Wednesday, March 21, 2012

F35B, F35C, rethinks, weaponry, costs and the difficult choices - UPDATED

In the "re-rethink imminent" climate we live into in these days when the subject of conversation is the F35, i found it amusing to see that the RAF website, in a show of prudence which makes me smile (but also think), avoids to detail which F35 variant will fulfill the JCA requirement. For their website, it is only the F35, or Joint Combat Aircraft. B? C? "We wish we knew!" the website seems to answer.  
The Royal Navy website is more courageous and reports of the C variant, at least after the relatively recent website redesign and upgrade. Not that it means much anyway.

I've already exposed my thinking on the possibility of an U-turn back to the B variant.
Financial reasons and the need for two carriers, not just one, combine to make me say that, yes, we need to get back to the B variant, even though the C is far better (more weight growth margin, 7.5 G limit instead of 7, considerably greater range, full size weapon bays and higher available payload with stronger hardpoints for heavier weaponry, even though the C, due to its greater sizes and connected drag is expected to be a little bit slower, possibly stepping shy of meeting the Mach 1.6 max speed requirement) and, in isolation, cheaper to buy and run. Unfortunately, the cost of the plane itself is only a component of the complex picture of carrierborne operations, and converting the carriers to cats and traps and regenerating the associated skills is now projected to cost way too much.

I don't have anything new to add on that reasoning for now. It stands so long as the 1.8 / 2 billion conversion cost figure is not challenged and brought back to an amount that allows the conversion of both CVFs.
But i'm not confident, at this point, in such a good news ever arriving, so it must be B.  

I will instead cover in this article a number of other updates and considerations about the F35, the differences between B and C, and about the UK's national requirements.


The F35, regardless of variants, comes with 11 weapon stations/hardpoints, of which 4 are internal. 

Stations 1 to 11. In the detail, 1, 7, 5 and 11 are hardpoints for Air to Air missiles, with 1 and 11 able to accommodate Rail launched weapons, while 7 and 5 come as Ejector stations. The B variant has weight issues connected to STOVL requirements, and its stations 10, 8, 4 and 2 have a capacity of 1500 pounds, against 2500 for A and C. The weapon bays of the B variant also had to be shortened by 14 inches to fit the lift fan. Luckily, stations 9 and 3 retain 5000 pounds capacity, enabling Storm Shadow carriage. Station 6 at first will only be used for the gun pod, but there are already ides for possible future uses, which include a laser weapon or a radar pod with AESA arrays on the sides, giving the F35 possibly a 360° radar view like an AWACS.

The "missionized" gunpod for the B and C variant is stealth, and does not compromise low observability. The gun is a GAU-22/A four-barrel 25 mm, and comes with 220 ready rounds in an helical feed system. Only the A variant has the internal gun assembly, with 181 rounds available.

As the above image shows, the disadvantage of the F35B is not just in the weapon bays being 14 inches shorter than on the other two variants (a problem that only relatively affects the UK, since it never adopted the JDAM. The Paveway guidance kit, bolted on a bomb, is very cumbersome compared to a JDAM kit, so that not even the 1000 lbs EGBU-16 fits the weapon bay anyway), limiting it to the 1000 lbs JDAM while A and C can carry the 2000 lbs variant.
The B's disadvantage is that weight issues limit the useful payload of the weapon hardpoints to 1500 lbs instead of 2500 for the other two variants.
On the F35, regardless of the variant, there are only two "wet" pylons capable to take external fuel tanks, and those two are the inner external pylons, which also are the only ones capable to take Storm Shadow, so that it is a straight choice: or Storm Shadow or additional fuel. You can't have both.
Israel is already thinking about conformal fuel tanks to mount on the fuselage, however, so this might well be the solution in the future. The Typhoon has the very same problem, and is heading for the very same solution, after all.  

At the end of the SDD phase, with the Block 3 software release in 2015, the F35 will enter service with the following weaponry integrated (of UK interest):

- ASRAAM, 2 internal and 2 external [the second couple might be actually available only later, it is unclear at the moment] 
- Paveway IV, 2 internal. External carriage?  
- AMRAAM [the UK is planning a transition to the Meteor, however, starting in 2015. Will the AMRAAM still be relevant at all to the UK, or will it have already left service by the time the F35 arrives?] 
- Gunpod [the RAF website puts it into the "potential future armament" list, though. Are we going to see yet another ridiculous attempt of saving money on the gun just be end up regretting it (Harrier GR9 and Typhoon)?] 

This image shows the F35 and the weapons that have influenced the requirements for the airplane. The weapon systems evidenced by the pinkish text are to be integrated fully by the end of the SDD phase, which means being available with the Block 3 software, scheduled for 2015. The other weapons are to follow, being integrated in later software releases. Meteor, for example, is notionally expected by Block 5, which could arrive in 2020. Brimstone and Storm Shadow were expected by Block 4, around 2017/18, but the requirement was cancelled, and now the date of integration is unknown. Please note that ASRAAM in the "external carriage" section is not evidenced: it could mean that external carriage of the missile won't be available in time, and will only arrive later. Which is weird, because integrating ASRAAM on station 1 and 11 should be the easiest and fastest of tasks. 

