SDSR – Analysis #05a (Carrier Strike)

CVF Aircraft Carrier Royal Navy Joint Combat Aircraft F35

In looking at the subject of carrier strike I am setting myself up, if I agree that they are a good idea then I am deluded or if I think they are not a good idea I am simply an RAF stooge unworthy of taking seriously.

In much of the debate around carrier strike there is an absence of strategic context and an incredible amount of hyperbole. There are many good arguments for and many against, inevitably any judgement is simply a view on the relative priorities of those advantages and disadvantages.

Supporters of CVF and carrier strike point out that the most compelling advantage is the ability to operate independently, without host nation support and without the complication of seeking approval for over flying.

When we look at this subject it is absolutely critical to note the difference between the theory of carrier strike and practice as characterised by CVF and the Royal Navy, the two are certainly not the same. Proponents of a UK carrier strike capability often conflate the general theory with actual practice when discussing the advantages and disadvantages but we must look beyond theory and explore hard-nosed practicalities.

The Royal Navy is not the US Navy.

I am going to look at the contentious issue of carrier aviation across a number of areas

Overfly Rights

It seems to be the generally accepted view that the need for overfly rights magically disappears when flying from an aircraft carrier but one look at a map confirms this is simply not the case, it very much depends on where and when. When is important because overfly permissions can change depending on political expediency and specific access may be limited to non-offensive operations, as has been the case in several recent operations.

The US attack on Libya in 1986 (Operation El Dorado Canyon) is a good example of the mission type having a direct impact on permissions. The nature of the operation and need for simultaneous attacks to maximise operational effectiveness meant that the combined power of 2 USN carriers was not enough so land-based F111’s were needed to supplement the carrier strike package. The F111’s needed a round trip flight from the UK that was 5,500 miles long, lasted 15 hours and multiple in-flight refuelling operations per aircraft because Spain, Italy, Germany and France refused overflight permission and/or basing rights. These were NATO or other allies and yet local, regional and other political considerations meant that they judged denial of airspace for this particular mission worth the damage to relations with the USA.

The only time overfly rights will not be needed for carrier aviation is if the approach and target are in alignment i.e. a direct vector from sea to target with nothing in between or where we might not care too much for the country we are transiting (an unlikely proposition but worth pointing out anyway, you don’t always actually need permission if you are OK with the consequences)

To illustrate the complexity of overflight issues, how about a flight of fancy (see what I did there)

We decide that after years of provocation the bloody French are avin’ it but the Spanish don’t wish to be involved, so we decide to launch our aircraft from Queen Elizabeth operating in the Bay of Biscay.

No, overfly rights are needed, point proven, carrier aviation doesn’t need them.

As the operation proceeds the French decide to transfer all their forces to Andorra for a spot of skiing, we need to launch a deep strike but wait a minute, France has just deployed a new version of their experimental laser death ray so the only accessible route to Andorra is via Spain.

Bloody Spaniards want Gibraltar and Wayne Rooney in return for granting permission.

Bugger, there is no way Sir Alex would agree.

Of course, this example is ridiculous; the French would never go skiing in Andorra!

More likely Middle East or African scenarios throw up similar contradictions, some potential areas would be much easier to access from the sea but others less so.

Carrier supporters often make the point that a high percentage of the world population is within a few hundred miles of the sea but this statement, whilst true, fails to take into account politics and the vagaries of geography when applying it to target access.

Therefore, depending on the situation, overfly rights can affect carrier-borne aviation every bit as much as land-based aircraft and for some locations, access from land bases may actually be easier to achieve, closer or offer a better political situation.

However, in many cases, there is no practical alternative from an access perspective, than to use carrier-launched aircraft.

Host Nation Support Introduction

Host Nation Support or access is defined by many organisations but in this context it means the availability to mount the full spectrum of air operations from a ‘friendly’ facility (airbase), these friends and allies may choose to be directly involved in combat operations, offer qualified support or completely deny assistance.

