I Am Puzzled

In the Guardian yesterday was a piece from Richard Norton-Taylor, the papers Security Editor, in which he describes how the MoD is planning to add ‘cheaper plans and catapults’ to reduce cost from the F35B.

It’s a rehash of the F18/Rafale/F35C story from a few weeks ago and therefore likely complete nonsense, but in the pre SDSR news vacuum any bit of tat qualifies as ‘insight’


I do wonder why our defence journalists just repeat tittle tattle rather than ask questions, like these for instance

  • How does changing the design and construction of CVF at this late stage save money
  • How does adding several hundred million pounds for catapults save money
  • How does maintaining those catapults for 40 years save money
  • How do the extra catapult maintainers wages, pensions and other costs over 40 years save money
  • How does the extra cost of maintaining perishable carrier operations skills save money
  • How does scrapping the 3 F35B’s we have purchased as part of the operational evaluation phase save money

I am puzzled how adding cost reduces it, either in short term or long term.

Am I being thick?

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September 13, 2010 10:27 am

Nope, its just that too many are seduced by overly simplistic headline costs, the graphic Sven linked in the recent helicopter thread should be mailed to every journalist in the country.

September 13, 2010 10:28 am

Obviously the CVF has been designed to be switched into a CTOL carrier from the word go. The impression I’ve always had is that the RN wanted a CTOL carrier, and went along with the B model, knowing it could alter the design fairly quickly into a CTOL variant.

There will be capital costs incurred in sticking the catapults on, but not a massive amount. Similarly, the F35B is rapidly proving to be the most expensive of the F35 family – the money saved through not buying it will be greater than the cost of CTOL conversion.

From a deeply cynical perspective, the conversion may work to the RNs financial advantage – it could stretch out the construction time, meaning the spend profile on both vessels stretches,and goes a long way to resolving the in year financial problems (obviously all CVF expenditure is not incurred in one go, but over the build time). This means it is in the departments interests to slip them.

At the same time, a clear commitment to going CTOL means we could take the ‘delete harrier’ option now – there is no need to maintain currency on a carrier aircraft and skills which won’t be needed in 5 years time. Instead the RN can continue with its plans to train up on the USN vessels (12 RN officers or 1 Sqn are qualifying on F18 as we speak). This provides economies in removing harrier from service, but also means the RN saves money by piggy backing onto the USN carrier training programme.

Additionally moving to CTOL reduces the requirement for RFA ARGUS as an aviation support ship (she was used to train people on harriers and helos) – the helos can go to an RFA Fort class, and the pilots train on the US CVNs – much cheaper.

The end result of moving to CTOL is to provide the RN with the option to delete harrier, delay construction by a year or two and maintain a FAA fixed wing capability in the USN, which is more cost effective. This would save money, in addition to the money saved by ditching F35B. My personal view is that an initial FA18EF buy of about 50 aircraft, sufficient for 2 Sqns, an OCU and a reserve would mean the RN remains a serious carrier nation at minimal cost.

September 13, 2010 10:54 am

“by the way guys, this is a warm up post for something CVF related with a bit more meat on the bones”

Good good, ps. a few defence related articles here:


September 13, 2010 11:32 am


You’re right, there will be upfront costs on changing over, but if you do the through life costs, then it doubtless appears to show a saving.

Similarly to the extension of the programme – everyone knew that delaying CVF would add cost – but in the short term it deferred expenditure falling on a year where the EP was overloaded. If it hadnt have been delayed, then something else would have had to be cancelled to pay for it. This is a similar situation, delay it, save in year even if out of year it costs more. That is the mentality of the EP at present, balance the in year books and worry about the short term red ink, not the long term red ink!

ARGUS has indeed had the PCRS refit done to her, but she’s getting old, and was due to be replaced under MARS. If you could delete the MARS replacement, you instantly deliver savings of a large amount in the forward programme.

Dan Lewis
Dan Lewis
September 13, 2010 12:06 pm

Perhaps the most important reason for the catapults – not mentioned thus far – is the ability to be able to launch high-flying, faster, long range airborne early warning radar aircraft like Hawkeye rather than short range, slow and low-flying helicopters.

Richard W
Richard W
September 13, 2010 12:12 pm

With only weeks to go before a final and probably irrevocable decision is made on a carrier or no carrier navy, and with some indication that Treasury has the navy’s arm firmly twisted up its back, the question has to be – what would be the absolute minimum carrier force configuration you would ungraciously accept before you gave it away and agreed to spend the money on something else?

The desperate answer might be to build the carriers and just fly helicopters from them until such time as funding for a carrier borne aircraft comes back on the agenda. But slightly more optimistically, and bearing in mind the question was what is the minimum, I’d say continue to build the two carriers but immediately put one into reserve (for later rotation with the other) and only operate one active ship, and 35 aircraft – any aircraft.

Lord Jim
Lord Jim
September 13, 2010 12:23 pm

The current Government is really only concerned about immediate and short term savings. I have a feeling they and the MoD will concentrate on these and handle longer term additional costs as they arise.

