How difficult will it be for the UK to rebuild its fixed-wing naval carrier aviation capability after almost a decade’s absence?
[caption id="attachment_4537" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Rendering of the CVF future carrier. Note it is the pre-SDSR design with ski-jump ramp. "][/caption]
The publication of the UK NAO’s report on Carrier Strike, overshadowed as it was in the British media by other news, confirmed what many observers had suspected – that the decision by the MoD to switch from the Lockheed Martin F-35B to F-35C JSF, may be a lot more complex and costly than it was presented last year in the SDSR. Only one carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, (the second to be completed) is currently to be modified with catapults and traps – what will finally happen to the first CVF, HMS Queen Elizabeth is still unknown at this point.
Not only that but the UK may be facing an entire decade without its fixed wing carrier air power – the capability that was the ‘crown jewel’ of the 1997 SDR, supporting the commitment to expeditionary warfare, with the UK forces to act as a 'force for good'.
The report also noted that with only one carrier and with a minuscule air wing, its availability will only be 150-200 days a year – a fact the French have already discovered with the Charles de Gaulle. This, according to the NAO, is likely to reduce the number of daily mission rates by two-thirds.
But the real surprise was in the tone of the language used – with the NAO bluntly saying “the National Audit Office could not understand how those factors were brought together to enable the MoD to reach a judgment on value for money” – given the complexity and imponderables involved in changing the specification.
The MoD’s Permanent Under Secretary, Ursula Brennan, meanwhile fired back that: “I am concerned that the NAO has taken the unusual step of publishing this report without agreeing the final text with me, as Accounting Officer, as required by their own guidance.”
[caption id="attachment_4539" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Highly unlikely now that we will ever see this for real."][/caption]
But let us look at the positives first. The switch to F-35C (though angering the USMC who have seen their old Harrier allies leave them battling for F-35B), has swapped the innovative (but more risky) STOVL variant to a more capable, more cost-effective version that some critics believe should have been chosen originally. The MoD says that the changes to the Carrier Strike will deliver some £3.4bn of savings over the next decade – effectively putting the overbudget programme back on track and saving it from complete termination.
However, there are still other key issues that have received lower attention in considering both the expense and complexity of the SDSR decision and, in regenerating a carrier strike capability after a full ten years. Let’s take a look at them.
Wither OAEW/MASC/Crows Nest?
[caption id="attachment_4540" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Hawkeye was ruled out before - but could a 'cats and traps' carrier put it back in the game? (Northrop Grumman). "]
Notably missing from the Carrier Strike report was any mention of MASC (Maritime Airborne Surveillance and Control)
or the UK’s Organic AEW for CVF – (now rebranded as ‘Crow’s Nest’). Learnt through bitter experience in the Falklands War the Royal Navy’s shipborne AEW (and control) is now being provided by the Sea King Mk7 ASaC
(Airborne Surveillance and Area Control) – which has also been used in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – almost as a mini-JSTARS to find and track overland targets too. It will thus be a crucial C&C node on the CVF battlespace in the future - coordinating and controlling the F-35s in carrier defence and offensive operations, over the horizon.
However, for CVF, the elderly Sea King ASaC was planned originally to have been replaced by a new organic AEW (OAEW) platform, which has since been renamed MASC and now Crows Nest. Initially choices were between the Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye
, an EH/AW101 Merlin
(potentially with an inflatable/rotating radar bag) and even a V-22
AEW version. However, the V-22 idea fell by the wayside due to cost – whilst the E-2D, (although privately the choice of many in the RN AEW community who coveted its longer endurance and higher operational ceiling compared to a rotary-wing) was rejected when the F-35B was selected and ski-ramp chosen as the preferred option.
So with ‘cats and traps’ now back in vogue – does that mean that the Hawkeye has a second chance? Possibly – but it is a concern that nothing substantial has been heard about the programme for quite a while – it merely being stuck in low-level studies limbo – apart from Merlin-based concepts floated
by Thales/AgustaWestland and Lockheed Martin in 2010.
The organic AEW capability will not come cheap – yet it will be crucial to deliver a carrier strike capability, and protect the fleet. Critics may point to the Type 45 Destroyer escorts and JSF’s own radars as providing enough surveillance capability – but as the Sea King ASC has demonstrated in Iraq/Afghan, the MASC would be more than an AEW fleet defence platform.
[caption id="attachment_4541" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Thales/AgustaWestland have put forward this Merlin based AEW proposal for the Crow's Nest requirement. (Thales/AgustaWestland)."]
The danger is, with very low visibility that instead of being seen as an essential part of networked, digital-era carrier strike – it is now being seen as an ‘optional extra’ leaving ancient Sea Kings to stagger on beyond 2020s or even be deleted entirely. But if the MASC/Crows Nest project is axed on grounds of cost, then this will have an effect on the capability and the usage of the CVF in the future.
Culture & currency
[caption id="attachment_4542" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="The VSTOL Harrier allowed a smaller, more flexible air wing to pack a bigger punch. (MoD)"]
Second, the switch to the C variant – although making sense for a naval strike fighter – also brings questions over the future of the UK’s ‘joint’ maritime fixed-wing strike community. Officially it is still held that the JCA or F-35 will be flown by pilots from both light (ie RAF) and dark (RN/FAA) – decision for the ‘B’ STVOL variant that would have mirrored the Joint Force Harrier (JFH).