Requirements exist for the future integration of Brimstone and Storm Shadow, but the date for their addition to the F35's arsenal is uncertain after planning round 2005 saw Storm Shadow and Brimstone (external carriage, specified the NAO report of that year, leaving the hope of an internal-carriage Brimstone integration with software block IV) integration sacrificed, saving 386 million pounds. They were planned for clearance with the F35 software block IV, now their integration roadmap is unclear.

Planning Round 2006 saw the UK F35 losing the requirement for SDD (Block 3 software, or 2015 according to today's plan) integration of internally carried Brimstone (a saving of 41 million pounds which killed the hopes left after the previous year's decision. When will Brimstone be integrated, now...?), the deletion of requirements for Paveway II and III integration (just 1 million according to the NAO: ridiculous) and the second pair of internally carried ASRAAM missiles (-49 million pounds). The ASRAAM is going to be cleared for use on all three F35 variants, and is going to be the only short range, infra-red AAM to be carried inside the F35's bays: the Sidewinder 9X will only be cleared for external carriage. The UK initially planned to have 4 ASRAAMs carried internally, with two on the "Air to Air" hardpoints, located on the inside of the weapon bay's doors, plus 2 mounted on the two internal "Air to Ground" stations.
Integrating the ASRAAM on the Air to Ground harpoints was going to be expensive, and it would have required a particular trapeze to be fitted to the hardpoint. The trapeze would swings down clear of the F-35's weapon bay and the ASRAAM would then rail-launch. A rather complex challenge to tackle, just for carrying two short-range AAMs. The exercise was deemed too expensive and not cost effective, so the second couple of ASRAAMs will be integrated on the external pylons 1 and 11, in a far more straightforward work. 

A study of the complex trapeze launch rail that would have to be developed, validated and integrated to allow internal carriage of an ASRAAM on the bay's AirGround hardpoint. Who the hell came up with the absurd requirement for 4 internal ASRAAMs? Unsurprisingly, the requirement was abandoned.

The impact on the stealthness of the plane is assessed to be minimal for the ASRAAM, while the pylon itself is much more substantial a degradation in low observability: a "stealth" pylon was ventilated, at one point described as already designed, but actually by 2009 Lockheed Martin spokesmen confirmed that such a development has not been funded, and when the F35 will carry external ASRAAMs, the pylons used will be standard ones, and will consequently increase the airplane's radar cross section. It is not entirely clear at the moment if the external ASRAAMs will already be available with Software block 3 (planned for 2015) or if it will follow later on.

It would also be interesting to know how much the ASRAAM-lust is costing in total, because the ASRAAM integration issues are not over yet. The ASRAAM is a rail-launched missile, which fires its engine and shots forwards off the rail, like Sidewinder. Meteor and AMRAAM can be rail launched, but can also be dropped like bombs, with the engine igniting after launch. This feature is indispensable for launch of AMRAAM and Meteor from the 4 underfuselage weapon stations of the Typhoon, and from those of the earlier Tornado F3. It is a feature essential to use of the AMRAAM from the F22's weapon bays. And it is essential to use of the missile on the F35. Integrating AMRAAM and Meteor on the Air to Ground hardpoint is easy because the missile can be dropped out of the bay. ASRAAM cannot be dropped, so it needs the trapeze swinging out.
Problem is that the Air to Air station inside the weapon bay's door is also an ejector, not a rail. No problem for dropping a Meteor or AMRAAM, but no rail-launched weapon: the very reason why the US are not bothering trying to integrate Sidewinder for internal carriage.

The RAF instead is. While they are not funding Meteor integration, which would be more straightforward and far more useful, they are wasting money in finding a way to fire an ASRAAM from a non adequate hardpoint. I've no details on the solution chosen, but we can exclude that the missile is being modified to be droppable, otherwise the requirement for 4 internal missiles would still be standing. Besides, the NAO report specifically says that existing ASRAAM missiles are to be used for integration work and trials, so the modification is plane-based, not missile-based.
So, while this is speculation, i believe it is 99% safe to assume that, thanks to the small diameter and tiny fins of the ASRAAM making it possible, some kind of rail is being designed, specifically for use with ASRAAM on the bay door hardpoint.

As a standard, the F35 internal hardpoints come with pneumatic ejectors that literally "push" down the ordnance: dropping it and letting gravity do the job won't work as it would never give the bomb or missile the velocity required to pierce the boundary layer and get out of the bay without hitting anything.We are talking about a 40G accelleration, so it is not at all a mean feat as it would at first seem.
Most ejectors in service today are pyrotechnic, but the F35 uses safer pneumatic systems. The company building the F35 pneumatic ejectors, EDO, already produces the LAU-142 AVEL vertical ejector for the F22 Raptor's weapon bays. For the F35, they are developing the nuLAU-120 (Internal) and nuBRU-30 (external) systems. An old, but interesting overview of EDO's works and components for the F35 is available here

An AVEL pneumatic launcher arm (extended) with an AMRAAM missile. This system is fitted in the F22's weapon bay.

