Thoughts on CVF

CVF Aircraft Carrier Royal Navy Joint Combat Aircraft F35

As we loom towards the SDSR publication with decisions possibly already made, Scottish politicians are uniting behind it, various English MP’s are uniting behind it, BAe is releasing stories about how much they have already spent and the mainstream media, it would seem, have a series of ‘senior sources in the MoD’ that have as many opinions on the decision as rounds of 5.56mm expended in Afghanistan on a daily basis.

The RN spin machine is being put into high gear, much like the other service spin machines, it must be said.

As soon as you question the CVF you have instantly labelled a Royal Air Force stooge because it’s taken as read that anything anti-CVF is automatically a dastardly plot by the RAF to get rid of the Fleet Air Arm.

I hate inter-service politics with a vengeance but I do sometimes wonder if it overplayed outside those that are serving, operations have a tendency to drive out politicking and we should give people more credit. It beggars belief to think that the RAF is basing its, and the nations, future plans on the degree by which those plans do in the RN/FAA. Despite this, there are a number of naval biased think tanks, web sites and others that continually make the case for their own service, funnily enough, CVF is always the answer; whatever the question and it is always ‘those other boys’ that should bear the brunt of any cuts, we are a bloody island you know!

To be a ‘CVF denier’ is to attract scorn, especially at Think Defence, given the many eloquent and knowledgeable Andrew that frequent the comments section!

I am going out on a limb here fellas, we have to continually ask; can we justify the expense of such a capability. We must be rigorous in looking at everything in defence because however much we would want more money, it is not likely to appear. Wish lists of nice to have equipment that is incongruous with our foreign policy objectives/aspirations and size of the trouser must be eliminated if we are to have a military that is effective for the most likely roles we might ask them to carry out.

Wishing for more money is not a practical strategy, to steal a quotation from the film Bad Santa;

Wish in one hand and shit in the other, see which one fills up first

Before we get into the question of aircraft the decision to proceed with CVF has to be justified.

Justifying CVF

The talk today is of small Scale Focussed Interventions and acting in coalition with others for anything else. This is nothing new and has actually been the case since the 1998 SDR.

Given that we have very few overseas territories and there are more economic means of protecting them the decision on CVF then rests on what those contributory capabilities need to look like. We might argue the nature of what a small scale focussed intervention is but what it doesn’t absolutely require is 2x 65k tonne CVF and 150 JCA, the capability is clearly in the optional column.

Therefore, if we proceed with CVF/JCA it is out of choice, not a necessity.

If I could turn the clock back I would have selected a smaller scale naval expeditionary air capability more in line with the Spanish and Italian forces. This would still have provided a small scale capability for focussed interventions but would have allowed the allocated funds to be spread across a wider range of defence capabilities but with CVF and JCA so advanced it would be a wasteful decision to cancel now.

The penalty clause issue is often highlighted but this fails to recognise the commercial realities of the UK defence monoculture. It would be a brave politician to cancel the lot now but whilst we are still in the ‘blame it on Labour’ mode it remains a possibility. No matter how much it would waste now, that figure pales into insignificance when measured against the cost of CVF/JCA over the next 40 odd years.

In its favour, CVF will not be a one-trick pony, the design is extremely versatile and its significant size increases that versatility to an even greater degree. It will be able to provide outer layer air defence, support embarked forces with close air support, carry out the deep strike, ISR and a number of secondary roles such as a helicopter platform, non-combatant evacuation and disaster support. Despite the acknowledged all-around flexibility of a ship like CVF its supporters sometimes tend to overemphasise usefulness, making spurious claims and dubious comparisons with the RAF.

In seeking to justify CVF, the two fundamental mistakes are in comparing it with others and overstating the issue of host nation support.

‘CVF will put the RN into the first division, only behind the USN’ or other such comments are often heard. Frankly, I don’t care how we compare with anyone; this is not a competition in a pub toilet. We have to measure what capabilities it brings to UK defence.

The second mistake people often make is to confuse the utility of carrier-borne air in general terms, usually framed by the USN, with that to be delivered by CVF. The USN and RN are not the same and as soon as we all recognise this, the better. The lynchpin on which the argument for carrier air rests is host nation support. Overfly rights may be denied so access from the sea enables an operation to proceed, fixed airbases are vulnerable to attack so an offshore floating base is the most survivable option.

This makes a number of assumptions, that the overwater route will always have to overfly rights or not need them and that host nation support is always not available. History tells us that host nation support has been generally available except for a very few instances. There are examples of operations where naval aviation was the only option but they are limited and this might be an inconvenient truth but it is a truth nevertheless.

What carrier delivered fast air provides is short duration, early entry airpower and organic area air defence. As operations progress, land basing generally becomes more established and ground-based aircraft closer to the area of operations become the most efficient means of delivering airpower. Many operations have a deliberate build-up phase as the necessary political pieces are slotted into position, this means time for land-based air power to deploy and establish.

Many carrier operations will also require support from land-based aircraft, ISR and AAR for example.

The RAF have shown they can deploy in numbers and sustain operations, we might seek to improve this of course but the facts remain, the RAF has a comprehensive expeditionary capability.

