The US Navy has apparently stepped in loudly in the carrier issue, showing that they care about UK's carrier strike capability much more than even i expected. It seems that the assistant secretary of the US Navy, Sean J Stackley, has personally written a letter to Philip Hammond to make the case for CATOBAR conversion and for F35C order, ensuring that it will be responsibility of the US Navy to make the EMALS work, and, importantly, stay within a cost of 458 million pounds.
The cost of the work required to modify the ship to fit the EMALS kit is estimated at 400 million, giving a potential total cost for one vessel of 858 million pounds, near the lowest figure of the initial conversion cost estimate (which reported that cost would vary between 800 and 1200 millions).
This cost figure would fit the allocation of 950 million pounds that MOD officers said they could make in the coming planning rounds.
The problem of converting the second carrier, however, remains. And the uncertainty about the long-term cost implications of either airplane choice remain as well, with F35C training and ship costs being higher, while the F35B is burdened by the cost of its engine, by its higher initial acquisition cost and higher maintenance cost.
The question that remains unsolved is:
Is the cheaper and more effective F35C worth the high initial cost of converting the carrier(s)? Or the costs of CATOBAR and associated higher training penalty remove the advantage in the long term when compared to the more expensive B which does however not require catapults?
As i tried to explain in a previous article, an answer to the above question is not easy to get.
There is also another question that comes to mind, and it regards the conversion cost itself. From where did the sudden "2 billions" figure come out?
There are many possibilities. For sure, there's still a party of MOD officers and civil servants that believe that F35B, while more expensive to acquire, will cost less to run through life, due mainly to the expected training penalty associated with CATOBAR ops and to the ship's own costs inclusive of catapults and arrestor wires if a CATOBAR solution is chosen. This has been the feeling that guided the F35B selection in the 2000s.
The feeling is that the "STOVL" party, fearing future financial difficulties, might be trying to find high-effect reasons to oppose to the F35C, perhaps inflating the conversion cost figure. It wouldn't be the first time that cost estimates are played with regarding an Aircraft Carrier program: the ill-fated CVA-01 Queen Elizabeth, which lost out to the TSR2 (what a sad story that was as a whole...) at one point was given a pricetag that, it was then evealed, included 4 Type 82 destroyers as "defensive systems".
Talk about CIWS...!
It is about as fair as taking Typhoon and adding to its cost the well over 1 billion expense for Meteor, and the nearly 13 billions of FSTA, and perhaps the cost of running the Sentry AWACS fleet as well. It is clear that this kind of creative accounting is highly unfair, and deliberately misguides politicians in their decisions.
From the outside, it is hard to tell what exactly is going on inside the MOD, obviously. But the intervention of the US Navy might prove decisive. The Telegraph suggests that, after getting the US message, the prime minister has ordered the Treasury to direct an in-depth review of the costs forecast. They say that a report on the outcome of the study is due by April 16, for examination by the National Security Council on April 17.
It is clear that the CATOBAR solution brings the most political weight to the table, as british carriers with catapults would be welcomed by both the US and France. So CATOBAR is a political winner to start with.
The Telegraph goes farther, by saying that the carrier cooperation agreement in place with the US would see Prince of Wales built with additional and separated accommodations and communications fits, in order to allow a US Navy squadron to work from the carrier. They go, i suspect, way overboard by suggesting that there might be a "US carrier into a british one", with "US eyes only" communications. I believe it will be nowhere near as invasive.
But it is very likely, i believe, that an US squadron or mini airwing could exploit the british deck quite frequently. This would suggest that the british carrier, and to a degree Charles de Gaulle, are seen by the US as stopgaps, as helping hands available to fill all the deployment slots on the map. While the US are committed to maintain 11 carriers and 10 airwings, they do not quite deem them to be enough, and they expect to have to focus their attention on the Pacific and on the Indian Ocean in the future, but they do not want to gap presence in other areas such as the Gulf and the Middle East area in general, or the Mediterranean.
And in these two areas, the UK and France carriers would fill the gaps.
The situation is actually not totally new.
As it is, the US Navy is being required to have 2 carrier strike groups operative at all times in the Indian Ocean to support operations in land-locked Afghanistan, but sustaining a two-carriers enduring commitment while sending flat tops to all the other areas as well is proving immensely challenging, leaving the fleet and its men no time to pull their breath.
France has been helping in the Indian Ocean with Charles de Gaulle replacing a US carrier for some periods of time. When CdG joined the air operations over Libya last year, she was back from the Indian Ocean by less than one month, in fact, factor that had a big relevance in limiting to 132 days the time that the carrier spent on station for Unified Protector: after months and months at sea, for the carrier the maintenance time was by now approaching.
Going further back in time, the US had already experienced the carrier shortage issue at the time of the Vietnam war. Back then, the requirement was not for 2, but for 3 aircraft carrier groups in the area for 365 days a year, year after year, with no pauses.
And back then it was the british fleet that provided an helping hand: throughout the sixties, the big british flat tops Eagle, Ark Royal, Victorious, Centaur and Hermes deployed again and again as far as south west asia to plug the holes left open by the USN's huge commitment to Vietnam. They helped all the way until they were abruptly retired from service with the disgraceful "East of Suez" defence review.
Ark Royal, the last survivor, continued to help the US Navy by taking up the role of strike carrier as part of the NATO Atlantic Strike Fleet, which was intended to always field two flat tops. Ark Royal's presence left one US carrier free to head to the Gulf of Tonkin as part of the rotation of vessels to the Vietnam theatre.
Back then, the british carriers all had their own wholly british airwing, tomorrow they might carry a mixed airwing and sail in the Gulf of Aden, to allow one more US aircraft carrier to take position in the Pacific.
Will US pressure and assistance win the Royal Navy's case for converting Queen Elizabeth as well in the 2020s, during her first major refit? I certainly hope so, if the EMALS and F35C plan is confirmed, as i continue to envisage a two-carriers capability as vital.
Regarding the F35B, the Telegraph joins Gulf Times in shoving the B variant under a wrap of darkness, reporting that the americans might be really considering a massive downsizing of the USMC order for the STOVL plane.
I continue to doubt of this, also because the US Marines have massive political weight to help them make their case heard, but we will have to see.
Another thing that is not clear is wheter the Planning Round 2012 announcement, so far planned for Monday 26 March, will go ahead without the Carrier Strike bit to be added later, or if it all will be postponed further, past April 17.
Meanwhile, the European Union has extended the Atalanta Operation mandate, and now the ships involved in anti-piracy operations in the Somali area will be authorized to pursue pirates on land with air attacks or gunfire.
Due to the opposition of Germany and Spain, though, missile attack and insertion of ground troops are still no-no.
Will we see HMS Illustrious or HMS Ocean loaded with Apache sent to Somalia to strike at pirate havens...? Dave apparently was calling for it even before the Atalanta decision, after all.