I have no idea of the cost of integrating ASRAAM in this system of systems. Hopefully it is not too great an expense, but i can't help myself. I just have to ask why this is being done at all when with comparatively less problems there could be a firm commitment to Meteor integration, with ASRAAM cleared for external only.
I hate bringing these suspects up, but i just can't avoid noticing that ASRAAM is the self-defence weapon for Tornado GR4 and would have eventually been adopted on the Harrier GR9 as well (the GR9 upgrade was never completed due to the early retirement of Harriers, which as a consequence were still using Sidewinders when they have been grounded). These are the airplanes the F35 is replacing... but that leaves the Sea Harrier out of the picture.
Yes, that Sea Harrier that, first airplane of the UK's history, carried and employed AMRAAM with its excellent Sea Vixen radar from which the Typhoon's CAPTOR was derived. For a good few years, the Sea Harrier was the best air defence weapon system that the UK had, and the finest defensive weapon the Royal Navy ever had. It was killed early, and now its successor is not being given the weapons it needs to replace the capability: if Meteor is not integrated, and the AMRAAM arsenal of the UK is retired from service as planned, the F35 will be no more armed for anti-air tasks than an Harrier GR9, a Tornado GR4, or an ancient Sea Harrier FRS1.
For the fleet, that would be a bad, bad news, and an expensive and effective multirole airplane, the F35, would be raped into a one-trick bomb truck, with the sole Typhoon armed for air defence.

Start to see what my suspect is...?  
I hope to be proved wrong in due course, with AMRAAM carried regularly as long as it is in service, and with Meteor later integrated.
On the subject of operations in Libya, the First Sea Lord honestly recognized before the defence committee that:

Using Libya as an example of the need, or not, for aircraft carriers can lead you to some false assumptions. If we had had a carrier with Harrier capability, as we used to, I suspect we would have used it as another option, and it might have been reactively tasked in some circumstances. But, let us be absolutely clear, it could not have provided the effect of Tornado with Brimstone and Storm Shadow. At that stage, Harrier was not capable of embarking those weapons. We would have had to have used the same effort to achieve the same effect. Of course, we had the advantage of local air basing rights and overflight rights, so we could position strike capability from Italy to be embarked into Libya. It worked—and it worked splendidly.     

Never mind the fact that, when the time was ripe to kill Sea Harrier, both Brimstone and Storm Shadow were part of the GR9 Harrier upgrade.
Brimstone and Storm Shadow and Paveway II and III are all currently not funded for F35, but at least the first two weapons are (quite) firmly planned for later, so this excuse "tomorrow" should not be present.
I wouldn't want the Meteor to be used to create tomorrow's excuse; i don't want to hear about a Typhoon deployment justified by the fact that "at that stage, Lightning was not capable of embarking the Meteor".
Even less i want to see the fleet damaged by the lack of proper air cover. 
Luckily, MBDA is aiming for export orders, and doing most of the job on her own for ensuring that Meteor gets onto the F35 system: my hope is that, if things get dire, the Royal Navy funds the Meteor integration work itself, even if the airplane is RAF owned. Hoping that they do have the chance of doing something like this in the "joint" framework created in 2000.
Considering how things went with the Harrier, i'm not quite at ease.

End of the bitter suspects section, anyway.

A simple photo of the F35 weapon bay shows why the AA station on the door is not a rail launcher but an ejector: if the AMRAAM was shot forwards from its position, the fins would impact into the door's structure!

At entry in service, as seen above, the F35 will not have much in terms of teeth, as the Typhoon before it, because of constant cutting on the list of national requirements.
However, for the future, Meteor, Storm Shadow and Brimstone are all options/plans, and the F35 will have a lifecycle based on 2-year periods with regular upgrades between them, and Block IV and Block V software releases should come soon and offer the possibility to integrate more weaponry (such as SPEAR Block 3 for the UK, in addition to Storm Shadow and the others, but also the JSM for Norway and other weapons systems already in development specifically for the F35, for example in Turkey). Who followed my link to the RAF website will have noticed that Brimstone is not mentioned, but this should not be source of worry, since Brimstone Dual Mode is a UOR, and the long-term solution, Brimstone 2, constitutes the SPEAR Capability Block 2. SPEAR in this case also means Brimstone.
Brimstone 2 has been revealed in the last few days by MBDA, and could hit service as soon as next year. The improvements include insensitive munition [IM] rocket motor and warhead, improving safety of storage and handling, and other improvements to airframe and software. The missile is expected to offer a greater range, a more capable seeker expanding the engagement footprint and a more modular and accessible body design to simply maintenance.

