A pale imitation of Carrier Strike?

On 24 June 2020, the National Audit Office published their report “Carrier Strike – Preparing for deployment”. Their thorough examination presents a mixed picture of a project that is broadly on track but in many aspects is struggling with funding issues that threaten to drastically curtail the UK aircraft carriers’ full potential.

The report highlights deep concerns but also tells a positive story. The budget and timetable for the ships was re-baselined in 2013 and since then costs have only grown by about 3% (about in line with inflation) beyond what was agreed. The new contractual arrangements ensured that any cost growth burden was shared equally between the ACA and the MoD. HMS Queen Elizabeth left the builders about two months late but conducted the first fixed-wing flying trials in August 2018, two months ahead of schedule. HMS Prince of Wales was delivered on time and quickly passed initial sea trials. Supporting infrastructure projects at RAF Marham and HMNB Portsmouth have been completed. The carrier logistics centre in Portsmouth is due to be finished by 2022 and the Northern Ammunition Jetty due to be completed in February 2021. Initial Operating Capability (IOC) for carrier strike is due to be declared in December 2020 and the UKCSG is on track to deploy operationally in May 2021.

In simple terms, the massive technical and managerial challenge of constructing the aircraft carriers is now almost complete. (The contract with the ACA for final work on the carriers will end in March 2023). At a cost of £6.4Bn, two 65,000-tonne ships, designed to last 50 years have been delivered. This represents very good value, especially when a typical modern frigate or destroyer which may last for up to 30 years, carries a price tag of more than £1Bn. The frequently rehearsed claim that that the QEC are “too big” and therefore “too expensive” is highly flawed (the subject of a future article). The aircraft carriers are almost ready to go, a platform with enormous potential to build on but it is their future running costs and the myriad supporting elements that have not been fully costed and accounted for.

48 and you’ll have to wait

There is growing concern that the UK will only ever purchase the 48 F-35B jets that it is contracted to buy. This will obviously limit the size of the carrier air group. The precise numbers are still a matter of debate but probably translates into 12 jets carried routinely, with a potential surge of 24 in a crisis. This is way short of the 36 fixed-wing aircraft /110 sorties per day the ships could accommodate. Apart from the obvious reduction in combat power, a smaller fleet means aircraft are worked harder, and there is far less capacity to absorb losses. The Lighting Force is also supposedly dual-rolled for land-based missions in addition to carrier-based aviation.

The NAO say “Purchasing more jets beyond the 48 budgeted for unto 2025 will create “additional financial pressures” which is a discrete way of saying the funds for a further 90 aircraft provisionally planned for purchase up to 2035-40 simply may not exist. Even if the money can found, the NAO says “Air Command is assessing its future force mix – including the number and type of Lightning II jets it needs”. Elements within the RAF are pushing for a ‘split fleet‘ of non-carrier capable F-35As.

The cost of an F-35 (B variant) is now about £92M (comparable to a Typhoon). This is still an enormous sum but there are few alternatives, especially if you are serious about sending combat aircraft into contested airspace against a peer adversary. The Joint Strike Fighter project the UK joined in 2001 has failed on its original promise to deliver a much cheaper aircraft through economies of scale but has at least delivered the most capable ‘5th generation’ aircraft in the world at about the going rate. The cost per flying hour is still a major problem and the RAF has decided to reduce flying hours by 20%. It is vital that Lockheed Martin grip the maintenance and spares issues for F-35 which should eventually see improved availability and reduced running cost.

The ‘flyaway price’ of each aircraft continues to fall with each Lot, but FOREX movements, incremental upgrades, weapon integration and in-service support have seen the projected total F-35 programme budget rise by £1.4Bn in 3 years. The MoD has always admitted it did not fully understand what the future costs of F-35 procurement would be. There are plenty of variables and unknowns in this massive multi-national enterprise but it is safe to assume substantial invoices will keep arriving. Already pressure to delay expenses has seen the programme make a small ‘move to the right’. Delivery of F-35s has been slowed slightly from 2023 onwards so the UK will receive the last 7 of the 48 jets in 2025, a year later than planned.

