Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 5 (By Sea By Land)

RAF Harrier GR.3 Belize

Thought I would nick the Royal Marines motto, Per Mare, Per Terram or By Sea, By Land because this perfectly encapsulates the operating potential of the F-35B, no, nothing to do with Bunker Hill or the colour of their berets!

After looking at the dim and distant past in Part 2, the aircrafts potential in Part 3 and the painful reality of ‘today’ in Part 4, this is a post about how the UK might operate the F-35B fleet, oh, and a handful of side issues.

As usual, have a nice video before we start

From Sea and Land

One of the reasons I think the F-35B is definitely the right choice of aircraft is because of its operating location flexibility, why else would one trade away performance for the STOVL capability.

To illustrate this I have picked a few operational examples of the flexibility of the STOVL Harrier to use them to build the case for the F-35B in UK service.

Belize

In 1975, Guatemala threatened invasion of Belize and after a short period of preparation 1 Squadron deployed 6 Harrier GR.1’s called Operation NUCHA. The UK found itself with an unusual ally; Fidel Castro supported Belizean independence and condemned Guatemala, a strong ally of the USA. This placed the UK at odds with a US ally and in the same political boat as Cuba, hardly conducive to calling on the US for help. This manifested itself in a refusal of US basing support and so the Harriers had to be tanked across the Atlantic via Goose Bay and Bermuda.

The aircraft were based at the amusingly titled Belize International Airport but dispersed into three aircraft air hides and were the only combat aircraft in service that could use the short runway.

After a period of deterrent operations in conjunction with other forces (and a well-timed earthquake) the Guatemalan forces stood down, the Harriers were withdrawn but would eventually return as 1417 Flight.

RAF Harrier GR.3 Belize
RAF Harrier GR.3 Belize
RAF Harrier GR.3 Belize
RAF Harrier GR.3 Belize
RAF Harrier, Airport Camp, Belize, Central America, 1982

The Falkland Islands

Everyone knows about the Harriers, Sea Harriers and the Atlantic Conveyor, the latter demonstrating the VTOL capabilities of the Harrier but less well known is the San Carlos FOB.

We often think that once the Atlantic Conveyor had offloading her precious cargo of Sea Harriers and Harrier GR3’s her job was more or less done but although the original concept for Atlantic Conveyor was just as a transport for the Harriers at the last minute it was decided to use her to carry two other things.

The first of these ‘others’ was a number of Chinook and Wessex helicopters and in the previous post we discussed the impact of losing all the helicopters but a single Chinook (Bravo November) on subsequent plans, especially the ill-fated landings at Bluff Cove. The loss of the vast majority of the heavy lift helicopters meant ground forces had to walk to Stanley.

The second and much less known of the trio of vital items on-board the Atlantic Conveyor was a complete Harrier Forward Operating Base that would have allowed the Sea Harriers and Harrier GR3’s to operate from land rather than far offshore on the two carriers.

Planning assumptions for the FOB included sustained operations over a 22 day period before resupply with fuel, weapons, air traffic control and maintenance facilities for 12 aircraft with a 400m runway.

There is some contradiction in the various sources used for this post on what surface materials were actually used. Some say there was a quantity of the superb AM2 matting available on the Stronmess and others indicate that the sappers had to scrounge matting material from all over the place, pierced steel planking (PSP), trackway, bomb damage repair matting and even the materials used for temporary helicopter pads on the many civilian ships were assembled and used instead, again, much of it from the Stromness.

It is hard to tell from the poor quality pictures available but the image from the Imperial War Museum looks like a smooth surface matting indicative of AM2 although the one with the GR3 below looks less smooth.

San Carlos FOB Falkland Islands
San Carlos FOB Falkland Islands
San Carlos FOB Falkland Islands - Harrier and Helicopter Operations
San Carlos FOB Falkland Islands – Harrier and Helicopter Operations
San Carlos FOB Falkland Islands - Harrier and Helicopter Operations
San Carlos FOB Falkland Islands – Harrier and Helicopter Operations

Whether it was AM2, PSP, trackway, repair matting, MEXE Pads or a combination of all of them is an interesting technical point but the fact remains that a 260m runway was established.

