How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria and/or CVF?


Before starting this discussion we should all fully understand that project CVF is not a strategic priority for the current Government, if they could, they would have cancelled them in an instant. It is a combination of industrial and political factors that will result in the MoD paying for two, but planning on only bringing one into service, and whether the unwanted sibling will be sold or simply placed straight into extended readiness is not yet clear, as is the likelihood of this second vessel being fitted with catapults.

So for one carrier and a half-completed one that might be sold off or not the UK taxpayer will likely be paying in excess of £6 billion and if I were a betting man I would definitely have a punt on the final cost going beyond lucky number seven.

And this is without a single aircraft.

Clearly, it is not a good example of acquisition best practice and is a stark reminder of how we should never again let equipment dictate strategy rather than strategy dictating equipment, or, commonly known as the SDSR approach.

Despite this, in many ways the project has been steaming along very nicely indeed, the blocks continue to be built, contracts are being placed and progress is self-evident. When all said and done, CVF is actually a relatively simple, relatively low-risk design.

We should draw a distinction between factors internal and external to the project, fiscal and political issues are largely beyond the control of the project and yet responsible for the overwhelming majority of cost inflation and delays.

The root causes of the problems on Project CVF have been politics and financial ‘short termism’, can we really blame the MoD and Royal Navy for all these, I don’t think so, but, they must shoulder some.

Squabbling between service chiefs and yes, cock waving, have also joined the supporting cast.

After the 1998 SDR in which CVF was announced, it took several years to place the order and this order was conditional on bringing former competitors together into an uneasy industrial alliance. As the MoD equipment budget experienced more and more pressure, as other projects ballooned in cost and budgets remained static, the need to balance the yearly budget overspend led to a whole raft of short term decisions, delaying projects and de-scoping them allowed a short term budgetary crisis to be averted but inevitably pushed additional costs out the following years.

The impact of this was well known so it should have come as no surprise to anyone when another billion and a half was added to the bill for project CVF. The NAO has made several stinging criticisms of the MoD for this practice, paying more by paying later and the practice, commonly known as whistling and hoping the problem will go away, seems to be very common, arguably one of the more widespread causes of project cost inflation.

It might be seen as unfair to blame the service chiefs for these problems but they were willing accomplices in the jam tomorrow strategy, instead of changing projects they settled on a strategy of wishful thinking and all three were guilty in this respect.

It is the current government that has ‘called time’ and for this, despite the uncomfortable results, they should be roundly congratulated.

Because of this cost inflation and at a time when the Army was experiencing serious equipment shortages in Iraq and Afghanistan is it any wonder that carriers were starting to come under severe pressure, the debate/argument/slanging match between the services about the relative slice of the defence budget intensifying as costs rose.

This reflected both poorly and somewhat unfairly on the project team but amplified the distortion to the Royal Navy equipment plan caused by CVF. And distort the plan it has, self evidently, the Admiralty have traded off ship after ship and capability after capability in order to retain CVF in its original form. As costs have risen the need to make ever deeper cuts has been the painful result, making cut after cut in return for jam tomorrow put the RN in a very poor negotiating position with the Treasury and other services, others knew full well they could ask the First Sea Lord to wave his tackle at the cameras in Downing Street in return for CVF and he would more or less have to do it.

By continually failing to budge on CVF, the Royal Navy paid an ever more expensive price to do so and in what some might see as irony, the very fact that the RN has no carriers and carrier aircraft to offer Operation Ellamy is precise because of the desire to have CVF shaped carriers and FAA insignia bearing carrier aircraft.

One might reasonably argue that the inability of the Royal Navy to see any future at all without CVF and a reluctance to consider alternatives has led them to mortgage off the rest of the fleet in order to get the carriers and rebuild from there.

The strategy it would seem; is the get CVF at any cost and rebuild around there in the long term, again, equipment tail wagging strategy dog.

