Maybe one day the never ending saga that is CVF will come to a satisfactory end and we can all get on with arguing about which version of the latest plasma rifle we should adopt.
Until that point though, there is a constant stream of news, good or bad, depending on your viewpoint of degree of weary slope shouldered cynicism.
The latest group of individuals to throw another log on the fire is the National Audit Office, the taxpayer’s financial watchdog. The NAO does have teeth but in general, are roundly ignored by successive governments who think they either know better or alternatively, see their output as a means to bash the last lot with.
In its latest report, snappily titled Carrier Strike, it brings the financial and risk decision making process up to date on this unhappiest of projects.
It doesn’t tell us much that we either didn’t already know or could have made reasoned guesses about but there are some interesting snippets.
The first thing is the title; it’s nothing to do with defending the fleet but expeditionary strike. Beyond the semantics this is telling but what the report does not do is match the capability offered by CVF/JCA based carrier strike with defence planning assumptions.
The Cost of Cancellation
David Cameron, Liam Fox and the government maintained that it would be more expensive to cancel than proceed and that cancellation was not an option. The report comprehensively rubbished this claim which to my mind puts under severe doubts anything that comes forth from those very same people.
I have always maintained that cancelling CVF was always an option, even if we wanted to maintain shipbuilding skills. What the alliance wants is to build ships, not a specific ship, in other words it doesn’t really care whether it is building Type 45’s or CVF’s, work being work.
Timing might have been an issue but if we treat the shipbuilding industry as a strategic asset, which we do, why should the nation not fund this gap, we could have funded a comprehensive training and reorganisation programme that could have seen the industry emerge as a genuine global specialist shipbuilding industry.
There were many options but much easier to try and blame those big boys over at BAE, political cowardice of the worst kind.
The report states cancelling one would save £200m and both £1.2 billion, somewhat at odds with the comments from the Government. These savings might be offset by the costs mentioned in the letter from BAE but they would still be substantial
i.e. we could have saved money by cancelling
The Cost of Uncertainty
Yet another factor that has concerned me about the costs of the switch is the fact that the MoD made the decision on the basis of not having the first clue how much it would cost.
We can argue the details but the fact remains, the MoD made the switch based on a guess.
For the NAO, this risk is the most serious of all the issues, and let’s face it, the MoD does not have a good track record in predicting future costs, in fact, in this regard, you wouldn’t trust the MoD to hit water if it fell out of a boat.
It notes quite correctly that the MoD will be in a poor negotiating position when it comes to buying electromagnetic catapults, or in other words, we will be bent over a barrel and given the good news by a supplier who knows you have no choice.
The report notes it will take 2 years for the MoD to have a full understanding on the implications in cost, manning and operational issues of the switch.
2 years in which pennies will be dropping every day, confirming what an unmitigated disaster the decision will turn into.
Recent developments in autonomous carrier landings have been seized upon by those who simultaneously deny there is a training overhead, and thus a cost overhead, in maintaining carrier operations and at the same time point to technology developments that will negate those costs, just in case they actually exist.
We have to accept that CATOBAR operations impose a significant training penalty, it is not a skill one can pick up in a few days and must be constantly practiced to remain safe. With STOVL, the exact is true, land based pilots can quickly transition to all weather carrier operations with relatively little training, this being proven many many times over the years. Whilst the latest synthetic training systems may reduce this burden somewhat it is not likely for some time that it will be eliminated.
Likewise, the developments in autonomous landing systems, the recent US trials were an outstanding success and show the way for autonomous operation of UAV’s aboard a carrier. These systems may well be used to support carrier landings for less experienced aircrew, thus reducing or even eliminating the training penalty mentioned above, but, and this is a big but. There is a world of difference between using a system on an unmanned platform and a manned platform, the same manned platform where the pilot will be completely reliant on the system. It would take a significant degree of safety intensive integration, allied to lots of certification and equipment redundancy both on the aircraft and carrier that will allow someone, it is always a person, to sign off on the safety case.