Targeted specifically to future use on the F35 is also the SPEAR Capability Block 3. This is to be a weapon system for internal carriage, with "multiple" bombs/missiles fitting each bay. The weapon is in the 100 kg weight class, and in the "100+ km" 75 miles range class (possibly up to 180 Km). Not much is known for the moment about this weapon system, but MBDA presented in 2010 a "Capability 100B" concept which would consist of a bomb rack similar to that of the US small diameter bomb, carrying 4 missiles similar to a miniaturized Storm Shadow.
Each weapon bay could take a rack, for a total of 8 such missiles carried internally.
It is a stated requirement that these missiles must be able to strike "moving, mobile and relocatable targets".   
Another possibility is a missile derived from the FASGW(H) Sea Skua 2 being developed for the navy Wildcat helicopter.
A very notional in-service date is 2017, but don't put bets on it.
Whatever comes out of it, might end up being so similar to the US Small Diameter Bomb II to be an effective duplication. Buying directly the Raytheon SDB II, selected in 2010 as winning design by the USAF  isn't good enough a solution? It can do all what is asked of the SPEAR Block 3 and would piggyback on the money of the US, including F35 integration costs. 

A Raytheon SDB II on its rack. 3 more bombs complete the loadout of the station. The folded wings and three-mode seeker (Laser, Radar, IR-imaging) are evident. SPEAR block 3 requirement could be met comfortably by this weapon system, and i'd gladly abandon the SPEAR 3 development effort for the SDB II. MBDA could better use development funding and energies to try and give the Meteor a passive radar homing capability, making it a suitable anti-radar missile, excellent replacement for the ALARM. Would be a much better solution, in my view.

SPEAR, acronym of Selective Precision Effect At Range, is the main "catch it all" program for the modernization, development and acquisition of weaponry for the Royal Air Force. It comprises 5 capabilities, if there haven't been yet unannounced reductions in scope.

Capability Block 1 is thought to cover developments to the Paveway IV: the options are many. An initial upgrade package could include a weapon data link, upgraded antijam GPS guidance, a reduced-yield warhead and a wing kit. The wing kit would expand the range by allowing the bomb to glide for many kilometers. The reduced yeld warhead would reduce the weight of explosive by up to one half and reduce fragmentation effect, for use in heavily urbanized areas where low collateral damage is paramount.

More importantly, there is interest for a bunker buster warhead. This could come out from joint UK/France studies being conduced by MBDA on the HARDBUT (HARD and Deeply Buried Target next-generation multiple warhead system).
It is likely that a new bunker buster bomb will use a larger warhead than the current MK82 500 lbs one of the Paveway IV, but ideally the guidance system would be the same. Such a bomb would be an ideal replacement for the EGBU-24 Paveway III with BLU-109 warhead, last used in Libya by Tornado GR4 but, at the current stage, not planned for integration on the Typhoon nor on the F35. The EGBU-24, when used against "soft" targets is fitted with the 2000 lbs MK84 warhead.

An infrared imaging seeker addition to the Paveway IV is also a possible future development, enabling the bomb to pursue and strike moving targets. Other bombs with this technology have demonstrated that it is feasible to strike vehicles moving at over 100 kph.

Capability Block 2 as we said is the Brimstone 2, and we have already seen Capability Block 3 as well. Capability 4 is about the mid-life upgrades to the Storm Shadow, once more a collaborative effort with France. Upgrades would focus on a two-ways datalink enabling in-flight retargeting, improvements to the imaging seeker, that would be able not just to confirm the "identity" of the target comparing it with images stored in memory like it does now, but that would send imagery back to the launching plane prior to the impact. An extension in range is also a possibility, but it is likely that we'll have to wait up to 2025 before the upgrade is effectively carried out. 

Capability 5 could entail a collaboration with the Royal Navy, not just with France, as it is a notional requirement for a future long range cruise missile, supersonic, that could well coincide with the RN's hoped Harpoon replacement. MBDA is doing the first studies for this program, and has unveiled the mach 3 Perseus concept. Of course, we are looking at 2030 here, and anything could happen in such a long time. At five meters long, the Perseus goes close to the Storm Shadow sizes, but is said to weight only 800 kg, against 1300. The modular warhead space could allow rapid re-tasking of the missile by fitting a different lethal mass for the mission at hand, from a ship-killing package to a bunker-buster penetrator.    