Personally, I think it was a poor strategy and has resulted in a much-reduced surface and sub-surface fleet, a fleet that is arguably more relevant to UK security and more useful in the majority of operations the UK and Royal Navy will be involved.

There is also a less visible effect of rising cost, as night follows day, the subsequent reaction to a politically or fiscally induced cost over-run is to get out the red pen and start deleting line items from the design shopping list.

In practice, what this means is a gradual de-specification of the design and unfortunately, it is a well-trodden path. At the end of that path lies an expensive white elephant that flatters to deceive. It may well give the impression of being world-beating but scratch the surface and the reality becomes only too apparent. These deficiencies may be rectified at a later stage but it will be several times the cost of doing the job right in the first place.

There have been numerous design compromises, deleting credible self-defence systems, having a smaller than desirable hangar and a lower than optimal speed are just three examples that are paving the way to the end of that elephant width path.

But to repeat an oft-repeated phrase, we are where we are and CVF in one form or another is a reality.

Conversations now should be all about how we maximise value on our not inconsiderable investment.

To do this we have to remove any trace of sentimentality or desire for prestige and look across the whole of the defence landscape, paying particular attention to the joint capabilities on offer.

CVF is not a Royal Navy vessel in isolation, it is part of a complex tri-service defence capability set and it is in this context which it must be viewed.

Far too many people view it as an isolated maritime capability or as a way of preserving independence, being in the top league, punching above its weight and assorted other sentimental nonsense.

This attitude has no place in modern defence planning and to those that think this way, I would simply say, please, get with the reality of modern joint capability planning.

I am not going to suggest another defence review where the RAF is raped and pillaged and the Royal Navy gets all the toys, throwing a few consolation prizes like support helicopters to the Army Air Corps, I don’t suppose any of you will be expecting this from me but I thought I would set the scene.

I also still think we should have cancelled CVF a long time ago and instead had three or four smaller vessels to replace CVS, Ocean and the LPD’s but the opportunity for that has long since passed.

In the next paragraphs, I am going to explore how I think we can derive maximum benefit for an acceptable cost, not rehearse the reasons for or against maritime aviation, a maritime strategy or why we should have binned Tornado and kept Harrier.

The Strategic Landscape

Most arguments for and against CVF tend to gloss over the strategic landscape and more importantly, completely ignore fiscal and political reality. Instead of some vague notions of sea lanes, punching above our weight, being in the top division and we are an island; CVF must be firmly rooted in reality.

The first reality is a fiscal one, after Nimrod, FRES, T45, Astute, A400, Typhoon and numerous others, the government would seem to be in no mood for special pleading from the MoD. The fact is, the MoD needs to regain and retain some measure of fiscal credibility. The scope, therefore, for significant extra money for new projects, is limited, however much we promise that this time it will be different.

The second major reality is a strategic planning one, it was quite clearly stated as far back as the Strategic Defence Review of 1998 and reiterated in the SDSR that the direct military threat to the UK is very low and that the future nature of operations would be expeditionary and largely collaborative.

Working in partnerships and coalitions will be the norm.

The UK should be still able to undertake a small scale focussed intervention without external assistance but anything above that scale or for a longer duration will be in conjunction with others.

This applies equally to air and land forces as well, just in case anyone was wondering, so we must carefully select capabilities and maintain them at a scale that delivers influence in such operations without impacting our obligations and requirements in other areas of defence.

Some might view maritime fast jet aviation as one of those capability areas that deliver this influence in a coalition but I am sceptical and would not prioritise it above other areas, at least not disproportionately.

Looking into the medium term, carriers do provide some hedge against uncertainty because of their inherent flexibility but a reasonable assumption would be that CVF is more likely than not to be engaged in operations against non-peer or proxy nations and in a coalition with others. The location of these most likely future scenarios will be in the Middle East and Africa although as a system, it has to be able to operate anywhere because it might be argued that equally as likely is conflict in the polar regions.

So, setting the strategic landscape we must then consider how it could be used and for what purpose because it all informs equipment and design choices.