A set of emergency fuel handling equipment was also secured from the Stromness and a Combat Engineer Tractor (one of only 2 sent South) was used to excavate the bunding for the EBFI fuel bladders.

HMS/RNAS Sheathbill or RAF Port San Carlos was the official name for the FOB depending on which service you belonged to and it was also called Sid’s Strip after Flt Lt Sid Morris, the FOB commander.

The runway was just over 260m long with a separate vertical landing area and parking space for 4 Harriers, much less than the planning assumption of 12.

San Carlos FOB Falkland Islands
San Carlos FOB Falkland Islands

The Forward Operating Base for Harriers and helicopters had been established by 28th of May when helicopters were refuelled and the battle for San Carlos was deemed to be over. The FOB was declared operational on the 2nd of June and almost immediately used for helicopters although weather would cause problems for a few days and it was not until the 5th when the first Harriers used it.

Incidentally, the San Carlos FOB runway length was 260m long, just 17m or so short of a QE carrier.

Iraq

In 1991 and Desert Storm, as the Air Power Survey Summary Report by Cohen and Keaney clearly stated;

The closest land or carrier basing put aircraft 175 or more miles from the nearest targets in the Kuwait theater and more than triple that distance for targets in the Baghdad region. The bulk of the combat aircraft flew  from  bases  in  southern  Saudi  Arabia  and  the  coastal  Gulf states;  for them  and  the  Red  Sea  carrier  aircraft,  the  targets  were  700 to  1.000  miles away,  well  beyond  the  unrefuelled  combat  radius  of most  aircraft

This ignored the use of forward bases by the USMC who made use of a forward site at Tanajib. This allowed a small number of USMC AV-8B Harrier’s to operate at less than 40 miles distance from the ground operations and without the need for extensive airborne refuelling.  They used Tanajib from 9th Feb 1991 as a forward arming and refuelling location. Tanajib was an oil field support base owned by the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) that already had an airstrip but this was expanded by moving 200,00 cubic yards of material and the creation of 1.75 million square feet of AM-2 matting for taxiways and aircraft parking. That Tanajib already had a runway is not in dispute but it was made practical as forward location by allowing scarce surfacing resources to be diverted from runway creation and on to parking and handling areas.

In 2003 USMC Harrier’s also played an important part in operations in Iraq.

Commenting on the operation, Major General James AMOS USMC said;

I had my Harriers flying off of highways and bombed-out runways as we advanced on Baghdad for the final showdown

The USMC Harriers initially operated from LHD’s, USS Bataan and the USS Bonhomme Richard. Both were used exclusively for Harrier operations instead of the normal rotary and fixed wing aircraft, this allowed the sortie rate and numbers of aircraft carried to be pushed up, each carrying 20-24 aircraft. This concentration on-board allowed the coalition to add over 40 aircraft without impinging on the already overcrowded runway and parking spaces on the land bases.

As forces advanced in Iraq the USMC established two Forward Operating Bases and two Forward Arming and Refuelling Points. Although these were primarily for use by helicopters the USMC Harriers did make use of them, especially the FOB at An Numaniyah and FARP on Highway 1, south of Baghdad.

Afghanistan

USMC Harriers flying off the USS Bataan and Peleliu provided cover for six CH-53 heavy lift helicopters carrying a reinforced rifle company on November 25th 2001. Their job was to establish a Forward Operating Base at Kandahar, to be called FOB Rhino. After securing and enhancing the existing runway KC-130 and C-17 supply flights followed. Harrier deployments followed in 2002, the first coalition fast jet combat aircraft in Afghanistan.

USMC Harriers also deployed to Bagram in 2002.

In late August 2004 the UK announced the deployment of Harrier GR.7’s to Kandahar who would be accompanied by 53 Squadron Royal Engineers.

