats and traps would cost 100 million pounds to today’s situation where fitting both carriers with cats and traps would be expected to cost upwards of 40 times as much- 4 billion pounds???

    Surely the outrageous incongruities and hyper escalating costs of the aircraft carrier project warrant a full public inquiry…

    The House of Commons’ committees should be calling for such or at the least demanding increased powers and expanded terms of references so that they could carry out such a role!!
    …”

  • “Carry on carrier” – you don’t need to say anymore.

    65000 tons, but no nuclear propulsion, no CATOBAR aircraft (fighters/UAV/AEW/refuelling), nor many escorts left.

    But good for BAe’s shareholders, both in relation to the F-35B and their Fairfields, Yarrow and VT shipyards.

    Just the UK and Royal Navy a laughing stock….

    • It just keeps getting worse. I’ve been advised that not only is the F35 unable to keep it’s stealth coating above Mach 1 (it peels off would you believe it!) but the STOVL jet is unable to maintain sufficient thrust to land vertically in hot climates (or high altitudes), which means they are now saying under certain conditions, the aircraft will have to do a ‘rolling landing’ at up to 100 knots – without arrestor gear – on a wet and moving deck and then stop using the wheel brakes alone.

      So some not so stealthy $150m fighters will be skidding down the flight deck with the ship rolling, pitching and yawing. A bit like trying to stop a 18 ton fuel tanker skidding on an aquaplaning surface.

      We are going to lose dozens and dozens of aircraft this way. The only people who will benefit will be Martin Baker – as their ejection seats get tested again and again and again!

      This is a comedy of errors. When is the British Government going to wake up and realise that we cannot afford the J35 and need carriers with Cats&Traps, AEW/UAV/Tankers and either F18s or Rafales for a fraction of the cost.

      • The problem is that BAe and the RAF don’t want the RN/FAA having F-18s, either as a stop gap measure or instead of the F-35C, because that causes too many problems for them in different ways………

        Despite talk of reverting to STOVL meaning both carriers being approved in 2015, past experience makes me cynical.

        Here’s to the next battle – the CVA-01 blunder of 1966 being remedied and CATOBAR capability being returned through a mid-life reconfiguration of the QE Class carrier/s at the end of the operating life of the F-35B circa 2050. A 70 year capability gap, from HMS Ark Royal paying off at the end of the 1970s.

        • Some people are surprised at my ability to foresee the future. One of the reasons why I’m a horse racing tipster I suppose. I had a bet with my brother in law (in 2000) that the Euro would fail. He was adamant that it wouldn’t – seeing as the European states would put all their effort into keeping it alive, whilst I realised that too many of the Southern European states were too uncontrolled at government spending and would cause a value differential. I honestly thought that it would be Italy that caused the penny to drop, but Greece beat them to it.

          That aside, my senses tell me that we will have another Falklands crisis in the next 5 years. Apart from Argentine economic problems for which CFK needs another diversion, they’ll never have a better chance to seize the islands and hold them permanently.

          How much use will the RAF’s promises to the Government be worth then?!

          • Not too worried about the Falklands – the Argentine military is in a sorry state and have had a worse 2 decades than even our armed forces. Their leader is a loose cannon, but she has even managed to upset Spain (their natural European friend, given the Rock) by nationalising Repsol assets in Argentina. Mind you, if they can get special forces ashore and take out the 4 Typhoons and take control of the runway, I would love to know how the RAF will provide the air cover for a task force of destroyers and frigates but not even a mini-carrier (“through deck cruiser”)…..?

  • “Carrier on carrier” – you don’t need to say anymore.

    65000 tons, but no nuclear propulsion, no CATOBAR aircraft (fighters/UAV/AEW/refuelling), nor many escorts left.

    But good for BAe’s shareholders, both in relation to the F-35B and their Fairfields, Yarrow and VT shipyards.

    Just the UK and Royal Navy a laughing stock….

  • If we have to have carriers without traps and cats we need to think out side of the box. We should do what the Americans did 40 years ago when they landed a STOL aircraft the Hercules on the US Forrestal Aircraft Carrier in 1963 with great success and old technology. (see YouTube) We could use something like the C27-Spartan for AEW, Tanker, Transport…flying of the queen Elizabeth carriers!

  • @Brian

    Apologies the there was a typo – the RAF will get F35As under their current plans, although as you say there might be merit in having F35Cs that could fly from a catapult-equipped carrier in the future. (Particularly as the F35B could still be cancelled). Unfortunately at £100 million each (and rising) purchasing more than 50 looks unlikely.

  • I’m amazed at one part of your article. Why would the RAF have F-35Cs? I suppose it is conceivable that when “the politicians” realise that they’ve made yet another incredible mistake, the Cs could be transferred to the RN. But the carriers will still have to be fitted with “cats and traps” to enable cross-decking with the USN. But what the RAF ought to have, if it has to have the F-35, is the F-35A.