When considering the what’s and how’s of carrier missions the first thing we must ask ourselves is what do we want to achieve. Only then should we determine if a carrier is an optimal method of achieving that objective and if the answer is yes then equipment and others questions would need answering.

We should not be afraid of lateral thinking, if the requirement is a first-day strike then are aircraft necessarily the best means of delivery. Perhaps a containerised Storm Shadow that could be carried by any number of surface vessels might be a more cost-effective means of fulfilling that requirement, I am not arguing for or against but saying that alternatives can sometimes be attractive and worthy of consideration.

CVF was originally a pure strike platform, optimised for attacks against land targets.

Our thinking around how we could use CVF should be centred on building up a capability that we already have and the obvious strength in this context is littoral manoeuvre from the sea or amphibious operations. We already have a strong capability in this area and CVF offers the possibility of improving this to an even greater degree if we put to one side notions of it being used as a single-minded strike platform with 36 fast jets. It also fits in with my thinking about the UK’s future approach to defence, this being the maintenance of as many capabilities as sensible at a small enough scale to satisfy the unassisted small scale focussed intervention as per SDSR, supplemented with a number of ‘capability plus’ areas that deliver influence in coalition operations and provide for greater security by virtue of regional engagement and intelligence gathering.

In the recent ‘future of the Royal Navy’ series of posts, I suggested that the Royal Navy retain a small but effective striking force or Single Task Group but supplemented it with a greater forward presence to build regional security and provide better intelligence.

The proposal to repurpose CVF is entirely in keeping with this approach.

Recent operations in Libya, particularly the joint USN/USMC TRAP operation to recover the downed F15 aircrew have demonstrated the value of being close and having responsive forces. It also demonstrated the complementary nature of the land and naval aviation. In UK parlance, the Joint Personnel Recovery mission is one for which we are relatively poorly resourced for. I would like to see this change; the value of downed aircrew, special forces, conventional forces, journalists and NGO personnel etc to a terrorist group or opposing regime is significant. Capture, torture and manipulation of them to change the strategic direction of an operation is a very effective tactic and one to which the UK has very little in the cupboard to counter. This is not an area that I think we should or could rely on others to fulfil.

Unpredictability, choosing an entry point that suits you not the enemy and speed are can provide significant results in a range of operational scenarios. It should come as no surprise that in the forthcoming series on Land forces I will place a great emphasis on rapid reaction forces.

[Don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security though, I am not going soft on Strategic Raiding!]

This also allows the UK to exploit the size of CVF, space provides flexibility (a good argument for size if ever there was one) and the ability to embark a capable force from a large deck in a single hop i.e. speed.

Some missions will be aviation centric but these are likely to be less frequent and as would be the norm (operating in a coalition) other nations can carry out these roles, France and the US is the most likely partners.

A reduced emphasis on fast jet aviation, strike, interdiction, close air support and defensive/offensive counter-air changes the requirement for JCA, reducing numbers and reducing cost. JCA would still be needed at the scale and capability for the small scale focussed intervention but that would be the baseline, anything above that becomes discretionary.

What does this mean for CVF?

First, it recognises that CVF has value, a lot of value.

Second, it means that to maximise that value the role of CVF should be changed.

Rather than prioritising fast jet aviation and using it as a strike optimised platform, it will become more multi-purpose in nature. Operating with a mix of aviation and embarked forces. Many will say it can do this anyway and in some ways, they would be right, CVF is designed to offer a secondary LPH capability, but this would mean CVF becomes more akin to the USMC America Class, aviation optimised amphibious vessels.

Strike and high-intensity counter-air become secondary roles, modifications and the fast jet air wing would reflect this.


Whether it be Apache Attack Helicopters, Merlin/Chinook Support Helicopters or whatever comes after there are many options for a blend of rotary-wing aircraft.

