Forward to Plan B


The rumour mill has been flapping faster than a shithouse door in a Force 9 on the subject of the change from F35C to F35B.

Right at the beginning of this post, it is important to state loud and clear that this is only a rumour, albeit given some credibility by comments from Lockheed Martin who confirmed that a switchback could be accommodated. You can read into that what you want but I don’t think it is an endorsement of the rumour one way or the other.

The MoD is keeping tight-lipped, simply confirming they are looking at all options as the annual budget planning round draws ever closer to its gripping and car crash-esque conclusion. I think I made the point a year back that PR12 i.e. this one, would be every bit as brutal as the last so in the crazy world of annual budgets and short term expedients that is public sector finance, nothing should come as a surprise.

Seeing a spot of weakness in the position many have come out with their buy the F18 proposition, these should be roundly rebuffed though.

I think we all knew the SDSR, despite its billing, was going to turn into an incoherent mess, characterised by salami-slicing and short term decisions but the move to switch horses mid-stream and opting for the catapult-launched version of the F35 Lightning to fulfil the Joint Combat Aircraft (JCA) requirement was a genuine surprise. It is certainly true that the vast majority of the UK JCA team only knew when they watched the SDSR unveiled in Parliament, anecdotal evidence that has emerged since would seem to confirm this.

The rationale behind the decision, one would assume, came down to a question of risk.

The F35B at that time was the poster child for the woes of the programme, some justified, some not and given the build timing issues and loss of Harrier the decision was on face value understandable. If the F35B was cancelled we would have very few options open to us, made even worse by the decision to withdraw and sell the Harriers. The Harrier decision was still the right one but I don’t want a rehearsal of that, it is now ancient history.

At the time I maintained that the speed of the decision and lack of corporate knowledge of the costs of operating a conventional carrier aircraft would come back to haunt the MoD and if the rumours are true, those fears have been realised.

The MoD used a spot of smoke and mirrors accounting to justify the decision by rolling the JCA requirement into the RAF’s search for a Tornado replacement and thus saved a billion pounds.

The replacement for Tornado by the way could be the subject of any number of posts, it morphing from Future Offensive Air Capability to Deep and Persistent Offensive Capability over a number of fruitless years;

Deep and Persistent Offensive Capability (DPOC) [will] enable the timely engagement of static and mobile targets deep behind enemy lines. Additionally there will be a capability shortfall created by Tornado GR4 being withdrawn from service around 2025. An Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) is a potential cost-effective solution.

At the time, we were going unmanned crazy so the preferred route was unmanned, the Strategic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Experiment (SUAVE) programme would take things from that point although much thought had also gone into a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft, plus cruise missiles.

DPOC was consigned to the round filing cabinet in the SDSR and the savings of a billion pounds (a nice round number that) taken as part of the cost justification for the switch, the MoD argued that if the JCA requirement was met by the F35C, it could also meet DPOC requirements. Farting around with FOAS and DPOC has likely cost several hundred million pounds and delivered very little, it’s like FRES.

As I said above, the issue of risk was the primary justification but in making the switch the MoD has just swapped one set for another.

Instead of concerns about the additional cost of the F35B or whether it would be cancelled the MoD now had to worry itself about a whole raft of issues on which it had no operational knowledge, except looking over the shoulders of the USN and cribbing their answers.

The NAO recognised this, the PAC recognised this and so did a lot of other people but in the hubris laden atmosphere post SDSR anyone questioning the switch became something of a pariah, after all, the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, supposedly, wanted the F35C because of all that extra range and bomb load compared to the fat wheezy kid that is the F35B.

Depending on your viewpoint you might see the Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing capability of the F35B to be operationally useful or a gimmick but it is really not the issue, it’s a pros and cons type situation with no right or wrong answer, there are implications though.

Regardless of the performance benefits, what were these extra costs and risks associated with going back to having ‘proper carriers’

Deck Crew; estimates vary but a solid assumption is that conventional carrier operations need more deck crew that STOVL; shore accommodation, welfare, pensions, pay and all the other capitation costs we know about.  Some of these can be mitigated with sharing arrangements but fundamentally, it is an additional cost.

Flight Crew; although synthetic environments and the F35’s flight control systems hold a great deal of promise, the assumption must be that maintaining carrier qualifications will require more aircraft, more aircrew and more time. This drives up cost or reduces availability. Where that relationship settles is open for discussion but the basic assumption should be we will need more time/crew or accept less mission availability and reduce the ability to rapidly surge in a crisis.