Crowsnest flight trials aircraft Yeovilton, May 2020. (Tail number ZH864) (Photo: ©Mark Youd)

Making a hash of Crowsnest

Despite organic radar surveillance for the Carrier Strike Group being critical, the start of the Crowsnest project was postponed by the MoD for two years until 2016. Progress was slow but in 2018 an IOC date of March 2020 was agreed with the contractor, Lockheed Martin, and subcontractor, Thales. By January 2019 Thales admitted it was failing to meet its targets and had not communicated properly with LM. In May 2019 both companies allocated more resources and personnel to the project and the first radar flight trial was made in February 2020. Assuming no further problems, IOC will be delayed for 18 months until September 2021, with FOC in May 2023.

The Merlin allocated for flight trials, the responsibility of Leonardo Helicopters, was left outdoors and needed repairs leaving it only useable for ground testing. Another of the RN’s 30 precious Merlins Mk2s had to be handed over for the task, reducing its fleet availability. The compressed testing programme has also created additional pressure on the provision of Merlin spare parts.

The MoD has withheld payments to LM reflecting its underperformance (but has not actually imposed penalties). This resulted in an underspend of £88 million between 2018-20. As a result of inflexible Treasury rules, Navy Command now has a £71 million funding shortfall for the next 4 financial years and will have to absorb this by reducing expenditure on other projects.

The £339 million Crowsnest project was supposed to be a low cost, low-risk solution, based on an existing radar and technologies. Inexplicable mismanagement of the project has led to delay and financial turbulence. It is hard not to conclude this has been a cluster-fudge of epic proportions by three normally reputable contractors. As a consequence, when HMS Queen Elizabeth makes her first operational deployment she will either have no airborne radar surveillance capability or will have to make do with a Crowsnest system that has not yet been certified for service.

The attractive BMT/Navantia proposal for the Fleet Solid Support ship design. Will the critical investments needed in naval logistics survive the next defence review? (Image: Team Resolute).

Fleet Solid Support slips

The need for new Fleet Solid Support ships for the RN has been under consideration since 2005 but in a recurring theme, procurement has been repeatedly put off leading to inevitable replacement pressures and capability gaps. With two of the three remaining FSS left in service over 40 years old and unlikely to sail again, time is running out. The sole remaining FSS, RFA Fort Victoria has been well looked after but she represents a ‘single point of failure’ in Carrier-Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) until replacements are available. Making do with a single support ship with limited cargo capacity is bound to reduce the impact and reach of the CSG.

The early saga of FSS procurement and its suspension is covered here, but the MOD expects there will be a delay of between 18-36 months to the new ships entering service. The NAO says the first of the ships could be in service in a vague timeframe ‘sometime between October 2027 and April 2029’. RFA Fort Victoria has already had her life extended until 2028 but would become costly to keep in service beyond then.

The size of the QEC carriers does mitigate the problem slightly as the ships have ammunition capacity that could sustain around 400 strike sorties before needing replenishment. Theoretically, If the carrier sailed with full magazines and 36 F-35s, she could deliver a 5-days of high tempo operations, mounting around 110 sorties on day one, followed by 72 per day on the four days after that. Given that she is unlikely to carry such a large air group and the tempo may not be this intense, munitions could last much longer. Of course, the other ships in the CSG will need food, spares and ammunition and the FSS is going to be indispensable sustain any operation of substance away from friendly ports.

MBDA mock-up showing SPEAR-3 quad packs prior to loading on F-35B internal weapons bay.

Other headaches

In addition to the high profile issues with F-35, Crowsnest and FSS there are other important gaps in funding and equipment that will hollow out carrier capability if not addressed. The NAO highlights the small of weapons stockpile which it describes as a “critical risk” to CEPP. As a classified subject, it is generally not possible to assess the quantities of each type of munition held in stock by the MoD. It has long been suspected that there is an inadequate number of missiles available in many categories for the fleet as a whole and it is a similar situation for air-launched weapons. There is little point in investing in sophisticated weapon delivery platforms if there are only token numbers of weapons to arm them.