MASC/ASaC/AEW or whatever we are calling it this week is an area where people assume that just because we might use catapults it is an automatic shoe-in for an E2 Hawkeye but again, we must smack those sweet shop-bound fingers with a bit of fiscal and strategic reality. It is unclear if there even exists any funding for a Merlin based solution, post the withdrawal of Sea King in the 2016 time frame. To start with, the baseline must always be a small scale focussed intervention. For this, a helicopter-based solution would seem to be perfectly adequate. There have been a number of proposals to palletise and transfer the equipment from the existing Sea Kings and lift and shift into a small number of Merlin airframes. This is a low risk and relatively low-cost solution that still provides an adequate level of capability, in fact, the existing Sea Kings are seriously underestimated.

Although flexibility is the watchword, a typical aircraft load would be 6 to 12 JCA and 24 to 30 helicopters (mix of Apache, Merlin SH/Chinook, Wildcat, Merlin ASW and Merlin ASaC)

We all know the UK is light on vertical lift capability but there is never enough money to pay for, the respective services have never given enough priority to helicopters. So how we do get the money for more, simply to have fewer fast jets.

Fast Jets and the Joint Combat Aircraft

Some missions might require no fixed-wing aviation at all and there is no shame in operating CVF without a compliment of JCA, put your teeth back in now!

Once you get beyond the aircraft carrier sometimes with no aircraft theme it is logical, but a normal (if there is such a thing) compliment of JCA would be in the region of 6 to 12. The America Class has 10 as its standard compliment, for example, the Juan Carlos 1 and Cavour a similar number. Of course, CVF is larger than these vessels but that is not the point and being larger than these alternatives provides excess space for stores (meaning greater un-replenished endurance), accommodation and the ability to surge up should need dictate.

In defensive counter-air and in conjunction with Type 45, Merlin ASaC and with support from land-based aircraft in some instances should still be able to provide adequate protection against the scale and capability of likely opposition in the SSFI scenario. If there is a greater threat we would still have the option to surge or simply rely on others in the more likely coalition instance.  Offensive counter-air might also involve land attack, much better to destroy the ability to oppose forces on the ground than in the air and this opens up a number of options, particularly with cruise missiles.

Interdiction, recce and close air support would still be at a high enough level for SSFI, even with 8 to 12 embarked aircraft and again, the ability to blend air-delivered munitions with those delivered by long-range land-based UAV’s, ship/submarine-launched loitering munitions and cruise missiles allows a reduction in overall aircraft numbers for a given delivered effect.

Thinking in a joint context and with multiple means of mission delivery logically reduces the aircraft count.

The current preferred option to fulfil the Joint Combat Aircraft is the F35C but it has yet to reach Main Gate so that means almost anything is possible!

When looking at JCA it is important to understand the word joint is there for a reason, both the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force will be operating a common aircraft type for joint missions, the services and MoD grasping the ruthless commonality nettle.

I think this is the reason for so much vitriol, the grown-ups at the MoD imposed an aircraft choice based on sound operational and financial factors, sweeping away service-centric concerns and I wonder if either service really wanted the B model. The Fleet Air Arm wanted the C model and RAF the A model, why, because looking at the issue in a service-centric stovepiped manner logically leads to a two-type fleet.

The B model is a compromise, it is neither perfect for the RN or RAF but that is exactly the point, it was supposed to be the perfect solution for the UK.

The STOVL F35B was therefore the outcome of studies about how the JCA would most likely be deployed, initial operations onboard followed by a transition to land bases for the sustainment phase.  Not only that, it would allow CVF to dispense with catapults and barriers, thus significantly reducing the capital and through-life costs of the vessel. It would also neatly dispense with the training overhead of maintaining carrier operation currency for the flight crew.  To safely operate from conventional carriers requires a high level of skill and that skill is perishable. This means regular training and having to use a greater proportion of the aircraft fleet for this training, adding yet more cost.

By using STOVL, this continual and regular training requirement would be dramatically reduced, as regularly demonstrated with the Harrier achieving proficiency for carrier operations could be achieved in days by RAF aircrew. Of course, it would be better to maintain and enhance these skills for all pilots but the ability to quickly surge or reinforce the carrier-capable aircrew for the most likely operations was seen as a compromise worth taking because of the cost savings.

What this decision did was impose some order on the squabbling children at the heads of the RAF and RN, no more stovepipes, no more empire building and no more needless duplication. By sharing, the overall fleet size could be reduced and money saved.

This much sanity was doomed to failure.

This was the stated position for a long time until a couple of things happened.

The F35 and especially the STOVL B model started to have ‘problems’ and the keys to Number 10 changed.

Announced in the SDSR was a switch to the F35C or conventional carrier variant, an obvious design change to the carriers (even though they really wanted to cancel them) and a bit of wishy-washy uncertainty about what would happen to the second carrier on order.

Explaining the switch, Liam Fox and David Cameron stated that it would provide better interoperability with allies, cost less to buy and offer better performance.

So F35C it is then.

In subsequent parliamentary questions, the MoD has made it absolutely crystal clear that it does not yet know the full cost implication of the switch and given the widely acknowledged fact that SDSR was rushed I suspect when pennies start to drop and spreadsheets start to have more detail the MoD is going to be in for a rude awakening.

For the purposes of discussion, I am going to have a look at alternatives to the existing position.

Option 1 – Carry on Normal Jogging with the F35C

Why I have to admit I was perplexed by the switch to F35C, it annoyed our principal expeditionary operations partner, the USMC and resulted in yet more delays and costs but I can see the logic in a service-centric and more importantly politically expedient fashion.

Cost, the reality of F35 is that no one really knows how much they will cost despite the millions of words and countless spreadsheets but it is a reasonable assumption that the C model will have a lower price tag than the B model. The real costs, those inconvenient through life costs, have yet to be fully realised. The other truth about the F35C is that the MoD does not know how much extra the non-aircraft costs will be. It may well be within their cost model boundaries but when did the MoD ever make a cost estimate that was worth the paper it was written on?

Additional costs include delay costs, which we now run into the billions and the modifications to the design of CVF, principally for catapults and barriers. The electromagnetic catapult design has not yet been selected, whether it will be the US or UK designs is not certain but once this is certain, they will not be cheap.

Putting the capital and delay costs into the shade will be increased through life costs.

Again, this is a complex set of equations, the B model is more complex than C and will logically cost more to maintain but in looking at the operating costs as published in Parliament of a Harrier and Tornado, there isn’t that much difference. Twin-engine v single-engine or conventional v STOVL makes an interesting cost comparison exercise for spares and maintenance but the F35 will be single-engine in all variants. The B model lift fan will require extra maintenance but the C model also has additional systems and the airframe gets a maintenance-intensive battering every time it takes off and lands, however gentle the electromagnetic system will be.

There is also the not insignificant maintenance requirement for the catapults and barriers themselves.

So whilst the differences between the C and B models in terms of maintenance may yet turn out to be fewer than expected the real cost differences lie in pink things.

To manage the catapult and barrier system will require additional staff in the DE&S Integrated Project Team, another set of contracts to manage and additional maintenance personnel to pay for. These are recurring costs whether we fly a single mission or not. The deck crew will need expanding also and training courses changed/added.

Each extra crew slot requires to pay, housing, welfare, healthcare and pension payments that will need to be maintained for longer as people grow older.

Behind those extra crew are the logistical and management tail, even an extra course for catapult operations and maintenance will require staffing.

It is personnel costs that are growing in proportion to their number, in short, personnel are getting more and more expensive which is exactly why western nations do not carry out labour-intensive manufacturing and are automating as many tasks as possible.

Military forces are no different and yet we have made a decision to increase personnel.