The flexibility of the Harrier was that with ‘minimal’ additional training, pilots from JFH could deploy to either land or ship bases – without the long workups and carrier qualifications needed to hone skills for a fixed-wing ‘cat and trap’ aircraft. Though flying the Harrier was regarded as needing the most highly skilled pilots – recovery to a ship was greatly simplified by the ability to stop, hover and then land vertically. As one Harrier test pilot has been heard to say: “It is easier to stop and land than land and then stop.”
With F-35B, this (still) tricky task would have almost been ‘de-skilled’, with the aircraft’s advanced flight controls ‘inceptors’ and fly-by-wire system allowing almost Playstation levels of ease of use – so much so that even a clumsyaerospace journalist could plonk the STOVL variant on the deck first time in a simulator. Indeed, the sortie generation rate that STVOL provided was a key driver in deciding the original size of the air wing (50+) and thus carrier size and tonnage.
While the F-35C is easier (according to test pilots) than many current fighters to fly – it is highly likely that C pilots will still need to practise the intense skill set that carrier landings demand – which as a training requirement consumes a fair amount of flying hours.
So the question is: if F-35C means increased carrier training and skills requirement and the force becomes more dark-blue in hue – will RAF pilots still want to go to sea for longer periods of time? How will the division of sea/land base time be handled? Naval fighters, operating in land-based air forces,(for example Canada/Spain/Finland’s F/A-18s are nothing new) – but the switch the C model threatens to open up new wounds that the JFH had largely dispelled – especially in the wake of the bitter turf war around SDSR
An additional factor is the airframes themselves. With fewer hours to spread around the fleet, no two-seat versions – the hours and fatigue may quickly rack up just on carrier qualifications. It may be that the UK may need to buy T-45Cs Goshawks (or more likely) plug into the USN training pipeline in order to first train up and then even maintain currency. It may also mean adopting USN standards and procedures wholesale for JCA – due to the cost of training pilots.
[caption id="attachment_4543" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="A smaller F-35C force means that repeated deck landings cannot be spread wider around the fleet. (Lockheed Martin) "]
Thus it seems we have gone for fewer numbers of a more capable aircraft – that really should be operated in larger airwings to deliver maximum punch. Fewer aircraft also removes the possibility of a split buy between RAF (A model) and RN (C model) ensuring that both RAF and RN are unlikely to be fully happy with the outcome of a cats and traps ‘joint’ fighter.
It’s not just pilots
[caption id="attachment_4544" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Aircraft handlers work in one of the noisest, most dangerous places on Earth - the flight deck. (MoD)."]
Finally rebuilding capability is not just about the pilots – although their training tends to be the most expensive and time consuming. For a modern carrier needs a wide range of specialist trades, from armourers to electricians, avionics techs, ATC/ fighter controllers, and support personnel – dedicated to keeping the airwing operational. With a potential nine or ten- year gap looming – how will retention and recruitment cope with this gap? One obvious answer might be, like aircrew to place certain key personnel in exchange posts with allied carrier nations– the US and France being obvious examples. While the US has the benefit of a common language, it is possible that the UK could use its new Anglo-French ties to ‘call in a favour early’ and place extra personnel with the French Navy.
[caption id="attachment_4545" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Pushing airframes around on a dummy deck for 10 years may not aid retention. (RN)."]
However, it has to be remembered that a decade is a long time to ‘hibernate’ a capability as sophisticated and skills dependent as this.
[caption id="attachment_4546" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="The F-35C naval variant under test. (Lockheed Martin)"]
The NAO is right to draw attention to the complexity SDSR changes to Carrier Strike. Hibernating such a complex capability for almost a decade brings unknown risks and expenses into the equation. As the NAO itself summarises: “There are major risks reconstituting Carrier Strike capability after a decade without it”. It may be, for example, that after a decade without carrier strike – (and the world not ending), the UK Treasury may argue that it is not really needed – especially if the cost of rebuilding this capability becomes more than expected.
Perhaps the Treasury will point to the AAC Apaches, now flying from HMS Ocean
over Libya as the future of ‘carrier strike’? Furthermore, the selection of the F-35C JSF – raises questions over which service gets primacy over it. Is it a land-based aircraft that will occasionally go to sea or a carrier based aircraft that goes ashore? The increased training burden this imposes means this cannot easily be solved by sticking a ‘Joint’ sign on the aircrew mess.
Finally the strategic elephant in the room (or perhaps in this case a better analogy might be a blue whale in the swimming pool) is the affordability of SDSR itself. As the NAO warns: “SDSR is unaffordable unless there is a real terms increase in defence funding from 2015 onwards”. This is at the crucial juncture when the decision whether to convert the second CVF carrier to cats and traps is taken. Delay, dithering has already led to cost rises – now further changes and the dire economic situation mean that the UK’s carrier strike force may be a shadow of the 150+ JSF force strong, two carrier fleet that was planned in 1997.
[caption id="attachment_4547" align="alignnone" width="253" caption="Hawker Sea Hawks parked adjoining the angled deck area on board HMS Ark Royal during operations in the Mediterranean. March 1957 (RAeS/NAL Photo)"]