Who knows what the future holds with reliable and safe autonomous landings aboard a pitching aircraft deck, but I think we should temper natural enthusiasm to leap upon this as the magic bullet that kills off the training penalty of CATOBAR with a degree of scepticism about the reality of taking a pilot and asking him to entrust his life to a system such as this.
The switch to CATOBAR or F35C is still a controversial decision.
The reason why the F35B was the preferred option for a decade or more was ALWAYS about more than just the aircraft itself. If the only factor was the aircraft itself then the B is possibly the least best solution, it costs more, has less performance in all areas, is more complex and difficult to maintain.
The MoD always knew this to be the case
So why would anyone want STOVL?
Quite simply, because it offered the most flexible option for the lowest cost, across the whole of the defence sphere, not just on an aircraft by aircraft basis.
We must remember that the UK has the most experience in operating STOVL aircraft aboard ships and drawing on this deep well of knowledge the costs were well known and articulated, with uncertainty risks at an absolute minimum.
STOVL allowed the CVF air wing to be surged with land based pilots thus reducing carrier operations currency costs, eliminated the cost of catapults and arrestor gear with their attendant capital and significant through life costs, provided for an increase in sortie rates, allowed operations to continue in extreme weather (amply demonstrated in 1982)and significantly improve operating location flexibility.
With CATOBAR aircraft the only place they can operate from at sea is another CATOBAR compliant carrier. This means alternate at sea landing locations have to come from elsewhere, it was always going to be unlikely that we would operate a pair of CVF’s together. If a returning F35C is low on fuel its options are limited should CVF be unavailable due to enemy action, bad weather or malfunctioning arrestor gear. An F35B could feasibly land on a T45, RFA vessel or one of the amphibs, this would of course be in extremis but at least the pilot and very expensive aircraft could be recovered.
The original operating concept for JCA called for it to operate from CVF and a soon as possible, transition to austere land bases was also enabled by STOVL, again, this option is now unavailable for the preferred JCA design. We have demonstrated the value of this flexibility a number of times, in 1982 Harriers used an austere forward operating base at Port San Carlos and in Afghanistan, when the runway at Kandahar was restricted by an aircraft fire, Harriers were the only land based coalition aircraft able to operate and provide reactive close air support until the runway was cleared and repaired. It is fair to say that F35B requires a greater level of ground based facilities than Harrier but these are not insurmountable problems.
CATOBAR operations also means that to protect the aircraft and pilot against a fuel intensive missed landing (bolters) there is a means to provide fuel to them. STOVL aircraft do not suffer from this problem and therefore a buddy buddy refuelling system was never specified. This has now changed and the MoD is actively looking at how this can be provided, the simple answer is of course to buy the system that will be developed by the US Navy, probably from Chobam but was this means is yet more capital and through life cost and out there in the real world, when operating aircraft we will have to dedicate two or three airframes aboard CVF as on deck recovery alert aircraft, this is fine when you have a CVN full to the gunnels with aircraft but CVF is no CVN and out of the likely air wing of 12 JCA we will have to dedicate a significant proportion of them to this task. His will reduce sortie rate so for the same given effect we will have to have more aircraft. Given that it is unlikely that we will routinely operate in this manner, the reality is F35C degrades capability in some areas.
So whilst the range, maintenance cost, payload and other performance improvements of F35C are to be welcomed, there is a price to pay.
Sortie rates have been reduced, the report notes that CVF will generate about 20 sorties per day from 12 aircraft and this is before the implications are fully known, see above about buddy buddy refuelling.
CVF is not a fast ship, but with F35B this didn’t really matter, with F35C and CATOBAR, speed is a vital aspect. The risks of being unable to launch the F35C because of being unable to achieve a high enough speed, would be a tad embarrassing.
It was rumoured that the decision to move to F35C was a surprise to those working on the project, who knows if this was true but given these issues it is credible.
The current forecast cost of £6.24 billion for 1 fully fitted and functional carrier, the other being stunted by its lack of catapults. We might of course use the second as some hugely expensive LPH, replacing HMS Ocean but this would be both operationally inadequate and hugely expensive.
This 1 carrier will be available for operations for 150 to 200 days.