During runway resurfacing the Harrier was the only aircraft able to operate, coordinating with the engineers allowed the Harrier to use the new or old surface as it was truncated by the resurfacing work. In 2008 a USAF C17 ran off the Kandahar runway closing the runway for over 30 hours. During this period, the only Close Air Support was provided by Harriers from Kandahar using the useable length of the runway

As the main operating bases improved the need for austere forward basing disappeared but as the USMC were planning to deploy to the Helmand area it came back into the ‘requirements space’

The forthcoming operation would see the USMC move into Marjah and in support they decided to build FOB Dwyer to support rotary operations, and, Harrier fixed wing. A 4,000 feet runway and supporting facilities were built by the Marine Wing support squadrons to enable their Harriers to operate close to the area of operation, improve time on station and reduce demand on precious AAR.

The reason they built a 4,000 foot runway was to enable their KC-30’s to land and take off with supplies for the build and subsequent operations although as can be seen in the video below the aircraft took full advantage.

Lots more pictures here

AM-2 was also used extensively at Bastion

AM2 Bastion
AM2 Bastion

Libya

Apart from the RAF showing their long range rapid response capability and the RN’s superlative MCM operations the real stand out during the Libya operation was the USS Kearsarge and her combined group of AV-8B’s, V22’s and US marines carrying out a short notice aircrew recovery operation (in addition to other operations)

Now this has nothing whatsoever to do with austere basing and short take off etc. but I mentioned it just to illustrate how blending fats jet, rotary and ground forces can produce an extremely effective combination.

It is also worth noting the less than optimal logistics arrangements that the RAF subsequently recognised as a significant lesson to learn.

Making a Case for STOVL

I am always wary of using historical examples to make a case for some future capability of the other but when you look at those examples one could argue that the basing flexibility was not due to operational requirements but the limitations of the Harrier, most of which the F-35B doesn’t have and all of which the F-35C doesn’t have!

This is a fair point in some measure but reading more deeply, this flexibility and the additional capability of the F-35B means it is still a valuable capability for the UK to have.

Another counter to STOVL is that the cost differential between it and more conventional aircraft could be easily spent on improving expeditionary airfield construction capabilities and thus get the best of both worlds but without seeing all the numbers and all the myriad factors that would contribute to this kind of decision I tend to think it is a weak argument.

So the case for STOVL is not immediately obvious, it is a nuanced argument but for the UK, the decision on STOVL was not really influenced by the ability to forward deploy and leapfrog using austere operating bases anyway.

What does factor into the argument though is the flexibility to do should the UK require it and that is the main point of the F-35B, flexibility.

The job of the F-35B is simple, apply UK combat air power from sea when land basing is not a practical option but the operating concept for the F-35B is a little more complicated.

Dependant on geography, enemy dispositions, available basing or over flight rights and operational objectives they might self-deploy directly to a Deployed Operational Base with tanking support, onto a carrier or other vessel, or even direct to the target.

Whilst in theatre they could operate from the main base, the carrier deck or stage forward using a Forward Operating Base (FOB) or make use of Forward Arming and Refuelling Points (FARP). They could easily move between operating locations or stay at just the one.

The reverse journey could be completely different.

The point here though is flexibility, this is what STOVL brings.

Have I mentioned that word before, flexibility!!

Operating from austere bases or forward operating bases might be viewed as a singular but it isn’t. It could mean using a Forward Arming and Refuelling Point to reduce the need for airborne refuelling, the aircraft would still operate from an aircraft carrier, be maintained there, have the crews there and so on, but a quick touchdown, refuel and away is one end of the scale. This is similar to the Falkland Islands San Carlos FOB or USMC operations in Iraq in 2003.

At the other end of the scale is operating from somewhere like Bastion in Afghanistan, where long runways are the norm. But, should one of those runways be closed for a short period by an aircraft incident or indirect fire then STOVL provides an ability to continue operations.

