This is the first part in a series of reports on the current state of the Royal Navy. This part focuses on the expeditionary tool of the Royal Navy’s future force; the aircraft carrier. The second entry discusses the Future Surface Combatant and the effectiveness of modular versus “hardwired” vessels.
Earlier this year, public interest in the reforming of the Royal Navy was highlighted by the order for two aircraft carriers to be constructed by the “Carrier Alliances” of BAES/VT planned Joint Venture, Thales, Babcock and BAES. The news was controversial. Many wondered why aircraft carriers were needed at all, let alone two each displacing some 65,000 tons and approaching the size of the US Navy’s Nimitz class carriers. The carriers would be bigger than the current largest in European waters; the French Charles De Gaul and considerably larger and more capable than the RN’s current Invincible class carrier.
Arguments were abound; the money could be spent on civilian infrastructure or dealing with the financial crisis. Were carriers even needed now that the threat of the Soviet Union had disappeared and Russia was perceived as “no threat”? How could huge surface vessels help solve problems in places like Iraq and the landlocked Afghanistan? Now the intent of this article is not to defend the carrier par se, but I shall maintain that the decision for carrier capability (the ultimate modern expression of modern military power, and the finest expeditionary tool for foreign policy in the new security climate) was not only a good one but somewhat essential for both Britain and the Royal Navy.
However, the construction of the vessels themselves brought forth new problems. The main weapon of the carrier is the air flight. The aircraft. Since the Battle of Midway in the Second World War, the carrier has been the supreme naval instrument. Its air flight can obtain air superiority over land and sea, deciding large conflicts, but also they can protect a fleet on the move, project force inland over vast ranges, and assist in all manner of operations short of war. However, for the “Lilly-bet” class this was a problem from the start. The scandalous conduct of the Royal Air Force/Farce in procuring the splendid Eurofighter Typhoon jet fighter has caused some consternation. The plane cannot be converted to be capable of carrier-born operations and since the Fleet Air Arm lost its proper fighter capability to the RAF, it is the only fighter plane the RAF wants to fly. The unholy trinity of Royal Air Force, Ministry of Defense and British Aerospace have successfully grafted the Eurofighter to British defense. Very well, it is an exceptional air superiority fighter, but it cannot be put on board a carrier. This means it cannot fill the now long-empty boots of the RN’s old warhorse the Sea Harrier or for that matter the RAF Harrier (Which weren’t fighters anyway). The F-35 Lightning II was chosen to be the aircraft of choice for the air flights. However the road was far from clear.
The Eurofighter was ordered on an allied project with three other European nations sometime back before your correspondent went to school. Due to various problems with working with a host of other companies and BAE’s usual problems, it only arrived in service in 2004, officially. It has been so long in development that its questionably if it can stand up to the test of modern combat. Due to its expected deployment the Sea Harrier (the only British aircraft to shoot anything down in living memory) was pulled from service, and along with it the capable but aging Jaguar “bomber” jet which was a fine ground attack vehicle. The Eurofighter propaganda says that it’s a multirole fighter capable of ground-attack but the software apparently doesn’t allow it. The F-35 was designed and built in a sensible amount of time for a professional air-force (we’ll say nothing of the “Air National Guard”), it is a highly capable and deadly system perhaps the best in air-to-air operations (though it must be said that the Eurofighter has given it a run for its money) and it can hit things on the ground as a superb ground-attack vehicle.
So, the F-35 was decided as the fighter of choice to chuck off the carriers but this decision has been gone forward and back on since the beginning and its getting to the point where the MOD are even turning on their chums the RAF and BAE. Further foolishness is apparent when one considers even how this brilliant craft was going to be “adapted” for British use. There are three variants of the F-35 planned/in production/service: The US Air Force version which is a highly capable air superiority platform in its own right and will keep Ivan at bay; the US carrier version, which takes off using a catapult and a straight runway from US craft, a very sensible design of deck configuration; and the third version, machinated perhaps by BAE’s presence on the project, which is somewhat tailored to small carrier requirements.