    I’m sure that Cameron gets to the NSC, listens to all the arguments and figures being tossed back and forth, gets confused and sticks a pin in a list. And whoever heard of just buying 50 aircraft. That’s just enough for ONE carrier! What’s the other one going to do? Anybody thought we might have to send both somewhere? Anybody thought some might get destroyed/shot down? Anybody thought we might need replacements? They can’t roll them out like Hurricanes and Spitfires. For God’s sake, and Britain’s, we haven’t got our full complement of Typhoons yet!

  • The Fleet Air Arm has a friend in the U.S. Navy. Keep a squadron of F/A-18 pilots capable of flying from U.S. or French CVs in case the “s–t really hits the fantail” someday. It doesn’t matter where they are stationed. They can be staged and launched from any aircraft carrier. There are about 500 F/A- 18s in existence. Some can be leased. If asked, the U.S. Navy will help. Politics and phony economics should be secondary to having good pilots and aircraft to accomplish missions. The RAF is not very effective in maritime expeditionary warfare…that’s the future.

  • Careful over what you say about the RAF. They are a service who has a role and and important one. However there is, I would argue a distinct line to be made over maritime based aircraft and shore based ones, this needs to be explained clearly and simply to the politicians. The unique roles and training require naval ownership. As regards the AAC and the RAF the distinction is blurred, they operate over land from airbases and are controlled in a RAF managed airspace. It becomes more confused when you look at roles both deliver ie Close Air Support (CAS), transport and reconaissance. Even worse the Royal Artillery are now training ‘pilots’ at the RAF establishments to fly UAVs. A more coherent argument would be to agree the RAF needs to absorb the AAC and army airborne surveillence. In so doing they gain the advantages of size, commonality of training and rational delivery whilst at the same tome seperating that roles unique to Naval Aviation. Remember we win the argument over Naval infantry because of the nature of littoral combat. However again if the Army is to support you, you must show that you can support them effectively within a maritime based expeditionary force with sufficient helo lift, force protection and CAS. Naval prorities will have to flow from this delivery and not from other commitments. If not as a single service we will be defeated peicemeal by the other 2 on their pet projects.

    • @IOW

      The RAF could easily make use the arguments you list to take over the AAC. But then logically that entire heavily land-focused air organisation ought to be subordinated to the Army. By merging the RAF into a client organisation (Army) the career paths of the individuals then extend into broader leadership roles in that client organisation and don’t terminate in air roles only – role which have to be justified/created/sustained to maintain a starred-rank overhead. The need to justify that organisation leads to attempts to justify the independent military role of aviation, divorced from land or sea. Those attempts have led to some dark places in the nation’s history.

      The Marines are the Navy’s covenant to the Army that they will properly support Land – because the Navy is putting its own people at risk. In a way supporting the Marines & fleer with air at the heart of operations is also a covenant with the RAF that the Navy truly believes in aviation.

      To put it differently – if the ambition of the original RAF was simply a belief in the importance of aviation and a desire to nurture the flame for the good of the nation, then their work is done and they can return to where they truly belong.

  • All points taken Nigel. If there was just one fixed-wing + helicopter air service, integral to the army (“AAC+”), alongside the FAA for the navy, these decisions would be subject to far less distortion than we have today with a third, unstable player in the mix.

    Don’t underestimate the pressures the RAF is under though, and the skilled survival techniques they have developed in response – UAVs are just the next upcoming peak on the 20-30 yr technology threat cycle they constantly live with. “Threat” as in any change which undermines their independent existence.

    Helicopters were the first in the late 40s, followed by SSBN in the 60s (strategic bombing), and Tomahawk in the 80s (conventional deep strike) – UAVs erode their uniqueness still further.

    If we can kill army regiments with 100′s of years history each, the real sacred cow that needs to be considered is the RAF.

    However to effect such a change requires a mix of persuasion along with the logic of rationalisation – individuals in the RAF need to be given a reason to want to be part of either one of the other two aviation organisations. One way could be to require aviation experience as a prerequisite for senior advancement in both Army and Navy, and effectively reserve some of the top jobs in each for ex-RAF officers.

    First things first though, the FAA need to make a success of F35B to provide aviation credibility to the Navy, and the Navy must be prepared to make aviation the core of it’s operations … “the aircraft/UAV is the weapons system” and forget trying to design frigates with a few anti-ship missiles, a small gun, and one helo.

    • There’s a lot of truth in your post. The F35 could easily be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and persuades the US to develop a fully fledged fighter CAV.

      Virtually every nation has UAVs on their shopping list. The ability to hit your opponent, unseen from altitude is very appealing. US stealth drones may not have been invisible over Iran, but every country makes errors along the way.

      A fighter drone could be an effective way to cut costs. No pilot, no weakness in high-G turns. Out of ammo – just ram the enemy. It is possible that a significant proportion of tomorrow’s air-power will be flown from portakabins instead of cockpits.

      Like many, I would be concerned that we would lose the adaptability of a human with a mark 1 eyeball, but you have to admit that drones are very flexible.