No one is thinking the F-35B will be operated from a jungle clearing with half a dozen blokes and a couple of boxes of 10 man compo. Force protection, fuel, other consumables (although with precision weapons the weight of stores is much less than old school West Germany Harrier operations) and the operating logistic overhead means that is never going to happen.

Early theatre entry might mean that everything required to support air operations will have to be flown in, other scenarios might see existing local capabilities only needing minor enhancements and logistic support, all delivered over land.

As Carrier Enabled Power Projection doctrine evolves and the UK’s means and methods of operating the F-35B also evolve the leap frog onto austere/luxury bases from the carriers might equally evolve.

Supporting any fast jet is not a trivial task so I expect the default position would be to operate them from the carrier and any austere location business will be on a needs basis only

However, where there are operational or strategic advantages to be had by the boldness of forward basing, whether direct into theatre or via the medium of an aircraft carrier, we should be in a position to take advantage of it.

Enhancing the UK’s ability to take maximum operational advantage of the ability of the F-35B’s STOVL characteristics on land should be as high a priority as operating it from sea.

Yes, I did just say that.

J Stands for Joint, or Does It?

The current and expected operating model seems to be a continuation of the Joint Force Harrier concept.

Many people criticise Joint Force Harrier because it was complicated by merging two dissimilar organisations with their different cultures, manning requirements, operating environments, procedures and career development paths, the result of which was a shadow of its former constituent parts.

Without being on the inside it is hard to make any meaningful comment on the details but from the outside it seemed perfectly able to generate combat air power, in Afghanistan especially, and to great effect for a sustained period which to me at least, says success.

Of course, operating from sea took a back seat but then so did combined arms manoeuvre and many other skills sets across the services in direct response to the defence main effort that was, and is, Afghanistan.

It was not ideal of course but unavoidable, understandable and right.

Italy has a similar conundrum with the air force and navy planning to both obtain F35B’s . All 30, in two squadrons of 15, will be based at the Navy base in Grottaglie, the same base where their Harriers are based.  The Italians have eschewed the joint command approach on the UK, General Giuseppe Bernardis, the chief of the Italian Air Force was quoted as saying

We don’t want a replica of the U.K. system where the [Royal Air Force] and Royal Navy Harriers are under one single line of command. The British model creates too many controversies between the two forces

So this sounds to me like the civilian leadership at the Italian ministry of defence was too weak to impose a decision and an expensive compromise was allowed to proceed because tackling the issue was just too difficult.

This is the problem with peacetime service politics.

In the last few years, the model of jointery seems to be have been constantly undermined with a concerted campaign in the press to split the F-35B fleet into those for Carrier Strike and the QE aircraft carrier(s) and those for the RAF, with an undercurrent that continually implies that all ’50 odd’ should go to the Fleet Air Arm and a second tranche of aircraft, probably the CTOL F-35A variant, going to the RAF.

All boxed off, all very neat, everyone gets to keep their own toys

The Fleet Air Arm gets to regenerate and operate Carrier Strike without any RAF interference and the RAF, yes the RAF that needs 5 Star hotels and doesn’t join to go to sea, are allowed to operate the lightweight and sleek F-35A the same as their counterparts in other Air Forces. Both services will be relieved at not having to mix, not having to share and not getting in each other’s way.

How much of this feeling prevails within the armed forces and how much of it is just the usual mischief making by those outside is hard to tell but it needs to be addressed.

The F-35B is not a toy to be coveted and hoarded but it is an expensive national asset that must be operated for maximum effect at minimal cost across all three services.

That is not just the voice of someone who sees the cost of everything and the value of nothing but a realist, one who understands that every pound spent on one thing is a pound not spent on something else. It is OK herumphing into your Telegraph but no amount of complaining about what should happen is going to make financial reality go away.

The MoD will have enough cost pressure in the coming decades without creating a wasteful practice from a bygone era so when I look at this issue I have zero sentimentality that comes with conveniently having no vested interests.