Risk, the C model has a lower risk than the B, some think that the B model may be cancelled and it is on probation in the eyes of the US Department of Defence. The risk might have been a significant factor in the decision

Capability, no doubt, the C model beats the B model in terms of performance so in this regard it is a sound decision

Industrial, no change really, yes we have the development programme B models but that is not entirely wasted and too much is made of this by the press. Whichever model is chosen the defence industrial benefits to the UK are significant.

Politics, this is I think the principal reason for the switch to the C model because it allows the Royal Navy to resource share with the French. There has been a strong move to greater military cooperation with the French and short of buying Rafale, a switch to conventional carrier operations means that a CVF could form part of an interchangeable and shared carrier force. The fact that there was a CTOL F35 variant is a happy convenience that means we don’t have to upset the US by switching to Rafale and yet can still also keep the Anglo/French alliance satisfied by sharing CVF. I think it is likely that the second, unloved and unwanted CVF, will be sold to France at cost and the UK and France will maintain a joint carrier strike group, one nation sitting in the hot seat on a rotational basis and covering each other’s refit periods. The Charles de Gaulle will be withdrawn as soon as this becomes practicality.

So with this politically driven, resource sharing background, switching to a CV makes perfect sense.

Option 2 – Cancel F35C and develop a carrier-capable Typhoon

Why, isn’t it obvious, cost and commonality but it would be a significant development effort for a small number of airframes with little export potential.

Cost, the great conundrum when anyone suggests naval Typhoon, perhaps the Tranche 3 aircraft and that is the cost. Whether the chosen option is to turn Typhoon into a conventional carrier version for use with cats and traps or a STOBAR design with a ski jump and barrier assisted landing system the cost of either option is uncertain. If it is feasible within an acceptable technical risk boundary then the cost benefits of having a single type with as much commonality as possible should be obvious to all. It is an attractive proposition from a cost perspective, no doubt.

Risk, the detractors of Sea Typhoon tend to deride the very notion and dismiss it out of hand but I do wonder if those doing the laughing are the ones with most to lose, the RN and RAF because they would no longer be getting the keys to the shiny new F35. As we have seen, both services are keen to get their hands on the F35 and the perception is that a Sea Typhoon would be a retrograde step. Hard facts are very difficult to obtain about the feasibility and therefore technical risk, some say combining advances in modern avionics, thrust vectoring, the QinetiQ work on F35 SRVL, older work on the Rockwell MBB X31 and the inherently strong Typhoon airframe would allow a STOBAR derivative to be developed within a sensible risk fraction. Others say the idea is barking mad and would result in a complete waste of money.

Capability, we know Typhoon is a sophisticated aircraft and when combined with the full range of UK weapons would be a formidable capability.

Industrial, swings and roundabouts, we may (possibly) lose some of the F35 work, although the F35 development MOU splits the numbers bought from industrial participation, it would be difficult to envisage a situation where the UK purchased no F35’s but carried on with the industrial participation, stranger things have happened though. On the other hand, there would be considerable work accrued from developing a STOBAR Typhoon.

Politics, it would be difficult to manage the impact with the US of withdrawing from the F35 programme but would leave the Anglo-French CVF ‘sharing’ deal in place.

Option 3 – Cancel F35C and buy another carrier-capable aircraft

Why, if we make the assumption that an F35C alternative is worth pursuing because of cost issues and a Sea Typhoon is not feasible then a number of alternative options open up.

F18, Rafale, Hal Tejas, Harrier III and Sea Gripen all sit on a three-way capability/cost/risk matrix, each with different advantages and disadvantages.

Cost, whatever the cost of any of these alternatives, would have to be significantly cheaper than the F35 to make it worthwhile, especially given the relatively small numbers in this proposal. Cost is the only reason for even looking at these non Typhoon alternatives and when the ‘small print’ costs like weapon integration are added I am sceptical that the cost savings would be significant.

Risk, some, like the F18 and Rafale M are very low risk, existing aircraft with only weapons integration to complete. Others like the Sea Gripen or Harrier III represent an unknown quantity and might not be available within the required timescale.

