No other subject, with the possible exceptions of the Ghurkhas and small arms calibres, provokes as much discussion as the Royal Navy’s future carriers and the aircraft that will fly off them.
The recent speculation about a possible F18 buy, instead of the planned F35B, has sparked an avalanche of comment. Of course, a cynic might suggest it was a typical ‘float and see’ idea to gauge reaction, strengthen a position or simply cause trouble. In the febrile pre SDSR atmosphere, almost anything related to the armed forces will come under intense scrutiny.
Not wanting to be left out, it’s time for another look!
I will start this post by saying I am not 100% convinced by the need for CVF at all and think the huge cost of it and the embarked aircraft could have/be better spent elsewhere but if we assume they are going to happen it is important we get the decisions on equipment around CVF, absolutely right.
We also need to STOP thinking about single service loyalties, they might have been interesting in times of plenty but make no mistake, hard times are coming and instead of working against each other, the service chiefs have to be pragmatic and realise that duplication and non-standardisation need to be relentlessly and ruthlessly eliminated.
Time for something radical.
I don’t want to get into a discussion on purchase costs, turn rates, ranges or weapon loads because real information is thin on the ground and what is there, is surrounded by so much ‘smoke’ it is impossible to see through it.
Suffice it to say, all the options on offer would be good choices in terms of capability and largely similar in capital cost, cheaper alternative airframe costs balanced by the cost of cats/traps.
The real deciding factor, however, comes down to through-life costs; it’s not sexy or a readily obvious subject but make no mistake, it is critically important.
Rafale, F18 or anything else will make the through-life costs of the F35B look like pocket change.
Why is this?
Quite simply because of the cost of people, with their expensive pensions (made worse by longer life expectancy), increasing wages, healthcare and training costs. Armed forces the world over are facing massive increases in personnel costs so the trend is to do more with less, people that is. Automation and smart systems may be expensive to develop but have a huge payoff in reducing personnel numbers and the subsequent cost.
Going to a cat/trap system means extra people and running costs. Going for F18 over like Rafale means more aircrew and more frequent upgrades.
Therefore, for cost reasons, the F35B is the right choice.
The F35B will be a superb aircraft, no doubt, much much better in most respects than Rafale or F18 so given the extra through life costs of the latter two, why would we want to go with something that is both more expensive over the long run and clearly inferior ‘now’, let alone in the future?
There is no logic to this.
My position on this has changed over time, wavering between one position or the other, but if we must have CVF, we must have F35B.
Although the F35B and Typhoon are in reality, swing-role aircraft, the Typhoon can concentrate on air dominance with a secondary strike, CAS and ISR roles and the F35B majors on strike, SEAD/DEAD and CAS with a secondary air dominance and ISR role. The two are naturally complementary and will in the long term replace the current 3 type mix of Harrier, Typhoon and Tornado.
In the short term, withdrawing either the Tornado or Harrier force may actually be a counter-productive cost-wise, we have just spent a fortune on them both and are currently rather useful in hot sandy places. But beyond Afghanistan, they should go sooner than planned if we are to stand any chance of saving meaningful amounts. The Harrier GR9’s are more valuable in this short/medium term timeframe, they are better at CAS and can operate from the CVF in the gap between completion of CVF and the in-service date of the F35B. The Tornado is also massively maintenance intensive, the GR9 is, therefore, more relevant in the time before CVF and F35B achieves full capability.
Suggestion 1; confirm our commitment to F35B and implement an aggressive withdrawal schedule for Tornado after Afghanistan, followed by Harrier when the F35B enters service.
Crewing for the F35B is also an area for cost-saving, the UK cannot afford two organisations that manage fast jets. Therefore we should make the F35B solely the responsibility of the RAF and disband/transfer the naval strike wing. This is a controversial decision but the FAA does not have the critical mass to maintain F35B squadrons at an economical level, whatever advantages there may or not be, duplication is simply unaffordable.