CTOL gives the CVF much more options now and in the future. I personally will be happy if both carriers are actually built and equiped to do the role they were originally intended to do. There is a nasty idea being put around where the CVFs will simply be aviation support vessels with a hodge podge of types operating off them at any one time, this is a waste of their potential and of money that could have been spent on smaller platforms in this case.

September 13, 2010 12:49 pm

I am beginning to think it’s a blessing in disguise that the F-35B has been delayed. In these austere times, it means that we can delay adoption and thus payment until it is ready. If we were to pull-out now, for whatever reason, would anything stop us buying F-35Bs later? In the meantime, is there any reason why we cannot upgrade the existing Harrier fleet and operate it from CVF until such time that the JSF ‘does what it says on the tin’?

I was going to say that, given America’s military commitment and financial muscle, it is a dead cert that JSF will ultimately work as intended. Unfortunately, I can think of several projects where the final product didn’t ultimately perform according to expectations, the V-22 Osprey being the most recent example.

As future defence capabilities are weighed up, I see a government laudably committed to reducing the deficit, but a chancellor so immature and naive, despite obvious intelligence, that he neither cares nor understands the many implications of proposed cuts that will need to be made to achieve his political goals. We truly have a chameleon coalition that will abandon any pre-election policy for the sake of political expediency. It is hard to figure out the values and beliefs behind major political parties and their policies. The only discernible goal is the desire to be re-elected. These are dangerous times.

September 13, 2010 1:00 pm

“is there any reason why we cannot upgrade the existing Harrier fleet and operate it from CVF until such time that the JSF ‘does what it says on the tin’? ”

Do they even need upgrading?
We’ve been without carrier fighters for a decade, whats another 5 years?

Sven Ortmann
Sven Ortmann
September 13, 2010 1:01 pm

Vertical landing capability always comes at the price of ceteris paribus reduced range and endurance. This is a problem even despite the existence of munitions like Storm Shadow.

Land-based anti-ship missiles are quite scary (especially the DF-21D, of course) and staying far away from the coastline improves a carrier strike group’s survivability. In the end, navies might have considered to place a greater emphasis on long range. That lets the F-35B, but also the C version and the super bugs appear to be rather disappointing.

September 13, 2010 2:16 pm

On the GR9 issue, the fleet is knackered (technical term that), and will hit OSD in about 2015. The cost of extending the fleet would be too large when set against the returns.

What the RN appears to be doing is running a ‘virtual CAG’ – in other words its using the extant platforms to retain the currency in operating carriers with foreign nations embarking FW aviation and the odd harrier deployment. At the same time its ensuring that its cadre of pilots remain F18 qualified, so that when the day comes, we’ll have kept the ability to keep carrier pilots qualified.

The RN will not take a ‘capability holiday’ at any cost – the price of regenerating the skills for carrier aviation is just too high. Look at the Chinese – its taken them decades and they still haven’t got it right on how to deploy a conventional CVBG. If we take a gap, we lose the ability to do carriers properly forever.

I expect the final compromise will be both completed, but only enough planes purchased to sustain one airgroup at any time.

September 13, 2010 2:22 pm

I have to support Jim30’s contention that you spend now to save later. I honestly don’t think that the “catapult technicians” wages and pensions will eat up all of the savings generated by operating an aircraft that is more flexible and has cheaper through life costs that horribly compromised abortion that is the F35B.

What exactly is the point of supersonic STOVL with limited front hemisphere stealth ?

If we wanted to stick with smaller carriers (which IMHO we should have done) then subsonic STOVL would have sufficed for strike / close air support and even air defence of the fleet with a good radar the Meteor.

If you have a ship big enough to have cats / traps and an angled flight deck, then why not use it to your advantage.

Finally, if we are going to build them, and the put them straight up for sail, cats and traps makes them more interesting to potential buyers !

September 13, 2010 3:18 pm

“I expect the final compromise will be both completed, but only enough planes purchased to sustain one airgroup at any time.”

Agreed Jim, that seems very likely.

September 13, 2010 3:34 pm

‘The Guardian has learned there is widespread scepticism among officials advising the National Security Council (NSC) about the need for such “force projection” as well as for a like-for-like replacement for the Trident nuclear missile system.’

Guardian wishful thinking or the Tories selling their soul to the devil?

September 13, 2010 5:13 pm

Taranis appears only to come in CTOL variants………

(PS Unless you believe BAE have have anti-grav’ saucer at Warton………)

September 13, 2010 5:22 pm

The more I think about it, the more I just don’t buy all this hogwash about the JSF not working. The US needs an F-16, AV8B and F-18 replacement. So JSF has to work. Like the Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, which was delayed because of fundamental structural integrity issues, Boeing went back to the drawing board. Northrop Grumman will do the same with JSF if necessary.

We know from the A400, Typhoon and V-22 Osprey projects, that highly sophisticated aeronautical engineering takes time to perfect. Look at Harrier itself. This evolved from the Hawker P1127, to the Osprey and early Harrier GR1s. It took almost 20 years before the aircraft reached operational maturity. Later marks provided such a marked increase in power, fuel capacity and ordnance storage that a GR9 was barely comparable with a GR1. The primary issue delaying the F-35B is the engine. This is a very innovative design and, building on USA’s own experience with the Harrier, introduces a fundamentally different approach to multi-directional thrust. It was always bound to take time to get right.

