Making Sense of the F35 Decision

RAF_F-35B

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 a 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 has 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 the 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 be somewhere in the same ballpark 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 2020s 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 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.

Industry

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 know-how 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, 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.

Range

The F35C offers a 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 does 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 the deck (WOD), at sea level (funnily enough!) and on 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.

The 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 major concern.

If we are going to use the F35B to carry Storm Shadow then the vertical landing brings 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, 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 arguable, 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 are 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 workup.

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 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 (the 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 they 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 the 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 forwarding 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.

Interoperability

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 the 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.

Risk

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 fallback of F18, Rafale or maybe even development of the Gripen NG becomes possible.

It was a 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, the 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 the 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.

AEW, AAR and COD

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 an 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 purchase of the E2D Hawkeye and even the C2 Greyhound for the COD role.

This was always a 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 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 bringing back weights or UCAVs’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.

This 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 the 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 a 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 a 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 of 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.

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on pinterest
Pinterest
288 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments