A guest post from Chris EA
On Thursday the British Secretary of State, Mr Hammond, announced a reversal in the decision to switch to the Carrier Variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35C, and return to the Short Take-off/Vertical Landing variant, the F-35B.
With all of the political handbag swinging combined with the raging debates in the media as to how the Ministry of Defence and the current Government could, should (or have) done things better, it’s easy to forget that this equipment is on its way and our service personnel will be relying on this kit to protect themselves while looking after the British people.
Let’s have a look at the positive side of the decision.
It’s the economy, stupid
There is no doubt that the cost and capabilities of existing and in-development catapult launched aircraft such as the F-18 and the F-35C are impressive, making it understandable why Britain would have sought to add CATOBAR capability to the Queen Elizabeth class of carriers.
Why Britain was in a position where she had to think about converting Carriers to operate CATOBAR aircraft mid-construction at all is an article in itself, but the cost of converting a pair of STOVL carriers in order to operate more conventional aircraft is too much for the country’s bank balance to bear. Britain’s already deep into her overdraft facility.
Being a little short on cash, Britain has had to take along hard look hard at her place in the world. It would be easy to cut back the armed forces still further and reduce her dealings in the world but if you want to secure your maritime trading arrangements on a global scale, attempt to promote your values and also assist the unfortunate when disaster strikes, then you often need a military to resort to.
Britain has chosen to maintain her influence and has vowed to continue sending aid and assistance to poorer and disaster struck nations.
What Britain is (hopefully) getting
Given this money situation and Britain’s choice of role in the world, she has to play the hand she’s been dealt.
Looking at the equipment, training and experience that the British Armed Forces has and is getting, it’s not all doom and gloom.
Come the end of decade, it’s looking increasingly likely that two 65k ton CVF carriers, Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, will be in service on a rotational basis providing Britain with one carrier available for operations year-round.
Flying from these Carriers, assuming all goes smoothly, will be a compact fleet of Fifth Generation, Supersonic aircraft with all of the low-observability, networked systems, defences and strike packages that the “5th” tag implies.
These will be supported by an ever increasing fleet of helicopters including refitted Chinooks as well as newly built Merlin’s and Wildcats. Britain is increasing its stock of helicopters that the miltary and populace have been clamouring for.
Taking into account the newly built Type 45 Destroyers, Astute SSN’s and taking the Type 26 project into account, there are not many Navy’s in the world that will be able to boast such a modernised inventory across the whole fleet.
How does this compare to what we used to have or could have had?
F-35B vs. Apache AH1
Right now, Britain does not have a Carrier Strike or Maritime Combat Air Patrol capability. That was lost with the decommissioning and downgrading of the CVS Carriers and the scrapping of the Harrier fleet. You could even argue the UK lost true Carrier Strike and CAP with the scrapping of the Sea Harrier and the air intercept radar it came with.
The closest Britain comes is with the ever impressive AH1 version of the Apache Attack Helicopter first demonstrated in the Libyan campaign.
Although this Operation clearly demonstrated the capacity to fly aerial combat missions from LPH Carriers in support of ground operations, this is not in the same category as Carrier Strike.
This leaves Britain with close-to-shore aerial ground support combined with whatever capabilities her Surface Vessel fleet assets can supply on their own. They lack the additional “dome” layer of defence that a Carrier vessel brings to table.
F-35B vs. Harrier Gr9
Clearly the decision to stick with the F-35B and continue with the CVF Carriers in a STOVL configuration provides a superior military capability to what the UK has right now.
One message that often gets lost in the current furore over the u-turn is that STOVL Carriers operating the F-35B also provide a superior military capability compared to what Britain used to have in the form of the Invincible class operating Harriers as well.
As much loved as the Harriers are back in Blighty, the F-35B is clearly superior in respect to range, speed, weapons load and variety, its ability to return with greater stores, reduced workload on the pilot, its electronic warfare suite, detection capabilities and in the undeniable fact that it is harder to detect without the exposed fan of the Pegasus engine. The ability to hover longer than a reservoir of cooling water is also a benefit.
It is also suggested that the F-35B is easier to maintain than the Harrier due to fewer moving parts overall and greater experience in designing maintenance access to its components.
CVF vs. CVS
Similarly, the Queen Elizabeth class provides superior capabilities to the Invincible class and should take a minor detour here to look at a usual operating base for the new aircraft.
