A guest post from Martin
Like many Think Defence commentators (especially the awesome ones with a leaning towards the Dark Blue), I was very excited about the decision of the SDSR to move to a CATOBAR configuration of the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft carrier.
I had always loved the thought of the original CVF configuration with F35B. However, when the prospect of having a “proper carrier” operating F35 C or even just F18 arose, many people got very excited and I am no exception. This idea seemed justified in the light of rising costs and falling capabilities provided by the F35B, not to mention the looming prospect of cancelation. Rough estimates of £ 400 million being bandied about for carrier conversion seemed reasonable when we factored in the extra cost of purchasing F35B. The additional operating costs of CATOBAR seemed to be offset by the greater capabilities offered by larger jet with longer range and larger payload.
Best of all, if I am being totally honest, it allowed us to measure our trouser length against the world’s preeminent naval force for the first time in 40 years. That is not to say that trouser length is not important. When playing politics with the big boys, it is often necessary to have the same toys. Taking the French Navy as an example, it has nowhere near the combat power or capability of the Royal Navy but through a single CVN and everyone chalks them up as number two in the world.
However, as costs of conversion skyrocketed to £ 5 billion for conversion of both carriers, all the arguments went out the window. A STOVL configuration operating F35 B is the only logical choice. However, the more I began to think about it and read on TD from various commentators, the more I began not only to accept the decision on cost grounds, but slowly accept that it may be a superior concept to CATOBAR.
Looking at Trends
No one can argue that CATOBAR aircraft are superior to STOVL aircraft today. However, CATOBAR is far from a great military concept. Having a $100 million piece of metal flying at a $ 6 billion dollar piece of metal at a speed of over 166 miles an hour is far from an ideal situation. The effective CATOBAR operations are a massive testament to the Royal Navy of the 1950s and the US Navy subsequently.
Even with modern practice, CATOBAR has a number of issues such as higher fatigue rate of aircraft, larger crews required to handle flight operations, significantly larger ships required and not to forget a higher loss rate of pilot’s.
Even the biggest carrier junkie in the US Navy would have to admit that if there were no aircraft limitations from STOVL designs, the concept of being able to hover and land on deck is massively superior to a ”controlled crash”.
When designing aircraft carriers to last 50 years, future proofing is obviously vital. The QE class was supposedly designed to be easily convertible to CATOBAR configuration in the future, in case we began to operate UCAS systems requiring a conventional launch. Apparently the design is nowhere near flexible as we were lead to believe.
However, if we look at military trends over the past 50 years what makes us think CATOBAR will be the future?
If we look at the first generation of STOVL aircraft in the Harrier Mark 1, which was introduced in the late 1960s around the same time as the F4 Phantom flying off US Navy carriers, we can see the Harrier is massively inferior.
Harrier Mk1, F4 Phantom
Combat Radius 230 miles 422 miles
Speed 731 mph 1,472 mph
Radar none mechanically scanned
Armament 2,268 KG 8,840 Kg
Next, looking at a comparison between the second generations of STOVL aircraft introduced in the 1980’s with comparable CATOBAR aircraft we can see a relative improvement in STOVL. Looking at Harrier II AV8 B compared to the FA18 A/B. We can still see a clear advantage of FA18 but it is nowhere near the advantage F4 had over the original harrier.
Harrier II AV8 B, F18 A/B
Combat Radius 350 miles 460 miles
Speed 673mph 1190 mph
Radar Mechanically Scanned Mechanically Scanned
Weapons Capacity 5,988KG 6,215 KG
While we do not have any current exact performance figures for F35 B or C as they are still in testing, we have a good idea that F35 C offers a significantly better Combat Radius of 707 miles vs. 540 miles. The F35C can also return more undelivered stores to the carrier. The Systems and electronics of both aircraft are identical and having smaller wings allows the F35B to have slightly higher top speed and more maneuverability, although I believe the F35B is limited to 7G vs. 9G for the F35C. The F35 C can carry almost double the internal payload of the F35B when comparing 2,000lbs and 1,000lbs bombs. Weight is not really the major issue but rather the length of ordinance. C can carry 8 SDB as compared to B’s 6. We are looking at roughly a 25% increase in Payload for the C to the B when we take into account external stores. While I would still say the F35 C has the edge, it is merely marginal. The main benefit it has is range but the F35B’s combat radius cannot be ignored when it is in fact, superior to the previous generation of CATOBAR aircraft.
