Ellie McHugh analyses the tactical and strategic confusion behind the UK’s super-class aircraft carriers and the aircraft chosen for them
‘The airplane won’t amount to a damn thing until they get a machine that will action like a hummingbird: go straight up, go forward, go backward, come straight down and alight like a hummingbird.” – Thomas Edison
After much prevarication, the Government last week announced the purchase of 14 Lockheed Martin F-35B aircraft at a cost of £58m each (not including support costs). The MoD’s current intention is to purchase a total of 48 F-35s and fly them from the HMS Queen Elizabeth super-carrier which is currently being assembled at Rosyth shipyard.
There’s little point in re-opening the argument over whether or not the Royal Navy should be staking its future on one or two aircraft carriers and an expensive fighter/bomber which has yet to be tested in combat. The Harrier fleet is long gone and the Royal Navy lacks any meaningful air cover, so a replacement is desperately needed: and thanks to the last Labour government awarding these contracts for political advantage in Scottish shipbuilding constituencies, the MoD has no choice but to complete construction of HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales at a combined cost of £6.2bn.
Assuming the F-35B per-aircraft price stabilises at £58m – a substantial saving on the £159m the UK spent on each of the first three aircraft purchased – the total cost to purchase the fleet will be approaching £3bn, with support costs projected to be anywhere from £2.5bn up to £8bn over their service life. It’s possible economies of scale will reduce these if the projected 3,000+ F-35s eventually roll off the production lines, but the ongoing budget crises amongst other partner nations could potentially see the programme scaled back considerably.
If the F-35B were an excellent performer in any of the roles that are envisaged for it, the aircraft might be a reasonable investment. However the stealth features which make it so alluring to the RAF run counter to the robustness required for a ground attack or interceptor role, and as a VSTOL platform it’s considerably less flexible than its predecessor. Yes the computer software places fewer demands on the pilot, but at the same time its vectored thrust implementation is fragile and not suited to use in combat.
Indeed the software in the F-35 is itself a major concern. Opinion seems to vary on the overall complexity, but estimates range from 7.4m lines of code upwards. This is a lot of code, and according to a recent Pentagon report, it currently delivers less than half of the capabilities required. The UK is looking to deploy these aircraft for combat service in 2018 so there will be improvements before then, but the fact remains that the F-35B can’t fly without a very complex software package which may take another decade to finalise.
At best, 2020 will see the Royal Navy with two carriers in service capable of carrying 72 F-35s between them, with one on operational deployment. However if next year’s Strategic Defence Review goes badly, they may have only the one carrier, which means extended periods where they’ll have to fall back on alternative assets.
This may not be such a bad outcome. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are becoming increasingly sophisticated with relatively low cost, intercontinental ranges and no risk to human life, so it might make sense for the Royal Navy to explore the possibilities. Combat UAVs are also becoming practical with the RAF Taranis programme aiming to be in service in 2030.
It’s therefore quite possible that the future of naval aviation belongs to lighter carriers with a mix of short-range manned interceptors, helicopters and UAVs for reconnaissance and strike operations. A role broadly similar to that played by the Invincible class light carriers prior to their retirement.
So why are we spending £20bn again? Admiral Sir Alan West was made this very clear when giving evidence to the Select Committee on Defence in 2004:
‘I have talked with the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) in America. He is very keen for us to get these, because he sees us slotting in with his carrier groups. For example, in Afghanistan last year, they had to call on the French to bail them out with their carrier. He really wants us to have these, but he wants us to have the same sort of clout as one of their carriers, which is this figure at 36. He would find that very useful, and really we would mix and match with that.’
In other words this has nothing to do with the UK’s maritime priorities. I’m glad we’ve got that sorted.
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