So the question I have is how, to put it bluntly, can the UK afford two operators of the same aircraft and managed under a common or joint structure?

The answer I instinctively come to is simply, it can’t.

But before this argument can progress I think it must be determined whether there is an additional cost, again, I honestly don’t know but despite the facile arguments of harmony guidelines and hotel bills is it logical to assume a cost penalty for duplication?

Generally speaking, one obtains economy of scale by the elimination of duplication, this being a fundamental principle of organisational design since the industrial revolution. If we assume there is a duplication cost penalty the next step would be to determine what it was.

Finally, once the cost penalty has been defined it should be asked if any operational benefits accrue that balance out this cost differential.

I wonder if the Joint Force Harrier was a compromise, a compromise that allowed both the RAF and FAA to maintain their distinct service ethos, in short, stopping short of achieving the logical outcome because the service chiefs saw their service before the services and the civilian and political leadership of the MoD did not have the bottle to tackle them.

So accepting there are many ifs buts and maybes that we don’t know, my instinct would be to veer towards a single operator.

Surely that would be the Fleet Air Arm because isn’t the F-35B designed to reconstitute Carrier Strike for a Maritime Strategy in a Maritime Century?

I am of course being a little mischievous there but I just want to be clear that if a single operator is the way ahead (and it’s a big if) that single operator should be the one that is the most cost effective and operationally effective against the whole gamut of tasks that constitute operating this aircraft, not just the naval aspect.

When you look at the comparative size of the RAF and FAA it should be pretty obvious which one is the larger and correspondingly, which one has the critical mass to sustain and operate fast jet combat aircraft.

When I suggest the RAF should operate all the UK’s F-35’s it is usually met with howls of derision and accusatory overtones, the RAF don’t join to serve on ships, the aircraft is a fundamental part of the ships ‘system of systems’, operating at sea is so much different and the RAF won’t devote enough attention to carrier operations as they should and will instead spend all their time flying from land bases, shudder the thought and remember the thirties.

All reasonable enough concerns but back to my original point about the costs of duplication and is it worth it, the consequence of any additional cost or unwanted second order effects i.e. a loss of capability elsewhere and the need for an unsentimental view of the whole issue of operating these extremely precious aircraft.

This also generates another question, are we just talking about aircrew or aircrew, deck and engineering personnel?

Again, this would come down to a look at the numbers, career management and sustainment issues. Safe operations at sea would also be a major factor in any decision, with this in mind one can easily see a compelling argument for retention of deck crew within the maritime domain.

Whole ship operations mean a certain degree of additional training would be required for aircrew and engineering personnel operating aboard ship, it has been done many times, the RAF and AAC have demonstrated they can operate from aboard ships. Many point to damage control being a key part of this naval skillset but are we really expecting our extremely expensive aircrew to be knocking chocks of wood into holes and manning a hose?

Is there any reason that naval aviation specific skills, the knowledge of operating in confined spaces, strategy and tactics, be the sole preserve of one service unable to be learned by another and as for people in the RAF not joining up to go to sea and I would point to many examples of maritime deployments and without sounding too harsh, its something they will just have to get used to. RAF service personnel are still service personnel and understand the needs of the service come first, if that means out of a large pool of F-35 aircrew some of them must spend an extended period of time aboard a QE aircraft carrier then so be it. Aircraft need to go where they are needed and so must their aircrew and engineering team.

My basic position on this is the aircraft themselves are going to be very expensive, expensive means scarce, scarce means there is an absolute need to sweep away any sentimentality and start thinking about efficiency.

If this drive for efficiency arrives at the existing and planned joint model of operations, fine, if not then I think we should take it as far as it will go and it’s only one opinion amongst many, that destination, for me at least, means a wholly RAF owned and operated fleet.

Not because I am anti RN or because I just don’t get it but simply because I do get the cash situation and therefore don’t think sacred cows are worth keeping if it means a loss elsewhere.

