SDSR implications for the RN – Aircraft carriers: front & centre of UK defence policy

Although far from perfect, the decisions made in the SDSR appeared to offer something good for all the UK armed forces. At first glance the RAF appearing strongest; retaining its Tranche 1 Typhoons, orders for F-35s and 9 new P-8 Poseidon aircraft.  The Economist breathlessly reported “Spies, special forces and the Royal Air Force are the main winners”. In fact the SDSR was very maritime-centric with the RN the main beneficiary.

In the cabinet room in 10 Downing Street there is now a model of HMS Queen Elizabeth, a reminder to those in power what a useful asset will soon be at their disposal. David Cameron personally inspected the model with the First Sea Lord and other ministers have also begun to appreciate the true value of aircraft carriers. High level understanding of at least some of the ‘hard power’ and ‘soft power’ benefits of the carriers ensured the project had the political backing to see them through the SDSR, to be fully resourced and completed. This is something of a transformation when you consider the future of one, or both of them looked very uncertain not long ago. The RN should be commended for making the case for carriers beyond just industrial and employment benefits. What were once seen as ‘problem children’ have gone on to become a centre-piece of UK defence policy. Despite significant deficiencies and against a backdrop of declining overall defence spending, delivering the carriers with a credible air group does give some credence to Tory claims to be investing in the RN.

Not just another warship

While they represent a potent fighting capability, the ‘soft power’ value of the carriers should not be underestimated. Casual critics may dismiss the carriers as an expensive vehicle for hosting large cocktail parties, but this completely misses the point.

The visit of an aircraft carrier has a disproportionate impact, far beyond what a visiting frigate or destroyer can deliver. The sight of such a large warship at anchor or alongside in foreign ports is a powerful statement and an advert for Britain.

They can reassure allies and partners while offering great platform for trade, diplomacy and defence cooperation. A worldwide tour by HMS Queen Elizabeth is probably already being penciled in. HMS Ark Royal carried a famous name and there was considerable public regard for the ship. Since her scrapping, the RN’s flagship has not had the same profile or resonance with the British public. The scale and presence of HMS Queen Elizabeth will make a memorable impression at home. She is likely to enter the public consciousness and become held in great affection, like the monarch who shares her name. (Technically she is named after Queen Elizabeth 1st).

US Marine Corps F35s are likely to be onboard when HMS Queen Elizabeth first enters Portsmouth in 2017. When she crosses the Atlantic (sometime in late 2018?) to embark the first batch of British F35s, it will also be a highly symbolic moment in the important alliance between the UK and the United States. The US has been exceptionally supportive of the carrier project and they look forward to the UK being able to help lighten the load on their over-stretched carrier force, particularly in the Gulf region.

The order for just 8 Type 26 has been seen by some as a failure to provide enough escorts for the carriers. Even with at least 5 additional ‘light frigates’ the RN’s 19-ship escort fleet is wholly inadequate, having many other tasks assigned to it without the burden of forming a carrier battle group. In mitigation it must be accepted that the QE class carriers are unlikely to be sent into harm’s way without foreign warships contributing to her escort. US and European frigates, destroyers and cruisers, particularly those equipped with the AEGIS air defence system would be needed. Fully independent operation is very desirable but frankly unaffordable within the existing limited defence budget. We must accept the political penalty of having to work in coalition while the need to mount another major British-only operation, such as the Falklands campaign, seems a remote possibility.

More aircraft, less pressure

The SDSR stated that 42 F35-B Lightning aircraft will be delivered by 2023. These 42 aircraft form the carrier’s main armament. A foolish political fudge has given the RAF control of the Lightnings, to be jointly manned and operated with the RN. For Government, this conveniently boosts the RAF’s ORBAT while allowing the same aircraft to be counted again as part of the carrier’s equipment. Although the RAF may not like it, the needs of the carriers will have to dictate their operation. There is simply no place for the “part time carrier aviator” The aircrew need as much time at sea as possible to develop their own skills, the skills of aircraft handlers, the ship’s company and the fleet as a whole. Like all RN vessels the carriers will operate at a demanding operational tempo and need aircraft embarked for much of the time. Any RAF inclination to use the aircraft in the land-based deep strike role will have to be second priority.

