Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Spot the differences!

The heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force have been giving evidences on the impact of last year's defense review to the parliamentary defense committee, and in particular the RN and RAF heads have been providing some interesting considerations. They make for an interesting comparison exercise.

Naturally, admiral Stanhope expressed all his concern for the long gap in carrier strike capability and said that retaining HMS Ark Royal and its fleet of Harrier strike aircraft would have been his top priority if the government's strategic defense review and associated four-year defense spending plan could be revisited.

Admiral Stanhope and Air Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, the chief of the Air Staff, were asked by the parliamentary defense committee member whether returning the Harrier force to service had gone beyond the point of no return.

Dalton said it had. No hesitation. The RAF does not want the Harrier, but the Tornado, and the rest does not matter.

But Stanhope responded that while Dalton's statement was correct, he would "like to think that should a decision [be made to reassess the Harrier force, we could], look again. It all comes down to money." Stanhope indicated he would not oppose resurrecting the Harrier force if possible and if money was made available to support the aircraft.

Rumors have often come out in the last month about a plan (apparently backed by Liam Fox as well) to pull back out of the mothballing around 20 Harriers GR9, from which to sustain a single squadron, available for deployment from HMS Illustrious, that while officially roled as LPH remains Harrier capable. This would preserve the UK's ability to answer to the unexpected and mitigate the effects of the long gap in jet operations at sea.
40% of the RN Harrier pilots community has been shelved, and a part of the RAF own personnel has also been made redundant, but a single squadron should be perfectly sustainable (if money was provided, of course). Spare parts could come from cannibalization of the around 67 GR9 airframes that still exist. 

But while the Navy is eager to offer its support, the RAF is not. One has to wonder WHY? Fear of competition? Are cost-comparisons between Carrier ops and Tornado ops from Gioia del Colle true, and are they seen as a menace by the RAF? 
"Black Buck"-like raids coming from afar and at the cost of hundred thousands gallons of fuel against Harriers going back and forth from close to the shore, is this the nightmare of Dalton? 

It is cruel to even think about it. Yet, one truly can't avoid thinking it. 

I do not have evidence of the cost of Libya's ops, but the MOD has released a couple of articles that, while praising the exceptional work of the personnel working on the logistics of operation Ellamy to make the whole campaign possible, provides food for thought: 

To date (May 10, 2011) , in support of Operation ELLAMY, 2 Mechanical Transport (MT) RAF Squadron personnel, based at RAF Wittering, have travelled the equivalent distance of eight times around the world and transported 1,680 tonnes of kit down to the airfield at Gioia del Colle to support 906 Expeditionary Air Wing.

In the hours following the passing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, 2 MT Squadron personnel who had been deployed to support Operation Southern Mistral (a flying exercise in Nancy, France, involving Tornados and French Mirage fighter jets) were rerouted, and the equipment, carried in a 20-vehicle convoy, taken south.

A second convoy of 21 articulated lorries was rapidly readied back in the UK with kit collected from RAF Coningsby and RAF Marham, and the convoy left from 2 MT Squadron's base of RAF Wittering on 20 March 2011, six days after the first convoy left Nancy.


I do not know how much it can cost to drive trucks across Europe for the equivalent of eight times the travel around the world, but i think it must cost. A lot.  

Besides, it is not enough. It is evident that trucks are slow. And the requirements of an air strike campaign are massive and continuous. And in fact there's more to Ellamy than just trucks, as the official pubblication of the Defence Equipment and Support DES reports (page 20 of the linked page): 726 tons of kit and 848 personnel had to be airlifted urgently to Gioia in the opening phases of the redeployment, and regular airlift flights continue, with personnel trying to work on a schedule to allows the already overstretched cargo fleet to comply with both Libya and Afghanistan at once. There's no telling how many planes are being chartered, but many were already required for Afghanistan in itself, notoriously. 
But this is not enough, as the Defence Fuel Group has been called in, too, to deal with the need of buying fuel for the operation and ensure it arrives in Gioia del Colle.  

Everyone can think about it, and pull conclusions. I have reached mine. Time will (hopefully) tell us a definitive cost for Ellamy, and that day we'll see. 

Back to the Committee hearing: Stanhope said the Royal Navy is faced with the task of regenerating the carrier force in the latter half of the decade as a new aircraft carrier and the F-35C fighter become available. Rebuilding an aircraft carrier force around 2019 could only be done with the assistance of allied carrier operators France and the U.S., he said. Such a program is now being developed, Stanhope said.
Three Fleet Air Arm pilots are already flying F/A-18s with the U.S. military to help maintain British capabilities. A fourth is due to move to the U.S. soon, he said. 