The operating model for the UK’s F-35B’s was always to have a permanently embarked force of Fleet Air Arm aircraft aboard the two carriers and then in times of need, surge the RAF aircraft onto them carriers.

These aircraft would then, as the campaign progressed, move to austere operating areas ashore and then as those austere operating bases were improved would continue to operate or advance to others in the traditional campaign from sea to land operating concept.

It was eminently sensible, flexible and more than anything, doable.

The only problem with this scenario is that it assumed about 150 aircraft and two carriers.

Having permanently embarked aircraft sounds a little like tokenism, a marker for the outer barriers of a mini empire and an emphatic statement that the FAA is still in the fast jet business. The Secretary of State for Defence has recently made clear in that delightfully ambiguous manner that politicians do that current assumptions are for such a permanently embarked force.

My view of the aircraft carriers is that they are a flexible, aviation focussed, multi role ships equally able to operate equally with just fast jets or no fast jets depending on the operational requirement.

Training and concurrency requirement for operating at sea, especially for deck crew, means that the result of ‘where they are needed’ may well in practice mean some F-35B’s are always in effect, aboard, but that is different to saying there should be 6 or 12 or some other arbitrary number permanently aboard.

We need to operate the very expensive aircraft carriers and very expensive aircraft in a flexible manner, free of dogma about an aircraft carrier without aircraft or notions about how many aircraft look ‘right’

This puts me in the ‘idiot’ bracket, those who view aircraft carriers as just mobile airfields and not a complex collection of systems, perhaps so, but can the UK afford to view them as anything different?

So I would simply forego any notion of a permanently embarked aircraft group and embrace the flexibility that the size of the carrier, the skills of all three services and the capabilities of the F-35B offer.

I know this is a controversial suggestion but surely worth considering if it saves money, and therefore other capabilities, elsewhere?

Related Issues

Without delving too deep, there are a few side issues worth looking at.

One Ship or Two

Although this is an F-35 Lightning II focussed series of articles you cannot ignore the QE carrier and the questions of design and the ‘big un’ of one ship or two. As it stands the current decision is that only one carrier will be bought fully into service but in making the switch back to F-35B the assumption/mood music/hopeful wish is that the second will be bought into service and HMS Ocean not replaced.

There is some logic to this because it is a means of maximising the investment in the CVF programme (ignoring the sunk cost rule) and means that there is a more than reasonable expectation of having one always available, or as close to always available as possible, at least able to meet the ‘5 days notice to move’  aspiration.

I have more of a question here, more than a suggestion.

If the goal is to ensure one carrier is available at all times, within reason, where the primary reason for non-availability in a one ship fleet is maintenance periods, would it be possible to hold the second at an enhanced level of readiness?

This would see the second vessel not bought fully into service and not sealed and tied up either. Instead, it would be at an intermediate level of readiness, still maintained at short notice to move and used as a training vessel in UK waters only. Crewing could be a creative mix of RN/RFA and even RNR, retained reserves and contractors. During maintenance periods or as a result of unplanned downtime the normal RN crew could be transferred and away you go.

I can see the limitations, the transition time, issues of responsibility and maintenance so it’s only a bit of out aloud thinking but if there is a middle path, it should surely be worth a serious look.

CROWSNEST

There are a number of options to fulfil the CROWSNEST requirement after the Sea King ASaC Mk.7 go out of service in 2016 but it seems the lowest risk and possibly lowest cost is to port the equipment over from the Sea King ASaC7’s into either a number of Merlin HM.2 or possibly the airframes that will not be upgraded. Alternatives such as a V-22 based or LM Vigilance pod might look attractive but given the funding situation, not sure they are practical options. I even wonder if the MoD might look to squeeze an extra decade out of the capability by raiding the large number of Sea Kings it owns across the RAF and RN, especially as the SAR aircraft will be looking for a home soon.