The three main constraining factors for useful home nation support are availability, suitability and vulnerability.

Host Nation Support – Availability

Availability is the first issue to address, if geography or the will of the host dictates that operations cannot be conducted from any given facility then there is very little point considering the others. Operations in the South Atlantic in 1982 are an excellent illustration of the geographic availability issue, there were simply none available within a reasonably short distance for the type of tactical strike fighters needed. Geographic availability tends to be the exception to the rule although if we envisage future operations in the south Atlantic this may not always be the case.

A much more likely availability constraint is the issue of politics and this is a landscape filled with shifting sands. In 1982, Chile might have offered land bases all things being equal, but they had to balance the politics of long term regional relations and national politics, clearly, offering the UK host nation support was not a realistic option. Turkey is another example, containing Saddam Hussein and enforcing the Northern no-fly zones to protect the Kurdish population was in their interests and political acceptability but offering a northern route for land-based forces to invade Iraq was not, Turkey was and is a great supporter of NATO but local politics came into play for an arguably non-UN mandated mission. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a huge and complex mission but whilst the execution was impacted by HNS issues, the outcome was not.

Afghanistan in 2001 is another great example that proves nothing!

The early combat missions were carried out by naval aviation but they would have been impossible to carry out without land-based AAR/ISR and extensive overfly rights. The initial carrier strike missions were also joined by land-based bombers, ISR and transport aircraft.  Today, a significant proportion of CAS is provided by carrier-based aircraft but this is not on an enduring basis even with the richness of resource that the USN enjoy and there might be very good reasons and some not so very good reasons why this is the case; having a dog in the fight is as useful for the USN as it is for anyone in a world of budget scrutiny.

The geopolitical landscape in the Middle East is as fraught as it gets but in more or less continuous operations for the last 20 years in the area, air basing has always been available. Of course, there have been complications, upsets and compromises but the reality is, HNS availability has not been a significant strategic problem and if there is any region on the planet where it is likely to have been a problem, the Middle East is it.

Real Politik means that we should consider the issue of HNS availability but be aware it is not the defining justification for carrier strike. You could also argue that for out of area operations if the neighbouring countries are not sufficiently engaged with the operation to offer host nation support, we shouldn’t be there any way or at least strongly question our approach.

Looking at potential future operational areas it is clear that the complex patchwork of geography and politics will combine to most likely provide HNS availability.

The published SDSR stated that HNS had been secured for the decade or so in between the withdrawal of the Harrier and the introduction of the F35, which is likely to happen beyond that decade that has changed the equation.

Nothing, that’s what,

As with overflight rights, the HNS issue clearly favours in an abstract sense, the carrier. But, in a real-world sense, as demonstrated by ACTUAL operations it is much less convincing. Obtaining HNS is difficult, complex and generally laden with conditions but it will most likely be the most realistic option.

Host Nation Support – Suitability

If political and geographical barriers can be overcome the issue of suitability has to be considered.

Suitability has many variable factors, runway length, apron space, facilities for air/ground crew, logistics capacity, defensibility and a myriad of other considerations that play their part in determining whether a particular location is suitable for sustained or even intermittent air operations at the desired scale.

No matter what statistics are provided by biased sources there is simply no way that any UK carrier would be able to match the sortie rate on a sustained basis of a modern conventional airbase and it is fallacy to suggest otherwise. Carriers can peak and sortie generation can sometimes exceed land bases for short periods but this is self evidently dependant on weather and the capacity of the airbase/carrier in question.

Specious comparisons are often made with the notional sortie rate of a 36 aircraft CVF and the fact that the RAF can ‘only manage’ 8 or 10 aircraft in Afghanistan. This is a completely false argument, force levels in theatre are dictated by need and political force limits i.e. cash. The RAF has maintained high peak levels and sustained expeditions at short notice for a long time, simply look at the simultaneous operations over the last couple of decades. Anti RAF diatribe aside, deployability should always be something that we look to improve though. The issues with the Tornado deployment to Afghanistan highlighted potential shortcomings in rapid airbase augmentation and expeditionary support.

