Making Sense of the F35 Decision

Or, why it does actually make a great deal of sense.

Cards on the table, I think the decision to switch back to the F35B is a good one.

Like Marvin the depressed robot in a Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the general reaction to the decision has been to adopt a sloped shoulder air of resignation, oh, ok then, it’s not ideal but better than nothing.

‘I suppose we will just have to get on with it’ is the majority view but I think it is entirely positive news and instead of sulking should view it as such.

In this post I am going to try and make sense of the decision, standing back from the mud-slinging as much as possible and then follow it up with a look forward on how we can extract maximum benefit from CVF/JCA in the future.

The choice of aircraft and configuration of the aircraft carrier is intimately connected so when people complain that the CVF is tarred with the JSF brush it seems to me to be completely missing the point.

So what were the options?

The Rafale and F18 Option

Both of these are fine aircraft.

The Rafale is arguably the more advanced of the two although I suspect it is better in some areas and worse in others and both are current generation aircraft (despite their histories) with the latest F18’s benefitting from lots of development money since it was first introduced.

In performance terms there does not seem to be a great deal between them.

However, what goes against them both is;

  • They would both require all UK weapons to be integrated, not impossible, but significant time and cost penalties would accrue
  • Both have or would have minimal industrial benefits for the UK at a time when the policy of the government is to pursue and export and manufacturing led recovery
  • Both would of course need CVF to have catapults and arrestor gear with all the attendant additional costs

With both, the UK could have benefitted from collaborative training with either the United States or French naval forces and shared logistics and supply chains to mitigate the additional costs.

We also have to ask whether either would have been that good value for money anyway, however ‘cheap’

It is at this point that we enter the murky world of trying to determine unit costs of aircraft, which as I have often said, is almost impossible for the simple reason that specifications and what is included changes between each set of published figures, even for the same type. Trying to compare two different types is even more fraught.

A relatively recent deal might at least provide some insight.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) purchased 24 F18’s for about £62 million each but this figure, a simple division of total by quantity, is difficult to extrapolate for a UK purchase because the cost profile is spread over a number of years and includes all sorts of non-equipment and support costs. The RAAF is already an F18 user and would not require many of the cost items the UK would, weapons integration for example.

Comparing this to the F35 is difficult because at this stage we simply do not know beyond broad estimates what the programme cost would be for a UK F35, of any variety.

However, in general terms, compared to the F35, I think it would be fair and reasonable to assume that the unit cost of an F18 would be less, but other programme costs would add to the bill, reducing the differential, perhaps to the point that there is very little difference between a similar number of F18’s and F35’s.

Although one might define the two billion Pounds invested in the F35 as part of our Tier 1 Partner obligations as ‘sunk costs’ in this scenario, the final bill for buying F18’s would at least have this as a line item for information purposes, surely?

Any cost differential would also have to be weighed against two other factors, longevity and capability.

Capability first, again, without delving too deep into the minutia does anyone actually think a brand new design such as the F35 is going to be inferior to the F18?

It stands to reason that something developed from scratch, using the latest design and technology will be superior to one from a generation earlier, no matter how that earlier generation has benefitted from incremental improvements. Some might see that as hopelessly optimistic or swallowing the Lockheed Martin Koolaid but I just see it as a logical outcome of progress in product design, the same progress we see across the entire world of product engineering.

So we would be buying an aircraft that would likely to be somewhere in the same ball park cost wise as a Typhoon but with lower performance in most areas, with little if any industrial benefit (which indirectly lowers the cost) and all the cost penalties of CV operation, just to get something on the deck of an aircraft carrier, a capability that has been strategically or tactically essential very few times in the modern era.

That the Joint Combat Aircraft is meant to fulfil a joint requirement is also often overlooked by F18 advocates.

The F18 offers more or less nothing that the Typhoon does, except operation from an aircraft carrier.

It would therefore cease to be a joint programme and I find it unlikely in the extreme that the Fleet Air Arm could sustain on its own, an aircraft like the F18, without making huge sacrifices elsewhere or eating into the other services programmes.

Not likely in the extreme.

The final nail in the FAA/F18 coffin is that of longevity. If we ordered today, it is unlikely that any UK F18’s would be operating from the deck of a CVF before the early 2020’s by which time even the most optimistic estimates would give us perhaps a decade and a half before it would potentially need to be replaced due to obsolescence issues.

We would have all the pain and cost of bringing into service and maintaining it, for less than 20 years lifespan and then have to do exactly the same; this is not a sensible use of scarce defence funds.

Similar arguments exist for the Rafale, with some differences at the margins but fundamentally the same.

There have been a number of proposals for an interim purchase of F18’s or Rafales and a migration to a, by then, mature F35C towards the end of the 2020’s. Whilst having some potential benefits you simply can’t get away from the cost issue of buying twice.

Another interesting proposal is the Sea Gripen or even Sea Typhoon but both of these exist only in PowerPoint and although offering many industrial benefits they would both leave us with a much greater time gap and with an uncertain, but likely high, development cost.

This leads me to the conclusion that if we are in the market for a new flying machine to deliver against the requirement for the Joint Combat Aircraft, the F35 represents the logical choice.

So which one, B or C?

C v B or Coke v Pepsi

Having discounted all else, the decision comes down to the F35B or the F35C.

This seems to have taken on an almost religious air but it is not the case of right or wrong, just balancing costs, capabilities and a myriad of other factors to come to an opinion on what is more appropriate for the UK.

I would like to emphasise that it is about the UK, a point that many of the more strident advocates of the F35C or F18 also downplay.

We are not the US, have a completely different set of budgetary constraints and issues and should not aspire to be either.

Future Proofing

Detractors of the F35B often point out that given the CVF’s projected lifespan of 50 years it is likely that the aircraft carrier will see multiple generations of aircraft and therefore by going for STOVL and not catapults we limit our options in the future to an, as yet to be designed, STOVL UCAV or a successor STOVL aircraft.

By hitching our wagon to the USMC instead of the USN we will not be able to move with these times.

I just don’t see this, on the 50 year lifespan number first, no doubt that is their projected life but as a comparison, the HMS Ark Royal commissioned in 1955, the one before the next one, would have been still in service during Operation Telic in 2003, not having been decommissioned in 1979 at less than 25 years old. The most recent HMS Ark Royal was in service for 26 years so if CVF stays in service for double the life of the two previous generations of Royal Navy aircraft carriers then fair enough but it will be doing much better than the two before it.

By the time it goes out of service, the Tornado will have been in use for over 40 years; the F18 was introduced in 1983 and via continuous improvement will still likely be in service for another 15 years or more.

Why do people therefore think that the F35 will be out of service before a CVF is sent for recycling, the trend is for longer equipment cycles, not shorter?

In looking far into the future there is also the option of UCAV’s to consider, unmanned combat vehicles are likely to be autonomous but there are significant technical and ethical issues to overcome and one of the features of unmanned systems is their significant range and endurance which is not limited by having on-board aircrew.

As the US concentrates on the Pacific theatre and countering a rising China, the ranges needed are equally immense. The X47B demonstrator, for example, has a range in excess of 2,000nm because these kinds of programmes need to demonstrate that range; the Pacific is a big old place and sophisticated anti-access technologies being fielded by the Chinese such as their anti-ship ballistic missiles which are specifically meant to deal with US carriers means strategic need meets technical requirements quite well.

The US is therefore looking at very long range UCAV’s because it knows in the Pacific it needs them and they must be able to fly from their CVN’s. The UK is very definitely not the US, has very different strategic aspirations and challenges and should look at equipment programmes through a UK shaped lens. Does anyone think we are going to be standing shoulder to shoulder with the USN in the Pacific theatre against the Chinese?

I know we must always be mindful of unknown strategic shock but I find this highly unlikely so to use it as a reason to spend more money we don’t have on a CV F35 seems unreasonable.


The UK is the only Tier 1 Partner in the Joint strike Fighter Programme, significant sums of public money have been invested and in return, there will be equally significant industrial and economic benefits for the UK.

We need not be somehow ashamed of this, British industry and technical knowhow will be a big part of the F35.

The difference in industrial benefits between a C or B purchase is relatively modest, on face value with the Rolls Royce ‘LiftSystem’ the UK would accrue greater benefit with a larger B purchase but without seeing the detailed agreements it would be impossible to quantify because the design, manufacture and integration work is split between the UK and US.

By confirming the F35B as the chosen aircraft for JCA it may well make the F35B a more attractive export proposition with its attendant industrial benefits for the UK.

Other elements of an F35C purchase such as the electromagnetic launch and recovery system would need to be purchased from the US with no industrial benefits, this coupled with the reduction in LiftSystem quantity would see a net loss to the UK so one might argue the F35B provides greater economic benefit to the UK for a given spend.


The F35C offers greater range.

The JSF KPP for the F35C states a combat radius using internal fuel of 600 nautical miles using a USN mission profile and for the F35B, 450 nautical miles using a USMC profile.

It is clear therefore (accepting potential differences in flight profiles) that the CV variant offers much more range than the STOVL variant, some 25%.

When operating helicopters in support of ground forces CVF will have to be much closer to shore but when engaged in strike activities or defensive counter air this extended mission radius or endurance is extremely valuable.

There are however, a number of mitigating factors that although not negating this advantage do go some way to mitigating it.

When operating CV aircraft in order to provide a margin of safety operators may choose to return with a greater fuel load than in the KPP, thus reducing the effective real world range. STOVL does not have these concerns so can maximise the fuel carried.

Ranges can be extended using external fuel tanks or airborne refuelling using land based aircraft although this also applies to the CV variant of course.

Something else to consider is that the F35B will operate from conventional concrete runways much more often than the deck of a CVF. This isn’t based on dismissing naval aviation but a reality of the joint nature of the aircraft fleet and the operational reality of the Harrier. One thing I have never seen is the projected range figures for both the F35C and F35B variants when using land bases but I wonder if the differential would be the same or different?

The F35C is a clear winner in this area but as with payload and bring back weight, perhaps not as significant on operations as imagined.

Payload and Bring Back

The USMC KPP for the F35B states a short take off of just under 183 metres (137m for the UK JCA) with enough fuel for the KPP mission profile, 2 AMRAAM and 2 1000lb JDAM’s and a vertical landing bring back weight equivalent to enough fuel to safely land with an appropriate margin whilst carrying the same 2 AMRAAM and 2 1000lb JDAM’s.

The KPP also states that this will be carried out with a 10 knot wind over deck (WOD), at sea level (funnily enough!) and in a ‘tropical day’ to allay some of those East of Suez scaremongers.

The standard payload whilst performing the stated KPP mission radius for the F35C is also enough fuel for the mission and 2 AMRAAM but instead of a pair of 1,000lb JDAM’s, a pair of 2,000lb JDAM’s.

CVF has a deck length of nearly 275m.

I am not sure what the maximum payload for short take off is; it would be dependent on many factors, but CVF has some room to spare moving up from the KPP distance and of course, a ski jump.

Maximum weapon load for the F35C is 8,160kg and for the F35B, 6,800kg.

Targeting pods and defensive systems are often carried externally and would eat into this payload but with the F35, most of these are integral to the design so the useable weapon load is high.

Again, the F35C is the clear winner.

