THINK DEFENCE: As you know we operate an open door policy, this is another post from one of our regular contributors, Jed…
In the previous articles written by myself and the ThinkDefence teams we both independently came to the conclusion that the future of the RAF lay in the cost effective management of a single aircraft type as the ‘fast jet fleet’ and that the single type should be the Typhoon. We both advocated the early retirement of the Harrier GR9 and the cancellation of the UK’s commitment to, and interest in the Lockheed Martin F35 (Joint Combat Aircraft).
However this leads to an immediate problem. The UK Govt. finally ordered the two large deck carriers first promulgated in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, and open source information seems to suggest the CVF (Future Carrier) programme is now progressed to the point where it will be cheaper to build the two carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Elizabeth_class_aircraft_carrier).
So, if we are not going to cancel them because of contractual penalities, and we are not going to sell them (India being the latest rumour) because of pride and because the rest of the Royal Navy’s capabilities have been mortgaged to get them in the first place, then we better have something to fly from them !
Just for the record, even though I am ex RN and spent some time in the Fleet Air Arm, I am no ‘religious zealot’ when it comes to these ships, they were a good idea in 1998, but to honest I would be happy to seem them cancelled or sold if we replaced them with something more sensible (like the Italian Cavour class). However for all the reasons above that’s not going to happen, so what will consitute the airgroup of a Queen Elizabeth class carrier ?
1. Keep the Harrier flying – for now
The cheapest, interim option and one which I recommend and support just to keep a cadre of trained naval pilots, is to hand over all remaining Harrier GR9 and T12 to the RN Fleet Air Arm (FAA). However keeping these aircraft and updating them and keeping them in service as the only jets to fly from these carriers is not much of mid-to-long term option, as they are ground attack, close air support aircraft, with no radar. So if we want to fly a couple of squadrons of Harriers from the big deck carriers in support of Royal Marines, perhaps carrying a squadron of Italian or Spanish Av8B Harrier II+ for CAP and fighter sweep on coalition operations, then this truly would be cheap, but would not exactly offer the capability the carriers were designed to provide.
2. Not the JCA – too expensive.
If we are to ditch the LM F35 JCA for the RAF, it does not seem to make sense to buy a small number of the deck melting wonder plane just to equip the carriers. Their ultimate unit cost remains unknown, the deck melting issue is far from being resolved and while the aircraft is obviously a paradigm shift in capabilities for STOVL compared to the Harrier, how useful is it’s “first day of the war” stealth capability going to be for non-peer state ‘war’ against the current, or even project future foes ? Nope, I say ditch the F35 now, before wasting millions on it.
So if we are not going with STOVL, then we need to flex the design of the carriers and get catapults and arresting gear onboard during the build. They have been designed from the outset to take such modification. As I don’t seen the RN flying a small number of Migs or Sukhoi’s that realistically leaves two options for a conventional carrierborne airgroup: The Boeing F/A18E or the Dassault Rafale – I am suggesting we go with the Rafale.
3. Why not the F/A18E Super Hornet
According to open source information the inter-webs, the unit cost for an F/A18E is 55.2 million US Dollars, which converts to 33.49 million GB Pounds each. Similarily the Rafale M is qouted at 70 million Euros which makes it 63 million GB Pounds each – nearly twice the price. This seems a bit odd to me, and you might want to do your own research to confirm it, but I am guessing this is because of the volume of production for the USN, which is driving down the unit cost for the Super Hornet. So if its cheaper, and it is a decent aircraft (bomb truck, not much of a ‘fighter’ apparently……) why not go with is option ? Well because my choice of the Rafale is also tied to the way we run and use the two carriers.
4. The French option
There is no doubt the Rafale is a good aircraft. The Rafale M as used by the French Navy’s Areo-Navale has been in operational use from the FS Charles de Gaul since 2004, and is now available in the ‘full capability’ F3 standard. It is due to get the Meteor, it can carry U.S. Paveway guided bombs as well as French equivalents, it is integrated with SCALP, which is very similar to the Storm Shadow (same family of missilses), true we would have to pay for integration of AIM132 ASRAAM (or just use the IR Mica ?). It can carry IR/EO targeting and recce pods etc. By the time the carriers are accepted into service in 20015/16 the Rafale will be a very mature platform with 12 years of Naval service behind it.
However its not just the aircraft, we have to think of this requirement holistically, in the overall “big picture” of budgets and desired capabilities, and I think we can strike some good deals with the French (yes, I really did just say that……). The French Navy would like a second carrier, and we are buying two so that one will be available for operations at any one time. I think we should strike a deal so that for periods when the Charles de Gaul is in dock and unavailable, then one of the UK carriers is made available. The deal might be that the UK ship can only be used for training cruises, with French crew joining a core of RN crew, and a French airgroup embarked, to ensure they don’t loose their operational edge when the CdG is out of commission. Or we might go further than that and allow the French to use the ship on coalition operations to which both national governments have signed up. Lets face it, based on the last 20 or so years, its very, very improbable that the French will unilaterally decalre war on someone and want to use our carrier to hit someone we quite like ! Now if we were borrowing a French flat top, that might be different, but I digress.
The CVF carriers have a notional airgroup of 40 jets and helo’s, so a “full” airgroup for a major offensive operation might be 3 squadrons of 12 Rafale for a total of 36. The CdG also carries a maximum of 40 aircraft and the French Navy is buying 60. We should also buy 60, and establish a training presence with the French Navy at their main training base (with say 8 aircraft), with ‘normal’ deployment of 2 squadrons on the active carrier and 1 on the UK mainland as the OCU for ‘advanced training’.
Of course we could even extend the cooperation buy purchasing E2 Hawkeye AEWC aircraft for the new carriers, which are also flown by the French.
In summary, lets buy off the shelf, lets buy European, lets put defence cooperation into ‘realpolitik’ mode rather than just hot air, and at the same time provide a useful multi-role aircraft for our big shiny new flatops, because if we don’t we may as well rename them HMS White Elephant and HMS Flying Pig – but at least we would have the biggest helicopter carriers in the world !