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

This article was written in May 2012. For more recent articles about the Royal Navy aircraft carrier project click here.

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.

The shape of things to come - video of F35B on trials
Government U-turn on carriers means less capability and long-term costs