Where carriers have the clear advantage in capacity terms is where limited support infrastructure exists at the host nation airbase. If the RAF is to deploy to a working military airbase that location will likely have all the fuel, munitions handling, communication, force protection, accommodation (no Hilton jokes please!) and a myriad of other facilities required for modern air operations. It is also worth noting that an in theatre airbase is often used for command and control, logistics transit and as a base for other air assets that may be closer to the area of operations than a carrier.

Therefore, if the host nation airbase is well provisioned for aircraft, deployment will generally be much quicker for land-based than carrier-based aviation, Mach 2 being quicker than 30knots!

Where this rapid deployment by air does not apply is if the location(s) in question is austere or carriers are already in the area, poised ready for operations.

Extra aircraft can be surged onto a waiting carrier, reinforcing the embarked force if necessary and equally obviously, the carrier has everything it needs to initiate and maintain offensive air operations from that point.

No build-up is required.

Building a functioning airbase from scratch or austere beginnings is going to take a great deal of time and expense. Runways might need to be extended or repaired, fuel storage facilities improved and filled with fuel on an ongoing basis, weapons, crew and other consumables, plus all their combat support/combat service support have to be established and maintained.

This is no small feat but over time as less airborne refuelling from distant carriers is needed and support infrastructure is established and improved, a land-based facility will easily exceed the capacity of a carrier and at a significantly lower cost.

Carrier proponents argue that a carrier can stand offshore and poise more or less indefinitely, continuing operations on an enduring basis. This statement is true except for the indefinite part, ships and crews must be rotated so for enduring operations we would need at least three carriers. It is the same argument for continuous at-sea deterrent, to absolutely guarantee availability, 3 are needed; this drove the decision for 3 CVS and because of a higher risk factor, the need for 4 Vanguard-class submarines.

There are also competing arguments for logistics reach-back issues, some argue that the logistics chain to an embarked carrier is less constricted and has more capacity than that for land operations, citing Afghanistan as a good example. Again though, politics and geography come into play and despite a number of issues, operations in Afghanistan which are conducted at a high tempo, have not been adversely impacted. With carriers even simple things such as food have to be transferred at sea, a land-based airbase can simply buy locally.

In recent decades the world has seen a significant increase in the number of airports and an improvement in their facilities. The availability of civilian infrastructure should be factored into availability/capacity calculations and pre-positioning stocks of weapon and other material may mitigate some of these early entry barriers.

Again, quite clearly, the suitability argument is nuanced, favouring neither but depending on individual circumstances.

The unique characteristics of carrier-borne aviation become absolutely indispensable if capable land facilities are not available during the early phases of an operation but diminish as land-based facilities are established and improved.

Host Nation Support – Vulnerability

There are different types of vulnerability, land bases might be vulnerable to an insurgents truck launched mortar or conventional enemy’s ballistic missiles but a carrier may be equally vulnerable to an enemy submarine or truck launched anti-ship missile.

Vulnerability is another complex issue.

Airbases are large and easily identified by anyone with Google, even relatively unskilled image intelligence and analysis can reveal aircraft storage areas, entry roads, pipelines or the precise coordinates of the runway midpoint. Against a sophisticated enemy with access to long-range missiles, conventional air bases are vulnerable but this can be mitigated with force protection measures like dispersal or anti-missile systems. Against a less sophisticated enemy, airbases can be shut down for short periods by short-range rockets and mortars. Long-range anti-tank weapons and even anti-material sniper rifles can severely disrupt operations or even destroy increasingly expensive aircraft so a large area must be sanitised requiring manpower-intensive ground operations. Force protection issues may be less of an issue though if the host nation is adjacent to the area of operations and might offer the force protection assets required as part of any deal.