SPEAR, in its current form, leaves uncovered at least a couple of roles: a medium-weight bomb to replace the EGBU-16 Paveway II in the long term and an anti-radar missile for replacing Alarm. There also does not seem to be much thought about a future replacement for the 2000 lbs Paveway III/MK84. The best solution would be to adapt the Paveway IV guidance, fuze and tail kit for different warhead sizes, so that the existing MK84 could simply be bolted to the newer guidance kit. It is, after all, the philosophy that the Paveway system has always followed.
The EGBU-16 (the E stands for Enhanced, and means that the Paveway laser kit is supplemented by a GPS system), with the 1000 lbs MK83 warhead, is the current main weapon of the Typhoon and can be used by Tornado. Typhoon received the weapon, along with the possibility of mounting a target designating pod, with the CP193 (Change Proposal 193) an UOR launched by the RAF in 2006 to give the Typhoon tranche 1 "austere" ground attack capability, at a cost of some 76 million pounds. Under CP210, an effort ongoing right now, the Typhoon of UK and Saudi Arabia are to get the Paveway IV bomb, by this summer, even if the RAF currently plans the in-service date for PW IV on the Typhoon in September 2013.
Saudi Arabia has already placed a consistent (457 USD millions) order for Paveway IV bombs (first export success for the weapon) but the situation is stalled by ITAR laws of the US: unfortunately, the "british" Paveway IV is filled with american components, and this is currently an issue as the US are opposing the transfer of the bombs to Saudi Arabia, despite having themselves sold to the rich arab country pretty much everything they could, from F15E to Apache.

By the way, did you know that the F35 is a possible future tactical nuclear bomber? Documents of the USAF budget request 2012 include a page about the nuclear requirement for the JSF: the weapon bays of the A and C variant are sized in a way that will make it possible, in the future, to carry 2 B-61 nuclear warheads on the internal AirGround stations. Not of direct interest for the UK, but interesting nonetheless.

Carrier operations

Planning Round 2007 saw the addition into the SDD budget of activities for the Ship Borne Rolling Vertical Landing recovery method, necessary to counter the insufficient F35B vertical bring-back weight. Without SBRVL, the F35B returning to the carrier with unexpended weaponry would have to drop the weapons into the sea, and with the cost of modern weaponry this is unthinkable. 55 millions were spent in-year, and many more followed. SBRVL activity was stopped in October 2010 with the switch to the F35C, saving 31 million pounds in year. Amusingly (not) a SBRVL contract with LM had been signed in the first two weeks of October 2010, as a further demonstration of just how last minute the Harrier scrapping, STOVL-abandoning decision was. The SDSR came out October 19, 2010!
If now there is a re-rethink, the return to the B variant will mean re-establish funding for SBRVL activities, no ifs: SBRVL can easily gain the F35B an additional, precious 2000 pounds of bring back weight, and this is important.  

As of 2011, the most recent MOD data available reports that the initial planned force elements at readiness for the F35 fleet will be 10. These are expected to be available for the date wanted by the MOD, but such date is classified and not spelled out.
Naval Iinitial Operating Capability, expected in 2020, is for 6 fighter and carrier-current crews at Readiness level 2 (2 to 5 days notice to move). By 2023, the carrier is to have a full squadron of 12 as air group.
The "initial 10 force elements" at readiness might be a target for 2020, with the 6 carrier capable airplanes part of the total, but this is speculation on my part. It was once expected that a land IOC would be achieved by 2018, but 10 force elements at readiness so early on in the program are unlikely to be achieved due to the very small numbers of airplanes that would be in service by that time, if not because trained pilots won't be much more numerous in the beginning. In terms of airframes, consider that the Tornado GR4 fleet is expected to generate 18 Force Elements at readiness with 96 airplanes in the fleet by 2015, and it generated 40 FE@R when the fleet numbered around 140: the F35 is intended to be more available, but it won't do miracles.
The Harrier GR9 had a FE@R target of 10 in 2010, when the cuts in the previous year had brought the fleet down to just 32 airplanes. They had earlier earlier sustained a FE@R of 18, with a fleet of around 70 to 62  airplanes. [Remarkably, from official figures it emerges that it takes up to 5.3 Tornado GR4s to have one at readiness, and between 3.8 and 3.2 Harrier GR9s to have one at readiness].

Of course, the age of the airframe matters in determining availability, as does the training cycle: the Harrier and Tornado fleets both sustain an OCU in addition to the frontline strength, while for the F35, as of April 2011, there won't be (at least initially) an OCU (with a saving estimated at 40 million pounds in reduced support costs). This means exploiting the US F35 training center and its resources, minimizing the number of airframes the UK needs to commit to training needs. It appears to be a measure taken with the switch to the C variant, but there is no real reason why US training couldn't be exploited for the B variant: france naval pilots, but even italian navy Harrier pilots, are formed in the US regularly. The Italian Harrier fleet order, in fact, included just 2 twin-seat airplanes and 16 single seats, a very small fleet which could hardly have been sustained with the big burden of training needs eating airframes and personnel.