Once at sea, there is a requirement to deliver small stores and personnel from ashore to the carriers by air. In the interim, Maritime Intra-Theatre Lift capability (What the US Navy calls ‘Carrier Onboard Delivery’) has been provided by the Merlin Mk 4. This is nominally supposed to cease in December 2021 but will have to continue. This relies on available Merlins which have other duties and could constrain where the carriers can operate due to the helicopters’ limited range. Other than the occasional use of RAF Chinooks which are not fully marinised and have similar range issues, or reliance on US V-22 Ospreys, there are no alternative options.

The QEC carriers also have issues with datalinks which lack sufficient bandwidth. Progress has apparently stalled on procurement of systems for sharing command /control and tactical data information. The responsibility of Strategic Command, the delays are partly due to lack of suitably qualified people to do the work.

Navy Command has a budget of £438 million over 10 years allocated for running the aircraft carriers but the NAO says the cost of spares and support has already proved to be higher than expected. As Carrier Strike begins a cycle of regular deployments, the cost of the fleet’s operational activities is estimated to rise by over 15%. Air Command is in a similar position with an allocated budget for fuel, spares and support work at RAF Marham that may prove to be insufficient.

The report also reveals that the RN has quietly dropped the requirement for the carriers to swing-role to operate as amphibious assault ships. The disposal of HMS Ocean had always been justified against the plan to replace her helicopter assault capabilities using one of the aircraft carriers. We have always argued, that having the CVF moonlight as an LPH was very unsound from a tactical perspective but this leaves a gaping hole in amphibious capability without a dedicated helicopter assault platform. £60 million allocated for amphibious modifications to the carriers including troop accommodation, communications equipment and helicopter operating spots, has been spent elsewhere.

The need to replace the Merlin helicopter fleet is another unfunded headache. Although they have recently been expensively upgraded and are fine aircraft, their airframes will start to come to end of their lives in the early 2030s. Lacking the money to develop a new aircraft from scratch, perhaps the best solution is simply to replace Merlins with Merlins and restart low rate production over a long period.

CEPP being a ‘joint asset’ is both a strength and a weakness. In theory, CEPP has the full support of all the services and a united front should make it harder to reduce its resources or even axe the carriers. But as responsibility straddles the commands, when their individual annual budgets are under pressure, as a  short-term expediency they may be tempted to cut crucial elements of CEPP. For example, Air Command postponed buying a second Lightning II deployed spares pack for a year to make savings. Pulling together every element of CEPP needs to be carefully managed across defence and presents a difficult balancing act of competing priorities. Dovetailing timeframes and aligning different programmes to meet carrier deployment schedules is another complex issue. The NAO specifically mentions that further planning that will be needed to run two carriers concurrently, manage maintenance schedules for the ships in a carrier strike group, balance test requirements of Combat Air, carrier-related flying trials, training enough F-35 pilots and ensuring there are enough personnel with the necessary skills.



Foundation for the future

Despite the gaps in capability, the RN will still emerge way better equipped, and more capable in the 2020s than it was in the 2010s. Even if the full potential of the QEC design is not realised, the UK still has a very powerful and flexible asset. The carriers should be seen as a very long term project, the UK simply does not fund defence well enough to deliver ‘CEPP max’ (almost on a par with a US Navy Carrier Strike Group) straight out of the box. Compromises will have to be made and strength and capabilities built up very gradually, to the frustration of many. Global events will doubtless demonstrate the need for carriers and the RN will do it has always done when called upon – improvise and make the best of what assets it has available at the time.

The struggles to maximise the investment in carrier strike are a reflection of UK defence as a whole attempting to do too much. The vast cost of the Dreadnought programme bears down on everything while the Navy must recapitalise its frigates, the Army is investing in expensive new vehicle fleets and the RAF has ambitious plans for Tempest. In addition to critical conventional platforms which must be sustained, an urgent response to a whole new dimension of rapidly evolving technologies in unmanned, hypersonic and cyber warfare is required. Either government must decide to be a true global military power and substantially increase the defence budget (the responsible, but unlikely option) or take the tough decision to focus more narrowly on areas of strength.