But (you knew there was going to be a but)

6,800kg is thirty Paveway IV’s or over 130 Dual Mode Brimstone (not including pylons)

It is a silly example but the point I am making here is that perhaps the real world difference might not be that significant, especially when one considers the rules of engagement in likely operations will demand greater accuracy and smaller explosive yields.

Absolute payload differentials between the two variants therefore become less of a major concern.

If we are going to use the F35B to carry Storm Shadow then the vertical landing bring back weight limitation may result in us dumping million pound missiles into the sea if they are not used because Storm Shadow is a large missile weighing in at just over 1,200kg, self-evidently, not a good thing.

If they hang up on the pylon then the implications might be even more serious so Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL) is designed to use wing lift to increase the maximum landing weight and consequently, the bring back weight for unused munitions. SRVL has been in development for some time and Lockheed Martin was awarded a $13m contract in 2010 to integrate it onto the F35B.

SRVL also lowers stresses on the engine and other components so might be used as a matter of course, or at least it provides the option to do.

I don’t think the final increase in maximum weight that is enabled by the latest iteration of SRVL has been released (I might be wrong on that) but the target was between 900kg and 1,800 kg. At 1,230kg one Storm Shadow might be possible within those boundaries but not two. If we ever do introduce the Naval Strike Missile that is being developed for the F35 then at 450kg, a pair would be within the SRVL lower limit.

The Selected Precision Effects at Range (SPEAR) Capability 3 is proposed as a medium range cruise missile, almost a mini Storm Shadow, possibly using a bomb glide kit. Although there has been a lot of speculation not much has been officially released but I think it would be safe to say, it will not be anywhere near as heavy as a Storm Shadow.

Storm Shadow is arguably, the major problem for bring back and the F35B but again, in the real world, how likely are we going to be using F35B to launch Storm Shadow anyway and how many of those sorties are going to be aborted mid-air or hang up?

Beyond this there are also issues with the weight of pylons and this might impact on the bring back weight, I understand the KPP is based on a clean wing and no gun.

Bring back weight remains a serious challenge and the payload differential between the B and C on paper is not insignificant but its operational impact might be not as limiting as the naysayers would have us all believe.

Flexibility and Surge

It is accepted that operating STOVL aircraft and helicopters is much more efficient and easier than operating CV aircraft and helicopters. It is how we have operated for many decades after all and the move to CV would have required a great deal of very time consuming and very expensive work up.

This would have delayed the introduction of the capability and absorbed a much higher proportion of the aircraft fleet to maintain currency for both deck and aircrew.

Sortie rates are generally accepted to be higher with STOVL although this higher sortie rate may be countered in some scenarios by the greater endurance with CV. The F35B Key Performance Parameter for sorties rates is 4 surge and 3 sustained and 3 and 2 respectively for the F35C.

The CVF and JCA concept is designed to enable flexing of the tailored air group depending upon requirements. The norm will likely be a small number of F35B’s supplemented with varying types and quantities of Merlin, Chinook, Apache and Wildcat. The surge is much easier, because of the training requirement for deck landing and take-off is less with the B than C.

Some have suggested that the rolling vertical landing (SRVL) technique (UK only) that may be used to increase bring back payload in certain climatic conditions make deck operations as complex as CV and thus decrease this flexibility but SRVL will only have to be used in limited circumstances, if the bring back payload exceeds the USMC KPP of fuel; two 1000lb JDAM’s and two AIM-120 AA missiles. If it is used as a matter of course for other reasons then the large deck of the CVF and the extremely detailed simulation, coupled with a massive well of STOVL experience will mitigate any problems.

I find this claim that SRVL provides all the complications of CV with none of the benefits rather difficult to accept given the limited circumstances in which SRVL will be needed, of course, SRVL is not without penalty but it is hardly doom and glom either.

Advances in avionics, landing aids and synthetic training environments could reduce the need for CV training but it seems doubtful that this will ever reach anywhere need the small training requirement for deck operations on the B model.

In short, STOVL makes it quicker and easier to surge aircraft onto CVF should that surge ever be needed, which would be unusual in any event.

So what if CV needs more training, it is a fair enough question to ask.

The problem is that it would take a disproportionate slice out of the training calendar because the UK will have only a modest fleet of F35’s. This would therefore reduce the effective numbers available for use because more would be used for training.

The vast majority of time the UK JCA will be operating from conventional land bases, operations at sea will be the exception so we should look at allowing the largely land based aircrew to transition to sea as easily and cheaply as possible, CV does not do this, by STOVL does.

A mission might see JCA operated from CVF and transition to a land base, this land base might have been damaged and this is where the concept of operating from forward bases can be useful. The Harrier proved the operational viability of operating from forward bases or temporarily damaged air bases in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although not likely to be used often, and the definition of austere might be interesting to look at, it is something that the F35B can do which the F35C cannot.

This basing flexibility is at the heart of the intentional performance trade-offs with STOVL. As an example, when planning the KPP for STOVL operations the USMC calculated that across the most likely operating environments there are eight times as many runways in existence that can be used for the F35B compared to the F35C and this is before we even examine the options for expeditionary airfield construction. The USMC is very firmly wedded to the concept of expeditionary basing and although the UK is less so, it is something I think that we need to reaffirm as a key advantage of the F35B.

Given the weight and vertical thrust of the F35B operating it from the deck (or flat space) of any ship other than one specially designed for it is not viable but emergency recovery is something that can be done with an F35B. It would likely result in damage to whatever it landed on and take that ship out of normal operations but given the value of the pilot and aircraft this might still save a lot of money and provide an option to save a pilot. This is not a hugely significant advantage of the F35B but it does provide options that are not available to the F35C.

CV makes CVF more specialised, STOVL makes it more flexible.


This always seemed to be a rather weak argument in favour of the switch and many believe it was just cover for the Anglo French defence cooperation agreement.

However, it is certainly true that a CV optimised CVF would enable US and French navy aircraft to operate from its decks and vice versa.

In reality, this is harder to achieve than say.

Different aircraft require different equipment for maintenance and launch/recovery and there have been some concerns that for the Charles de Gaul, the deck might not have the strength to accommodate the F35C.

Assuming that the F35B provides no interoperability with allies is also incorrect, the USMC will be operating the F35B and other Harrier using nations such as Italy and Spain will also likely introduce the F35B. An increased number of F35B’s will reduce the unit cost and with three European nations potentially operating it the opportunities for interoperability seem greater. Those who see European cooperation as both a good thing and inevitable should see three nations with the same mode of operating fast jets at sea is better than two, all we need now is for the French to buy F35B!

We also have to ask beyond if, why.

It has already been made very clear that the agreement on interoperability between the French and UK would amount to no more than coordinating refit periods. The US Navy might find it convenient to operate its F35C’s off a CVF but just how realistic does anything actually think this is.

Come on, really.

It might be equally convenient to operate UK F35C’s from a USN carrier but for what reason, do they not have enough aircraft or something?

I think this one is a score draw between the F35B and F35C; we will have interoperability with the F35B, just with different nations and forces.

Carrier availability for the UK is far more important than interoperability with allies any day of the week and twice on Sundays.


If the F35B is cancelled then we have nowhere to go so in this respect it represents a higher risk option. If we were to go for the F35C and it was cancelled then a fall back of F18, Rafale or maybe even a development of the Gripen NG become possible.

It was risk that underpinned the original decision to switch; the F35B was looking shaky, under ‘probation’ and surrounded by rumours of cancellation. The publication date of the SDSR meant that some decision was needed within the publication schedule.

Two years later and the risk profile has changed considerably, despite still having many challenges, much progress has been made and the F35C is now having its own collection of problems.

All new aircraft developments have their attendant risks; it seems from the outside looking in that both variants have their own collection, with most of them overplayed by an agenda driven media.

Ultimately, risk is cost, if the risk that the F35B is cancelled it will be very expensive but then it would also be expensive if the F35C was cancelled.

When I read the huge volume of materials posted online that proclaim the F35 to be a lemon, every change in specification a disaster and every setback a double disaster I tend to glass over. It is easy to slag off the F35 because it is expensive, it is late and it is in the public eye but is this any different to other ultimately successful programmes?

I just don’t think it is and I find it simply unbelievable that the Western World’s top aeronautical engineers and companies will not make it a success.

The simple truth is any transformational programme with ambition has risk, the F35 is not a simple incremental improvement to an existing design.

That is not to say it is out of the woods, significant challenges remain but let’s not assume that simply because the aircraft has developmental problems in the middle of its development programme that the sky is going to fall in and we are gambling the family silver on a 100-1 outsider.


One of the potential additional costs of CV was the likely need to develop an airborne refuelling capability for the F35C to support recovery refuelling. This could have been extended to provide additional range for a strike package without using land based AAR.

The need for Carrier Onboard Delivery for CVF has never been widely discussed but the need for airborne early warning should be obvious. The current system, the Sea King ASaC Mk 7 goes out of service in 2016 and the successor programme called CROWSNEST has now been confirmed as having secured funding.

By going for a CVF aircraft with catapults and arrestor gear many thought the road would be clear for a purchase of the E2D Hawkeye and even the C2 Greyhound for the COD role.

This was always fantasy.

In the vast majority of operations the RAF’s E3’s will be used for wide area airborne early warning and control with a CVF based solution for shorter range gap filling and in very few operations, this wider area deployment.

The contribution of the Type 45 and the impact of potential UAV based technologies should also be considered when looking at this issue.

The potential for a CV AEW and COD aircraft was the weakest argument for the original switch to CV.

Cost and the Final (again) Decision

This is of course the ‘big un’ and whilst we might discuss the finer points of bring back weights or UCAV’s the decision to revert to the F35B was very much about the Pound notes.

The bottom line of F35 costs is this, we simply do not know beyond estimates and something else that people often do not appreciate is this, JCA is not yet passed Main Gate and thus, no budget has been allocated for the demonstration and manufacture phase, in short, we don’t know how much each one costs and we don’t know how much we have to spend.

I do find it rather bemusing to watch the massed ranks of internet forum members, bloggers and think tank researchers clutching at the definitions of LRIP and flyaway, open source documents and internet information to try and get some sort of meaningful comparison between different deals, different aircraft, different nations and different systems. Most of this information is hugely complex and hugely commercially confidential; hence the degree of variability of that in the public domain.

This is difficult with aircraft in production, let alone those that are in development.

One of the first posts I published on Think Defence was a question, does anyone actually know how much the F35 will be.

The short answer was very few people, if any.

Which leads me to the conclusion that cost comparisons can only be made in very general terms and we should leave detailed cost comparisons to those in possession of the actual figures.

I can’t do a post about this subject without being a bit of a smug git, I am sure you will allow me just a little bit of ‘told you so’

On August 7th 2010 I said

Therefore, for cost reasons, the F35B is the right choice.

On September 13th 2010 I asked the following questions;

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

I finished that post by asking this

Am I being thick?

Because I could not understand how the leaks coming out of the MoD prior to the publication of the SDSR that trailed the switch to the F35C were characterised as some sort of cost saving.

I was genuinely puzzled and so it turned out I wasn’t being thick at all, it was the other people!

Several times since then I have asked the same questions and came to the same conclusions, the F35B is actually the cheapest option, not in isolation, but across the whole of defence.

Although it is only a gut feeling because I do not have sight of any detailed costing, I have remained constant on that and continue to do so.

Events would seem to vindicate that opinion.