This means for many operations where land bases are either in hostile locations or within range of such, extensive force protection measures must be taken. These are expensive and manpower-intensive; soaking logistics capacity and potentially, turning the base into a ‘self-licking lollipop’

Carriers on the other hand can use the vastness of the oceans to effectively disappear but this might only be possible against a poor quality enemy without access to imaging and other ISR resources whether for itself or using proxies. A competent enemy might is likely to have anti-surface missiles, a range of large and small vessels and even submarines. The surface threat can be mitigated with distance and offensive operations against the enemy navy in advance of operations but it forces the carrier further offshore, increasing reliance on shore-based airborne refuelling and decreasing effective sortie rates.

The submarine threat is arguable of greatest seriousness. Many nations are acquiring modern and extremely quiet conventional submarines and the capability of these means that the high-value assets become so high value they soak up huge amounts of surface and subsurface force protection resource, again, the self-licking lollipop scenario hoves into view.

This is especially acute with UK carrier aviation, where plans are for 1 or put another way, a massive concentration of risk. Given that CVF will also likely embark on a number of Merlin HM2 helicopters the number of strike aircraft will decrease, in the absence of alternatives, the delivered effect becomes very limited.

Force protection issues for land and sea-based air are both the same and different, they can both be mitigated but these mitigation measures are not without operational and financial costs.

Usefulness – Coercion

There is no doubt that a fully tooled up carrier battle group sends a clear message but whether that message is heeded is debatable.

No doubt, there are examples where the deployment of a large carrier air package has de-escalated a situation but these are very few and far between and mostly from well before the last several decades. If even a US carrier could not deter the Serbs, Saddam or the Taleban then what chance will a CVF?

Real-life operational history is replete with examples where a carrier alone coerced precisely nobody; the only thing that has altered anyone’s intentions and actions is going ashore with land forces, in strength and in a sustained manner. The Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan all enjoyed carrier-borne fast air but the mission was not completed until land forces went ashore in-depth and sustained for a period of time beyond a few weeks. This by the way is why the strategic raiding concept is deeply flawed but that’s for another discussion.

Usefulness – Flexibility

An aircraft carrier is not just an aircraft carrier; it can act as an operational hub for a wide range of missions and unlike most land and air forces can be rapidly re-tasked, switching missions and locations as required with relative ease.

Carriers can be used to protect sea lines of communication or routes into an area in any build-up phase, again a unique capability unless resources from land air bases are allocated to this role, less likely during the initial build-up phase.

Against a competent adversary, they also introduce an aspect of unpredictability, able to attack from a number of less predictable vectors.

Summary of the Need

Continual operations for the last 30 years have demonstrated that carrier aviation, FOR THE UK, has been essential ONCE (Falklands). Every other operation has seen carrier strike play a role but that role has not been decisive or indeed essential.

This is a simple fact.

However, in these operations where it has not been essential, it has certainly been useful and, there is always tomorrow.

So for certain operations in certain locations at certain time points, there is no substitute for carrier aviation.

But, it often cannot operate without extensive support from land-based aircraft and lacks the capacity for extended operations without a significant logistic effort. If the aircraft carrier is conveniently sited it can provide extremely short response times but if not, transit over long distances will be slow. The need for overflying rights is not automatically eliminated just because one is flying from carriers and to claim any other is clearly ridiculous but being able to approach from the sea provides a greater choice of routes, if, and only if the target can be directly approached by sea.

CVF can deliver air power from locations and in timeframes that would challenge land-based air but once this land-based air, especially logistics support, has reached a sufficient mass in a suitable location (assuming one is available), it becomes much more efficient for sustained operations. This is where the decision on STOVL is particularly sensitive because it allows the aircraft to be deployed from CVF in the early stages and redeployed to a more suitable land base in a sustained operation. Of course, you can do this with any aircraft but STOVL reduces the training bill so it becomes the economically sensible thing to do.

Therefore, carrier air is not a replacement for land-based aviation but a valuable adjunct, essential in some scenarios and for early operations (given certain conditions) but not in most, as has been proven many many times in real operations.

Nothing has changed in this.