Catapults and Arrestor Gear; no sensible option exists other than the US EMAL’s and associated recovery equipment which is an additional capital cost and significant through-life cost. Certainly cheaper than steam but still a considerable extra cost although the risk of it failing to deliver seems remote.

Doubts on the second carrier; by putting additional costs and delay into the programme something had to give and that something was the second carrier. Operating one carrier with F35C’s might provide a performance uplift over F35B’s but if our loan carrier is in refit or has an accident it doesn’t matter what performance advantage there is. Relying on the French might seem a reasonable option if one’s head is firmly in the sand but does anyone else think will see Rafale’s providing cover for the UK only operation?

Deck Handling and the CEPP; carrier strike has morphed into Carrier Enabled Power Projection (who thinks these up by the way, is there a training course one attends?) which is a blend of carrier-borne fast jets, helicopters and in the future UAV’s, supported by other capabilities and force elements. The Royal Navy openly admit that the move to conventional aircraft handling will complicate matters in this regard, noting in evidence to a House of Commons Select Committee that no other maritime force will be doing this and that the challenges are significant. With STOVL aircraft the deck movement challenges are much fewer and we have a deep well of experience from which to draw.

Recovery Refuelling; if we operate the CTOL F35C we need a means of safely providing emergency recovery refuelling but given that no customer exists for the F35C except the USN and they have plenty of other options we would have to fund that ourselves. This would not be an insurmountable problem but at what cost?

Interoperability; the SDSR made great play of interoperability but this only means the US and French maritime forces, the F35B allows us to work with the USMC, Italian and Spanish forces, maybe Australians in the future, in addition to the US and French Navies, plus a number of other prospective F35B buyers and at the very least we would be able to carry out an emergency recovery of an F35B on almost any vessel in the fleet.

I would also ask whether the performance difference between the F35C and F35B is in a REALISTIC operational context are really that significant.

I personally don’t think they are so in light of the extra costs and other risks; simply don’t think it was worth it.

With F35B testing looking rather better and the probation period ended some of those original risks have greatly diminished.

That the F35B is more expensive to operate in isolation than the F35C is no revelation but the question when looking at this is to ask if those greater costs are balanced out by reductions elsewhere, I don’t have the answers but suspect that over the lifetime of the whole CVF/JCA capability these additional maintenance costs will not be that great in comparison.

The impact of operations over Libya were also illuminating where I do not think it was Ocean or Charles De Gaul that were the eye-openers but USS Kearsage with its blend of Harriers, V22 and helicopters. When it was operating it provided an invaluable and flexible range of capabilities and this is what the Carrier Enabled Power Projection capability should be aspiring to.

The CVF and JCA programme (accepting they are different but related) has been shocking, a mix of corrosive inter-service politics, over-ambition, political meddling and financial mismanagement writ large.

It does the MoD and successive governments no credit whatsoever but the original plan of two ships, starting with Harriers and migrating to the F35B made a lot of sense. Although the planned 150 aircraft was clearly pie in the sky I am failing to see the downsides, with a smaller number of aircraft but a mix of helicopters, small UAV’s and a modest embarked force the QE class could have provided a flexible, capable and relatively low-cost capability for UK defence, relevant for the vast majority of situations.

The relative priority for fast jets has to stop; at one point the UK was planning for 232 Typhoon, 150 JCA plus a replacement for Tornado whilst planning for a tactical airlift fleet of just 25 A400M, an indicator of just how we used to think before budget reality hove into view.

The rumoured cost increase of £1.8b over the next six years just to provide 1 converted carrier is truly eye-watering, if true of course.

Another influencing factor would possibly have been the emergence of the USMC Expeditionary Strike Group concept in the Bold Alligator exercise earlier this year where the standoff range afforded by the V22 and potential of the F35B in this concept provided some unique insights into the future.

The UK going for a Hawkeye was always pie in the sky which also removes another justification for the switch.

Is there a way forward?

Carrying on with the decision to go for the F35C is going to add a lot of costs, I think we can all agree on that and it has to be paid for from a finite and reducing defence vote, you might think depriving other capability areas across all three services is a price worth paying.

I do not.

I also think it is insane to have only one carrier, a truly idiotic notion if ever there was one.