This conclusion was not based on being omnipotent or ultra-wise but on the simple fact that it was exactly the same reason that the F35B was selected in the first place and although there was some cost growth, not much changed since.

One can imagine the costing spreadsheet used to support the decision was incredibly complex with many scenarios and permutations.

In my Forward to Plan B post last month I tried to summarise where costs would lie;

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.

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?

What I didn’t cover was the cost of actually converting the CVF to accept catapults and arrestor gear or factor in the number of aircraft used to deliver against a set of mission requirements, this latter variable was part of the rear guard leaking that took place recently.

CVF was supposed to be adaptable; many critics have latched onto this and assumed that converting to catapults and arrestor gear would simply be a case of opening a compartment, dropping in a bit of kit and hey presto. There is no way, they claim, that the reported multi billion cost can be correct, it is a conspiracy by the Carrier Alliance to inflate costs and squeeze yet more money from a gullible MoD.

The estimate from the US that was reportedly much less is interesting but again, caution must be exercised and those apples must be compared with apples.

Whatever the figure and however it might seem incredulous the simple fact is it must be taken as correct. It may well include a high degree of risk cost, it might well be erring on the high side but surely this is actually a good thing because it displays a cautious approach to cost growth that most would agree has been absent for many years at the MoD.

I suspect there was some degree of artistic licence with the word ‘adaptable’

If the project was going to take another decade to come to fruition then scope for even further cost escalation should be obvious to all as well.

On the cost comparisons between individual aircraft, maybe the additional maintenance cost of the F35B is neatly offset by the additional maintenance and CV operating costs of going for the F35C, if so, the cost of conversion then becomes a big issue.

What is a major issue is how this cost estimate proved to be so wildly wide of the mark and when reality dawned, it was obvious there was no other choice, unless that is of course, carrier strike would be pursued at the expense of other services and other projects.

Again, not likely in the extreme

On the issue of needing more aircraft for a given mission set then to this I would simply ask a couple of questions, in what circumstances and how old were the assumptions behind those missions.

To that I would comment that the UK armed forces post SDSR have shrunk, we have accepted we will be doing less with less, CVF and JCA is no different.

Decisions Decisions

The MoD has had some time during which to analyse every last aspect of the decision, unlike before the original reversion was made.

For me, this was an unforgivable mistake, making such a fundamental decision, setting wheels in motion and incurring huge cost before a level of assuredness had been achieved that the decision was the correct one, based on detailed analysis not finger in the air guessing.

Without knowing the full picture, being privy to all the briefings or information provided to Liam Fox and his advisors we can’t pin the blame but the simple fact is, a decision was made on incomplete evidence.

In all fairness, the cost, but not the decision was always subject to further investigation, the SDSR was actually quite clear on this. Soon after, questions were tabled in the House of Commons to which the MoD had no answer, time after time, and not just on carrier strike, an MP would ask an SDSR related question to which the published answer was ‘dunno’

Alarm bells should have been ringing in the press and opposition benches.

Again, without sounding like too much of a smug git, I have written several times about this uncertainty. In my smug git party were a small number of commenters on specialist forums who had a similar view so I must say thank you to them for helping me to understand I was not in fact being a lunatic.

There was a huge degree of hubris behind the announcement and in the mutual backslapping that followed, where the talk was of being a proper navy, assuming our God given right to be second only to the US Navy and returning to the glory days, none of the professional commenters like defence journalists or think tanks actually questioned any of this.

Last month, whilst the rumours and leaks abounded of a reversal I said that the decision would not be about aircraft variants or ‘cats and flaps’ but about the MoD’s financial credibility and the obvious need to regain it because that is the MoD’s most precious commodity.

The announcement by Phil Hammond on changes to the F35 variant was part of that mission to regain credibility and the recent statement to the House of Commons on MoD’s budget being bought back into balance was another.

The decision to revert was therefore all about cost but how did the original change of heart happen, how was such a fundamental error made.

Books will no doubt be written one day on this subject but I have a theory that says the change decision driven from the top down; influenced by a number of factors but ultimately made on the basis of false assumptions and politicians, aided by a derelict defence establishment that did not exercise enough rigour in challenging those assumptions.

That theory starts with a solid understanding and operational analysis of the F35B and a STOVL CVF concept as applied to defence planning assumptions and operational experience.

In the middle is what I think was a fundamental misunderstanding of this concept in the minds of politicians, the defence select committee, media commenters and even some in the services. So whilst it seems that this flexible arrangement of blending command facilities, fixed wing and rotary aviation to meet the demands of a wide range of mission requirements was firmly bedded into the original concept for CVF and JCA, in the minds of others it wasn’t.

An example of how this manifested itself is the continual reference to having the capability to embark 36 aircraft. 36 aircraft was the most demanding compliment and seen as something of an unusual scenario against many, not the norm, but it is often referred to.

The disconnect continued throughout the SDSR period, perhaps the words ‘Carrier Strike’ played part of this misunderstanding, strike was one of a number of missions.

We based our decision to opt for the F35B to fulfil the Joint Combat Aircraft (JCA) requirement on many years detailed operational analysis, all of a sudden, and to the surprise of almost everyone in the project team, the switch was announced. There is only anecdotal evidence to suggest this element of surprise in those involved but if true is quite telling and would reinforce the notion of a rushed decision making process.

Where did the push for the change come from and on what evidence was it made?

I suggest it came from the top down, a political decision from Liam Fox, advisors with vested interests and influenced by an extremely vocal Royal Navy lobby, a media environment which often paints the Royal Navy as a ‘victim’ and a range of senior service personnel who saw the opportunity for greater capabilities, bragging rights and some degree of service aggrandisement.

They had a collective rush of blood to the head and reverted to typical MoD behaviour, hoping that funding would be found for the second CVF and praying that quick estimates would turn out to be correct, pushing further decision out to the future and being seduced by all the capabilities on offer.

The decision was made before the detailed analysis was completed, as I mentioned above, this is not news and was explicit within the SDSR that costs would be determined via the means of a multi-million Pound study.

The estimates were wholly incorrect, as estimates sometimes are.

The detailed and exhaustive operational analysis that was carried out post SDSR by the people with total command of all the facts would have also made quite plain the operational impact of only having one hull and the likely cost driven impact of the switch on all sorts of capabilities across the services.

Reality met aspiration and so, we are where we are, there really was no other choice to be made.

Summary and Look Forward

The decision is made, no point in sulking or moaning about it and I for one think it was the correct one anyway. I still find it rather exasperating that the original reversion decision was made that has cost us two years and a lot of money but it is water under the bridge now.

We should now look forward to maximising our investment and that will be the subject of the next post.

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May 15, 2012 12:39 pm

The Rafale is outdated, its first flight dates from 1986, its unit cost is € 100 million, in 2020 it will begin to think about his successor. Buy the F-35B is a good thing for you. And apart that, what about the new prototype of Super Hornet, possibility of vertical take-off version ?

May 15, 2012 12:52 pm

Excellent summary. I entirely agree with your conclusion.

In the unlikely event that a major flaw was found in the F-35B and it required a redesign. Would it be cancelled or merely delayed? If it were cancelled, what could we do? Re-open the Harrier production line. Or revert to cats and traps? Can you imagine the fuss?

May 15, 2012 12:53 pm

“..Carrier availability for the UK is far more important than interoperability with allies any day of the week and twice on Sundays.”

This x1000. In an ideal, money no object world, there could be two CTOL carriers up and running with full airwings and helos offloaded to an accompanying amphib group of two LHDs. Also the sun wouldn’t have set on the British Empire and the fleet could drop into a RN yard in Singers for a pink gin. As affordability rears its unwelcome head, its far better to have at least the potential for two STOVL carriers (thus at least one for 100% year round UK availability) than the near certainty of only one CTOL which will need periodic 3-6 mth refits. There are times we are going to want to head East of Suez or South of Ascension, when the French will not; temporary RN/RAF Sqn based onboard be damned.

May 15, 2012 1:14 pm

Share two aircraft carriers between France and UK was a crazy idea, our requirements are not yours, it’s better that you have two aircraft carriers.

May 15, 2012 1:22 pm

I was going to pick holes in a lot of the above because even though you’re probably not intending to be biased you are (quick example – 25% extra range of C over B – can you not do maths?)

Well, I say biased, maybe I just mean smug ;-)

However, I’d like to suggest that the decision for STOVL is based entirely on cost grounds – nothing more. You’re right that few know the real costs of many of the areas that would need addressing for CATOBAR but there’s an order of magnitude increase in capability by having:

1. 30 x F35C sitting 300nm off shore providing 3 x CAP/CAS pairs circling over 3 x Commando Battalions with vertical assault and support being provided by a cheap HMS Ocean replacement (or sensible first-of-class LHD to ultimately replace Albion/Bulwark).


2. 12 x F35B sitting 200nm off shore providing cover for 900 Marines landed from the same ship interleaving assault operations with continuous overhead jet presence.


3. 12 x F35B sitting 50nm off shore providing cover for 1200 Marines landed from the same ship using Chinook with a further 600 Marines covered by a small (short ranged) Apache squadron.

In order to stop the rant – the simple difference is standoff. The STOVL solution brings £6b of ship and air assets very, very close to shore instead of committing only £2b close in with a remaining £8b sitting miles away.

It seems many are not seeing the bigger VFM picture.

But, if we can’t afford it – we simply can’t afford it :-(

May 15, 2012 1:23 pm

Excellent piece TD and I’ve only been able to skim thru it will read again later. I believe the srvl approach is hoping to improve bring back by 2-4klbs above its vlbb us marine requirement so as you say a added bonus.

May 15, 2012 1:23 pm

Out of interest, in the CATOBAR & F35C hypothetical universe why was running E2Ds just a fantasy?

May 15, 2012 1:26 pm

A very good article as usual.
I have suggested it before. If we ever needed to launch a Long Range Strike whilst using a F35B with Storm Shadow. It should be possible to put Fuel Tanks in the Weapon Bays, so giving us the extra range we may require.

Slightly off Topic.. Has anyone come up with a STOVL UCAV concept?

May 15, 2012 1:31 pm

@TD: a thoughtful post. I might take umbrage at “The potential for a CV AEW and COD aircraft was the weakest argument for the original switch to CV”. In fact, it’s probably one of the best since the RAF has even fewer E3’s and AAR platforms it could spare for the long distance relay required than it has Typhoons for the same.

As a lot of people would aver, the biggest issue with the F35B is the risk: bring back capacity is already small, there’s limited growth potential in the F135, and rolling landings without a hook is high risk (a barrier may damage the aircraft). We shall see, but I still wish that 2002 saw the decision to order F18 with cats and traps. It would actually be in service now…

May 15, 2012 1:31 pm

@ Simon257

I haven’t seen one up close yet but I don’t think they are very big. It might be doable later down the line but they don’t look as if there is enough space to take anything more than 200kgs each?

May 15, 2012 1:38 pm

TD, apt summary (every spec change and double disasters. – In 2008, in Aviation Week Bill Sweetman still remembers where the requirements came from, giving the specs. Sorry about a long quote, thought it worthwhile):

“JSF – “Maneuvering is Irrelevant”
Posted by Bill Sweetman 8:01 PM on Oct 02, 2008
…the 1995 statement of its godfather, George Muellner, still stands: it is 70 per cent air-to-ground and 30 per cent air to air. Consider the USAF, by far the largest customer, in 1995. It was expecting to get 442 F-22s, which would dominate any foreseen air threat (a major regional power) for decades. It was four years after Desert Storm, where the F-117 had been the star, combining stealth and precision attack into an overwhelming force multiplier.