Pilots and maintainers of the F35 will be formed on Eglin Air Force Base, California, US, where a huge training centre bringing together USAF, USMC, US Navy and industry is starting to operate at regime in this very period, with full operating capability expected for 2013. Personnel from the partner nations in the F35 program also will converge here for their training.
In the UK there will likely be simulators on the Main Operating Base, and a number of container-mounted deployable simulators will be also purchased, one of which will practically always be found on the aircraft carrier. In due time, a small OCU flight (not a whole squadron) could be added to the single, large frontline squadron, as anyway Air Vice-Marshal Greg Bagwell, RAF's Group 1 commander, suggested in an interview in late 2010. This could be it for F35 training, and it should allow for better utilization of funds and of airframes.
Nonetheless, i think it is prudent to assume a ratio of 3/1, so a fleet of 30 airframes to have 10 at readiness. With this ratio, in theory, a fleet of 50 would ensure a FE@R of 16, covering the requirement for a 12-strong squadron embarked.

The B variant has not met originally expected take-off run values, and has Vertical Bring Back Weight issues, but in 2011 the F35B flew 333 times, and 268 of the test flights ended in successful vertical landings, proving the maturity of the propulsion system at least. The need to do rolling landings will require quite a bit of deck cleared and available, so that a good slice of the F35B advantage of enabling easier simultaneous jet and helicopter operations on deck is gone.
The C variant, which is the last of the three planned to achieve in-service status (IOC not earlier than 2015 for the US Navy), flew 165 times, but as is by now well known, it evidenced issues with the arrestor hook, which far too frequently fails at catching the wire. A redesign of the hook is already ongoing, and the US Navy expects to resume land-based wire trials by the end of the second trimester of the current year, with the first landings on a carrier at sea still planned for 2013. LM is confident to meet these dates, and solve the problems: they probably will, but it could be a very bad news if they failed to solve the problem just by redesigning the hook. If a major aiframe redesign proves necessary, the blow to the program, to timelines and costs will be terrible.
So we must honestly say that, at the end of the day, both airplanes aren't as perfect as we'd like, to say the least.

Costs and production

I've already dealt with this subject recently, so i suggest reading also this article, if you haven't already.
Here i will expand with additional data i've gathered up.

Following the delay by the US to the acquisition of 179 F35s in the period from 2013 to 2017, the current schedule of US orders for the fiscal period 2013/2017 includes:

166 F35A
41 F35B
37 F35C

If the UK returns to the B variant, the US Navy and USMC will be the sole buyer of the C variant, with 340 airplanes planned (260 Navy, 80 USMC). The B variant is to be acquired by USMC (340) and Italy (number to be confirmed. After the reduction from 131 to 90 F35s, the number of F35Bs that Italy could buy go from a maximum of 30 and a minimum of 15).

Costs are almost impossible to even estimate properly, at the moment.
Low Rate Initial Production lot 5 (LRIP 5) was launched with a contract signed in December 2011, albeit downsized from a planned 42 to 30 airplanes: 

21 Conventional Take Off and Landing (CTOL) aircraft for the US Air Force;
6 Carrier Variant (CV) aircraft for the US Navy, and
3 Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft for the US Marine Corps.     

A first Long Lead contract was signed in May 2010 for the provision of engines for the LRIP 5. The contract was worth 138.8 million dollars, of which:

51.3 million for 22 F135 engines for the A variant
65.6 million for 13 F135 engines with Vertical Lift system for the B variant
21.9 million for 7 F135 engines for the C variant

Note that the above contract is for parts and components, not for the whole engines. 19% of the work involved by this contract went to UK industry.

In July 2010 Long Lead orders for airframe parts followed. 522.2 million dollars of value for parts destined to 42 F35s, of which 22 A, 13 B, 7 C. 20% of the work is assigned to UK industry.

In December 2011 came the final order for the LRIP 5 manufacture. As mentioned, the number of airplanes was in the meanwhile reduced, cutting 1 A, 7 B and 4 C from the list. The order was worth USD 4,011,919,310. The contract also includes the acquisition of "associated ancillary mission equipment and flight test instrumentation for those aircraft, and flight test instrumentation for the United Kingdom."
The UK instrumentation accounts for 4 million dollars.
9% of the work involved in the LRIP 5 main contract is to be done in the UK.

The order for the engines, of which we already listed the first Long Lead part, was completed with a contract modification in December 2011, total value USD 1,122,306,649. 16.5% of the work involved is to be done in the UK.
Of this total, 520,650,335 dollars cover the US Air Force order for 21 engines for the A variant.
387.1 million cover the USMC order for 3 F35B engines.
166,710,445 USD cover the US Navy order for 6 F35C engines.
A further 47.8 million dollars come from the International Partners. The order covers the acquisition of the engines and the "production non-recurring effort, non-recurring autonomic logistics effort and recurring sustainment effort for the U.S. Services and Cooperative Partner Participants."

This gives a total unitary cost for F35C engine of 27.8 million USD;
24.7 million unitary cost for each F35A engine;
129 million unitary cost for each F35B engine;
which might be higher still, for all three, depending on how the Long lead order is to be counted in the total. I've left the Long Lead order value out of the above figures, personally.