People tend to be polarised on the issue of CVF but the arguments are often made by comparing apples and aardvarks, conflating carrier strike theory with UK realities and inflating relative advantages/disadvantages.

My take on the situation is this, there is a clear need for carrier aviation because it occupies a number of niches that it and only it, can fill but It cannot replace land-based aviation either, the two ARE COMPLEMENTARY.

The argument, therefore, is about the shape and size of such a capability in the context of possible future operations, our financial reality and any strategic context we care to put them in.

Decisions Past

Since the 1998 SDR, the UK has made the planning assumption that for small operations we should retain the capability to act alone.

The terminology has changed in the 2010 SDSR but the result is the same.

By definition and this should be abundantly clear to everyone, anything above that small scale all arms, full-spectrum operation, is DISCRETIONARY.

Our previous failing has been to completely ignore this assumption and try and create both width and scale, or put another way, silk purse from a pigs arse.

The RUSI paper that described the various strategic options had some measure of this but failed to crystalise the grey areas, presenting them as discrete and exclusive when in reality they are more complex.

We absolutely 110% must retain an all arms, full-spectrum capability. We are a great power and must have the means to operate independently in defence of British interests but we also have to recognise there is a limit to the scale.

What am I saying; we do recognise it, we have recognised it since the 98 SDR but we have singularly failed to do anything about it, head in the sand, fiddling whilst Rome burns, pissing in the wind; pick your own metaphor!

Beyond this small scale independent operation we have also recognised that we will always be in a coalition; whether this is NATO, the US or even the EU is in some ways irrelevant but we need to really, actually, for definite this time, recognise this fact and act accordingly.

Therefore, we need as a minimum, carrier aviation capability for a small scale focussed intervention, the latest trendy jargon.

Beyond that, despite all the hyperbole about sea lanes, punching above our weight, imports and energy, the simple choice is what capabilities, because we can’t do them all, we bring to a coalition.

You can’t say to NATO or the US or even the EU, we will bring a little bit of everything because that means you bring a little bit of nothing, in fact, you become a burden and an impediment to forward planning because your little bit of everything is constantly under budget pressure.

If we go down this road we end up with an inability to act independently and useless in a coalition.

The least of all options

What drove the CVF design?

Experience with the Illustrious class and numerous studies and simulations defined the size of CVF, it is without a doubt a most efficient design when considering crew, displacement and projected costs for its intended role.

The problem was and is; its intended role.

During the post-1998 SDR period and when interventionism was the in thing, the design was based on a requirement for a strike role, in this, it excels. The designers have produced an innovative design of which they and we should be proud.

However, with the benefit of special bloggers hindsight goggles, we should have realised that the specialism as embodied by the distinct amphibious and strike vessels would lead to escalating costs and an increasing and desperate need to chip away at the edges to justify them.

Some might say that it was Admiral’s vanity, getting one over the French or merely trying to compare tackle with the USN that drove this single-minded approach but I think it is simply a reflection of the unrealistic 1998 SDR and wishful thinking about being a force for good that has infected political and military planning in the last decade.

What we should have done was lowered our sights and realised that dreams of a mini USN carrier battle group with 36 aircraft each were unattainable and modified the design. CVF design was not frozen until 2004/5 so there were plenty of opportunities to reconfigure CVF to be more versatile, able to comfortably operate as a so-called ‘Commando Carrier’ with a mix of helicopters, F35B’s, landing craft, accommodation for a good-sized embarked force, command facilities and their equipment.

This would have been a compromise solution, no doubt, trying to operate a sustained CAP whilst embarking on assault helicopters would be difficult but when operating in a pair or in part of a larger grouping it would be possible and this eventuality would be the exception rather than the norm. These could have easily been scheduled to replace CVS and Ocean and arguably this would have represented a more versatile solution. By holding out for the gold plated solution we have painted ourselves into a corner and trashed any notion of a balanced fleet.

The idea of halving the displacement of a ship resulting in a 50% reduction in cost is completely false but for the cost of 2 CVF’s and their 36 apiece air group we might have been able to obtain 3 or even 4 Cavour type vessels with 8 F35B’s each.