Capability, compared to the F35 B  might argue that the F18 or Rafale do not fall far short in capability terms and bring different qualities to the mix. The others would offer a greater shortfall in capability but it would all come down to cost. Suffice it to say, most of these alternatives would be good enough for the majority of the mission requirements for the majority of the time, whether they would meet the JCA requirements is another matter.

Industrial, a difficult one to answer but likely less than either the F35 or Sea Typhoon

Politics, interestingly, most of the alternatives would offer something positive in political terms

Option 4 – Switch back to F35B

Why it was originally selected as the preferred option for the Joint Combat Aircraft requirement for very good reasons and I think we have allowed ourselves to get spooked at the technical issues and rising costs whilst succumbing to inter-service machinations.

Cost, by switching back to the F35B we would still of course be liable for the additional capital costs. These costs are rising and they are no point trying to hide that fact but I also think that some of the hype surrounding the F35B costs are overplayed. A switchback would also instantly eliminate the additional capital and significant through-life costs of going for the catapult options.

Risk, a slightly risky option because there is a chance that the F35B will be cancelled but I do think this is a slight risk. The USMC aviation strategy is built upon the F35B and even though they have bought into the C model I can’t see this changing.

Capability, in some aspects, the F35B has the lowest performance of the options but two things must be remembered. The F35B originally met the JCA specification and it will still be a step-change in capability from the Harrier and Tornado. Reduced signature design and the sensor fusion on offer will mean it will remain relevant for a long time and despite a number of issues with what might constitute an austere location it has the greatest flexibility.

Industrial, the existing industrial participation arrangements will be retained and although the share may come under some pressure as the overall order is reduced the agreement more or less states that order volume has no relationship to the industrial share of the programme, it is the development cash we stumped up (£2b) that counts.

Other, it would be embarrassing flip-flopping

Politics, instead of being interoperable with the French and US Navy we will be interoperable with the USMC and all the former Harrier operators that will eventually buy the F35B.

Option 5 – Unmanned

There are various unmanned options such as the X47 development and even the Anglo-French programme that might eventually come out of Taranis but it is unlikely they will be practical options for several years and the cost seems to be rather open-ended.

An unmanned system might also require significant satellite bandwidth, even with the advances in autonomous operation and onboard processing, satellite bandwidth that we don’t have.

It is also unlikely that an unmanned system would be able to fulfil the counter-air role for several decades.

Unmanned systems are usually characterised by a very long range which kind of negates many of the advantages of carrier launch.

In the introduction to this post, I wondered if we could actually carry out some of the penetrating strike role with cruise missiles, maybe we can.

Finally, unmanned systems sound far too much like an expensive jam tomorrow and the RAF is already trying to ditch yesterday’s news, the Typhoon, in favour of the shiny new model.

A Proposal

I actually think CVF does has a lot of potentials, I know you lot might be surprised by this but my objections have always been on cost grounds. This proposal is one possible method of squeezing maximum value for the investment in the most likely missions it will be required to fulfil.