The reality is this…

Land and carrier-based fast air are complementary, it is not an either-or argument and should not be presented as such.

I am a supporter of carrier aviation but I like to think I can view it dispassionately and without bias.

There is a strong case for CVF but I am concerned about its impact across the naval and wider defence budget and this leads me down the road of maximising capability whilst minimising cost.

One or Two

I have heard many people say they would rather have none than only 1 CVF but this seems to be an irrational argument given that the capability for force projection remains a discretionary one.

Yes, of course with only 1 we could not guarantee availability and whilst the one and only CVF was in refit a requirement might pop up, sod’s law comes into play. The argument in favour of 2 also rests on the number of contracts placed but this is a simple cost v risk scenario, can we hedge against the risk?

We should not look at CVF in isolation; they will always be operating in conjunction with other assets and a number of interesting options can be considered.

Option A is to simply plough ahead with 2, operate them with a full complement of JCA each and replace HMS Ocean with a new design. This is of course the favoured RN option but not supportable in terms of cost.

Option B is to still build the pair and put one into immediate reserve. This would save operating costs and reduce crewing requirements but with sufficient notice would still be able to provide some capacity in response to emerging strategic threats. Operating the ship with some elements of the Royal Navy Reserve or Sponsored Reserves might also be worth investigating.

Option C is to link CVF with a replacement for HMS Ocean. Ocean has been excellent value for money but it has had more than its fair share of problems. By still putting 2 CVF’s into the water and operating them as flexible platforms, optimised for mixed loads of JCA, helicopters and soldiers/marines we could reduce overall crew and maintenance requirements. This is the most likely option given a reduced buy of JCA but operating a CVF in the role of LPH is not ideal because of its size and value.

Option D is to build one CVF but pair it with an early Ocean replacement, a design based on the Spanish Juan Carlos I and Australian Canberra, these are multi-role LHD that still provide capacity for a STOVL JCA. Refits could be aligned so that at all times, for that non-discretionary SSFI, we had a capability available for both helicopter and fast jet operations. There would not normally be interchangeable and if only one were available then the nature of operations that could be performed would be limited. A CVF and LHD pair provides some degree of hedging against the availability issue and whilst of course, it is not ideal, in this financial environment, we have to accept compromise. In due course, HMS Albion and Bulwark will need replacing and at this point we might also consider a follow on LHD order so the RN will eventually have 1 CVF, 3 LHD and the 4 Bays; still a formidable capability.

I think Option C is the most likely but D is also an interesting longer-term option for maximum cost savings.

What Aircraft

With that in the bag, we have to consider the aircraft, there is little point in having an aircraft carrier with nothing to fly off them. The first aircraft on board should be the Harrier’s, unless the SDSR retires them early, in which case there will be an embarrassing period where we have an aircraft carrier and no aircraft!

What aircraft to buy is the several billion-pound questions.

The first thing I would say on this is that bloggers and commenters are not in possession of the full facts and even those in a position of knowing everything aren’t actually in that position at all, especially because the actual final cost of any F35 variant is an unknown. The MoD has repeatedly carried out various studies and estimated that the F35B offers the most cost-effective aircraft that meets requirements, over the total lifespan.

Considering other options though…

Switching to CTOL

Whilst it is true that the CVF is an adaptable design with allowance made for catapults etc at this stage the ‘drawings’ would have to be redrafted and appropriate changes made to the production schedules. The first of the class is well advanced so this would simply add extra cost and time delays. The last time we slowed down the build rate it cost a billion pounds.

If we did change to catapults we have three choices, go straight for steam, buy into the US EMALS or develop EMKIT/EMCAT into a useable system. In terms of risk, steam is probably the lowest but we would be buying into an obsolete technology that is incredibly maintenance intensive. The US EMALS is probably the most mature of the electromagnetic systems and will likely be production-ready by the time we need it but the costs are not insignificant. The EMCAT from Converteam offers a sovereign solution at an unknown cost and risk. In addition, would be a deck landing and arrestor wire system.

All three options carry significant capital costs, x2

On top of the capital costs are the costs involved with operating CTOL aircraft and this is where they are likely to be significant. One of the overwhelming drivers of increasing costs in the defence sphere are people, armed forces across the western nations are facing increasingly high personnel costs and this is resulting in pressure to reduce crewing by the use of automation.

Each extra position onboard needs more than one person to fill it and each person will need to pay, have food and accommodation costs, pension, healthcare, training and many other costs that go with employing a military person. CTOL will require extra deck handling and engineering personnel. A whole rank structure will exist around these extra positions and each one will need training, training means course development, e-learning modules, simulators and trainers, who will, of course, need paying etc.

Every single extra position on board and ashore will be sitting on top of a pyramid of other people.

Another point that people often ignore is the churn rate in personnel, individuals come and go and whilst we are only paying for one at a time whilst they are in service, over the life of the ships we will be paying many instances of pensions. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, pension costs accumulate, there is a reason we are sitting on a public sector pensions time bomb and this is it. CTOL operations require rapidly perishable skills and for safety reasons have to be maintained at a high level, even if operations are largely ground-based, Afghanistan for example. This creates an additional burden and will mean greater numbers of aircraft and aircrew.