Range and endurance through greater stores is an obvious aspect, but the class also has a greater seaworthiness and stability. This allows for flight deck operations in rougher sea states which, combined with the STOVL variants greater rough weather abilities, yet further increases the availability of the CVF Carriers to operate when they required.
The larger hangar capacity allows flexibility over smaller LPH classes especially as the operating costs are comparable:
- Surge combat aircraft strength in times of serious conflict
- Operate a greater variety of rotorcraft
- More space assists with maintenance, repairs and turnaround times
The other facilities of the CVF are just as superior:
- Large hospital for combat or disaster victims
- Spacious crew quarters relieve stress and help keep crew alert
- Larger passenger accommodation for military personnel or evacuations
- Command and Control suites for operating a task force and analysing intelligence
The larger size at relatively minor additional cost compared to a vessel the same size as a Mistral allows for a greater variety of missions to be carried out, with greater capacity and potentially simultaneously.
STOVL vs. CATOBAR
Given, the capabilities of dedicated conventional aircraft are superior to the STOVL variant of the F-35. This is not in dispute.
Being able to support CATOBAR aircraft would allow the purchase of off-the-shelf proven airframes. In particular the F-18 and the E-2D Hawkeye spring to mind and have been discussed at great lengths by others.
Britain can’t afford to convert her two CVF’s under construction but does gain a few benefits through this decision.
Firstly are the in-service dates. Britain already owns two F-35B’s for testing purposes and pilot training is already underway. The current (I know, I know: Subject to change) in-service date for the first batch of F-35B’s is in 2016, in time for Queen Elizabeth to be delivered for sea trials and with both Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales to be fully operational by the end of the decade.
This would be delayed by conversion work and the later delivery times of the F-35C. Even with flying on-loan or cheaply purchased F-18′s (or Rafales as some have suggested) this date would be pushed into the mid-2020′s, potentially up to 10 years longer. Britain would have a very long capability gap.
By converting to CATOBAR Britain would only receive a single Carrier able to operate these aircraft.
With STOVL the option is available to operate two Carriers, likely in a rotational capacity instead of both on active duty, at a (relatively) small cost of £60m per year. A lot of commentators would be surprised if this option wasn’t picked up at the SDSR 2015 session as this would bring Britain’s Carrier Availability to 100% of the year instead of around 7 months.
The British Armed Forces haven’t only been available for 7 months of the year since Knightly armies packed up their campaigns for the winter! There are also additional intangible benefits discussed later.
It has been suggested that Britain is putting all her eggs in one basket with the F-35B. Surely Britain would be putting even more of her eggs in one basket with only a single aircraft carrier?
This leads to another point. The F-35B is not limited to the CVF’s. With work, it is possible to operate them from the existing LPH’s, LSD’s and potentially from modified merchant vessels. A number of Allied vessels are yet another possibility. That’s a lot of options.
The key benefits of sticking with the STOVL Carriers are:
- Obtain Carrier Strike and CAP capability sooner (around 2018)
- Able to perform Carrier Strike and CAP operations all-year round
- Redundancy in the event of the loss of an aircraft carrier
In the specific choice of 60% availability at F-35C capability vs. 100% availability at F-35B capability, having capability all year round is clearly the superior choice.
The Joint F-35B Fleet
Even with two carriers, the UK is likely to move a smaller number of aircraft between them and ground operations.
In Britain this was pioneered as a joint operation between the Royal Navy and the RAF with the Harrier and I don’t see this arrangement changing.
There are benefits that the F-35B can return to the RAF too: Experience in deploying Harriers to ad-hoc Forward Operating Bases will allow the RAF to once more bring fast jet support closer to the front line, hopefully reducing response times in assisting our personnel on the ground.
This ability, although rarely used (I can only think of the Falklands and do not think the AV-8B has been deployed in this fashion at all) still maintains the Cold War concept of being able to operate fast jets despite airfield damage.
In an era where Iran is flexing their ballistic missile muscles to target Allied air bases in the Middle East, this capability may yet be required.
Directly experiencing the Harrier-like capabilities of F-35B once more may also help make up the mind of RAF chiefs when it comes to picking options after finally retiring the Tornado fleet. When choices are presented between wet jets such as the F-35B and dry jets such as Typhoon, continuing to operate a common aircraft across the services might be advantageous.
Bringing different capabilities to the table
The Royal Navy with Blue Water designed STOVL Carriers of 65k tons, but operating a Power Projection doctrine with integrated helicopter and fast jet operations appears to blend the approach of the US Marine Corps, the US Navy and the Royal Navy prior to the 70′s.