The expected in service date is 2020 which means a 4 year capability holiday

Life After GR.4

The current ‘out of service’ expectation for the Tornado GR.4 fleet is currently early 2019. The 2010 SDSR confirmed a reduction of force elements from 40 to 15 by 2015 which would point to a fleet reduction from just over a hundred to about 40 and then to the final number in 2019 from there. As Afghanistan draws down, support contracts are possibly harmonised and the Typhoon comes into service the three will meet.

Much of what comes next is dependent on a complex series of interlocking programmes and decisions; what happens with Tranche 1 Typhoon, what capabilities Typhoon 2 and 3a will have, the Typhoon P1E upgrade, what will be happening with any future European UCAV, the speed and capability of the F-35B introduction into UK service and of course, how much cash the MoD has.

There does seem to be an assumption that the UK will buy another tranche of F-35’s beyond the indicated first batch of 48. Jon Thompson from the MoD has stated such in oral evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee but these are ‘plans’ and not ‘done’s’

Many also think that the CTOL variant, the F-35A, will be obtained in this subsequent tranche of aircraft. Some have pointed to the refuelling configuration of the F-35A as a barrier to this but the A variant can also be fitted with a probe rather than (or in addition to) a receptacle.

The F-35A does have a number of performance and cost advantages compared to the F-35B but the degree of commonality between the three variants is roughly 30% so it would not be far off a different aircraft with all the attendant logistic and support costs. Keeping the second tranche of F-35’s as the STOVL B variant means the UK would have the advantage of a homogenous fleet with the attendant cost and logistic support benefits but the B variant will also likely be the most expensive to purchase and support. As the Tornado draws down from RAF Marham the F35 looks increasingly like it will take its place at Norfolk airbase

With the proximity of RAF Marham to RAF Lakenheath, the home of the three F15 squadrons of the 48th Operations Group, the potential future F35-A operations and support synergy with the USAF in East Anglia is obvious.

Others think that a second tranche purchase of F-35C’s would be more appropriate, given its longer range and proximity to the FOAS vision.

It could also mean the F35B is obtained in multiple tranches, up to our initial planned purchase. This would delivery maximum flexibility and at least mean a single type in service.

Availability rates and training requirements of the F-35 will also dictate final numbers obtained and possibly even squadron size. Fleet management is complex enough, managing maintenance periods, manning and a host of other factors and that is before you look at the effects of operations so the final decisions will be based on one of those crossing line calculations that you need detailed information on many variables, detailed information we won’t have (or indeed any F-35 operator) for a few years yet.

In a post 2020 world, the UK might be down to just over 150 fast jets, around a 100 non Tranche 1 Typhoons and 50 odd F35B’s.

Some might view this as apocalyptic but if it could be combined with a post Afghanistan MALE UAV purchase, improvements in precision strike from sea (medium calibre gun and Tomahawk), an increasingly capable GMLRS (with a the PLUS model and maybe ATACMS) force, the modernity and availability of a combined F35B/Typhoon fleet and the range of precision guided weapons deployed on them both as described in the previous post I don’t think it is as bad as might at first seem, especially when one considers defence planning assumption and likely threats.

More would be good and sustaining at a critical mass always brings challenges but there are many other competing demands of the defence budget, however ‘in balance’ we might like to believe it now is.

SDSR 2015 should confirm decisions on the UK F-35 programme AND the second carrier (for they are connected) and also provide greater clarity on the in service date ranges but until then we are going to just have to continue reading between the lines and making all manner of wild assumptions!

What happens after Typhoon, possibly towards the end of the 2030’s, is where it gets interesting.

Whatever happens, the end of the decade and beyond looks increasingly like a very complicated time for UK fast jet aviation.

Are Any Improvements Possible?

The first of the answer is another question, what for.

If we look at the original concept of operate at sea, transition to land and leap frog forward it is still valid, not so much because that would actually be the order of things but because it gives the UK a range of options.

That’s the main reason I think STOVL is so attractive, options.