More will have to follow, and at some point, perhaps from next year, deck personnel will have to deploy as well: the UK is looking at sending personnel both on Charles De Gaulle and US carriers. The RAF will also have to start sending in pilots at some point.

Britain is building two 65,000-ton carriers, with the first entering service around 2017 and the second scheduled to be ready around 2019, with Carrier Strike capability restored in 2020. The F35C should hit RAF IOC in 2018/19. 

The defense cuts saw the government commit to only operating the second of the warships as an aircraft carrier.

This phrase I evidenced: it comes from the article of DefenseNews,  and while it is not clear to me if it indicates the current line of thinking of the MOD/government (officially, the decision on which carrier to refit, and if both are to be kitted, is expected next year) or if it is a deduction of the journalist, it finds me and many others totally agreeing. Kitting HMS Queen Elizabeth, as I have already explained in other posts, would require a delay in the whole CVF building timeline, and thus cost increases) and would require early beginning of the additional payments necessary to buy wires, catapults, redesign and other components. This would add considerable pressure on the MOD budget BEFORE 2015, the expected end-date of the budget crisis. It appears unlikely that money can be found in the next few years to fund the conversion unless someone is cut.
The most likely scenario is QE finished as LPH and Prince of Wales (or Ark Royal if it truly gets renamed) kitted as strike carrier, with QE kitted out at the first refit, six or so years after the entry in service. This, of course in the best case: the risk of QE staying only helicopter-capable is very high, and the mothballing option has not yet been completely ruled out either.

Stanhope of course made it clear that Britain would have to operate two carriers nonetheless (even if only one at a time would have planes on board and strike role) unless it wanted to follow the example of France, which could only get its single carrier, the nuclear powered Charles de Gaulle, operational for five years in every eight. The remainder of the time is devoted to maintenance and workup, he said.  And on this, too, i totally agree. 
Besides, with HMS Ocean not going to be replaced and Illustrious going in 2014, the RN would go down to a single flat-top for both roles, which would result in long periods without carrier AND without LPH as well.

The Harriers were operated jointly by the Royal Navy and Air Force, and the plan is to do the same with the F-35s. In his evidence, Dalton denied the RAF had any ambitions to take over the role of the Fleet Air Arm on the Navy carriers (evidently someone in the Committee has my same feeling and has advanced the fateful question!), and said a 60-40 split in favor of the Air Force had already been agreed to between the two services.

Oh. Oh. 
60 – 40. Why it does not surprise me? Original plan was 50 : 50, as with the original plan for Joint Force Harrier, another plan in itself that was NEVER respected. My doubts, (and most likely those of many others inside and outside the Committee) just get stronger and stronger thanks to this kind of declarations of the RAF.

Only reassuring news, Dalton said the carrier would start operating with a single squadron of F-35s and eventually work up to three squadrons, its full carrier wing force. This seems to suggests that a 4 Squadrons F35 world is still the long term target, because there’s no way in hell that the whole fleet can be embarked without at least a Squadron/OCU staying back, unless another all-out Falklands effort is launched. (for the Falklands war, even the Sea Harrier OCU squadron took to the sea, in fact)

A fact remains: people wonders why so many have grown suspicious of the RAF’s moves. Well, this is the most recent answer to that question. 

The RAF does not want things... but takes them all the same.  

The whole hearing can be seen in a video here


  1. But you are missing the point about the French angle

    The second CVF will be sold to France at cost to replace CdeG and the UK/France will operate a joint carrier force, taking turns to cover the refit periods

    The reason for the split by the way is because the FAA would have trouble manning anything less, as it did with the Naval Strike Wing

  2. It is possible, but i do not think so.

    The carriers will be operated closely with the French, and that's for sure. But i fatigue to see a UK government going in parliament and facing the press and the public over selling an expensive, new british aircraft carrier to France... and then fly planes from it as guests.
    Ugly day, was it to ever happen. The old UK would have eaten alive a prime minister envisaging something like this, and i don't think today's UK would be much happier.

    Second, it is even less probable that France buys a CVF to replace CdG. At the most, they would PAIR it with CdG.
    From dreaming a PA2 to retiring early the pride of their fleet to put in service a british built ship that they deemed too slow when they bought the design is a hell of a stretch.