Whatever people might think, the original notion for CVF was a strike, hence the term Carrier Strike. This has changed to Carrier Enabled Power Projection despite the switch to F35C making it more ‘strike’ than ever.

CVF with F35C is now more niche, not less.

This is emphatically not what we need from CVF, however much water has flowed under the bridge.

Libya and Bold Alligator have confirmed, at least to me, that what the UK needs in order to meet defence planning assumptions and the reality of likely operations is something more akin to an America class, a flexible aviation platform that can integrate with a variety of surface, subsurface, air and land capabilities from the UK and our allies to cover a broad range of operational needs.

If you read what Italy intends to do with their F35B and another equipment mix it is equally interesting, a model of jointery it would seem.

The future direction that CVF/JCA/CEPP should take is one of closer integration between all three services and a more rounded collection of capabilities that can be flexed up and down depending on need.

So, if I were Generalissimo for the day (verging dangerously into fantasy fleet mode) I would be looking at these ten equipment options, in addition to loads of training and a reintroduction of the rum ration;

1. Draw Down Tornado as Fast as Possible

The operating costs are significant and whilst they have delivered absolutely unrivalled service over a number of decades and at a relatively low cost, despite their critics spouting nonsense, it is time for them to go.

Air operations in Afghanistan are changing and we might reasonably ask our allies to fill any gaps before the cessation of operations.

This will save considerable sums and provide funds for other options.

2. Increase Pace of Typhoon Weapons Integration

As the Tornado is progressively withdrawn we should accelerate the integration of Storm Shadow, Paveway IV and Brimstone onto the Typhoon.

I do not know if this is possible, obviously, this will be dependent upon many factors, timing, availability of airframes and crew etc. but as a general objective, we should be accelerating the demise of one type against the rise of another.

This may mean some increased risk in certain areas but if cost savings can be had it is worth that risk, the cost savings will be used to fund other capabilities within this domain.

On the nice to have list would be conformal fuel tanks but this might be promoted to the must-have if Storm Shadow integration produces too much drag and reduces range, having said that the Typhoon is very fuel-efficient so who knows.

Even though DPOC was cancelled it seems that Libya has shown that Typhoon, with a modest investment in weapons integration (Brimstone and Paveway IV), combined with whatever comes out of the Anglo-French MALE UAV programme (Mantis), Storm Shadow and Tomahawk, could fulfil that role. Add in the F35B and I am not seeing a weak capability but one that is fearsome.

Also, remember those pesky defence planning assumptions when looking at quantities, this combination may well fulfil the requirement without spending a billion.

3. Improve Apache Maritime Capability

Operation in Libya highlighted the tremendous capability of Apaches operating in a maritime context but also a number of deficiencies.

Addressing these should not in comparison be hugely expensive and possibly carried out concurrent with any Block III enhancements, there is a huge potential in Apache.

On the nice to have list would also be Lightweight Multirole Missile integration.

4. Confirm ASaC7 Replacement

Sea King is going out of service in 2016 and the recent suggestions of mounting the LM Vigilance pod on a Merlin or transferring the mission equipment directly from the Mk7’s would both appear to be reasonable on face value.

Four years is not a long time and this is a capability we should not gap if the CVF becomes operational in the same time frame by reverting back to the B model.

5. Investigate Chinook Powered Blade Fold

But what about Merlin conversion, given the relative performance differential of the two especially in regards to sling loading and moving vehicles from ship to shore I think this would provide greater value.

It would all come down to cost of course but if the price of developing a powered fold for Chinook was even close to converting the RAF’s HC3/3a’s for rotor/tail fold then my preference would be for Chinook.

Although Chinook can be accommodated in the hangar of a CVF it is not without compromise and lots of wasted space.

Providing the Royal Marines with an organic lift capability is desirable but helicopter lift should be provided from a joint pool of aircraft, used when needed.

Both would be better though, providing much greater flexibility and I might even be swayed into considering the V22 if Santa was knocking about.

5. Integrate Watchkeeper with CVF

As Watchkeeper comes into service (hopefully) this year and once the initial introduction period has finished, we could investigate operating it from CVF from the 2016 onwards timeframe.

Hermes 450, upon which Watchkeeper is based, can be launched from a Robonics pneumatic rail launcher and given the significant deck size and relatively low mass/landing speed of the air vehicle would this necessarily be a hugely expensive exercise?