These would be politically and economically achievable, keep the RN in the carrier strike business and meet all the requirements for independence. With a smaller crew, they would be more economical to run and are designed to be much more multi-purpose than CVF. They could be fully interchangeable as an amphibious LPH, command and control vessel or others. Although 3 or even 4 Cavour type ships would be less capable when acting together than 2 CVF, the resilience and versatility arguments are compelling. A more numerous class also contributes to forward presence and defence diplomacy missions. The Cavour is a modest design even though in many ways is better equipped than CVF, Aster 15 missile system for example. Able to embark 8 F35B’s or a smaller number if helicopters are included this would still provide a viable capability for protecting an embarked amphibious brigade and with the second available in the surge, provide a modicum air defence. This might not offer a great deal to a larger coalition but that is in line with the Think Defence doctrine of selected contributory ‘capability plus’

Alternatively, we may have chosen just one or two such smaller vessels and spent the money elsewhere depending on how we scaled the RN to meet the actual maritime security needs rather than the expeditionary force for good approach that has not served the nation well.

But I hear you say…

But for a mere couple of billion more than a Cavour, we can have CVF and look at the power that gives, the difference is massive?

This argument is at the root of the MoD’s problems, we aim high, fall short and end up with a very poor value for money.

We aimed for 2 CVF with 36 FJCA each and ended up with one of a smaller design than originally envisaged, with fewer capabilities, a massive ‘routine 12 aircraft’ air group and a 10-year capability gap.

No wonder other nations are sniggering behind our backs!

The defence, therefore, rests.

Still, we are where we are and CVF was the chosen option.

SDSR Decisions – Aircraft and Carriers

With the withdrawal of the Harrier GR9, there is little point in having an aircraft carrier without any aircraft so HMS Ark Royal will be immediately decommissioned and HMS Illustrious retained as a landing platform helicopter if the decision is to withdraw HMS Ocean (one of the two is going)

Despite the SDSR making great play of the uncertainty in the future, it makes a bold prediction that says in essence we don’t need a carrier strike capability for the next ten years but will after that.

Eh, what complete and utter nonsense. Not even Mystic Meg would make such an outrageously ridiculous statement about the future but given the recent revelations about the industrial aspects of CVF, the SDSR is quite clearly providing a figleaf for the real decision, yet another illustration of the lack of strategic thought or vision in the SDSR.

The CATOBAR F35C will require catapults and arrestor equipment to be fitted to the carriers. This will require extensive redesign (whatever they maintain about it being adaptable design), additional capital costs and most significantly, the through-life costs of maintainers and deck crew will be high. For example, pension payments accrue as personnel change over the lifespan of the ship. So at the end of the in-service period, for each nominal position on the ship, we will have accumulated multiple pension costs, as people are living longer those pension costs snowball so at the end of the CVF’s life, for each position onboard we will be paying a number of pensions, not just one. This is why every position has a disproportionate impact on the calculation and why forces in the western world are leading a headlong dash to automation and personnel reduction.

CATOBAR means extra people which quite simple means extra cost.

The initial estimates are that an additional 50 crew will be needed, this doesn’t sound like much but they will have to be aboard whether there are aircraft embarked or not and 50 onboard means many many more ashore, in training, on leave etc. An additional 50 crew also means 50 less for something else.

Balancing those extra costs is the potential for fewer aircraft maintenance costs and a lower capital cost per aircraft.

With the final cost of the F35 being a rather movable feast the calculations are quite evidently nothing more than educated guesses but one thing that is certain is that every single study the MoD had carried out before the change of Government a few months ago, consistently pointed to the STOVL model being the cheapest through life.

It is also certain that the cost of modifications is equally uncertain!

In a recent parliamentary question/answer, the government confirmed that they don’t actually know how much extra it will cost to install the catapults and arrestor systems beyond ‘a range of estimates’

Given our rather poor track record of estimating it is almost a certainty that any final figure will be to the expensive end of that estimate, if not greater.