  • Switch back to the F35B for JCA
  • Obtain enough to maintain a minimum of 6 onboard permanently so that we can maintain a littoral manoeuvre capability and more importantly, the skills to do so, on an enduring, always available basis
  • In addition, obtain enough to maintain a minimum of 6 on an enduring land-based operation (rotating with Typhoon as necessary) to support the deployed multi-role brigade. the Typhoon would be more numerous and therefore find itself deployed for longer
  • This allows for continuous cover for an enduring land operation of Multi-Role Brigade strength whilst still maintaining enough capacity for the rapid reaction force to be available at short notice without impacting the enduring operation
  • Total aircraft and crew numbers would be determined once maintenance and force generation factors become known
  • For a one-off, short-duration operation the non deployed force could be used, STVOL supporting greater basing flexibility (land or sea)
  • The RAF should stop dreaming about hordes of F35’s and get on with the job of deriving maximum benefit from the eye-watering and defence budget distorting entity that is Typhoon. We need to start sweating our assets, not always looking over the fence
  • Equally, the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Navy should stop dreaming about having a mini-me CVN and concentrate on creating a credible entry from the sea capability with a much greater vertical lift capability, reductions in F35 purchase would provide the funding for this change in emphasis
  • The FAA would cease operating fast jets and the aboard aircraft would be RAF operated. We can’t afford two air forces and the largest one, the one that can achieve some economy of scale and is focussed on managing fast jets, should have primacy
  • Invest in greater platform diversity for Storm Shadow and TLAM
  • Complete both CVF with one maintained as an in-service spare to cover refit periods
  • Investigate the role of reserve forces to maintain the second CVF at a level of readiness sufficient to provide some measure of resilience and refit cover
  • Do not replace Ocean, the role to be covered by CVF
  • If funds allow, the in-service spare could be bought into full service
  • Redesign CVF to have an enlarged hangar, at least big enough for Chinook, CH53K and V22 across the FULL width and length of enlarged space. Also, improve command and control and embarked force accommodation facilities
  • Invest in a Merlin based ASaC which is sufficient for the role

Some might say the JCA number is too small but I would ask too small for what?

If we accept the result of the SDSR then it becomes the baseline, a similar number of aircraft support (6-12) currently support operations in Afghanistan for a much larger force than envisaged in SDSR. 6-12, with a minimum of 6 would still deliver a credible capability and remember, the F35 will be incredibly effective and versatile.

Even if we stuck with the F35C then the numbers aboard would remain but the numbers behind would increase as training and currency issues would demand a larger fleet and the overall cost would rise because of it, it would not be the end of the world though and the additional performance of the C model would be very welcome. This option would need both CVF fitted with cats and traps so the B model saves again and retains the ability to maintain a continual CVF presence.

By keeping the numbers to a realistic level (6) then we afford an opportunity to maintain that fleet on continuous joint training with the RM and other services, something that is currently lacking. If we find a few quid down the back of the sofa then yes, let’s have more, but it is a balancing act and we have to be realistic.

In effect, we have 2 small squadrons or large flights of 6 aircraft each. One more or less permanently onboard CVF and one more or less permanently in a rotation pool with Typhoon for enduring deployments. If there is no enduring deployment then the training pool becomes larger, hours are preserved or more is available for one-off operations. Of course, the aircraft and crews rotate in and out of those slots on a normal deployment schedule, the details of which and total fleet numbers would be dictated by aircraft availability etc. I have pegged these numbers for convenience, reality means that the numbers will flex up and down anyway but it gives us some measure of scaling.

The inherent deployment and operational flexibility of the F35B mean this scalability can be maintained much easier than with the C model, whatever its other virtues.

I am agnostic on the FAA operating fast jets, it’s not an ideological issue, purely cost. Logically, the larger force, a force dedicated to the art of operating aircraft, should be more efficient and therefore lower cost. Whilst the US can afford four air forces the UK cannot, now, if the FAA can prove they can operate F35 cheaper for the same effect than the RAF then fair enough, but duplication and resource waste should be our enemy.


There are many options for maximising investment and getting the most out of what we are about to have. For what it is worth, I think the route to that end state is to turn CVF into as multi-purpose a capability as possible, building from a position of strength (amphibious) and not building from a weakness (fast jet maritime aviation)

This means a littoral manoeuvre from the sea in the theatre entry phase of any operation i.e. an oversized LPH with the ability to operate a modest fast air wing with the ability to flex up should the occasional need arise.

Switching back to the F35B is my preferred option for the reasons outlined above; it allows both CVF to enter service, reduces through-life costs, still keeps a fifth-generation aircraft in the inventory, still keeps us in the largest combat aviation programme of modern times and provides interoperability with a number of important allies.

CVF becomes an air optimised amphibious assault ship pair, combined with the LPD pair in service and the LSD(A)’s.

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