CTOL also adds significant weight to the deck and surrounding structure and lets not forget we would need to invest in a training aircraft just for deck operations, yet another type with all that this entails.

The big question is, do this additional capital and ongoing costs come in at a figure less than the capital and ongoing cost of the F35B. We cannot hope to know and there remains a degree of uncertainty in any calculations but several studies within the MoD have consistently shown the additional costs of CTOL to be significant enough to outweigh the relatively modest increase in capability that the F35C might offer or capital cost savings from something like the F18.

If we did opt for CTOL there are basically three choices, the F18, Rafale or F35C and each has a range of advantages, disadvantages and costs. The F35C would be the favourite in this group and might still be a long term option but the lure of cooperating and sharing costs of training and maintenance with France makes the Rafale a dark horse.

The F18 is certainly proven but is at the end of its development life and would likely need replacing sooner rather than later.

Whatever the various performance, political issues or other advantages of these alternatives the cost, when measured as joint capability (not just to the RN) is less than F35B.

What about STOBAR

An intriguing possibility is short take-off but arrested recovery with the proposed Sea Gripen giving everyone something to think about, but whilst we could reduce the capital and running costs associated with catapults it would still need a high degree of deck and aircrew training and questions to remain on useable loads once the extra weight of a more robust undercarriage and tailhook is added. The Gripen is a much underrated and robust aircraft but the Sea Gripen is still at the drawing stage and costs are unknown, would it really be suitable and have any longevity in the JCA role?

The F35B

The STOVL is currently the preferred option to fulfil the Joint Combat Aircraft requirement; we have purchased 3 as part of the design and development phase and are currently heavily involved with the flight trials.

Let’s be frank, things aren’t going particularly well with the B variant, lagging behind in terms of development schedule with ongoing issues on component reliability, exhaust issues and weight. However, these problems are often overstated and show me any other advanced weapon system that has managed to avoid development problems.

I am sanguine about the development snags, for I think they are just that, snags. The swirling controversy on price estimates means that realistically, no one really knows exactly how much the things are and there is very little point trying to pin down a figure.

When ready for deployment we will be getting a system of systems that is a generation ahead of anything we have, an aircraft with masses of growth potential and a massive global supply chain and logistics capability. We need to step away from comparing it to others in pure kinematic performance terms because its sensor fusion, low observability and situational awareness will enable it to carry out its missions much better than the alternatives.

The performance difference between the C and B model is noted, in some respects, the C might be a better solution but we have to balance a number of factors and the additional costs involved with the C, even considering a difference in capital costs, do not compensate. There are other advantages with STOVL like sortie rates, poor weather operations and the versatility of operating on constrained runways on land. These enable the transition to ground locations before that location might be capable of fully operating conventional aircraft.

I don’t want to gloss over the historic and ongoing problems but cutting and running at this stage simply would not be sensible.

Plans seem to be for an initial purchase of between 40 and 50 which again, seems sensible.

What About UCAV’s

UCAV’s would favour a CTOL design but the path which UCAV’s are going down is not certain and any useable design is many years away. Ultra long-range and optionally manned F35B’s might even be part of the future solution mix so as these uncertainties remain, trying to second guess them is not productive, it will simply lead to more delay and more cost.


One advantage of going CTOL is that it opens an opportunity to operate the E2 Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft but this would be an even greater cost and whilst it might be superior to a Merlin based solution, again, the increase in capability does not offer a clear enough advantage to justify the massive extra cost.

Sweating One’s Assets

Ignoring the emotions of what could have been and without going over old ground, if we accept that CVF and F35B is the sensible and likely way ahead from this point how can we maximise our investment.

It’s an obvious statement to make but we must make every penny count and be single-minded.

Can we really afford two fast jet forces?


This means that an F35B squadron must be self-contained whether it is operating from a land base or CVF, the same aircrew, the same maintainers, armourers and others. The people go wherever the aircraft go. It is simply not true to say that RAF personnel do not want to go to sea and if it is in the interests of defence then, retention issues permitting, they must go where they are needed.

If that means a ship or an airbase then that is what it is. Operating in a larger pool of personnel means that harmony guidelines become more achievable, even on an enduring basis. Putting people into 2 smaller organisations reduces flexibility, career prospects and impacts retention. The aspiration of having a full complement of strike aircraft is simply unaffordable and a waste of a very flexible resource, as I said above, we are not the USN.

This means the FAA completely lose the fast jet role to the organisation that is wholly concerned with operating aircraft, the RAF.

Another option we might explore is joint operational conversion training with the USMC or possible European operators like Spain and Italy. This reduces the requirement for training vessels and possibly aircraft, delivering obvious economies of scale.


CVF remains fully justified in whatever strategic stance we take.

The F35B would seem to provide the greatest flexibility and capability at the lowest cost.

Options still remain on numbers and how it is operated in a wider context, such as turning the CVF pair into a multi-role air/amphib or disbanding the FJ element of the Fleet Air Arm

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