The recent build time extension for CVF added nearly a billion pounds so the delay due to a redesign and more complicated deck infrastructure to accommodate catapults and arrestor systems is going to be anyone’s guess in cost terms, are there any takers for an additional billion.

This drives a coach and horses through the F35C = cheaper argument because we simply do not know. With the F35B we have had many years to work out the human costs in minute detail; with the F35C we are taking a leap into the dark on costs.

I, therefore, remain extremely sceptical about the F35C being cheaper than the F35B but acknowledge that I don’t really know for sure.

The only logical conclusion I can draw is that the interoperability argument i.e. joint carrier strike capability with the French has trumped all others. I, therefore, maintain that the decision to go with the F35C is to support the capability sharing agreement with the French with hope for the best on costs and a light sprinkling of extra capability left to provide a thin justification.

In pure capability terms, the F35C offers more than the F35B but how significant this difference is, is open to debate. Whilst it is easy to say the F35C has better range and payload one might equally say the F35B can operate from shorter runways ashore, in more severe weather and generate higher sortie rates. Detractors of the F35B point to the dead weight of the lift fan, but the carrier variant has a great deal of extra weight in structural strengthening and enlarged control surfaces.

Things are never black and white, however, I think I am on safe ground saying it will significantly increase costs in the short term.

The sortie generation argument is equally interesting, the size and configuration of the STOVL CVF deck arrangement mean that it would be very flexible with launch and recovery operations interleaved, especially with SRVL. Going CATOBAR means deck to launch and recovery operations become cyclical and more vulnerable to break down or damage of the catapults and arrestor gear. If the arrestor gear is damaged or denied in any way there will be nowhere for any still airborne aircraft to land. With STOVL, a pilot has a number of options, even a Type 45 or RFA vessels helicopter landing pad would support an emergency recovery. Of course a second CVF or nearby allied aircraft carrier/land base would provide such a secondary recovery facility but we will not likely have a second CVF and may not always be operating with allies.

Given the additional training burden of conventional carrier operations, these skills are very perishable and need constant practice to remain safe, it is difficult to see how the FAA and RAF can sustain a reasonable availability with such a predicted small number of aircraft. Modern synthetic training environments may significantly improve things here though.

One of the stated reasons for going CATOBAR was interoperability with allies, the French and US, both of whom operate conventional aircraft carriers. This means that UK aircraft will be able to operate from these other aircraft carriers but if we are on a joint operation will they be deployed without their own air wing?

The number of conventional aircraft carriers is actually quite small but the number of amphibious ships that the STOVL B model could comfortably operate from is much greater and this number is IN ADDITION to the conventional carriers which can operate the F35B with some small limitations (no ski jump)

In going CATOBAR we are losing the ability to operate from the Italian Cavour, Spanish Juan Carlos, US America Class and Australian Canberra class, a huge reduction in flexibility for joint operations. US and French aircraft would not be able to use CVF but the USMC, Spanish and Italians are planning F35B purchases so its swings and roundabouts, pick your interoperability partners.

So we have a ten-year capability gap, during which the Charles de Gaulle will undergo a 2-year refit, which will see the UK without any organic maritime fast jet capability. CVF supporters think 10 years is OK because it keeps the RN in the fast jet business and one might be thinking that is all that is important.  Ten years seems rather an optimistic time span and even if it were to be so there is no way the Fleet Air Arm can maintain a training pipeline for that long. A few exchange programmes with the US or French forces is not going to change that. Keeping the pipeline flowing until a STOVL F35B/QE came into service was one thing but the F35C is quite another. The F35B is having a few development niggles but they are just that, niggles. The F35C is still likely to be the last of the trio in service which means the Italians and Spanish are likely to have a more capable maritime aviation component for the next ten years than the Royal Navy because the Royal Navy will have none.

Having only one means that CVF will be a part-time capability, best not to need it whilst it is in the dock.