The point I am trying to make here is not that the F35B is better than the F35C. It’s still not, but the trend over the last 50 years has shown improvements in STOVL designs, far in excess of what has been achieved by their CATOBAR cousins. The performance differences are now relatively minimal. Given that it’s easier and safer to operate a STOVL design and more cost effective, this trend suggests that the future lies with STOVL and not CATOBAR. Other trends over the last 50 years include engines becoming more powerful, electronics lighter and more compact and weapons smaller and more accurate. All these trends favor STOVL.
Unmanned Combat Air Systems
There is no doubt that the longer-term future of fighters and strike aircraft lies in unmanned systems. However, when exactly that future arrives and what it look like, is open to debate. What we can say is that UAVs have been vital for the last 20 years. These vital UAVs are not jet powered, stealthy strike bombers but rather, slow flying propeller aircraft.
A lot of criticism is levied against the STOVL design of the QE Class and one example is without CATOBAR, we will not be able to operate UCAS’s systems. However, given that there is only one CATOBAR UCAS in the design phase at present- the X47, and that aircraft has yet to demonstrate its ability to actually land on a moving aircraft carrier, we can rest easy for a while that the world will not suddenly become dominated by Cylon raider’s flying off of aircraft carriers. It will be a massive engineering challenge to get X47 to work as part of a functional air group.
The engineering challenge of launching a slow flying propeller plane off of an aircraft carrier and recovering it was solved in 1917. These planes were launched from a converted coal ship with no catapult and a limited arrestor system. Compare the X47 and its capability with the myriad of smaller cheaper UAVs and UCAVs on the market today and tell me what offers the best capability. The Queen Elizabeth Class will present any UAV with a 270 m long runway moving forward at 25 knots into a head wind with a big ski jump at the end. I dare say there is not a UAV on the market today that cannot launch under those conditions with a little design modification. Recovery will be a little more difficult, but a slow flying plane with a low stall speed presented with a 270-meter runway moving forward should not find it difficult to land on deck. It may even be possible for the aircraft to stop without the use of arrestor gear simply using a drogue Para shoot.
There is no doubt in my mind that X47 is the most impressive UCAS under development today. However, what is more useful to a task group commander? A faster flying, stealthy vehicle able to carry one or two weapons internally with a range of 2000 miles and a loiter time of 10 hours? Or a MALE UAV like Mantis, able to stay in the air for 30 hours and carry almost any weapon or sensor you like. Arguably, if you are preparing to fight China in the Pacific you want the X47. For any other job I will choose the Sea Mantis.
Eventually, we will have to fly big fast stealthy unmanned systems off of our carrier. However, if we have already solved the problems for manned jets with the F35 B, why would we think this would be any different for unmanned jets? Stripping out the associated weight of a pilot likely makes a STOVL aircraft even better with improved fuel load and increased return weights.
Many argue that without a CATOBAR configuration, we will be left out when it becomes time to replace F35. However, there are only two nations in the world that operate CATOBAR capable jets whereas many more operate STOVL aircraft. We have been developing STOVL aircraft with the USMC since the 1960s. What make us think the USMC will not still be flying STOVL aircraft beyond F35?
What are we actually going to do with the JCA?
If we look at the historical differences in naval aviation between the US and the UK, we can also see some interesting precedents.
During the early part of World War 2, the US and UK had roughly similar sized carrier fleets with similar sized vessels. The major difference was in design of those vessels. The Royal Navy knew it would have to fight closer to shore, in range of land-based aircraft. Consequently, it built its ships with armored decks. This cut the air group in half and meant usage of smaller planes with less range.
The US Navy knew on the other hand it would be fighting far out to sea in the Pacific against other carriers. Therefore, it built wooden deck vessels that can operate much larger groups of aircraft, which can overpower other carriers with smaller air groups. The US navy also needed aircraft with longer range to conduct operations in the Pacific.
The F35 C has a massive combat radius of over 700 miles, even more than its land based counterpart. The US feels that it needs that range not for longer loitering time over the battlefield, but to give the navy the ability to attack targets well in land or allow carriers to operate against Chinese forces from a relatively safe distance out in the distant ocean.
