Government U-turn on carriers means less capability and long-term costs

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?

The Secretary of State for Defence, Rt Hon Phi...

Secretary  of  Defence,  Phillip Hammond MP – Balancing the MoD finances for now, while we face the consequences later

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.

The morning after the night before... Making the best of 'Plan B'
Useful web links about the looming decision on aircraft carriers 'cats and traps' and F35B or C