The difference is massive, and if this is anywhere near the final cost of the engine plants, it is very worrisome.
A full analysis of the costs has been done here, by's experts. If they are correct in their methods of calculation, the unitary costs of the LRIP 5 F35s work at:

F-35A: 172 USD million per aircraft;
F-35B: 291.7 USD million per aircraft;
F-35C: 235.8 USD million per aircraft.

However, according to specialized aerospace and military magazines here in italy, the US DoD puts the unit recurring fly-away cost of the F35 as of 2013 at:

F-35A: 118.14 USD million
F-35B: 156,79 USD million
F-35C 142,63 USD million

This cost includes the engines, but leaves out the "non recurring" costs, which probably are made up by expenses tied to development and testing and associated needs and kit. That would fit the cost of the F35B in the 90 to 100 million pounds cost that the MOD prays to meet.

In 2010, the 3 F35B that the UK ordered for the test and development campaign in LRIP 3 cost 389 million pounds, then 632 million dollars, or 210.6 million dollars each. Again, the expense included no doubt non-recurring voices of cost tied to development.
Not good to see the costs going up instead of going down: as of now, the F35, be it B or C, is far more expensive than the MOD would like it to be and LRIP 5 are apparently more expensive than LRIP 3. However there is no way to know how much impact the non-recurring development costs are having on the figures, so estimating a production price is difficult. LRIP 5 is said to include sizeable money for development and bug-fixing work: indeed, the US DoD said that it was reducing the airplane buy from 42 to 30 exactly in order to provide more money for development activities. 
Consequently, LRIP 5 is not very indicative of the effective prices of the airplane.

We can say with pretty much 100% certainty that any airplane the MOD orders before 2016 is going to cost a lot, anyway, with the cost to drop afterwards, hopefully quickly, as development ends and full production kicks into gear. 
The difference between the B and C variant is also very substantial, at 55.9 million dollars, some 35.2 million pounds in today's money, with the LRIP 5 figures. 
Over 50 airframes, that works out at 1760 million pounds, making the decision even harder, as that is nearly the cost of converting a carrier if we are to believe to the current rumors.
If there really is a long term ambition of buying 100 F35s, the long-term saving could still make attractive the Cats and Traps solution. 
With the figures from the US DoD as reported by the italian specialized press, however, the difference goes down to 14.16 million dollars, changing the picture considerably. 

Cost is expected to go down consistently already with Block 3 F35s, from 2015.
As a term of indication, Japan has committed to buy 42 F35A from 2015, but the price on their contract is 118 millions per each Fly-Away airplane, rising to 126 million dollars per plane when spares are included, so there is still hope for the prices to go down, and current prices are not a reliable indication about those of tomorrow. A 118 millions fly-away price is realistic if seen through the DoD figure of 118.14 millions in FY2013.

Nonetheless, the UK, to have airplanes flying by 2020, if not by 2018, will have to order a share of airplanes already next year as part of LRIP 7 unless there's a delay to the current In-Service dates. Ordering next year requires committing funding to long lead orders this year, so that making a final choice is not only difficult, but urgent.
The F35 orders in the LRIP phase see each year the signing of the go ahead order for an LRIP lot, and the signing of Long Lead orders for the LRIP to be launched the next year: this year, for example, LRIP 6 contract will be placed, and there will be Long Lead orders for LRIP 7, which will be given the go ahead in 2013.
These planes, ordered early on, will cost more and will need further money to be retrofitted and upgraded to full specifications over time. The expense for airframe of said refit will be something between 5 and 10 million dollars according to current estimates (LM and DoD).

The difficulties of choosing

The main problem with the B is the engine: judging from LRIP 5 contract, a single STOVL propulsion plant comes at 129 million dollars or more against 27 for the engine of a C. The vertical lift powerplant, of which the F135 engine is only a part, is a main source of cost and, undoubtedly, it will claim mainteinance hours and spare parts as well.

The airframe and wings of the C are more expensive than the airframes and wings of the other two variants. Still, the unitary price of the airplane does not reach the F35B's own.
However, the F35C is part of a system that includes deck guidance lights and systems, catapults, arrestor wires and associated machinery and parts, and that requires additional deck crew, additional specialized officers and additional training.

The question is: what is more expensive in the end? The horribly-expensive F35B, which however comes with the least expensive ship configuration, ship crew and aircrew package; or the F35C, which is cheaper to buy and maintain through life, but requires the most expensive ship, shipcrew and aircrew package?

The only honest answer is that i honestly don't know. The problem is that the MOD is almost as in the dark as me, probably.
When the CVF and JCA projects started, CATOBAR carrier ops were much more expensive than STOVL ops. And in addition, in 2001 the C variant was expected to be the most expensive F35 variant.
In time, things changed: CATOBAR ops are still complex and expensive, but technology has been steadily reducing the comparative penalty. An F/A-18 has landed at sea and trapped successfully on a US aircraft carrier  guided only by the computer, and the future promises further improvements. The EMALS themselves promise massive through-life savings compared to steam catapults, very manpower-intensive and expensive.
In addition, the initial forecasts have been proven wrong, and the C variant of the F35 is not the most expensive. The B is. Last but not least, CATOBAR offers substantial operational advantages, and the F35C is a  much better performer than the B. A carrier fitted with catapults is more future-proof, as there are at least 3 good planes that could be used from it, against a single STOVL one "condemned to win". Moreover, future drone developments, all the way up to UCAVs, are likely to be better adapted to a CATOBAR than to a STOVL ship. Who's read this blog from some time knows that i've always hoped that the MALE drone coming out of the Telemos effort, and the 2030 UCAV would both be carrier capable. There is no doubt that CATOBAR is a better option, all around. But there is no way around the costs.