Our needs are very different.
The map above shows the F35c 990 km combat radius based on any of the places we have bombed in the last 20 years or are likely to bomb in the next 10. The main argument behind carrier air power is that it can get in closer than land based aircraft and needs less in the way of refueling. With fighter aircraft, you can never have enough range. However, 990km seems to be overdoing it. In each of these scenarios, there are NATO and allied airfields well within the F35C combat radius. I have no desire to get involved in US – China geopolitics in the Pacific. I do not see a need to spend a fortune designing our carriers and aircraft to fight in an environment that I don’t want to fight in and likely never will.
The F35 C offers much greater payload and bring back weight. This cannot be denied as the F35C has the ability to carry two 2000lbs JDAMS internally vs. F35B, which can only carry two 1,000lbs internally. However, in operational terms do we see the need for 2,000lbs bombs? As weapons become more accurate and collateral damage becomes less and less acceptable, we have seen a clear move away from large dumb bombs to smaller more accurate weapons. The best weapon in our armoury today seems to be Paveway IV at 500 lbs. When will we ever need the ability to drop four of these at one time? Moving forward, weapons like the US Small diameter bomb are even smaller. There is certainly a need for larger bombs, but these are becoming fewer all the time and increasingly niche. Factor in weapons like Storm shadow for tackling deep buried targets and we can reasonably say the F35B is going to be able to cope with almost any tactical situation F35C can.
Many are concerned about the reduced bring back weight of the STOVL version. This is a valid concern and it’s not like the C version’s bring back is amazing either. If a F35 takes off with a Storm shadow for instance, its primary reason will be to strike a static high value target such as a runway, command post or air defence site, why would it be bringing the missile back? Maybe the war was declared over and there was a recall order. Awesome no war, who cares about dropping a million dollar missile in the water? The aircraft may get into trouble and have to return to the aircraft carrier for repair, are we really going to suggest that if an F35C was in trouble and making an emergency landing on our nice new carrier that the pilot would not first drop his ordinance?
Having more bring back weight is obviously better. However it’s a marginal difference, which with a little operational planning can be overcome.
We should also not forget that trends in STOVL aircraft tend to see engine thrust improve over time. There are rumors that Pratt & Whitney is working on a more powerful version of the F135 in line with the quoted performance of the F136, offering nearly 20% more thrust. As the F35B is dependent on engine thrust for returning weight for every pound of thrust we add, we can add a pound of returning stores. As the F35C is dependent on aerodynamic lift for returning stores, it is limited from day one by its landing speed. Given that its landing speed is already similar to the cruising speed of a TGV it would seem unwise to try to increase it.
AEW, AAR and COD
One of the main reasons why I wanted a “proper carrier” is to enable us to operate the E2 Hawkeye. Airborne Early Warning is a vital capability that the UK did without in 1982, and paid a massive price for. We are obviously inclined to focus on this area. There is arguably no better aircraft for AEW than the E2D. Hence, should there be any combat over the Pacific, far away from air bases, it would be the first aircraft chosen to be in my inventory.
However, AEW is not the same as AWACS. Operations like Libya and Kosovo require a lot of controllers coordinating aircraft flying from a number of different places. Arguably, E3 is much better than E2D at doing this and I have no doubt that E3 once upgraded, will be superior to E2D. Looking back at our map, there has been no conflict we have fought in where we would have used E2’s instead of E3’s, bar one which shall remain nameless.
This is not to say that our carriers do not need AEW. Clearly 1982 showed us they do. However, if we ever go and fight someone 1982 style again on our own you can bet they will have a s**t air force and the capability of CROWSNEST and F35 will be more than able to deal with them. The reason I know this is because if they don’t have a s**t air force, we won’t be fighting them. If we are talking serious pier threat’s i.e. Russia or China, then it’s already gone thermonuclear and really the ability of Nelly and Dumbo to defend themselves from massed Sukhoi attacks will pale in comparison to the fact your house is gone and unless you have factor 2 million sunblock so are you.
On the very rare occasion that E3 cannot provide us with cover then CROWSNEST will provide adequate capability.
Conventional carriers have the ability to launch aircraft for AAR refueling. The US Navy uses the F18 in this role. However, it’s not a combat enhancing capability in the way that a Voyager tanker would be. It’s an austere capability to allow aircraft to circle or go around if they have problems landing. A STOVL carrier does not need such a thing. In terms of operational use in any area we have fought or are likely to fight in, the Voyager provides a massively superior capability.