Moving to F35C allowed the previously cancelled Deep and Persistent Offensive Capability requirement to be covered, thus pulling a billion pound of costs but I am rather sceptical of this and it smacks of typical voodoo MoD economics. Could this requirement have been met with Typhoon or even the F35B, maybe not as well as the F35C.
The F35B is the most troubled of the trio and it is fair to say that in balancing risks it might have seemed the sensible thing to do but I cannot conceive of a realistic scenario in which F35B is cancelled. That said, the F35B has been doing rather well of late.
A Secondary Capability
In all the debates we have had on the subject I have consistently said that carriers are useful but in the context of a declining defence vote and competing priorities they are not essential, at least not as envisaged by CVF/JCA.
Whilst the originators of Project CVF were quite accepting of the need to sacrifice capabilities to keep the carrier project alive more recent senior officers at the MoD have taken a different line, reality has bitten and it seems that they wanted to cancel CVF in order to protect the amphibs and surface fleet.
The report is crystal clear in this, if the government had allowed the MoD to cancel project CVF, they would have done so.
Maybe I have been rather harsh on the current RN leadership!
Perhaps the biggest issue is that the NAO were denied access to crucial information, this very worrying because the NAO are one of the few truly independent means of oversight.
The Defence Secretary and MoD threw their dummies out of the pram because the NAO chose to publish without agreeing the final text with the MoD, perhaps they should have been cooperative with the NAO, you reap what you sow
So I think I can be Mr Smug Bastard, I do believe I have stated several times that cancelling was always an option and that the switch has repercussions yet to be fully realised J
Whatever, CVF is a salutary lesson in incompetence, political shenanigans and financial short termism that will be studied in business schools for decades to come.
Interoperability and the Real Reasons for the Switch
Another reason given for the switch was to improve interoperability with our allies.
This is curious because STOVL aircraft can operate from any flat top, Italian, Spanish, US or French for example (plus the non carriers with sufficient space in extremis) but the reverse is not true. The switch to CATOBAR actually significantly reduces our ability to utilise allied shipping. Our most likely operating partner, the USMC (officially no longer our friend) will also be denied because they have quite rightly seen the operational benefits of STOVL.
Interoperability is a two way street though and it is here that the true reason for the switch reveals itself.
It has nothing to do with the USN for a couple of reasons, first, they have more than enough carrier resources thank you very much and second, with a gradual move in strategic focus west, the US will increasingly become less involved with the UK.
France and the EU is entirely a different matter.
There are two reasons for the switch.
The first is the desire to save even more money than the F35B, joint force combination could deliver.
The second, and related but more pressing reason is the obvious desire to increase asset sharing with the French, leading to dependence and reinforce a political Europe wide defence posture built around the UK and France.
By switching to CATOBAR we can share training with the French but we can also share ships, not in a physical sense but in a virtual sense.
The Queen Elizabeth will be sold to France and Prince of Wales will be receive the modification. QE will go to France for conversion and together they will form a UK/French EU carrier force that will be the lynchpin of an EU Navy.
Whether we eventually go for F35 or have some Rafale’s in lieu of payment for CVF Number 1 is an interesting point.
Given that the terms of the contract for F35 expressly decouple industrial participation from amounts ordered it is quite feasible the UK could receive a sizeable return on its £2bn investment in the JSF programme and not buy a single one.
The report notes some uncertainty about JCA, Rafale and interoperability, is this pushing towards the Rafale perhaps?
A CVF/Rafale swapperoo is truly the lowest cost option and whilst we would sorely miss the capabilities of the F35 those that think this is an outrageous proposition clearly is no student of history!
It’s only a guess but my prediction, in best Mystic Meg style, is that the UK and France will each operate a single aircraft carrier of CVF design, training and aircraft will be pooled, maintenance likewise.
A single fleet of Rafale will be the order of the day.
On operations if two are available, we will operate separately and if not, we will cover for each other, i.e. a loss of sovereignty during refit periods, this being judged to be a risk worth taking.
The writing is on the wall so all talk of costs, extra range and bigger bomb bays is just piffle designed to distract from the true intent.