Again, not sure but if we could, it would provide an extremely valuable addition to CEPP without a major project or new equipment introduction.

At the very least we should but a couple of dozen Scan Eagles or Integrators to try from 2013 onwards and work up the concept of operating UAV’s from CVF, with Ocean as the surrogate until CVF comes into service.

6. Second CVF

Once more, it is all down to costs but if we are not converting one of the CVF’s could that mean that the second CVF became available?

The current plan is for it to go into extended readiness and because it would be likely never to be converted its value is limited. If however, no conversion were needed then we could still have it at a lower readiness state to provide continuous availability, covering refit periods for example.

This lower readiness state could include sponsored reserve crews, RFA or other lower-cost options because the assumption would be that it would never be operationally deployed unless crewed by a Royal Navy crew, but that it must be maintained at a level of availability such that it could be transferred with little preparation.

The second vessel then becomes an active spare, at an identical equipment fit but only used in home waters and with a reduced cost crew in order to maintain that readiness.

7. Investigate Troop/Vehicle Handling Capacity of CVF

Adding a well deck would not be feasible within the scope of this proposal but an improved landing craft handling facility may be possible without too much additional cost. This would improve CVF’s operational flexibility when operating with an embarked force.

Internal arrangements might also be investigated with modular solutions for storing small quantities of vehicles, perhaps on demountable ‘racks’ in the hangar for example. The hangar is very high but space inefficient when storing vehicles.

The aim of this study would be to provide modest and low-cost improvements to the embarked force facilities, some on a temporary basis, trading aviation capacity where applicable.

Obviously nothing above the max sling load of a Chinook, roughly ten tonnes, I don’t foresee Mexeflote handling facilities, ramps or craning vehicles off the deck onto landing craft as feasible!

The focus would be on air-delivered embarked forces but a rudimentary surface delivery capability.

9. Do Not Replace HMS Ocean and Investigate Withdrawal of RFA Argus

Accepting the loss of vehicle and boat handling capabilities in comparison with CVF, this is a compromise worth accepting.

It might even be possible to trade Ocean against the second CVF and bring that into service proper, not as the suggestion in item 6 of using it as an active spare.

2 CVF or 1 CVF and 1 Ocean replacement, interesting thought but as usual, dependant on cost.

Although RFA Argus provides a casualty receiving capability its main role is aviation support and training, could we use the second CVF or active spare in this role and offset one cost against the other?

10. Yes, Revert to F35B

The magic number, about 40 to 50

This provides the single CVF with a normal operating complement of between 6 and 18. Some might see this number as too small and no improvement over CVS but the F35B is no Harrier and there would still be the ability to surge, potentially embarking USMC or other operators as needed.

There is also Apache, Wildcat, Merlin, Chinook, Watchkeeper, TLAM, Storm Shadow, Fire Shadow and men with luxurious facial hair to consider, concentrate less on the fast jet element and think about the whole package.

The question on numbers is what is the minimum needed for UK only operations, a Sierra Leone or TITSNBM!

If funds allow this could be increased (the line will be open for a long time) but the concept presented here is to get a reasonable capability at a reasonable cost, one that is aligned with realistic scenarios and actual defence planning assumptions.

At this stage, I don’t care who operates them but all things (mainly cost) being equal the proposed joint force seems to offer the best of all options. As ever though, if there are significant savings to be had from folding the FAA into the RAF and no significant operational disadvantages then that would be my preferred route.

By reverting to the F35B we are still getting the significant and I think as yet, not fully appreciated, benefits of the F35’s integrated systems, still getting the industrial benefits, still providing a solid foundation for potentially replacing Typhoon with it many decades into the future (not with the B of course), still retaining the operational land/sea flexibility of the Harrier, still obtaining significant interoperability benefits with a range of allies, still leveraging the huge multi-national logistics backbone and still getting a vast improvement over Harrier.

Whilst we are not getting the benefits of the additional performance of the C variant, closing off the Hawkeye option, a future maritime UCAV route and potentially paying more for the privilege we are realising significant cost savings in other areas to balance that and allowing a true CEPP vision to emerge that leverages the size of CVF, its huge flexibility and a range of traditional land and sea-based capabilities to provide something that is for want of a better turn of phrase;

Hard as woodpeckers lips!

If this is affordable, what’s not to like?

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