      Drones would have no problem with a ski-jump and could be backed up with some conventional Harrier support. The Cartercopter may only be on the drawing board, but the idea is sound, could operate from carriers without traps and lift enough weight for in-flight refuelling or AEW. We may have to purchase some F35C for the RAF and they might reassign the F35B to the RAF if they keep burning through the flight-decks, but I’m sure that there will be a dedicated RAF as well as FAA.

      One of the lessons in 82 was that no matter how well trained the RAF pilots were, it took experienced aircrew (as in 801) of carrier operations to use the FAS1 to the best of its ability. We lost at least 3 ships because the pilots assigned to Flag (and Flag himself) did not have confidence in the Blue Fox or the ability to use it at the right ranges to act as a deterrent. But that’s covering old ground.

      What we need right now is the right crews to man the carriers and make them effective when they are commissioned. Thankfully some are training with the USMC right now in F18s. Let’s hope that they have access to the guys who won in 82, so they can expand the flight envelope in all directions and become AWIs worthy of the guys who did the biz in 82.

      • Defence is almost the only area where politicians make life-or-death about what tools the professionals use.

        They don’t choose what MRI machines the consultants in the NHS buy – they set a budget and the people who know what they’re doing make and live with the decision. They allow NICE to set independent guidance on drugs.

        But adding the RAF into an already weak decision-making process, where they are trying to influence those decisions to ensure their own survival at any expense – catapults for long-range AEW has been completely overshadowed in this fight – and you have a recipe for disaster.

        There can be no place for the RAF in a logically-organised defence force – career politics at the command level is bad enough in one service, but adding the careers politics of RAF senior officers quadruples, not doubles the difficulty of getting to the optimal solution for questions of long-term strategy.

        If you strip down the RAF, you can find a home for every part inside either the AAC or the FAA – aircraft are tools for the land and sea battle, not for a completely independent battle unrelated to the need to control territory or the resources of the sea.

        Back to what the Navy can control – they have a tradition of innovation in aviation, and a chance to differentiate themselves by solving the problems unique to shipboard operation. Politicians have to understand that air operations from ships are different than those from land, and the FAA’s special knowledge in this area needs to be protected and promoted.

        • I should have added to my last – “strip down the RAF” does NOT mean destroy the units, or make the people who work there homeless. It means give the units roles & the people jobs actually inside their clients, the Army and the Navy – where they can have meaningful career progression because their aviation skills are highly valued for their direct contribution to the Army & Navy’s tasks

  • Anyone who cares about naval aviation will have recoiled in horror at the U-turn by the government. An idiotic decision when the Cats and Traps gives so much economy further down the road and the US was willing to underwrite the cost of the EMALs.

    You might even say that they are deliberately handicapping our armed forces – so that it gives our enemies an even chance of sinking our ships and blowing our pilots out of the sky.

    After all it was grossly unfair to the Argentine Air Force that our pilots were thoroughly trained and equipped with a moderately decent aircraft (given the limitations that the RAF had placed on the Navy by forcing us to get rid of proper carriers) and given us a bit of luck to boot.

    Wanting a bit of ‘fair play’ the present government has decided to follow the advice of the RAF (in that we don’t need those pesky carriers after all) and buy an aircraft which they can absorb into their own numbers when the moment becomes appropriate and sell off those useless flat tops to some other third world country for a pittance. After all, wasn’t it the RAF that convinced the politicians that they could move Australia a couple of hundred miles to the west, to ensure that all oceans were covered by land based aircraft? Surely the RAF are capable of the same magic trick again?

    It dawns on me that the politicians may have considered the reported problems with the F35 and wondered if the “Plane that ate the Pentagon” is trying to eat Whitehall too.

    It’s very likely that with escalating costs, the F35 may turn out to be the white-elephant of all white-elephants, too expensive and unsupportable during it’s lifetime. Its very likely, given the conflicts we’ve engaged in over the past 30 years, that any potential enemy is going to be equipped with only 4th Gen aircraft (or 4.5) at best.

    Under those circumstances, is it really cost effective to buy a 5th Gen multi-role, when a 3rd Gen will do? Could it be that the powers that be are considering a new batch of FA2 or GR9 Harriers at a fraction of the F35 cost.

    As for the awacs or in-flight refueller, there are several alternatives, some on the drawing board, which might be capable of carrying out this task. Taking off vertically, but flying faster and higher than helicopters. I’m referring to the CarterCopter, not the discredited Osprey. Admittedly they’re still flight testing the PAV, but they have designed a CH45 version envisaged with cruise airspeed of 400mph, decent altitude and range. The key advantage is that it can keep up with the fast jets, carry a decent load and a search radar to the correct altitude and still be able to land on a carrier without traps.

    Could it be that our politicians took their heads out of their proverbial long enough to realise that every option is too expensive – but that we must have naval aviation – because it is almost a certainty that we will have another Falklands or Libya eventually and only the Royal Navy can perform the task, not the boys in light blue.

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