    As to the FAA having trouble to man the squadrons... i don't think you really believe to that bull, TD. Seriously. Look me in the eye and tell me if you really believe to that.
    Joint Force Harrier is not a suitable comparison, as there were many good reasons for the problems it had.

    If tomorrow it was mandated that the F35 squadrons had to be RN, the FAA would put up its recruiting for them, and i totally do believe that plenty of people would join, just as in the past when the FAA was a great force.

    The "trouble manning" the Harrier force was due to lack of funding, lack of appeal in joining a squadron which was going to have NO planes most of the time, unless the RAF gave the pilots something to fly, lack of time due to the commitment in Afghanistan, and lack of training capability since pilots from the Harrier OCU had to regularly go to Stan to support the effort there.

    Just as now the Typhoon training is being slowed down by trainers flying frontline missions over Libya, but worse. And I might also suggest that people was probably not really eager to jump onto the Harrier train, which has been constantly under threat of cuts, at low or high risk depending on the moments, for the whole time from 2006 onwards. How many times has the Harrier fleet been offered for cuts? There was just no security at all in entering the community with the risk of being out a month later.

    The FAA "impossibility" to man 3 squadrons of fast jets is due to them being denied the chance to do so. It is not realistic to say that people would not want to join the FAA but only the RAF. Particularly if they were given fair economic conditions of service, plenty of people would join.

  3. The FAA have always struggled for manning, I doubt they could man the numbers required. They couldn't man all the slots they said they could in JFH, they were lent personnel to assist and Culdrose when they short of manpower. I think this is more a case of cutting the cloth to suit. Don't forget flying is merely an adjuct to the navy, in an inter navy battle for money, they will only be one winner, and it won't be the faa.

  4. All services, RAF included, go short to requirements in some areas. But NOT in such a way that they are not capable to do what they have money available for.

    The Sea Harrier FAA fleet hadn't serious manning problems. And the last catapults-kitted Ark Royal had not struggled shaping up her carrier wing. Your "always" goes down, once more, to 801 NAS in 2007 as part of Joint Force Harrier. And i keep underlining that that is not a reliable evidence.

  5. Well when the FAA say they want 33% of the posts, but then say actually we only manage 25% it's stil an indicator, whether you believe it reliable or otherwise, but no matter.

    What about Culdrose? Why the need to send RAF personnel to assist the FAA there?

  6. I don't know of any RAF personnel in Culdrose save for the ones who work at the common Merlin Depth Mainteinance Facility, those who go to RN School of Flight Deck operations and others who attend the base for the most various reasons. If you have different evidence you can share, you are welcome.

  7. It was about 2004 when there was an uplift in maintence requirements for merlin. There was a rapid requirement for personnel to work in the servicing hangar and again in the engine bay on the same unit. Personnel sent down there, plenty from training sometimes entire courses were posted in a oner. They were posted down there, which isn't that unusual as it's joined manned (but I'm not sure how joint it was then). It was more the nature and speed of it. The FAA couldn't find the people, so the RAF provided the manpower.

    A similar thing happened at Whattisham with Apache on introduction.

  8. And this would be a reason to use against the FAA? I believe you and take it as true even without evidence, but i still find it a bit weak as argument.
    As it is the equally old argument about shortages of Apache pilots. It was only last years's forces pay review that finally thought about giving Army Apache pilots the same kind of scalable pay which rises in the years and makes the career attractive, as for RAF pilots.

    You can hardly blame AAC pilots for retiring to go piloting civilian aircraft, with the way they were/are paid and with the requirements put on them. Why staying in the army, under-paid, when civilians helicopter operators pay a lot more and offer a less dangerous and stressful career?

    The RAF had the same problem, and adapted pay for countering it, and even offers civilian pilot training at the end of the career as an incentive to complete the time in the force. Things improved. They will improve for Apache too.

    Ultimately, if the service, whatever it is, it is given the funds it needs to step up recruitment, it can do it.
    Otherwise it can't.
    If there's no money to pay the pilot, there's no way you can recruit him.

  9. No I don't have any evidence per se, just what I saw, if you find it weak so be it. I can only write what I know and see.

    I'm not refering to Apache pilots, but to groundcrew again. On introduction there was a shortage of experienced AV Tech/Survival Equipement Fitters to assist with the introduction of the aircraft. The REME couldn't/wouldn't provide them. A notice for volunteers went up.
    For the AAC/REME it was the most advanced bit of kit they introduced in a long and had problems they had issues with a lack of suitably experienced personnal so they requested help the RAF assisted them by sending FJ experienced personnel, as by all accounts it was a similar level of complexity.