With Prime Ministerial support for the carriers, it seems less likely the RN will have cause to complain that RAF control of the F35 programme is hampering their effectiveness.

The initial 42 Lightnings will be split between 2 frontline squadrons. 809 Naval Air Squadron and RAF 617 Squadron with around 15-20 aircraft each, building up to the full strength of 24 per squadron. There will also be a requirement for at least 5 aircraft to form an OCU (Operational Conversion Unit for training). An OEU (Operational Evaluation Unit for testing and trials) will also require a few aircraft. Allowing for a sustainment fleet of aircraft in deep maintenance etc, then it is clear that many more than 42 aircraft are needed to form just 2 full-strength squadrons. Between 2010 and 2014 the received wisdom was that the UK would only ever purchase a maximum of 48 F35-B but the SDSR announced a planned eventual purchase of as many as 138. This is good news which should give some strength-in-depth, potentially providing 2 more squadrons. Both the RN and the RAF should be able to fulfil their ambitions for the Lighting. Whether the RAF will push for a purchase of the conventional F35-A which would not be compatible with the carrier, but has slightly better range and performance than the VSTOL variant is a discussion for the future.

Of course the caveat to all this good news is the actual performance of the F35. There are armies of armchair F-35 critics and many of their concerns are valid. Although it may prove to be a poor “within visual range” fighter, its networking, sensors, stealth and strike capabilities will be a giant advance over any previous UK military aircraft. Furthermore the RN has a fine track record of taking equipment with many apparent deficiencies and turning them into a great success. (Fairy Swordfish anyone?)

There is also the thorny issue of which weapons can be integrated for delivery by the UK F-35. Various goodies such as Brimstone, Storm Shadow, or even the US Long Range Anti Ship Missile would all be desirable. However there is a significant time and cost involved in integrating and testing each weapon that is added to the inventory, plus of course shipboard handling, storage and RAS issues to consider.

UK CATOBAR is dead, long live the jump jet

While many still hope to see the QE class carriers modified with catapults and arrester gear, it must be accepted that will not happen in the near future. The growing commitment to F35-B cements this further. The cost of fitting CATOBAR has undoubtedly been grossly exaggerated in the past by a variety of vested interests, never the less, the cost would still be significant and would impose a serious delay to the programme. CATOBAR maybe retrofitted in future but it rather depends on the developments in aircraft technology. Maybe large UAVs (such as the US Navy’s UCLASS) requiring catapults become the de facto naval aircraft, or less likely, funds become available to upgrade the ships and the entire air group to US carrier standards, or in the unlikely event that F35-B is an unmitigated failure.

The Poseidon: serving the navy

If you are looking for further evidence of the maritime core of the SDSR, it is clear in the commitment to buying 9 Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft. The RAF and the Army had hoped for a ‘Multi Mission Aircraft’ more optimised for overland intelligence gathering. Instead the P-8 is a dedicated Maritime Patrol Aircraft, having limited overland capability. Although owned and manned by the RAF, building on the fine legacy of the Nimrod, their priority mission is to protect the deterrent submarines and support the RN at sea. The P-8 is undoubtedly the best option and its availability again underlines our critical defence relationship with the US. The Defence Secretary on his recent trip to the states has requested the UK lease a pair of USN P-8s to be based in the UK and manned by the RAF. This would help train aircrew faster and reduce the capability gap that will remain for the next 4-5 years until the new UK P-8 squadron is up to strength.

Like the F-35 there are some issues around which British weapons and equipment the P-8 needs. Doubtless UK industry will push to have as more home-made kit added but this has the potential to add delays and raise costs. This dilemma is illustrated by the requirement for a torpedo. The P-8 is designed to work at higher altitudes than the Nimrod. The excellent Stingray homing torpedo in service with the RN cannot be dropped from great heights and would need to be adapted. The US Mk54 equivalent has already been modified and could be bought off the shelf. The P-8 needs a torpedo to go beyond its main search role and be considered a true submarine hunter. The MoD must remain single-minded in closing the capability gap as soon as possible and not be side-tracked by domestic demands for a bigger share of the industrial pie.