Looking back, the USAF was clearly seeking something that would do the F-117 job while remedying its limitations. The F-117 was a clear-night system, unable to bomb in adverse weather or survive in daylight, and could not hit all the targets covered by other strike aircraft.

The JSF requirement was built around an F-117’s internal weapon load. It added a radar and GPS-guided weapons for all-weather attack. It added situational awareness (that is, an EW system capable of detecting, identifying and avoiding pop-up threats) and AAMs for self-defense, for daytime survivability. Finally, it added external pylons for the “day two” missions and the entire target set tackled by F-16s.

All this had to fit inside the tightest limitation imposed by the joint-service JSF concept, which was size: the Marines and the UK wanted (but didn’t get) an aircraft no bigger than an F/A-18C.

Within those limits, the JSF could not be designed for the supersonic cruise and maneuverability that had been included in the F-22″

All Politicians are the Same
All Politicians are the Same
May 15, 2012 1:43 pm

Simon et al. Who mentioned operating from 200 or 300NM offshore? The only way we are getting anything heavier than a landy ashore is by utilising LCUs and the Albions and Bays who between them can easily land a commando plus by boat and be used to refuel Chinook, Merlin etc and launch them for a first wave.
We do not and have never claimed an ability to either stage an opposed landing or a landing from 200NM so I am afraid that TD is perfectly correct that the F35B fits easily into our actual doctrine rather than some internet fantasy of a US type capability.

May 15, 2012 1:46 pm

I don’t think anyone will let you anywhere near one with a Tape Measure in hand!!
But if there’s a will, there’s a way!!

May 15, 2012 1:49 pm

I don’t think any one will let you anywhere near one with a Tape Measure in hand!!
But if there’s a will, there’s a way!!

May 15, 2012 1:53 pm

I’m still not convinced that STOVL is what we need. But with the choices already made I suppose its an OK decision. but it will be strange for CVN to carry around 12 F35 and 12-20 helos when it can take double that, Unless it’s also going to do some transporting of strike infantry.

May 15, 2012 1:55 pm

@ Simon257

Well there’s not many postings on the F35 so far, but if you don’t ask… :)

May 15, 2012 1:55 pm


Who’s actual doctrine? Yours? The RAFs?

Doesn’t UK’s military doctrine (if you wish to call it that) indicates a “manoeuvrist approach” and “an ethos of accepting risks”.

Isn’t our doctrine based on historical evidence (how did we do it last time)?

Doesn’t that mean that the Falklands plays a large part – which was an opposed landing with jets operating from maximum range (200nm).

What doctrine do you refer to that implies we want risk 65,000 tonnes of steel as quickly as possible?

May 15, 2012 1:57 pm

“In the vast majority of operations the RAF’s E3’s will be used for wide area airborne early warning and control with a CVF based solution for shorter range gap filling and in very few operations”

Something many forget.

Great post TD.

I think its gone too far now re the B, too much money and too much political capital; there wont be any cancellations, Next gen bomber/USN figher be damned.
The USMC are close to garotting certain USN aviation higher-ups.

No doubt people will still harp on about the Cats and ‘flaps’ :P

May 15, 2012 1:57 pm

Another advantage the B may have over the C is the use of vectored thrust and the possibilities this may have in relative manoeuvrability. Watching the video of the F35B taking off from The Wasp with nozzle pointed at the deck does raise the possibility. No doubt this has not been written into the flight software yet and will be many years off before some brave test pilot tries it, but there must be scope for “viffing” style activities just as there are with the Harrier. Ultimately with such development and pilots pushing the envelope could the B out handle a SU30 or F22? Not so much a bomb truck but a dogfighter?

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 15, 2012 2:08 pm
May 15, 2012 2:11 pm

Surely we can have the rear nozzle vectorable through software changes alone?

May 15, 2012 2:12 pm

Agreed for a full Viff, but would guess that is only needed for when the lift fan is engaged. Could still have SU 30 style handling by just vectoring the exhaust nozzle?

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 15, 2012 2:13 pm

Would definitely improve pitch-down manoeuvres!

The clutch also needs to be engaged with a LiftFan option:

If it’s all software, that suggests the F-35B is an automatic. What, no manual gearbox for us sporty Brits with a clutch pedal in the cockpit?

All Politicians are the Same
All Politicians are the Same
May 15, 2012 2:14 pm

Simon, Doctrine as laid down in BR1806 and taught on amphibous ops courses etc. The Falklands was not an opposed landing on the beach! The manouvre phase was opposed and Argentinian aircraft attacked San Carlos but the landing was not opposed by ground troops on the beach.
The carriers were kept offshore as the loss of a carrier was seen as a Political Mission kill. The CVF BG capabilities will be afr greater than in 1982 especially as regards the ability to defend the carrier supply CAP and neutralise enemy air power.
You also have to look at planning assumptions, which peer enemy are we going to engage as a UK only TF?
The fact is that we cannot get heavy equipment across the beach other than in LCUs so we will be putting our bays and LPds into 6 Nm or less.
There will have been helo and SF landings already but the heavy kit will go in from close to the beach.
Why would the carrier be 200Nm offshore? Why not 100NM? why not 50NM?
You are going to be at action stations your escorts closed up, aircraft up. What is the difference between 50NM and 200NM?
The only possible justification would be if you wanted to keep the carrier out of range of a sophisticated enemy air force but the whole point of being on the offensive is that you have neutralised or seriously compromised the enemy’s ability to interfere with any landing before it begins.

May 15, 2012 2:16 pm

The Other Chris,

Are you implying it won’t “viff” up just a tad?

Looking at some pictures I can see what you mean, doesn’t look like it can much does it.

May 15, 2012 2:23 pm


I agree the amphibs would be up close (well Albion with Bay over the horizon).

“Why would the carrier be 200Nm offshore? Why not 100NM? why not 50NM?…What is the difference between 50NM and 200NM?”

Land launched Exocet (or similar)? Supergun?

I’ll look up and read BR1806. Thanks.

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 15, 2012 2:28 pm


Afraid so, that far from COG and the airframe would just pivot nose-down and the aerodynamics would dig in.

It’s arguable that the roll post thrust could offset this, but to maintain stability you need the LiftFan engaged.

A positive aspect of the LiftFan is that it should allow a longer hover period than the Harrier which could hover only as long as its water cooling reservoir held out (~90s IIRC).

The clutch overheating is the main limiter on hover duration for now. It will be a thermodynamics / material sciences solution that either reduces the heat build up and transfer, mitigate the effect of the heat or a solution somewhere in-between. Nothing as serious as potentially changing the size or position of the tailhook bay on the C model and risking structural changes for example.

All Politicians are the Same
All Politicians are the Same
May 15, 2012 2:29 pm

Simon, The idea is to suppress the enemy ability to engage you, especially with land based TELAR and gun positions. Remember that 50NM is still well over the horizon so how are they targeting you? take away their ability to OTHT and you take away their ability to engage you.
if the amphibs and escorts are close in doing an offload any systems the enemy do have will be targeting them not a carrier 50Nm out so at that stage the reduced transit time and extra endurance becomes well worth it.

May 15, 2012 2:59 pm


Just had a quick gander through BR1806. Doesn’t seem to say anything about risking the carrier unnecessarily. Doesn’t really seem to state much really. It’s as vague as I guessed it would be.

50nm is over-the-horizon to land based surveillance, but not AEW assets which can “target” you and be defended by land based SAMs. In addition, you’re forgetting that 50nm is easily in range of small raiding/patrol craft that can designate a carrier as a missile target – not to mention these new hydrogen fuel celled subs.

I’d want to park my carrier outside of the range of the thing that can sink me (missile) leaving me to worry only about a submarine or large surface threat (torpedo).

Sorry, I just think it’s a mad proposal. You’re assuming you’re assaulting a third world nation rather than retaking land from a formidable aggressor.

Peter Elliott
May 15, 2012 3:09 pm


You put your finger on the nub of a difficult problem. We are however effectively talking about 2 different scenarios.

In scenario (1) we are talking about a limited operation in a relatively permissive environment. The single QEC can come in the 50nm needed to operate a high density of both fixed wing and rotary in support of the amphibious operation.

The scenario (2) we are talking about a war against a tooled up peer oponent. We have to assume we would send the whole RN including both QEC#1 operating mostly fast jets and either QEC #2 or a future LPH operating mostly rotary. The FJ carrier sits 200nm out and provides theatre security, topcover and CAP. The LPH/Commando carrier sits closer in and supports the landing with rotary transport and AH CAS.

Swings and roundabouts. Management of risk. Horses for courses.

Peter Elliott
May 15, 2012 3:12 pm

Where it could all go pear shaped is if we start what we think is a category (1) operation only to find it deteriorates into a category (2) bunfight.

The time to be worried is when a politician uses the phrase “without a shot being fired”

All Politicians are the Same
All Politicians are the Same
May 15, 2012 3:19 pm

Simon, You mean I am actually looking at planning assumptions! Note I also added on Amphib Op planning courses.

An AEW asset sitting at 1000ft plus looking for a carrier OTH is going to be target practice for sea viper or an F35B. Land based SAM sites are really utilised for protecting other land based assets and not against air SAMs or AAM. If T26 gets the oto melara lightweight 5 inch gun we will be able to conduct NGS at 70NM. SSKs can operate anywhere and you will have st up a surface exclusion zone around the HVU.

it is about projecting power not hiding.

May 15, 2012 3:24 pm

Peter Elliott,

Agreed. But in scenario (2) we’re operating at 200nm rather than the 300nm that a CATOBAR can operate from.

The current STOVL F35B is based on scenario (1) but I pay my taxes for defense, not picking on some undefended little third-world nation. I pay my taxes so that scenario (2) is covered. So that when Brazil take The Falklands (or Ascension) “in the name of” the South Atlantic Alliance we stand a reasonable chance of wresting it back.

I’m simply trying to out-range my opponent to mitigate losses. Everyone else seems intent on burying their heads in the sand to mitigate expense. Just keep a close eye on Brazil’s navy (-_o)

May 15, 2012 3:29 pm


“it is about projecting power not hiding.”

Yup, and every boxer knows the best thing to do is get in at short range and pummel each other on the off chance that you get a good shot in? Movement and range. Simple.

It’s no different with a military clash between peers.

All Politicians are the Same
All Politicians are the Same
May 15, 2012 3:31 pm

Simon, Scenario 2 is covered. covered to the best of our tax paying ability and with a Carrier available 365 24/7 and a possibility of 2.
Unless of course you tier 2 enemies are too stupid to realise our 1 conventional carrier is well into a refit and time their op. Rendering you scenario 2 irrelevant.

Fluffy Thoughts
Fluffy Thoughts
May 15, 2012 3:31 pm


The 2 QEC with F35-B are were we are at. What I find irratating are the abundent scenarios of potential – erm – nothingness.

For example:

Any FI situation will see Special-Forces working with “locals” identifiying targets. Along comes QE-ARG group with T-45, T-23/6 and Trafalgar/Astute. Any ‘OTH Exocets’ lauchers will be TACTOM/Storm-Shadow’ed (along with local/regional C2) from > 500nm. [Point of ‘lift’, not necessarily ‘launch’.]

It’s not the best we can have hoped for, but it’s better then the French…! :D

Peter Elliott
May 15, 2012 3:36 pm


Sure I’d like more range. More internal fuel, organic carrier AAR. I’d like 3 CATOBAR carriers with AEW up to 10,000m, 30 Frigates, 20 Destroyers, 20 SSN and half a dozen LHD.

What we’ve got is what we can afford. I think its enough for today’s threat.

If Brazil or anyone else actually creates a big, viable threatening navy (rather than just talking about it) we can build up too based on firm foundations.

Fat Bloke on Tour
Fat Bloke on Tour
May 15, 2012 3:38 pm

All PATS @ 15.19

I take it this is another lesson you never learned from the FI?
Your analysis fails if the target has any mountains / hills close to the shore.
At least we will be safe if we take on the Dutch.

May 15, 2012 3:39 pm


Sorry, I was never a proponent of just one CATOBAR – both + LPH. I even did a little diagram to show why it was unlikely because of the expense. Doesn’t mean I like the outcome and it certainly doesn’t mean that the outcome is great.

Not a Boffin
Not a Boffin
May 15, 2012 3:40 pm

“I just don’t see this, on the 50 year lifespan number first, no doubt that is their projected life but as a comparison, the HMS Ark Royal commissioned in 1955, the one before the next one, would have been still in service during Operation Telic in 2003, not having been decommissioned in 1979 at less than 25 years old. The most recent HMS Ark Royal was in service for 26 years so if CVF stays in service for double the life of the two previous generations of Royal Navy aircraft carriers then fair enough but it will be doing much better than the two before it.”

Couple of obvious points TD. Ark IV was designed when her aircraft weighed significantly less than 10 tonnes (Sea Hawk for example) and before most of the advances (angled deck, steam cat etc) that made operation of heavier aircraft possible. Her construction also started during the war, so large parts of her were considerably older than a 1955 commissioning date might suggest. When she left service, she was throwing 25 te aircraft off the deck – point is she was designed when aircraft growth was spiralling and took on a lot of weight herself to accommodate them. At some point it becomes uneconomic to do more. In any case, she was withdrawn as a result of a political decision.

Ark V illustrates perfectly the problems with small ships. She was viable with the Harrier (itself a major aberration in aircraft size – wonder what drove that?) and could never have operated the F35B. Nor could she comfortably have accommodated sufficient aircraft. Nor could she have been easily modified to do so. Her safety certification would also have become an issue in the not too distant future as well.

QEC on the other hand has been designed to be big enough from the off. The margins built into the ship will allow her to reach 50 years – much as the US CVNs can do. Vengeance managed nearly 50 years on a much reduced airgroup and so will Foch. So to suggest that based on previous Arks she won’t achieve a service life like that is a bit misleading. Budgetary issues are more likely to kill the ships as they reduce aircraft numbers, ship numbers and personnel numbers across the Forces, carriers or no carriers.

Irrespective of increasing trends in aircraft longevity, it is therefore highly likely that QE will have to operate another type of f/w aircraft beyond F35, be it inhabited or otherwise. STOVL fundamentally compromises that – does anyone really think that a STOVL F35 would have been pursued by the USMC alone had there not been the UK RN, the RAF and the other Euro navies offering the option of a longer production run when the project was started? That is unlikely to be the case twenty years form now, so whatever comes after F35 will need some serious thinking to get it aboard the ship, but that’s for another generation and another argument.

I personally think that the SDSR decision was based on the perceived risk of the B variant at the time (people forget just how much trouble it was in), whereas cats and traps at least allowed fallback options. At that time it was very sensible, still is in my opinion, but the costs presented for conversion obviously skew that decision.

I don’t think anyone credible believed that the “adaptable” design equalled “fit to receive” or even “for but not with”. “Adaptable” always was quite simply a ship able to be converted by virtue of it’s configuration and margins inherent in the design. However, given that PoW would have been largely starting from scratch, with a defined set of hardware it is inconceivable that the work content of the conversion would absorb between 12M and 20M manhours however you slice it. I have designed and built complex ships and I do know what the work content would be like. I’d love to review those costs, but it’s never going to happen.

Adding DLOD costs to the “conversion” is most definitely not comparing apples with apples, particularly when you refer to personnel cost over 40 years, which are outwith the 10 year EPP, ditto training. I understand why people think they should be in, but they don’t necessarily get applied across the board. The £16Bn quoted for Typhoon most certainly does not include those sorts of cost.

However, the decision is made and as long as the aircraft proceeds (let’s just hope eh?), hopefully all will end well if far more expensively than it could and should have been. That is little to do with the post SDSR furore and more to do with the previous six years worth of fannying about.

One final thing. Continual references to the DPA are all well and good. They change and certainly have done since the inception of the ships. It will be interesting to see how they look in the 2015 review which now Uncle Sam is calling the European bluff will, for the first time, have to either :

A) Accept that the UK and Europe can no longer do things in “our” backyard, or

B) Accept that some of the “difficult” things will have to be done by the heavier hitters in Europe, probably us or France.

As soon as a half-capable airforce is in the Opfor (Egypt anyone?), then things might get interesting. Good thing we built ships capable of taking enough aircraft in the first place.

May 15, 2012 3:42 pm

Peter Elliot,

I know, I know, you’re right. It’s just with all the other “projects” that are getting funding it seems odd that we’ve chopped away at something that is (well, I think is) needed and beneficial.

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 15, 2012 4:03 pm

@Not a Boffin

Harrier size was primarily determined on the thrust/weight/size of the early Pegasus used in the P.1127.

The Pegasus itself being determined by the component engines used to develop it (Bristol Orpheus as the first stage driving selected components of a heavily modified Olympus).

Not a Boffin
Not a Boffin
May 15, 2012 4:28 pm

TOC. Correct, well done. In other words the airframe weight and available payload was driven by the vertical thrust available to the engine.

Nothing to do with the requirements for performance and radars, missiles, range etc that were driving the design of naval aircraft like Scimitar, Sea Vixen, Buccaneer, Phantom, A7, A6, F14 etc.

Pure accident that this ended up with an aircraft sufficiently small that it could operate from the helicopter carrier that became CVS.

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 15, 2012 9:22 pm

Pretty much, yes. The P.1127 was built with light strike in mind: i.e. anything beyond its VTOL performance was great.

The P.1154 was more of a ground up design and the Pegasus 100 more fully considered engine. It’s a shame it never saw full production, imagine what the latest generation in the engine family could achieve with the latest manufacturing techniques and material science. Its performance back then was pretty awesome.

May 15, 2012 9:36 pm


I do wish you would quote things in real money and not the new metric nonsense. However that shouldnt detract from a thoroughly gd read probably the best piece covering all aspects of this decision. I would add just a couple of things first on payload I don’t expect us to ever max that number out it would be quite mad. On the comparison between b and c payload should the c version operate a max internal fuel it’s weapons payload would have to reduce to 7100kg as otherwise is would exceed its mtow.
Perhaps most glossed over is the kpps on all these jets are end of life numbers so engine below optimal performance and some weight margin added jets damaged and LO signature measured to meet kpp and all so far remain gd.
As the uk will not operate the 1000lb bomb but instead the 500lb paveway in multiple guises. It could carry 4 paveway 4 with 2 missiles and meet the vlbb would say thats on a par or better than what we do operationally today.

Brian Black
Brian Black
May 15, 2012 10:25 pm

Hi, Mark. The F35B can carry three SDB inside each bay (four in A and C’s bays). Only 285lbs each, and over 60nm glide too, to claw back some of the B’s handicapped range. Perhaps that is something we should be looking at in the future.

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 15, 2012 10:25 pm

We’ll also be operating the F-35B routinely with external pylons, especially given the UK requirement to move additional ASRAAM’s from internal bay to pylons.

This says to me that we’ll be operating patrols with external drop tanks too, which cuts the C model’s internal tank advantage to a much smaller percentage.

Brian Black
Brian Black
May 15, 2012 10:47 pm

It’s not value for money, or through life costs, or military strategy that’s led the gov’t back to STOVL – it’s politics. Austerity sucks, and voters have been sending that message to politicians across Europe. We’ve recently had the election in Greece, state elections in Germany, presidential election in France, and the local elections over here – the results have all seen a general swing left, with a common theme that parties criticising the incumbent’s austerity measures have done well. The trend has spooked the gov’t. Nothing can trump the relief of ditching cats and flaps and immediately seeing the defence budget back in the black.

Lord Jim
Lord Jim
May 16, 2012 6:11 am

To start with a great post and cause for some serious thinking. Whist I yearned for the return to “Proper” carrier aviation, beign a realist I knew it was nerever really an option. We were never going to be able to afford to have both CVFs operations in CATOBAR, and I doubt more than 12 F-35Cs would have been deployed frequently and no more than double that in a surge due to the training requiremetns to keep pilots carrier qualified.

IF we end up with 2 STOVL CVFs and the ability to surge 1 with 36 F-35s on board together with ASW, AEW&C and AAR assets spread throughout the TF it will be the second most powerful TF aside form the USN. IF escorted by 2x T-45, 2x T-23/26 and 1-2 Astute even more so.

However we DO need a viable carrier ARR asset to allow the F-35 to exploit its full capablity. Land based AAR can be utilised in most cases but having organic AAR provided more options. Unfortunately it does fall into the nice to have catagory. One thing the CVF will have is the Ski Jump allowing the F-35 to take off with greater payload than the USMC can. As pointed out the Storm Shadow raises issues but I should be carried unless intended to be used unlike the accpted bring back payload!

UCAVs are going to be an issue though as the US is concentrating on platforms that can be launched from it’s CATOBAR carriers. Unless a platform is developed for the USMC to operate from it’s LHDs this will have to be a UK only or european colaboration and financial warning light are already going off in my head at the thought of this. We will probably left with using smaller UAVs in more limited roles, probably adapted from platforms already in service on land.

One issue that Is in the back of my mind is how often we will actually use the CVF as a carrier. IF an option exists to base aircraft forward on land, surely this is going to be the preferred option unless the GOvernment is determined to fly the flag and use the CVFs because we have them and need to show all the money spent was worth it.

Finally if we think things are bad, the Spanish Navy is having to lay up its only carrier along with frigates, patrol vessels and submarines to deal with financial issues. The future of the Carrier is in doubt and with history repeating itself, could end up being the last operator of the Harrier as they were with the AV-8A (Tailand doesn’t count), as it is unlikely they will be able to afford the F-35.

Not a Boffin
Not a Boffin
May 16, 2012 6:49 am

Land-basing is not always all it’s cracked up to be. You need physical security (Rock Apes), POL, munitions, GSE etc. All of which needs to be supplied to the base. And you need the five star hotels nearby (!!)

The “riskier” your base (see Kandahar), the more assets you need to put in place to secure it and support it. And, as we’re going to see in Affghanistan, the more difficult it is to withdraw. Carriers solve all that – obviously provided that your area of ops is within sensible range of the sea.

The definition of “sensible” range is a debate in itself, but it’s interesting to note that both the US and FR have supported Afghan CAS ops from the IO……

May 16, 2012 8:18 am

The French want interoperability, but their catapult will not be able to loft a F-35C with any sort of load. So its useless to the UK.

They were offered one of the carriers and they rejected on cost grounds (1 to 1.5billion euro) so BAE is not guilty of faking the figures for political issues as its been independently verified.

Air tankers are essential for the F-35C but merely an option for the F-35B (it can always recover regardless of sea state) and that will have to be developed – the USN is not developing a buddy tanker. The tanker issue is a big cost and more so with such a small fleet of 12, if three or four are just for buddy tanking.

Could a F-35C operate from the Uk carriers with much reduced payload (26 tonnes) in the same way as the Indian carrier (INS Vikramaditya) with their Mig 29’s in STOBAR configuration? All it would need is the trap, which is pretty simple. You then have the F-35C, being not quite as good as the F-35B

A key point that seems to be forgotten. The F-35B is a faster, lighter aircraft than the F-35C. It will accurate, climb and fly faster than the C due to lighter weight and smaller wings span. Up to its range (which is still very good) and payload (more than needed) its the best aircraft in the air at sea.

May 16, 2012 8:26 am

“why was running E2Ds just a fantasy?”

They cost $210-240million each and we may need four or more.

The E2 can operate off the ski ramp, but there is no chance of buying it.

There is a lot cheaper options, from adding a rearward facing radar in the pod on a F-35 pod to helicopter or other fixed wing aircraft such as the M28 Skytruck (which has a AWACS option in the marine version) or whatever.

May 16, 2012 8:48 am


Land bases are definitely preferable if they exist (or can be sustained) – there’s no doubt.

The trouble comes when there are no land bases and in the early days of an offensive they are often unavailable, either because of lack of will for local nations support (e.g. Italy at the start of the Libya crisis), or that the “issue” has not escalated enough to warrant the political suicide of allowing western powers to base their jets in an adjacent country.

I was looking up to find out what that room is under the ski-jump of Lusty for you – failed sorry, my book (Niel McCart) doesn’t give details, but it did mention that the USN and UK were about the first on the scene in the Gulf with carriers because the Saudis had not yet committed to allowing operations from their bases. I found it quite surprising that what was eventually a massive land based air campaign started with our tiny carrier.

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 16, 2012 9:07 am

BBC news video from yesterday of Queen Elizabeth under construction:

Nice shot of the view from the Bridge. Looks airy.

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 16, 2012 9:34 am

There’s not much made of the AEW issue in releases because the issue’s been settled:

– CROWSNEST part of the £4b for ISTAR and Comms.

What we don’t know yet is if those Merlins will be carrying Searchwater or (I hope) the Plug’n’Play Vigilance AESA pods with roll on/roll off consoles.

– Searchwater:

– Vigilance:

This leaves us with a network of:

– CROWSNEST Merlins (either AESA or Searchwater);
– Patrolling F-35’s (AESA and 360degree Electro-Optical);
– Escorting Type 45’s (SAMPSON AESA, S1850M);
– Carrier’s own kit (S1850M, Electro-Optical, Artisan 3D).

With logical placement this could easily give you a 500-600nm AEW overlapping dome around the Carrier Group.

Not a Boffin
Not a Boffin
May 16, 2012 9:44 am


I’ve yet to find a land base that’s complimentary – there is always a cost!

I was merely responding to counter Lord Jim’s suggestion that “IF an option exists to base aircraft forward on land, surely this is going to be the preferred option unless the GOvernment is determined to fly the flag and use the CVFs because we have them and need to show all the money spent was worth it.”


“The French want interoperability, but their catapult will not be able to loft a F-35C with any sort of load. So its useless to the UK.

They were offered one of the carriers and they rejected on cost grounds (1 to 1.5billion euro) so BAE is not guilty of faking the figures for political issues as its been independently verified.

Air tankers are essential for the F-35C but merely an option for the F-35B (it can always recover regardless of sea state) and that will have to be developed – the USN is not developing a buddy tanker. The tanker issue is a big cost and more so with such a small fleet of 12, if three or four are just for buddy tanking.”

1. I don’t believe the cat is the problem. The FR have the US C13-3F, which is slightly shorter than the standard US C-13-3. There will be a reduced end speed from that, but can be made up by WoD, so not necessarily a show-stopper.

2. Your assertion that Fr was offered a QEC and turned it down on cost grounds. I can’t quite see how that tallies with BAE faking or not faking some figures. Any idea who or what independently verified this?

3. The figure of 12 is not a total buy, nor is it what the ship will operate. It is currently a planning assumption in the idea of CEPP. That’s all. Tankers are not only for deck limits, they’re more often for deck accidents, which with a busy deck and pattern may also apply to STOVL ops.

May 16, 2012 10:06 am

I’m not sure why we seem to limit our carrier options to either SVTOL or CTOL, surely the STOBAR mode is becoming the dominant future carrier form with Russia India China and Brazil using this method.
I’d propose that many of the weapon and range issues associated with the F35 B would be resolved if we added the Sea Typhoon to the carrier mix. I know it is seen as a clean sheet PowerPoint only concept but I think this is wrong.

If one thinks of the sea typhoon as a very significant upgrade then it becomes more realistic, I say this because much of the technology is already either available or at a stage where there is engineering data that can inform a development path.
I’d consider there are three main elements to the Sea Typhoon transformation

1… The addition of thrust vectoring – the technology has already been developed by the Germans and is part of the Typhoon development pathway that the RAF envisage, software would be a big job but competence used for the automatic landing of the F35 could be leveraged to help

2…The addition of an arrester hook- since the Typhoon already has a hook (used on occasions to stop runway overshoots) there is already a basic engineering solution with specific capabilities such as a known speed at which the current hook can be operated. In fact it may be that it is only a modification of the existing hook rather than a new one that is needed.

3…Stronger undercarriage, a costly upgrade rather than one which would be risky or technically challenging

As regards marine protection the high level of composites in Typhoon are held to reduce the cost impact of this change.
End result the Sea Typhoon could have as much as 95% commonality with the current RAF fleet.

Major benefits …….all the weapons that are not available with the F35 unless we spend large amounts on their integration since they are not US …..Meteor, storm shadow, paveway VI, brimstone and later possibly CAAM (A). Plus the range and agility and air dominance of Typhoon.

If one were to upgrade the Tranche 1 block 5 aircraft then the UK would be able to put to sea a more potent air mix than even the US Navy who currently lack an equivalent air superiority to the USAF F22. The twin seat aircraft would also be a basis for development of ground attack and ECM roles that have high workloads.
My suggestion ..

Spend 1.5 billion of the 5 billion budget for the F35 on upgrading the 50 aircraft = 30 million per aircraft more than the supposed extra cost for a new build sea Typhoon.

Use £2 billion to buy 28 F35 B at £70 million each and then like the Italians spend the rest on the F35 A, with £ 1.5 billion buying 30 aircraft at £50 million each.

I’m sure TD will remind us that additional aircraft types generate extra costs but I think this is MOD cost nonsense, if the F35A is cheaper all round then it’s cheaper for similar volumes, just is, no way round it. Plus the JCA would then be a much more flexible group of aircraft able to benefit from the cost and development efforts for existing high volume types F35A and Typhoon.

This is all without leveraging any Typhoon development costs already envisaged, the arrestor package would be paid for with some of the £900 million earmarked for Cats and Traps- I’ve assumed some £350 million for both carriers but I’ve been unable to find any indication this is realistic.

What we would get would be a smaller F35 fleet than envisaged but it would still be able to deliver carrier strike packages and would be able to work under the security of a Typhoon CAP both on land and at sea.

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 16, 2012 10:27 am

1. Multiple aircraft types do generate additional costs. You need to maintain multiple units of the aircraft for each active aircraft you want on operations, separate parts stores and supply chains per type, different machinery and training for each type, basing, personnel, documentation, proving flights and administration for all the additional logistics.

e.g. if you want to operate just 2 “Sea Typhoons” to provide continuous CAP, then you’ll need a minimum of between 6 and 8 embarked with the associated increase in parts and personnel.

2. 28 F-35B’s is far too small a fleet to maintain operations. At the point of being sold, of a fleet of 70 Harriers, only 40 were ready for operations and this was considered too few to support actions in Afghanistan.

May 16, 2012 10:42 am

@The Other Chris

I was already aware that 70 Harriers with only 40 at operational readiness was the state of affairs before it’s retirement. I’m a bit confused though as to why that meant it couldn’t support Afghanistan?

It did great work for about 5 years. Plus I thought the reason the Tornado replaced it was because it had a better range of weapons and capabilities (and that it was the RAF’s preferred platform that needed to showcase it’s abilities to justify continued existence)?

Also quick question for anyone and everyone. I know the Osprey costs a rather pretty penny. However does anyone have any kind of accurate figure for what an Airborne Early Warning version would cost?

May 16, 2012 10:45 am

The Other Chris,

40 out of 70 Harrier (ish) was with old aircraft.

How many Sea Harriers did we manage to field in 1982? Out of what size of fleet? I thought eventually it was 100%???

May 16, 2012 10:45 am

@ Challenger

‘I know the Osprey costs a rather pretty penny. However does anyone have any kind of accurate figure for what an Airborne Early Warning version would cost?’

Has anyone looked it to this, is there a marketing push for a AWACS version of V22?

May 16, 2012 10:50 am

We had a link (somewhere on this blog) to a statement to the French parliament, which included those figures
” assertion that Fr was offered a QEC and turned it down on cost grounds. I can’t quite see how that tallies with BAE faking or not faking some figures. Any idea who or what independently verified this?”
– Take the 15-20 % off the 1.5 bn euros to get pounds, and it is a 30-60% under Hammond’s statement, depending on which QEC we compare to
– fine so far, but
1. the French have decided a long time ago that nuclear has proved impractical (for their next PA)
2. sources (admittedly many years apart)quote steam catapults
3. and the combination still comes out that much cheaper (than ours)? Something here does not tally up… but it is all history now

May 16, 2012 10:54 am

RE “with only 40 at operational readiness was the state of affairs before it’s retirement. I’m a bit confused though as to why that meant it couldn’t support Afghanistan?”
– probably could have (easily)
– but the 40 were in flyable condition, so that includes the trainers, and makes the figure quite different as for operational readiness

I think “the statement” always was that a *second* deployment could not be generated/ sustained?

May 16, 2012 10:58 am

Years ago, regarding recovering and palletising the kit on SK ASaCs there was such a push, presenting V22 as the growth path (or alternative to Merlins)… and at that time it would have been the high-end solution as FW were counted out
– have not seen anything since

A Different Gareth
A Different Gareth
May 16, 2012 10:58 am

The comment about range when land basing the B is one that I haven’t seen addressed. When the specs for the aircraft are given such as max take off weight is this the max within the defined operations of the aircraft or a physical constraint regardless of how it is operated?

Basically, could the B carry more weight if it was operated like the A? Even if not would a nice long runway and a gentle landing make it a satisfactory (if not ideal) Tornado replacement? Economies of scale and surge capabilities would benefit from the RAF and RN operating the same aircraft.

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 16, 2012 11:01 am

V-22 AEW was offered under the unfortunately named TOSS program. This mounted the Searchwater from the Sea King on a pallet from the rear door.