    Once the REME were upto speed and the problem was over they returned to normal RAF postings.

  10. Then if tomorrow the FAA goes out helping the RAF for something... it becomes legitimate to call for the merge?
    I do not think so.

    But if the RAF once in a while helps the other services, if is the case to suggest merges or take-overs either, don't you agree?

    Instead, it is done constantly.

  11. No I don't think so either.

    I'm sorry I don't understand your second or third paragraph.

  12. I meant that just because the RAF has provided or provides assistance to AAC and FAA, playing down the AAC and FAA or suggesting their merge into the RAF is not correct, and it simply makes no sense.

    Take 5 Army Cooperation Squadron of the RAF. 330 men, 110 of them Army. A good third.
    It is a successful collaboration, and it can continue this way.

    Carrier ops are another thing. I once put forward the provocation of pulling the RAF into the FAA... but the actual point is that i do believe that carrier aviation is and should remain a navy affair. While the RAF has embarked on carriers in several occasions, it just does not seem to work well enough.
    And that's what bugs me the most, actually.

  13. Right I see, no I agree with you, it wouldn't nor should it happen. I think my general point was that the RAF was more capable of filling gaps in manning and if needed is more than willing to listen to requests for assistance from the other two services and meet those requests.
    It's not all the RAF trying to take over morning noon and night.

    'While the RAF has embarked on carriers in several occasions, it just does not seem to work well enough.'

    At odds to my knowledge, but what makes you think that? In what why does it not seem to work well enough?

  14. I believe the experience in Sierra Leone in 2000 was particularly not positive for what i've heard.
    In the Falklands, RAF pilots fared well, but were not... at home. They did not exactly like working on the carriers, and differently from the RN personnel who knew exactly what to do even when on board of the ship, RAF personnel was kind of "clumsy".

    The main worry is, though, that RAF personnel deploying on the CVF would have to either completely broke their deployment harmony guidelines, or be substituted at the end of the first 3/4 months of a easily 6 month deployment at sea.
    Another worry is that the RAF, even with the Harrier, has not been really diligent in keeping its pilots carrier capable, even though they were officially capable to go on ships.

    In part it was Afghanistan's fault, of course... But the number of RAF pilots cleared for "All Weather" carrier operations was ridiculous, and close to zero at some points.

    If this is allowed to happen again... well. It will be like not having a carrier at all, while still paying for it.
    It would be horrible.

    Besides, cats and traps ops will demand more attention by the RAF for operations at sea, since even with the most modern technology, carriers landing with wires are really complex.

    It is not promising.
    If the F35C ends up operating from land bases most of the time, acting as a Tornado replacement all along...

    carrier qualified pilots will be very very rare, part of those that are there might be capable to work efficiently only in daylight and with good weather, and when the carrier strike is really really needed...

    Pants down the legs.

    It scares me.

  15. I'm sure they weren't quite at home, who would be in an alien environment but they stil performed quite well.

    As part of JFH, I think the amount of people aboard from all services were quite low, but some people did enjoy it some didn't, from both services. I believe at the end of JFH some raf had more sea days than the FAA! But no matter.

    They will probably change or brake the guidelines, they did when JFH so no reason to think they wouldn't in the future.

    I've no doubt they will mainly be from the land, there simply won't be enough bought to keep one sqn onboard at all times and act as the GR4 replacement. It's default location will probably an RAF station and then deploy to the carrier. If you can only do one land or sea full time, you would choose land simply because of cost. Outside war fighting it's cheaper.

  16. Actually, no. Joint Force Harrier worked to RAF guidelines in Afghanistan, so that the 800 NAS made 4 months tours like their RAF counterparts.

    The 800 NAS also went on the carrier (at times without planes, though, and US and Spanish and Italian Harriers were invited on board...) in addition to that, though.

    Last time the RAF embarked on a carrier was probably for a short deployment in 2008 or so.
    And it the last before that had been in 2003.

    No good.

  17. Plenty did rotate through more often than they should have, with 4 month tours, the gaps between were shorter than they should have been.

    I'm sure that as an 'RAF' sqn you are right, but don't forget the sqns were mixed manning, with this, things are not quite so simple. Some got quite a few days in on the boats.

    Although I think we've been here before, I know quite a few exJFH and what sort of times and lengths of deployments were.
    But I don't want to get bogged down in that, whatever your view point it's all water under the bridge now.

  18. I watched the recording of the interviews, I think you've taken it out of context. Read the whole transcript, it's not quite so black and white as you imply


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