This is fantasy fleets but the ability of the UK to rapidly deploy air power, by sea, air or land will give us enormous strategic advantages. Air power does not just mean the F-35B but also transport aircraft, unmanned systems and ISTAR assets.

These air power assets can then act in a primary role or in an integrated enabling role with sea and land capabilities.

This sounds dangerously like I am advocating an improvement in ‘raiding’ capabilities, yes and no. I still think the concept of so called strategic raiding is nonsense but the ability to rapidly deploy decisive effects, combat or otherwise, should still very much be at the top of the shopping list.

The UK is not some capability in this area and like all three services, the RAF has moved to an expeditionary stance since the end of the Cold War. The RAF used to have its own Airfield Construction Branch but this was transferred to 39 Engineer Regiment Royal Engineers in the mid-sixties. The RAF now maintains a pair of Expeditionary Air Wings based at RAF Wittering and RAF MArham, Number 42 (Expeditionary Support) Wing and Number 85 (Expeditionary Logistics) Wing, each with 4 squadrons.

Number 42 (Expeditionary Support) Wing comprises 71 (Inspection and Repair) Squadron, 5001 (Expeditionary Airfield Facilities) Squadron, 5131 (Bomb Disposal) Squadron, 93 (Expeditionary Armaments) Squadron and a Headquarters Squadron.

Number 85 (Expeditionary Support) Wing comprises 1 (Expeditionary Logistics) Squadron, 2 (Mechanical Transport) (MT) Squadron, 3 (Mobile Catering) Squadron and a Headquarters Squadron

There is a good description of the roles of these units at Defence Management

I look at these in the same way as I look at FAA aircrew and wonder if there are economies of scale to be had by transferring the function into the Army’s Royal Logistic Corps, EOD, transport, ammunition handling and catering are all to be found in the RLC. Same with the expeditionary airfield functions, except this time into the larger Royal Engineers organisation. These organisations are used to supporting the RAF’s and Army Air Corps helicopter fleet so the simple question is, are expeditionary airfields any different and could we achieve more for less by rolling organisations together?

Whatever the organisational constructs there is also the question of equipment and capabilities.

In 1964 the RAF, together with the air forces of the USA and Germany agreed to conduct a series of trials to investigate STOVL operating concepts using nine equally purchased P1127 that were called Kestrels. The US Army and US Navy were also to be involved and the programme would cover dispersed operations from unprepared and artificial surfaces, operating from grass surfaces and dispersal from the main base. These were in response to the obvious Warsaw Pact threat to fixed airfields.

RAF Harrier GR.1 Road Operations
RAF Harrier GR.1 Road Operations

Part of the trial included surfacing materials, standard Class 30 trackway, a spray on fibreglass treatment and a specially designed system called the MEXE Pad were tried. All were satisfactory but the MEXE Pad, interlocking aluminium planking pinned at the edges, was found to be the best.

Up until the withdrawal of the Harrier, MEXE Pads were still in use for training.

Harrier landing on a MEXE Pad
Harrier landing on a MEXE Pad

They were also used for the San Carlos FOB mentioned above and were 50 foot by 50 foot, used for vertical landings.

Over the next couple of decades the RAF and RE refined the concept of dispersed operations although these were compromised by having to use peacetime locations, not the likely wartime locations which would have made much greater use of hard surfaces, roads, car parks and buildings for example, which would have much reduced the logistic requirements.

Also obtained was the US AM-2 aluminium planking or matting.

I read that the vast majority of the UK’s AM-2 matting stock went down with the Atlantic Conveyor but we used a large quantity for RAF Stanley soon after although I don’t think we have purchased any since then although we have trialled products from Faun.

I am going to look at expeditionary airfields in a separate post but on the wish list would be an expansion in the UK capacity and capability for expeditionary airfield survey, repair and construction to support not only the F-35B but other aircraft as well.

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 1 (Introduction)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 2 (Dredging Up the Past)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 3 (The Promise)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 4 (Down to Earth with a Bump)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 5 (By Sea By Land)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 6 (Summary)

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