Interestingly, if CROWSNEST goes ahead with the Vigilance AESA pods, these are relatively easily attached, self contained pods with roll-on/roll-off consoles using Ethernet. They alledegedly just need a mounting point and a power supply.

Costs for an Osprey fleet would then be the cost of introducing a general V-22 fleet (presumably close to the MV-22 spec with Vigilance mounting points). You then “simply” transfer the Vigilance pods between Merlins and Ospreys as and when needed.

Apologies with regards to Harrier fleet size, I should have been clearer with respect to what I meant by operations. 40/70 airframes of Harrier was not considered enough to maintain current and future operations generally given commitments in Afghanistan. Compare the 40/70 available airframes against the 120+ airframes in the Tornado fleet.

Peter Elliott
May 16, 2012 11:09 am

I’ve not heard of an AWACS version of V-22 being developed. Presumably it would cost us the about same to put kit onto it as it would onto Merlin. With Osprey compared to Merlin you get 2,600m of extra altiude, about 90km of extra radar horizon, and about double the range and endurance so on the face of it worth investigating.

From an embarked airgroup point of view you want commonality of maintenance – so Osprey only comes into it if it does other things as well such as transport and ASuW. As we seem to be heading firmly towards a Merlin/Chinook rotaty airgroup then it makes sense to stick with Merlin for AEW. If we were going to use Osprey for transport then it might make sense to convert it for AEW and AsuW too. That would mean buying a lot of Ospreys and binning a lot of perfectly good Merlins and Chinooks, which isn’t going to happen any time soon.

(I assume the USMC must have a planning assumption that if there’s a high threat then USN will always be around with their E2D. We can’t afford to copy that assumption.)

May 16, 2012 11:10 am

@ The Other Chris

Multiple aircraft types generate costs in proportion to their relative costs, it’s nonsense to suggest that adding cheaper aircraft is more expensive. Once you get over a number of aircraft that generates sufficient volume to cover the fixed costs it’s about the variable costs of the spares themselves. Training is always required and doing this for more than one type does not double costs since the skill sets are broadly comparable.

The key thing to note is that this idea of fleet commonality ignores the many types that occur within one “fleet” such as the Typhoon group of variants and their upgraded type,s all of which require different training and spares.

The Harrier was an old aircraft with some ridiculous spares arrangements and I’ve come across parts for the Harrier where only 5% where fit for use, but the MOD was unable to grasp the issue. I expect that the UK using the shared US F35 training activities will produce a level playing field for training on different F35 types, if not a large advantage to operating the F35A.

Broadly speaking for civil aviation a fleet of over 100 individual aircraft means that there are no cost penalties for multiple types: i.e. 121 of an airbus and 104 of a Boeing, the costs for the military types are much less well controlled so the advantages for cheaper aircraft work at lower volumes.

I can’t prove the point but I’d expect the numbers for a move to variable cost impacts only applying at 50 or so for a fleet type, that means that I’m suggesting a more expensive smaller F35B fleet to gain the advantages of increasing the number of lower cost high volume types F35A and Typhoon.

Re availability, the F35 will be very different than the Harrier and sustained ops in Afghanistan are not my focus, which is getting the JCA carrier capability to an optimal level. Typhoon would do Afghanistan, with F35A used for strikes into non permissive airspace such as Iran or when the pilots needed combat experience in environments where f35 capabilities where not really needed.

The real value of my proposal is the ability to keep F35B in the role for which is intended while complimenting it with an air superiority partner, I think that many forget that the USMC (for whom the F35B is designed), also fly the F35C, just as the US Navy, both flying from the big carriers, so the F35B does not fly into combat without air cover unless there permissive airspace.

The F35B does have survivability in a high SAM environment, and I value it for that, but I want to stop it becoming a victim of opposing fighters with high air to air capabilities or just kept out of areas, because of its built in limitations.

May 16, 2012 11:19 am

Peter Elliott,

Am I missing something? The V22 has double the range and endurance of Merlin! Really?

Do you have a link, because if that’s the case then it makes V22 as good as a UAV. It also makes for some very bored crew ;-)

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 16, 2012 11:27 am

– Costs are not dependent on relative unit costs, they are a function of the overall cost and not the determiner. You must take into consideration fixed costs such as maintenance team salaries regardless of type. Do you expect a mechanic to accept a lower wage for working on a cheaper aircraft?

– As for availability, there’s something to be said for quantity vs quality. Reference the M4 Sherman, good enough in later variants but not the best. At some point you have to have enough units to be physically located at all the points you need them to be. Hoonian “twice the capability, half the fleet” thinking does not scale down well beyond a point, especially when you’re afraid of losing a costly chunk of your fleet. Reference the F-22.

– Typhoon as a Tornado replacement? Certainly, when numbers increase past the 50% of the planned fleet mark.

– F-35B as a Typhoon replacement? Agreed there as well. Rolling land-based take-off and recovery will allow a greater percentage of its maximum take-off weight to be carried, that’s without doubt, and I’m a fan of increasing the Joint F-35 Fleet size. Though I expect BB to jump into the argument at this point :)

– V-22 vs Merlin. I thought range and endurance were comparable, with the difference being speed and altitude for improved response and detection range. Maybe not enough of an argument to justify an Osprey fleet on its own vs Merlin.

Peter Elliott
May 16, 2012 11:29 am

@ Simon

Based only on my dodgy wiki trawling. But it seems intuitive that in ‘propellers forward’ mode it ought to be able to cruise for longer with less fuel used.

Isn’t its range and endurance advantages over pure rotary the reason why USMC are so keen on it?

Not a Boffin
Not a Boffin
May 16, 2012 11:33 am

RW – Sea Typhoon is a fantasy and STOBAR is a long way from being a “dominant” mode of operation. Last time I looked, Brazil are quite happily running ex-Foch with her steam cats.

STOBAR is also by far the most inefficient way to use the deck. Those that are using it are doing so from necessity rather than desire.

Aside from the fact that the location of the canards in Typhoon and the required angle of attack during low-speed flight interferes with pilots view of the Fresnel, I don’t think the aircraft has been EMI/EMC’d in a naval environment. Fixing either of those ain’t going to be cheap.

The arrester hook is also a bit of a red herring. It’s meant to catch the aircraft in the event of a brake failure, so entry speed to the system is lower than for a shipboard arrested landing. It also has a lot more run-out. Both factors mean a lot less stress on the system.

May 16, 2012 11:34 am

Hi PE,

and speed, RE ” Isn’t its range and endurance advantages over pure rotary”
– not substituting the CH-53 (heavy and bulky loads, a different kettle of fish)

May 16, 2012 11:37 am

Good point (as the “A” is not strengthened either, unlike the “C”)
“The arrester hook is also a bit of a red herring. It’s meant to catch the aircraft in the event of a brake failure, so entry speed to the system is lower than for a shipboard arrested landing. It also has a lot more run-out. Both factors mean a lot less stress on the system.”

May 16, 2012 11:39 am

@The Other Chris

Right see what you mean now, that 40/70 Harriers wouldn’t have been enough to sustain both Afghanistan and an additional deployment (Libya) compared to the Tornado.

On the Osprey it would probably be rather expensive, especially seen as we would be the only customer for that sort of thing. I very much recognise Peter Elliott’s point about having fewer types of airframes deployed to try and maximise interchangeability of spares and keep running costs down.

I was thinking about it not because it seems a great option (well at least in the real world with a realistic budget) but rather because of the alleged shortcomings of a Merlin AEW platform.

Is using helicopters for this role such a bad thing? I know that they can’t reach the same altitudes or have the same endurance and range as proper AWACS aircraft but are they not sufficient for our purpose? I mean our overall carrier capability won’t be anything like as grand as what the Americans operate.

May 16, 2012 11:39 am

Okay, good about V22.

I know V22 has a much larger range because it goes faster (about twice the speed of Merlin) but AEW is all about endurance and Merlin has a 5+ hour endurance, V22 might be able to squeeze 7h (?), but realistically you’d need to change the crew after 6.

V22 wins for AEW in the fact that it’s speed allows it to patrol further out and with enough of them on board we could have one above the fleet and one up-threat. In addition, as you say, it’s radar horizon is better.

May 16, 2012 11:41 am

I’d buy V22 for our LHA’s absolutely no question but, as ever, we’re constrained on money and making the most of our Merlin fleet seems to be the way we’re going.

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 16, 2012 11:46 am

I definitely think that Merlins (with Vigilance) are enough for our AEW needs.

As per my earlier comment, they wouldn’t be used alone and network well with both our existing and planned equipment:

– CROWSNEST Merlins (either AESA or Searchwater);
– Patrolling F-35′s (AESA and 360degree Electro-Optical);
– Escorting Type 45′s (SAMPSON AESA, S1850M);
– Carrier’s own kit (S1850M, Electro-Optical, Artisan 3D).

Aside: CROWSNEST with Vigilance AESA would allow all our Merlin operating surface fleet to carry AEW aircraft as well.

May 16, 2012 11:46 am

..and V22 is better for AAR and COD. But that’s another story.

May 16, 2012 11:50 am

“making the most of our Merlin fleet seems to be the way we’re going”
– and even a task force where frigates are the main surface combatants can have AEW (with the palletised Merlin solution)

We are all concerned about the strike ranges, but not about the ability to go and pick up anyone shot down at the extreme range (and speedily enough)?
-RE “V22 wins [for AEW] in the fact that it’s speed allows it to patrol further out “

May 16, 2012 11:50 am

The Other Chris,

I agree that they are okay. My statement about buying them would be for both AEW and assault – i.e. trying to minimise the numbers of different types of aircraft.

If you look at rotary (inc V22) we have a few options (money permitting):

1. Merlin AEW + Merlin ASW + Merlin assault
2. Merlin AEW + Merlin ASW + V22 assault
3. V22 AEW + Merlin ASW + V22 assault

Given that Merlin ASW is going to be around for years (they’re just so good) the sensible options are 1 and 3… or just 1 if you have no money (that’ll be us then).

You can add AAR, COD and SAR to that list too.

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 16, 2012 11:55 am

Nice summary. I’m already sold on minimising airframes, we have to get the most out of everything we have.

May 16, 2012 11:55 am

So it seems like the Merlin is a fairly good solution, bearing in mind that we aren’t looking for extreme high-end, perfect capability. It won’t cost much to convert them, it makes use of existing airframes and can be used in conjunction with other assets.

Sounds fine to me.

May 16, 2012 11:59 am

@ Not a Boffin

Not implying it is dominant now, but that it will become so since new entrants seem to find this an acceptable way to develop carriers, and that the new entrants will account for a majority of new carriers as they look to develop their navies.

The Sea Typhoon canard issue is meant to be alleviated by the use of thrust vectoring which reduces the angle of attack when landing since the thrust acts like a large aerodynamic surface.

While I know the arrestor hook is not up to carrier operations but it does generate a lot of base line data to inform the engineering and hence cost of the real McCoy so it’s already risk reduced compared to marinising another type.

Sea Typhoon is a fantasy as a new build (if you view it in those terms) in part because you need to get a customer to take on the costs of the full scale adoption of a new aircraft. What I’m suggesting is that there is an upgrade route for the UK, as the largest user of the Typhoon, which leverages existing investments and capabilities. With thrust vectoring already on the RAF wish list, for cost saving and capability enhancement reasons, the level of actual direct costs and risks associated with the STOBAR Typhoon of the idea are really not that bad.