However, after previous projects “altered” for British use, the Americans are reluctant to hand over anything to Rolls Royce as they’re one of the only British defense companies who know what they’re doing and can stick an RR engine in an F-35 which would put even the American versions to shame and could then be mass produced and sold to anyone who wants a carrier-born aircraft but hasn’t got a big enough ship. This is due to the design of the carrier’s deck; a ski-jump system with no catapult or arrestor wires like on a US ship. This means that the British version of the F-35 would require something of a STOVL (short takeoff Vertical Landing) capability, not a big deal, as there’s three variants in at design level. The aircraft would take off from a short ski-jump runway and then would be able to “hover” down onto the deck much like the famous Harrier. This decision is very much an inheritance from the days of Harrier. Despite the size of the Queen Elizabeth class allowing a straight runway to be built, some slack jobsworths couldn’t decide at the time what plane was likely to be put on it so they stuck with what they knew and fortunately for them, it seems BAE has chummed up to the US industry to be a principle partner on the subject. If BAE can use their position to get the RR engines into the STOVL F-35B — the only engines which will work on this version it must be pointed out — then perhaps some loose ends can be roughly tied up.
The expenses mount though as one considers that all that would be required is a reconfiguration of the Queen Elizabeth class deck (a provision already well catered for) and the adoption of the US carrier variant capable of using catapult and arrestor wires. Whilst the F-35B and current deck configuration will do, it seems to be a lot of horsing around making new problems when there was simple solution: Copy the yanks, it’d be cheaper.
Things worsened. In October the Times reported that the second carrier was to be converted to a rotary-wing carrier, a sort of assault ship similar to the current HMS Ocean. The paper said that this was due to the cost of maintaining two wings of F-35 fighters, one for each carrier. HMS Ocean needs replacement urgently. There have been times when this civilian-quality half-measure was flooded with fuel in the engine rooms. However, does this mean that the second carrier would be converted to replace the Ocean or provide something like it? It’s unlikely. The necessary alterations would rack up an astronomical bill. Corridors would need to be widened, dockits for assault boats put in place, perhaps even larger docks, command and control facilities for over four separate commands, larger aircraft lifts for troop transport helicopters, and this is just the beginning. The costs to convert the vessel would end up more than building and running the original. What is more, the plan was to have two ships. One to be in refit while the other was on service with the one air-flight. This rules out conversion based on the cost of two wings. What’s more likely is that in an emergency the second carrier deploying from refit in the emergency, would field a force of F-35s either on loan or “spares” for the first carrier. Worrying, but better than the expected alternative. What is more, reliable sources inform your correspondent that it would be too expensive to cancel the second ship anyway, even now, before her hull has been laid.
Just last month The Guardian reported that India is expressing an interest in purchasing the second ship which may be sold off under government sale.
Either selling it off or converting it still leaves the Royal Navy with one carrier and what is worse President Sarkozy of France offered the prime minister the option of working with the French navy to maintain a ship at sea between the two states. In other words, the French carrier would be in refit while the Queen Elizabeth would be at sea, and vice versa so that the other could be “borrowed” in an emergency.
The move will leave the navy without a carrier when the Queen Elizabeth goes into refit, leaving open the possibility that it might have to borrow one from the French navy. In a meeting with Brown last year, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, had suggested that refits of French and British aircraft carriers should be coordinate.
While it’s a bit depressing and yet comical that the Royal Navy and French Navy, perhaps the world’s oldest service enemies, would have to coordinate their carrier options, it also makes little sense. The Guardian article above said that the French did not want to purchase any more carriers, which seems strange as they had ordered a third carrier of the Queen Elizabeth class. This would leave them with just the Charles De Gaul, which is nuclear powered and a danger to be on. British crews would have to have a lot of retraining to use the propulsion system and features on board the French carrier and likewise for the French who would not be used to the large fuel turbines on the Queen Elizabeth.
The upcoming Strategic Defense Review, will give us some clearer understanding of what the future has in store for the troubled project. What is certain is that a Conservative government would be under the same constraints as a Labour one and from where the Navy must be standing the rock and hard place analogy is applicable concerning the two parties. Controversy continues around public spending, particularly on defense with the tired refrain of “helicopters and body armour” is still echoed in the broadsheets and the tabloids on the Afghan campaign.