Suggestion 2; disband the Naval Strike Wing and Joint Force Harrier and transfer existing Harriers and future F35B’s to the RAF.
As for CVF, their new watchword must be adaptability. Fortunately, their large size supports this and it was a wise choice to go for such a roomy design.
To maximise their adaptability we should also look at how they may be deployed. The traditional structure of a separate strike and amphibious group is not affordable and instead, we should configure the Royal Navy so that it can provide a single scalable and adaptable intervention package built around CVF. This reflects the reality of likely deployments and means the status of existing amphibious assault ships have to be examined.
Between Ocean, Bulwark, Albion and the 4 Bay class the UK amphibious capability can accommodate (non-overload) about 2,800 personnel, 6,000 lane metres for vehicles, 12 LCVP, 12 LCU and 12 transport helicopters. Ocean is maintenance intensive and due for replacement soon and although it has actually provided sterling service there is little scope for a like for like replacement. If we accept the loss of the rear loading ramp and LCVP davits from Ocean, CVF can be used in this role. Transferring the command facilities from the Albion class allows them also to be withdrawn.
So, the two CVF replace the Illustrious class, Ocean, Bulwark and Albion.
The intervention package can vary from all strike to all amphibious and all points in between.
In an ‘all amphibious’ configuration; about 800m of vehicle lane is lost, personnel accommodation is roughly the same, helicopter lift dramatically increased and landing craft also significantly reduced.
In an all strike configuration; 72 F35B’s could be operated, these do not necessarily have to be all UK F35B’s and could be Italian, Spanish or from the USMC.
The norm, however, will be somewhere in between. The intervention force, however, configured, would still be massively capable.
There are compromises in this approach, a reduction in amphibious capability and a loss of much of much of the landing craft but we have to be realistic about what is achievable within budget realities.
There is a rough saving of 1,000 afloat crew members and three hulls. Translate this to cash and it is a massive saving.
Suggestion 3; reconfigure existing carrier and amphibious groups into a single scalable intervention force, centred on a pair of adaptable CVF’s
If we are to interoperate with others, especially the USMC, this adaptability is invaluable and in order to improve capabilities in this area we should make sure the hangar height, accommodation spaces and other facilities are compatible with USMC aircraft and equipment, CH53 and CV22 especially. It might be tempting to add davits for LCVP but this is likely to mean significant alterations and at this stage in the design and build process may be a change too far. It might be possible though, and if the hanger height is an issue, for CH53 for example, then we should be bold enough to change, even at this late stage.
Suggestion 4; be bold enough to change the design of the CVF in respect of interoperability with the USMC, especially hangar height.
Looking a little beyond this force, there is also an implication for the RFA replenishment and RN escort fleet. With a single deployable intervention force, the number of anti-air and anti-submarine escorts can be consolidated. The 6 Type 45’s should be retained and the proposed Type 26, limited to 6 or 8. The RFA MARS requirement could be completely recast and the existing vessels may well be sufficient for the medium term.
Suggestion 5, reduce replenishment ships and escorts in line with the change.
It has often been my view that the UK needs to retain its high end fighting capabilities but concentrate them in a smaller harder-hitting core, concentrating capability in a smaller force but surrounding this deployable core with a larger number of workaday platforms for the unglamorous but none less vital missions that we can’t afford to do when all we have are ‘superb’ weapons.
A real two-tier approach is needed.
Suggestion 6; accelerate funding for such a C2/C3 type for general patrol and presence taskings, the Think Defence PSV based C3 proposal for example
F35B numbers, we started at 150 and this has been chipped away at continually. For the initial operating capability, purely for cost reasons, we should be aiming for between 40 and 50. This allows a full strike package to be assembled with enough for training, conversion and attrition spares. We might increase this when funds allow.
Suggestion 7; aim for between 40 and 50 F35B’s in the initial package, increasing as funds permit