This is a different set of capabilities compared to what the different US services and Britain’s other allies operate.
Tactically a British task force would be more flexible, at the expense of focus. AAW, ASW, Amphibious operations.
Strategically you wouldn’t be sure how a British task force would deploy its assets: Concentrate the Joint Fleet on a Carrier? Move the Joint Fleet to Forward Operating Bases? Divide the aircraft amongst the different landing pads on the fleet? Would hitting their carrier remove the threat of the aircraft?
It gives Opposition planners a headache.
Britain also brings the British Way of Thinking, a slightly out of the box approach to problems often driven by a necessity. Who else would certify AH1 Apache’s for Maritime deployment from a Carrier? Who else would fly obsolete bombers the length of the world to hit an airbase? A bouncing bomb? Boiling Vessels in tanks to make a cup of tea… oh and to cook a warm dinner! Slightly different tools and slightly different problem solving methods will help an Allied Commander.
Britain is certainly mad enough to attempt an F-35B strike from the aft deck of a Type 45…
Conspiracy theories about Bae hiking up the conversion costs aside, sticking to STOVL does bring economic benefits.
More F-35B’s means more Lift Fan assemblies are required which means that Rolls Royce will receive more orders providing more work to their workers.
Similarly, if the option to operate the second STOVL carrier is taken up, you can expect the majority of that £60m a year to flow back into the British economy through wages, maintenance contracts and other servicing arrangements.
A more stable CVF and F-35 program also means that the MoD can be more certain of its finances. This bodes well for the Type 26 Global Combat Ship program which is sorely needed in reasonable numbers and capability of its own in order to plug other naval gaps that have appeared in recent cuts, such as the downsizing of the Type 45 order.
Sticking with STOVL carriers is still not going to be straight forward.
The matter of AEW is still a problem and the likelihood is that the Sea Kings with Searchwater Radars will be replaced with Merlin’s carrying either re-tasked Searchwater’s or (hopefully) Vigilant style AESA pods.
Even this solution to VTOL based AEW is not ideal but it bears reminding that the F-35B and C each contain autonomous detection arrays that interact together with other assets such as the Type 45 SAMSON to provide a wide area AEW network.
Instead of all your eggs in a handful of AEW baskets, all of your eggs are now distributed and gathering information on the airspace. This helps combat other low-observable aircraft by maintaining several viewing angles.
The F-35B program still contains risks: An overheating clutch on the Lift Fan, damage experienced to the Lift Fan doors, jittery helmet displays when projecting the “see through” image to the pilot.
These sound like engineering problems that are relatively confined to their own components. Contrasts with the tail hook problem of the F-35C which could require structural changes to accomodate a different size and shape hook assembly.
Developing a Plan D is also prudent and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t underway already. Plan D as in the F-35A is not carrier capable at all, F-35B project may fail and Britain cannot afford conversion to fly the F-35C.
Development of the Ski-jump capable Sea Gripen was moved by SAAB to a UK research centre a few years ago in order to leverage development skills based there and close proximity to other UK defence centres could make the Sea Gripen an option.
The Indian LCA Tejas is also another possibility being another Ski-jump capable aircraft on the horizon developed by a friendly nation.
Being “stuck” with a STOVL only Carrier also provides motivation to solve the limitations that the set-up enforces in order to be able to reap its benefits.
For example, given the steady pace of UAV and UCAV development, how will these be operated from a STOVL Carrier? Rocket assisted launch? Mini-EMALS? Ski-jump Launch? A new kind of arrestor gear? LEMV style hybrid airships operating for weeks over the task force?
With Rolls Royce’s development of the award winning Lift Fan on the F-35B, will be see a Dassault/Bae Taranis derivative fitted with a Lift Fan to give it STOVL capabilities of its own?
Now that Britain’s relying on a single model of aircraft, will we see another F136 engine program start up or be resurrected in order to provide Britain with more engine options as per the AH1?
In the future, we may also see Britain engaging in developing aircraft that are Maritime capable from the outset, a Navalised Typhoon from project initiation as per the Rafale if you will. It’s sensible for a Maritime country to ensure Maritime abilities in almost everything that they do.
World Peace as a preference aside, if I was able to pick Britain’s Carrier capacity from scratch I would pick three CATOBAR equipped carriers with a variety of aircraft.
However two STOVL Carriers operating F-35B’s and helicopter support year-round is still a step-change in capability for the UK and puts Britain back on the playing field.