For Carrier on board delivery, the US Navy uses the C2 Greyhound. This is a very useful aircraft to have. However, the V22 Osprey can actually carry a heavier load and is easily capable of providing COB anywhere we are likely to operate. Obviously we don’t have any V22s, but we don’t have any C2s either. Given the fact that it’s out of production and the USN needs to keep what it has got, we never were likely to get any. V22 provides a much more versatile capability than C2, offering us the ability to deliver Special Forces at great range. We could possibly even stick palletized radar on board for enhanced AEW or even put in a palletized central line refueling system to offer a far better AAR capability than F18 can provide. The point is, if we had a bit more cash we could buy V22 and operate them from our QE Class carriers.
Airborne Early Warning, AAR and COB cannot be seen as areas that a CATOBAR carrier has distinct advantages over a STOVL design when we look at actual operational usage.
STOVL designs do have some significant advantages over their CATOBAR cousins. STOVL aircraft can operate higher sortie rates. Figures quoted put the sortie rate for STOVL aircraft as much as 50% higher than CATOBAR aircraft.
Also, STOVL carriers offer much improved flexibility in terms of operating aircraft. Conventional carrier struggle to operate large amounts of helicopter’s and simultaneous flight operations for fixed and rotary wing aircraft are nearly impossible on a large scale.
STOVL carriers can operate in far worse sea conditions and aircraft operations are safer (as long as the lift fan works).
Whose trousers are really longer anyway?
When comparing trouser length, we have to be careful to compare like with like. The CVF concept is to operate three squadrons all equipped with F35Bs. If we cast our mind back to the heady days of SDR in 1998, the reason we choose 36 as the magic number was because this was the same as a standard Nimitz Air Group. While the Nimitz class is quoted as carrying up to 90 aircraft, in reality the US navy does not have this many planes. Operating 90 aircraft off a Nimitz is also difficult and many of the planes will have to be parked on deck. It’s not a good idea to leave $100 million stealth planes out in the open with sun and salt water spray.
Also, let us not forget that F35 C will not be replacing the entire US Navy fleet of strike aircraft. A United States Navy carrier air wing in the mid 2020’s is likely to consist of 24 FA 18 EF 12 F35c 4 F18 G and 4 Hawkeye E2D with possibly 4 X47’s. If fully funded to its intended level, then a Royal Navy Carrier Air wing of the mid 2020’s would consist of maybe 36 F35 B and 4 AEW Merlin.
If we assume that the F35 is superior to the F18 and that the capability of the AESA radar on the F35 negates much of the need for the F18G, then which force is superior? The US navy force certainly has the longer range but the Royal Navy group has the technological edge as well as the ability to generate up to 50% more in combat sorties. If we put an E3 and a Voyager tanker overhead flying from land bases, there is very little difference in the capability of one group vs. the other.
I know we will probably not buy enough F35Bs to operate 36 aircraft and will likely never need to do so anyway. However, in terms of combat power the CVF F35B STOVL concept is certainly viable and gives us in some ways more capability than the usual load of a US Navy Nimitz Class Carrier. There is certainly not the same type of gap that existed between an Invincible Class CVS and a Nimitz Class in the previous incarnation. Factoring in a battle group with two of the world’s best AAW destroyer’s, two of the best ASW frigates and quite possibly the world’s best SSN and the navy of the next decade never has to worry about the size of its inside seem.
There is no doubt that STOVL operations are cheaper. We specifically gave up CATOBAR operations because they were too expensive. We also realized that while aircraft carriers are great for gunboat diplomacy and policing the third world, they are little more than giant floating targets if we go up against a determined pier enemy armed with SSN’s and supersonic cruise missiles. Putting price aside, CATOBAR carriers still offer a greater capability than their STOVL rivals. However, the margin of that capability has become much smaller and in many ways irrelevant. Now that we have reverted back to STOVL, it is time to make the concept work to its maximum potential. The RN has always led the way in naval aviation, relying on innovation where budgets were lacking. If any navy can take the STOVL concept to the point it becomes superior to the CATOBAR, it’s ours and I hope over the next 50 years we do just that.