Oh, hang on, we can rely on our allies, the French.

All across defence there have been capability reductions but the Admirals insisted on an increase, 2 CVF with 36 strike fighters each was the vision and despite having ample opportunity to scale back these opportunities have never been taken until we got to the crunch point and it was too late.

The aircraft ownership issue remains to be resolved, as do a number of other issues, yet again the SDSR was light on detail. A personal opinion is that the Fleet Air Arm will cease to be in the fast jet business, the time delay is too great to sustain a career stream for air and ground crew and the fleet size means no economies of scale will be achieved across a small service that is part of a larger service whose business is not flying. I am neutral on this issue but can see the benefits of a single fast jet force. The argument that RAF personnel don’t join to go to sea has some truth but as the new engagement model starts to build and new personnel join it would not be impossible to include time at sea in the engagement model for RAF ground and aircrew.

UCAV’s favour a conventional take-off and landing configuration so this might have had some role in the decision to switch but one of the defining characteristics of unmanned aircraft is extreme range and endurance, so the need for operating them from carriers becomes weaker to a degree.

The stated intention is to have 2 CVF with one in extended readiness or sold, a far cry from initial plans.

Decades of STVOL operational training and expertise has been cast aside and we are going to have to relearn skills we discarded a very long time ago.

Contracts are going to have to be renegotiated, equipment in build like the ‘ski jumps’ and production B models stopped midstream, expensive and risky developments entered into (catapults etc)

The painfully obvious lack of knowledge about the actual costs of converting to CATOBAR will become clear in the next year or two and these will be seen as increasingly unaffordable, putting yet more pressure on a programme that represents a capability we have decided we can do without for a decade.

We have the difficult task of persuading the US that we are a reliable industrial partner and have been shown yet again to be impossible to do business with.

No wonder BAE stitched up the CVF build contract, can we really blame them.


The unmitigated disaster that is CVF has been chewed over by everyone but suffice it to say, it is a weapons-grade cock up that puts the Chinook HC3’s, FRES or Nimrod AEW into the column marked, outstanding success.

There are many unanswered questions and the future is still uncertain; how many, who will the aircraft be flown by, how much integration with allies are we actually talking about, what might this mean, what about the second one and many more. I still feel that the F35B will be cheaper to operate, in the round, than the F35C and the switch to CATOBAR was motivated mainly by political considerations.

Building CVF in its current form, over a barrel, suits no one. Yes BAE gets to complete but the sour taste will linger affecting their long term relationship with the MoD and the decision to swap to CATOBAR is going to result in a series of uncomfortable conversations with the US.

The ten-year capability gap is simply ridiculous and beyond rational thought.

There is no doubt that carrier strike is a capability that can be justified in the context of an adaptable expeditionary posture, it is not as versatile or useful as the most rabid of its supporters would have you believe, but for the UK, essential nevertheless, in the most likely strategic context.

The real question is scale.

I think a smaller ambition and reduced scale would have been more appropriate as it would have afforded a more robust, balanced and versatile force structure able to meet real maritime defence and security needs and support expeditionary land operations, but here we are in 2010 with very little room to wiggle.

It’s hard to see any positives; we are going to have a part-time capability that will cost a small fortune, suck the life out of the RN budget for decades yet offer a relatively low level of capacity and significantly less flexibility than envisaged. Current plans seem to be for a normal deployment of 12 F35C’s, which is fewer aircraft than the CVS it is replacing, admittedly the F35C is a step change from the Harrier but nonetheless, it is food for thought given the huge cost and impact CVF has had on other capabilities.

The chiefs and previous governments ambition and unrealism have resulted in us being backed into a corner, left with very few alternatives.

A sensible alternative would have been a proper sit-down negotiation with BAE, not just exchanging angry letters.

Out of these negotiations would have sprung a revised design more suited to our needs and if this meant subsidising the BAE yards to more or less do nothing whilst this redesign and build-up took place then that would simply have been a price worth paying to get something that we actually need and want.

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