I’m also saying that the risk is far less than people imagine both in engineering terms, see pervious post, and commercially since the euro fighter consortium would be highly supportive of such a project given its export. We would be benefiting from work that has been done by other member countries

May 16, 2012 12:01 pm

@ Chally

The Italians already have their ASaC/AEW Merlin flying.

May 16, 2012 12:04 pm

Don’t forget the AW609 tilt rotor, with Bell having sold its share the project is on the move again, it would be smaller than the V22 and cheaper but could have the payload that is needed, especially for the Lockheed solution

Plus as a commercial aircraft it has volumes that will help reduce costs and its less of an engineering challenge so less reliability problems.

May 16, 2012 12:06 pm

Another question I have been pondering (I’m full of them) regards the F35 costs.

As has been said many, many times it’s very difficult to predict just how much any given amount of aircraft will end up costing. However this seems at odds with a lot of other talk that attempts to fix the costs of any given amount in stone.

Is it sensible to suggest that this doesn’t take in-to consideration the deflation of costs over a production lifetime? From the British perspective we know that we will have to buy a certain amount by 2018-2020 in order to begin regenerating carrier strike. But id assume after that any additional buy would come down in cost as time progressed.

So a buy of around 40 in time for 2020 would be unavoidably expensive but another buy of perhaps 60 (either A or B) after that to replace Tornado would surely be cheaper?

May 16, 2012 12:13 pm

@ RW

‘since the euro fighter consortium would be highly supportive of such a project ‘

I wouldn’t be so sure of that. There would be little appetite for it, small upgrades have struggled to get any support, something like this is even smaller. Sea Typhoon will stay on the drawing board, it’s a BAE shareholders wet dream and an MOD budget holders nightmare.

May 16, 2012 12:13 pm

Costs of F35 are mainly driven by the place on the production schedule there will be some stability after the 250ish unit when concurrency with development finishes but this is out to 2020.

The UK buy should be delayed for as long as possible to access the later slots which already are envisaged for the UK demand by Lockheed, this also allows time for the propulsion units to mature although its not clear that the USMC are yet focused on driving down those F35B costs as much as others are.

Hopefully the US Navy and the DOD will deliver costs control that will benefit the UK

May 16, 2012 12:18 pm

@ Topman

with the MRCA contest result the consortium partners have changed their attitude and are looking for ways to ensure that eurofighter wins some competitions and are now being willing to fund new technologies.

The Indian competition is still not technically over so the pressure to improve the typhoons capability is now much more to the fore

It’s now a matter of improve the offer or risk a closure of the production line before any export orders, so a large upgrade package of new features would be very valuable to export opportunities and european jobs

May 16, 2012 12:20 pm

@ RW

‘ensure that eurofighter wins some competitions and are now being willing to fund new technologies.’

Having worked on one of the Typhoon upgrades mentioned on here quite a bit, you have more hope in them than me.

May 16, 2012 12:29 pm

Hard economic times focus minds… especially with aerospace

one of the terms of the economic support for Greece from the French and Germans has been the continuation of their defence contracts

so just when Greece is desperately short of money it is being forced to borrow to spend on German equipment

that sort of self interest could help the UK if it is managed correctly and thrust vectoring is German technology not some BAE fantasy

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 16, 2012 12:29 pm


Are you allowed to talk about it? I’m always interested in other engineering projects.

May 16, 2012 12:42 pm

@ RW

I know it has been tested on a test bed I meant the whole idea of a Sea Typhoon, I think we are 15 years past that decision point. Well maybe they might have a change of attitude I can’t see it personally.


I dislike the ‘I know more than you’ card, so apologies for this one. Not at the moment.

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 16, 2012 12:46 pm


Never any need to apologise, I completely understand.

May 16, 2012 1:06 pm


I’d really like to see Sea Typhoon/Tiffy… mainly because I like the idea of calling it a “stiffy”.

Without wishing to push you for details, etc, but I don’t understand why Eurofighter would not be interested in maintaining production of (and interest in) Typhoon and as RW says bolting on Internationally required functionality seems the best way to prove that the thing actually has a future?

I keep making the jibe about the MRCA competition too basically because it’s a competitive market and if Typhoon is not winning it won’t be surviving – leaving the UK, Germany and Italy, etc with a flippin’ expensive to maintain jet. The more customers on the band wagon the cheaper it will be.

May 16, 2012 1:07 pm


In the current climate a £1.5 billion package that moved funds to stimulate European aerospace, with new technologies and export potentials, that came from what was previously a budget for the “US” F35 programme, would be able to write its own commercial conditions.

It’s not about BAE it’s about” European jobs” – ……. when one does the deal….. And even the MOD could manage to not get shafted on this one. Actually with forensic Phil in place, if they actually ran with the idea, it would have a massive political dimension. The Europeans would love and support it and the US would hate it and apply very real pressure.

In fact if you want the real obstacle to the idea of a Sea Typhoon upgrade for the CVF you need to look to the US congress and the Presidential election, while they may be disappointed that we didn’t go for cats and traps, they would be livid if we spent “their F35 money” on a European project.

This is why the purchase of F35As would muddy the waters and suggest that further UK F35 purchases would be more likely for that type with its lower cost profile

May 16, 2012 1:12 pm

From the hip, on this one
“ensure that eurofighter wins some competitions and are now being willing to fund new technologies”
– France left at the early stage, and will now travel on the wing of the upgrades the India contract might(?) put into mass production
– Italy is focussing on getting at least some number of F-35s (has practically left the consortium)
– Spain is not going to be buying anything much in the near future (but will happily take orders for parts)

It is all down to what Germany and the UK can agree on;
– what might that be, other than what is already in the pipeline (albeit perhaps not funded)
– vectoring, conformals… can’t think of anything else

May 16, 2012 1:18 pm

Simon + RW

‘but I don’t understand why Eurofighter would not be interested in maintaining production of (and interest in) Typhoon and as RW says bolting on Internationally required functionality seems the best way to prove that the thing actually has a future?’

Adding additional capabilities might make sense here, but to the rest of the Eurofighter consortium it doesn’t. Now it isn’t totally black and white, but this all goes back to the drawing board days of EFA. To cut a long story short, the RAF/UK are the main drivers behind the additional capabilities because that’s we wanted from the start, the rest have got pretty much what they wanted a fighter that’s all they wanted. So it might well bring in sales but that’s too much of an unknown to them. It’s not automatic too many unknown costs to their minds to justify the outlay of additional costs. If it were such an easy sum to make they would be doing just that, but the fact that they aren’t tells it’s own story I think.

May 16, 2012 1:29 pm

Oh dear sea phyoon is never going to die is it. When you add the 5000lbs extra structure, move the canards and rewrite the flight software I guess that commonality with be top notch.

As for srvl burst tire would surely be covered under differiential braking and possible nozzle vectoring. And given its a 40knt landing it’s not fast in any way. Spool up bolting well maybe slightly more tricky by its a light jet personnelly don’t see it being anymore risky than any other carrier landing

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 16, 2012 1:29 pm

Other wishlist items:

– Naval Strike Missile
– Strengthened undercarriage
– Full-blown tailhook
– Other limited fuselage strengthening
– Rear facing AESA [1]
– Electro-optical distributed aperture system
– Transfer of F-35 HMDS as latest evolution of Typhoon’s HEA
– …


Not a Boffin
Not a Boffin
May 16, 2012 1:32 pm


Given that there is but one STOBAR operator as we speak, with probably less than 5 years total embarked operating experience, I’ll take the “dominance” with a pinch of salt. The Chinese will use Varyag that way as that’s how she was built, the Indians are using it because it’s the only way to get ex-Gorshkov capable with a decent aircraft, which makes the decision for ADS.

However, there’s a reason those relatively big ships have such a poor a/c complement.

For all the debate about Sea Typhoon, it does illustrate one thing very clearly. Had the original Air Staff Target required that what became Typhoon was both capable of catapult and arrested operations and that the airframe and avionics were compatible with a Maritime environment, the whole QEC/F35 debate would be dead in the water. We’d have a couple of big-deck carriers in build, possibly with steam cats although more likely with EMALS specified, with some dark-blue Tiffy squadrons temporarily shore-based.

That it wasn’t, demonstrates the stovepiped thinking that does so much damage. For a smallish cost in weight and an upfront investment, we would have a much more flexible product.

May 16, 2012 1:33 pm


Okay, so you’re saying that because of the EFA/EAP projects (i.e. air defence priority) it’s only the UK that want to drive the potential multi-role / swing-role capabilities forward.

Basically, too much risk for Germany!

May 16, 2012 1:36 pm

@ NoB

I’m not so sure it would have been possible to get the others onboard with the idea of carrier capable, we had all on to get the AG stuff added. I think the chances were near nil.

May 16, 2012 1:39 pm

@ Simon

Pretty much yes.

May 16, 2012 1:39 pm


Of course Sea Typhoon won’t die.

It’s what she should have been… properly multi-role.

It’s standard UK bigotry that caused this mess.

The French were right.

May 16, 2012 1:40 pm

Not imagining that the consortium will buy anything just that they would ensure that contract price was very competitive and delivery and cost schedules were met rather than viewing every new work package as a chance for a job share argument.

It would be much more likely that the work was accomplished within target costs if all the companies and countries involved in the work saw this as a chance for combined commercial survival, where previously it has been about individual countries competing for advantage.

For the UK it would be lower risk than we face now with all our eggs in the basket of a US lead project, which is dominated by US congressional haggling about funding. And that faces the real risk of a programme level funding crisis if the sequestration act is activated in the next year knocking billions off the US spending for F35.

Not an easy decision but who would you trust most as commercial stakeholders, the current US congress or current European political leaders?

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
May 16, 2012 1:41 pm

Still, it continues to amaze that Britain doesn’t think along the lines of all major combat systems being maritime capable where possible, even to a degree. Reference Apache, Chinook.

For example:

– FRES needs to be able to embark/disembark from our fleet and landing craft.
– All of our military helicopters should be built with maritime qualification.
– Stand-off missiles should be able to hit land targets or surface vessels.

We’re a maritime nation living on a group of islands!

May 16, 2012 1:48 pm

Well if it was to have been land and carrier capable in the same varient you lose all of typhoon high end performance and reduce its carrying capacity. Adding catobar does not make it more or less multi role.

May 16, 2012 1:49 pm


It’s often looked at but it isn’t always an ‘easy’ thing to add on, it adds weight and cost and has (generally) a longer time to come into service. The Merlin for example was looked to have the RAF version looked at, as it struggled with costing issues and time delays, to meet the Army requirement on size, range and load they weren’t added. We may think it stupid now, but I think it paid off we haven’t needed them for the first half of the a/c service life, it’s often a case of swings and roundabouts.

May 16, 2012 1:50 pm

How do people feel about CVF not embarking any jets at all?

I’ve got this feeling we’ll replace Tornado with F35A and ditch F35B/C altogether. This is especially likely if we can find a buyer for even one of the 65kt ships.

Why would F35B be of any benefit (over F35A) for anything other than shipboard operation?

May 16, 2012 1:50 pm

We’ve built 300plus typhoon so far the French 100 rafale so far there far from right

The Other Chris