Recent reports of a rumour from the usual ‘reliable defence sources’ indicates that the MoD is considering switching its preferred option to fulfil the Joint Combat Aircraft from the F35B STVOL version to the traditional carrier version, the F35C. The MoD reiterated its preferred option is the B model.
Whilst having carrier borne aviation (something by the way the Royal Navy and Royal pioneered) is without a doubt a superb military capability to have we think at this point, it is simply not worth the basic cost or more importantly, the distortion it causes to the rest of the Royal Navy surface and sub surface fleet.
So whilst everyone else is dabbling in conjecture and opinion so here is mine…
The Utility of Carrier Aviation
Proponents of CVF and JCA argue with some conviction that naval fast air is fundamental to expeditionary warfare and sea control and that their presence in an area provides a strong deterrent and political advantage. The Falklands conflict and the initial air campaign in Afghanistan are often cited as striking examples of the utility of naval aviation
These arguments are very strong; carrier aviation has long since replaced the battleship as the capital ship of any navy.
The threats ranged against a deployed CVF are many and varied. The US carriers are a potent symbol of US power so by extension, the potential enemy’s of the US are the same as ours. If Russia and China have spent billions and decades on perfecting weapons to attack the US carriers then these will be equally as effective against CVF and let’s not forget the Western nations selling advanced anti ship missiles to the Middle East and others.
Advanced mines, very quite conventional submarines, swarms of small craft and supersonic anti ship missiles all offer a very real threat. We won’t though, sit there passively waiting to be overwhelmed, our offensive and defensive capabilities all have a say in the matter. Hitting the support facilities of a conventional submarine with submarine launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and having an effective ship, submarine and helicopter borne anti submarine screen will seek to drastically reduce the risk.
The advantages of all these weapons systems are fundamentally, in comparison with CVF and her air group, their cheapness, especially missiles, mines and boats. This cheapness means they can be used in quantities to try and negate the obvious qualitative advantages enjoyed by the RN and USN. The tactic will try and overwhelm a carrier battle groups defences. If we had 6 or 7 carriers then the loss of one to a lucky strike might not be catastrophic but at most we will one, at a push two.
There is no doubt that the threat is getting greater as capabilities improve and systems proliferate and we haven’t even covered capable maritime strike aircraft available to potential enemies.
The net result of this increasing risk is two fold
- We need an increasing number of defensive assets just to protect the carriers
- Carriers are forced further offshore
1 means we simply price ourselves out of the market because even though we struggle with the cost of the carrier air group we will certainly have an even greater struggle to maintain adequate defences. Or, we have to accept that we can only participate against second rate opponents.
2 means the ability deliver ordnance on target, carry out ISR taskings or any other offensive air operation becomes greatly denuded as despite being able to generate a high sortie rate the distances involved mean the presence at the target area is diminished due to travel time. If the enemy has a credible air offence capability until that is neutralised a large proportion of the carriers air wing must be devoted to self protection, exacerbating the offensive effect problem even further.
This leads us to think that in a real shooting war against a credible opponent the utility of carriers, whilst still very high, is much less than might be imagined.
Against a less capable opponent, as could be argued will the norm, their utility does of course increase.
The case for carriers in the US Navy is much clearer because they have the resources to force entry, neutralise threats and maintain a presence. But we don’t and even the US Navy is beginning to think that in the future they may have to rethink the viability of carriers, avoiding being straight-jacketed into the battleship mentality of old.
Naval and land based air capabilities are complimentary and without land based support much of the sharpness of naval air is blunted. Air to air refuelling, long range ISTAR etc are all needed in most operations regardless of whether they are launched off a carrier or airfield. The flexibility of carrier borne aircraft cannot be doubted and it is also a certainty that no one needs to give permission to be in international waters. However, recent conflicts have shown that whilst host nation support may be difficult to obtain, it always was obtained. This is not to say this will be the case in the future, carrier aviation gives you this ultimate insurance.
The Falklands and her resources are often cited as an example of why we need to buy the CVF. A long runway, pair of Typhoons, Tomahawk armed SSN’s, a large well equipped garrison and defence force and the state of the Argentinean forces paint a different picture to 1982.
The Royal Navy has a proud history of innovation, the steam powered iron battleship, the submarine, anti submarine warfare, heliborne amphibious operations, naval aviation and much more besides.
CVF represents simply a following of the existing order just as UAV’s and distributed ‘cloud computing’ type resilient networking operations are on the cusp of being realised.
The Joint Combat Aircraft
The F35 programme promises much including reasonable stealth, superb sensors and avionics, fully integrated weapons, low cost and a cure for cancer/laser death ray/ending of world pverty.
Ok, joking about the last one but no one can doubt the hype.
The UK is a top tier industrial partner so whether we buy any or not is irrelevant to the industrial benefits argument that so often flies in the face of sensible military decision making. If less are purchased then the benefits will be lessened but in principal our purchase or not will have a relatively small influence on the overall programme costs.
The C model is the version optimised for conventional carrier operations, using catapults and traps, the B model is the Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STVOL) version can be thought of as a go faster, go further, do more Harrier.
The original plan was for the RN and RAF to use the same type. This made a lot of sense, the RAF could supplement or surge the carrier borne air wing as conventional carrier take and landing skills are hard to obtain and maintain. The Fleet Air Arm could participate in ground operations (as the current Naval Strike Wing has done in Afghanistan) in a common systems operation. This was a pragmatic and sensible choice. Complicating this is the fact that all the airframes would actually be ‘purchased’ by the RAF. This doesn’t get any more sensible.
