Thursday, November 24, 2011

End of an Era; start or another?

Negotiations between the UK and the US have concluded, and the fate of the whole Harrier fleet is now signed. Out of the 74 Harriers stored at Cottersmore, two will be retained to be gifted to UK's aviation museums, while the remaining 72 are going to the US, along with their spare engines, for 110 million pounds.

A true bargain, for airplanes with life still in them and maintained in flyingworthy conditions, no matter if, as the US lately started to say, they won't be operated by USMC pilots (contrarily to what they said earlier) but just cannibalized for spare parts. Even as source of spares, at 110 million pounds they are little short of a gift.

These 110 million pounds should be in addition to an earlier deal, worth some 50 million, for the whole stock of spare parts, but at the moment it is not entirely clear. If 110 million was the total, well. Holy hell. US officers must be real awesome at negotiating.

The only certainty is that this truly does mark the end of an era in the UK.

The Harrier era. 

An Harrier GR9 flying over Afghanistan, with the typical Afghan warload of the type: 2 Paveway IV bombs, 2 x 19 shots CRV7 rocket pods, 2 external fuel tanks, SNIPER targeting pod and Joint Digital Reconnaissance Pod.

What is planned to be the F35 era is beginning now.
November 20 saw Lochkeed Martin rolling out of factory the first UK F35, a B model, destined to test and development trials. Named BK-1, it will be delivered to the UK in the new year, but will mainly, or perhaps exclusively, undergo ground and flying tests in the US. 

Two more F35Bs are on order for the UK test fleet, but at least the third is going to be swapped for a much more useful F35C, since that's the variant that now has the UK's eye.

BK1 roll out

The F35 is at risk, like pretty much every other Pentagon programme, due to the failure of the cross-party supercommittee in Washington in trying to reach an agreement over the plan for public spending cuts to apply in the next few years. This much feared event technically gives the go-ahead to an automatic, dramatic freeze in government spending that, if implemented, would hit the Pentagon like a sledgehammer, due to 50% of its value having to come from the spending voice "National Defence", which is made up, in value terms, 96% from the Armed Forces.

Of course, political action has already started to find a way around it, and the F35 is actually pretty safe. Cutting it would have disastrous military, economic and political consequences that pretty much rule the option out. But of course, it is a situation to keep under watch all the same.

Of less immediate interest, the F35B ran into trouble, again. VTOL operations have been stopped after worrisome cracks were discovered in the VTOL Lift Fan components, after 18 days of operations at sea aboard USS Wasp. The problem (in theory) was actually expected, and a differently designed component is already present on the fifth experimental F35B, BF-5, and on the new ones being built, included BK1. BF1 and BF2 have had their flying enveloped restricted. BF3 has not yet developed the cracks, due to having flown less hours.

It is not the only issue. The whole F35 test fleet has had some teething problems to correct, and probably there will be more too (hopefully, though, not too many and not too serious...!), but the F35B is especially complex and vulnerable, and has been plagued by an endless list of issues, some of which have been fixed, some no (like the 14-inches shorter weapons bay compared to the other two variants, which limit the internal carriage capability to 1000 lbs bombs, against 2000 lbs planned. The weapon bays had to be shortened as part of ample modifications in the 2004/05 period, connected to severe overweight issues). 

The F35B, which is on a 2-years probation period, made progress, though: three of the five propulsion system glitches have been fixed, with the remaining two expected to be cleared by February. A cracked bulkhead discovered in durability tests last November has also been redesigned.

The F35B is critically important for the US Marines Corp, so i expect it to survive and avoid cancellation as well. But this does not cancel the fact that the issues left ahead are many, and the B variant is, effectively, the less capable in terms of range and payload, and the most expensive. 
The move to the C variant might well be vindicated if things continue on this path. 

In the meanwhile, the UK has also presented its preliminary request for long-lead items, worth 200 USD millions, for the (first of two, hopefully) EMALS set destined to the national Strike Carrier, almost certainly to be HMS Prince of Wales, despite the government refusing to confirm anything before late next year.

The latest round of Parliamentary Answers contained the confirmation that the government, in agreement with the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, stopped some elements of build work related to the STOVL design, such as the ski jump. It is expected that the removal of the ski jump will be captured in a formal amendment in early 2012, and further changes arising from decisions on conversion will be captured in 2013. These changes involved no contract cancellations and no penalties.

To date, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has spent around £13 million on investigations into conversion of the operational Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier. The MOD has approved expenditure of up to £48 million for study work on conversion up to the end of March 2012.
Costs for the remainder of our investigations—to December 2012—remain under development and are due to be considered by the MOD approving authorities in February 2012.

Conversion cost for one carrier was put by the NAO at a minimum of 800 millions and a maximum of 1200. The MOD's own figure is not disclosed, but apparently sits in the NAO-delimited field. The money is being allocated for the programme, starting from Planning Round 11. 


  1. The value of the Harriers is an interesting one, it's so hard to judge the value of them. There is no real precident for them, so it's hard to judge who got the best deal.
    I know the jags when they went for about 25k as scrap to museums etc. But even with that it's no real guide. I guess if both sides were happy then it's the right price.

  2. Not trying to look to deeply into this but £110m+£50m = £160m or $250m (approx).

    So could this be some sort of budget balancing by the MOD? We sell the harriers and and spares for $250m and buy long lead EMALS systems for $200m

  3. I don't know, honestly. It might even be, but considering that we are talking of 72 planes that could be put in service in a matter of days, along with operational spares, it still feels like a small amount.
    It would have still been a balanced deal if the total cost of the EMALS kit (200 millions are only part of the cost of the total system, total might well be 400 millions or so) was "covered" by the US buying Harriers.

    I don't think it is worth thinking too much about it, anyway.
    I just hoped some more money would be recovered, but the MOD had little space for maneuver: keeping the planes in the hangar would cost, destroy them would also cost. And the only realistic buyer could only be the USMC, so... there wasn't much room for negotiating.

  4. It would be longer than a few days, anti det prep and deprep is actually pretty long process. I guess that fact that they want them as spares reduces the value to the USMC they will have to pay to start a RTP program.

    True they were the only buyer, but we were only the salers with what they wanted in the numbers they wanted. So they were in a bit of a corner as well.
    Having thought about it, it's probably about right money wise.


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