In the unlikely event of the F-35B project failing, then even the CTOL F-35C for the USN would still be a better option than the F-18 Hornet, which let’s not forget was developed back in the 1970s. The F-35C is essentially a less expensive single-engine F-22 Raptor and with superior capabilities to existing combat aircraft.

If we’re really dead set on a STOVL capability, could we not simply build a bunch of brand new Harrier GR9s? I am sure Rolls-Royce could bump up the performance of the engine a bit. We’ve had B-52 bombers that have been in service for 50 years, why can’t the Harrier soldier on if there’s nothing better to replace it with? It’s still a great aircraft.

Going back to the subject at hand, the real issue is not whether the F-35B will succeed, but at what cost? The reality is that building an effective defence capability costs money. Making wise choices rests on the true motivations and political wills of those who hold the purse strings.

September 13, 2010 5:48 pm

As I was reading thru the comments I began to think that everyone, including me, continually think of FW piloted jets and that probably the 1 airgroup number was correct. I then began to think of EMCAT …. Taranis and Mantis and sure enough came to the comment by x.

Is anyone putting money on EMCAT on both with F18E/F followed by F35C and Taranis/Mantis mix?

I believe it has been said that Taranis should be developed into a long range perhaps global system and to my mind the only way that could happen is to have a moveable base. Mantis actually looks as if it is designed for ski jump operation to me too … position of engines? Obviously it could well be used with EMCAT.

Could EMCAT terminate at a ski jump lower slope with an angle deck for landing on?

September 13, 2010 6:27 pm

Joint – I just read this article and then came here to post the link, but you already set up the cats = unammned meme :-)

From Aviation Week:

“…..in preparation for X-47B catapult launches and arrested landings that will complete UCAS aircraft carrier demonstration objectives in 2013.”


So a carrier based version of Taranis would appear to be a good idea ?

I like your question ref EMCAT and ski-jump – I wonder if anyone has a definitive answer ???

September 13, 2010 6:44 pm

I don’t think I am presaging a scenario like the 1957 Duncan Sandy’s Defence White Paper.

If the stuff coming out of Afghanistan concerning stealth UAVs we aren’t that far off the UCAV becoming a reality. Perhaps that is what is influencing the JSF purchase decisions?

For strategic strike we only need a lift body for cruise missiles. And can’t the same be said about air-to-air missiles?

As for range of UAVs, well one of the key arguments against land based air power is that air space is sovereign. And when you look at the distance to go say around France instead of flying straight across it even starts to eat into the astronomical range of UAVs. Carrier launched UAVs would give us the best of both worlds. Plus the carrier, the hull itself, still has a high utility factor in its own right.

Does anybody have any maintenance hour figures for F35c vs F35b?

September 13, 2010 8:41 pm

Jed, many thanks for the link. When I first saw the Taranis ‘launch’ I thought it looked rather similar to the X47. I tend to look at rather a lot of stuff and therefore end up skim reading and trying to look for the big picture. The Taranis and Mantis could, probably, not fly off a BAE UXV (which I believe will arrive eventually) so therefore the CVF deck and air group is still needed. Perhaps, the F18 E/F will end up as the interim air group with future options left open! The publication of the SDSR is eagerly awaited and as an old ARK IV hand I hope John Knott is long gone. There has been a lot of change since I dreamed of being a ‘flying tel’ in Gannets!

Richard Stockley
Richard Stockley
September 13, 2010 11:21 pm

Nothing like arriving late to a debate…

Dan Lewis, if we went for a MV-22 Osprey (EV-22?) AEW system, we wouldn’t need the cat.

Nicholas, I think the intermediate Harrier variant was the Kestrel, not the Osprey. Also, your ‘new build’ Harriers is not a bad idea. An alternative would be to just build new airframes and transfer the engines, undercarriage and the rest of the kit across, keeping the same serial number and essentially calling it a ‘zero-timed’ airframe. I believe the Dutch Navy did this with a number of Lynx helicopters, not exactly low cost, but viable and solves the fatigue issue.

Personally, I think it would be best waiting out for the F-35B, if we had to take F-18E/F’s they’d still eventually end up with the F-35 avionics, or at a variation of it.

Also, if you look at the different aircraft throughout the past few decades, the definitive model was never the A. The F-4 Phantom got to the E model before it had a built in cannon and was a true fighter-bomber. The long-running C-130H was the ultimate until the remodelled J version, and the AH-1 Cobra is now on suffix Z. Going by this, it won’t be the F-35A, B and C that will be the best fighters but the subsequent D, E and F’s. Hopefully the ones we get won’t be peppered with bugs for the next decade!

September 14, 2010 10:21 am

@ Andy – ‘The Guardian has learned there is widespread scepticism among officials advising the National Security Council (NSC) about the need for such “force projection” as well as for a like-for-like replacement for the Trident nuclear missile system.’

grim news if true.