Further cost savings could be obtained by a reduction in training requirements (deck crew and pilots) and the elimination of the significant purchase and through life costs associated with steam generators and catapults. If the UK and US electromagnetic launch catapults could be perfected in time then these costs might be reduced but this technology is still in its troubled early years.
The C model is undoubtedly the better performer, longer range, more payload, larger internal bomb bays that unlike the C would be able to accommodate Meteor and a number of other advantages. Of course it can’t take off from austere airfields or land on any flat deck. As ever, trade-offs between one area and the other inevitably produce a compromise design but the B model is a more flexible option.
It was always thought the decision to go with the B model was based on the through life cost so these rumours are very surprising given the cash strapped nature of the MoD.
If the C model were chosen it is not likely the RAF would continue with the B, there is no way the UK would entertain having three distinct fast jet types (Typhoon, B and C) and the attraction for the RAF having the C model is greatly lessened because there is little in real terms to distinguish it from the Typhoon, one would erode the case for the other and vice versa. Result, the RAF gets less.
We think the C whilst no doubt better performing in many areas, would be bad news for the armed forces overall.
When looking at CVF we must also examine our position within NATO and any potential medium to large scale operation. We explicitly state in defence and foreign policy that medium to large scale operations will be carried out in conjunction with allies i.e. the US.
Is this always likely to be the case over the lifespan of the carriers, perhaps, perhaps not?
The EU or some other international organisation may take a greater role but we must be pragmatic and avoid planning for every single possible permutation and combination.
In recent operations the US Navy has always been involved and is likely to be so in the short to medium term future, in these operations the availability or lack of availability of a Royal Navy fast air wing has been neither decisive essential. Of course, this is a difficult premise to extend because none had been available but the reality is the US can maintain such a capability and we cannot not, given we are likely to be operating in conjunction with the USN in any future medium or large scale operation is the CVF something that we can forego?
This is a difficult concept to accept because it leads one to think that we don’t need to have a rounded capability, the US can provide everything, but some pragmatism is needed even though a carrier brings influence in any coalition.
Let’s be blunt, the argument against comes down to cash.
Are they worth it is the general question, can we get greater effect by spending the money elsewhere.
Despite the issues we highlight above it is obvious that carriers do have great flexibility and utility but they are so expensive because you cannot divorce the cost of the carrier from the cost of its air wing. Whatever aircraft is chosen or however it turn out, one thing is absolutely certain.
The whole package will be extremely expensive.
Recognising this, the RN and RAF have adjusted their plans accordingly, the RN having agreed to what amounts to a gutting of its surface and sub surface fleet and the RAF agreeing to a wide range of cuts in capabilities and numbers.
This is simply ridiculous and we need to wake up to the fact that the whole package is not affordable in the current economic climate. Yes there are arguments for retaining a balanced force, yes there are arguments for greater defence spending and yes there are many other arguments that all point to CVF/JCA but if you ask what should be cut in order to accommodate them the sound of silence is deafening.
The delays in CVF, that same delay that has just cost us a projected £1bn and likely to rise, is as a direct result of delays, not because we wanted the arrival of CVF to coincide with the arrival or JCA.
The arguments for having smaller carriers or even only one are simply not worth pursuing, the cost savings would be minimal.
Whichever version we end up getting, the STVOL or conventional carrier launch version, this much is true, there will be much less of them than originally wanted, running costs will be significant and it will have a disproportionate on the wider RN. The RN of 2020 will be extremely top heavy, a capable amphibious fleet and a potent carrier force but without the air defence destroyers to protect them in a real shooting war, without the anti submarine capability to protect them in a real shooting war, without the mine warfare assets to protect them in a real shooting war, without the submarines to operate in a real shooting war and without the auxiliary vessels to keep them resupplied in a high tempo real shooting war.
Rumours of the Royal Navy’s demise are greatly exagerated but at the current rate I think the CVF and JCA will result in a Royal Navy that is approaching all fur coat and no knickers status.
It will be optimised for the high end but without the ability to actually take part in the high end and lacking the ability to the day to day that takes up so much operational ‘bandwidth’ today and tomorrow.
In an ideal world this wouldn’t be the case because we would ensure that in addition to CVF with a decent size air wing we would have adequate numbers of Type 45 destroyers, Astute submarines, auxiliaries, a decent mine warfare capability, anti submarine frigates and a reasonable force for non high tempo operations.
The problem is though, we don’t live in an ideal world and hope is not really an effective strategy.
Some might say this desire to be realistic and cancel CVF/JCA is as a result of poor decision making and a lack of foresight, this is an accusation that one must take on the chin, it is right but we are where we are.
Grasping the nettle and cancelling completely the CVF and JCA programme would release significant resources to be deployed on more pressing matters.
Politics comes in here though, defence matters, especially Afghanistan and equipment are becoming highly charged political issues. In a time of recession so are jobs. Cancelling CVF and JCA would come with the associated bad headlines and pressure from the unions, keeping it at all costs whilst troops in Afghanistan continue to be starved of resources like helicopters and appropriate vehicles risks tarnishing the government with an equally bad impression.
Given the impending defence review (if Labour retain power) and certainly a completely new look at defence if the Conservative Party forms the next government the status of CVF and JCA remains unclear.
Perhaps the government want to cancel but are too paralysed by the implications of actually doing so, leaving the dirty work to the next likely Tory government and sanding on the opposition benches scoring cheap points.
It’s sordid and grubby, playing with service personnel’s lives, but that’s politics for you.