I do not blame the MOD for thinking that perhaps time were mature for a switch. The difference in cost between the two airplane variants is such that, were conversion costs low enough, the switch would absolutely work for the best and deliver much greater capability and future-proofing the vessels. I've been an enthusiastic supporter of the switch to the C variant (provided that both carriers would be converted and retained). I'm still a supporter of CATOBAR, for many very good reasons. However, i recognize the financial problem, and i try to be realistic.

Problem is that converting the carriers to the "most expensive package", the CATOBAR one, is proving more expensive than hoped, by far. And the doubt is mounting again as a consequence.
And in addition to the relatively short term cost of the conversion, we do not know what the other costs will be in terms of through life maintenance and running costs of the F35 and of the carrier (catapults and arrestor wires need maintenance, upgrades and support as well as the plane!). How many more officers and crewmen does CATOBAR require? An unknown number of highly specialized personnel has to be calculated as part of the CATOBAR option.
Training of the pilots for carrier ops is also a worry: keeping CATOBAR pilots current these days is much more complex and expensive than keeping STOVL crews trained and carrier ready: the feeling is that technology is going to downsize the problem massively in the coming years, but technology will probably simplify STOVL ops as well, and so the gap might well not close anytime soon. 

But the real huge problem is that even assuming the C really costs that much less, the MOD has not enough funds available in the budget allocated for it for the next few years to accommodate the expense of converting even just a single carrier. And, again, even assuming that the C would be cheaper, the government, as of now, cannot be expected to do the one sensible thing that it should do in the case, which is providing the conversion cost for the carrier from the Treasury reserve in the short term and claw the money back later with savings on the aircraft purchase and running.

The government will not provide any additional funding unless there's a big change in policy that i sadly cannot see on the horizon. So the MOD would have to find other expense voices to cut back from its budget in the next planning rounds, to release perhaps as much as a billion over five years (and one billion is roughly the cost of running the whole RN surface fleet, to give idea of the proportions). I say one billion because the current rumors put conversion costs at between 1.8 and 2 billion pounds, while the MOD said last year that they were allocating as much as 950 millions.

However, as years of budget cuts have proven again and again, saving even a few millions per year in the defence budget means inflicting highly disproportionate cuts to capabilities (think of the 1.1 billion saving paid for with the loss of Ark Royal and the whole Harrier force, or the loss of RFA Largs Bay for a pathetic 12-million-a-year saving, or the 40% cut in Challenger II fleet to save just 20 millions or so per year).
How big an impact would it make to have to find some 200 millions a year for 5 years from an already very, very tight budget?
The cost in capabilities being sacrificed would be unacceptable.

For the above reason, there might well not be an alternative to going STOVL, avoiding the unaffordable short term expense, even if it means ordering less airplanes later because the MOD undoubtedly won't get a bigger F35 budget either.

It really is a difficult choice to make, and even the MOD does not have all the info it needs to decide, because so much of the possible future financial implications are, at the moment, nearly impossible to guess.
The step back to the B variant, to me, looks more of an attempt to secure both carriers for service than a purely financial decision, because the factors at play balance the financial aspect: both planes are expensive. But with CATOBAR, the chances of having two fit for service carriers are next to none, and i think this is having an impact as well. Which is, by all means, a good thing, because i definitely think that both hulls are needed. I prefer getting two CVFs with F35B and with the possibility of always having a carrier and F35B available for task group operations than getting a single carrier with F35C and wasting the second hull badly while having non constant carrier availability.
Also because CVF is, want it or not, going to be the RN's LPH replacement program as well, replacing Illustrious and Ocean in the Commando role. I definitely want two carriers in service as LHAs, carrying Marines, helicopters and fixed wing fast jets.

The government's current position

I find the just released official MOD statement fascinating. I let to you all the interpretation of it, but my feeling is that it confirms very firmly that, if nothing else, a very serious review of the aircraft choice is really ongoing.

There were a number of articles in the papers over the weekend which claim that the MOD is preparing to make an announcement about its purchase of Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.

The MOD is currently finalising the 2012-13 budget and balancing the Equipment Plan. This means reviewing all programmes, including elements of the carrier strike programme, to validate costs and ensure risks are properly managed.

The Defence Secretary expects to announce the outcome of this process to Parliament before Easter.

The intention to move to a 'cats and traps' based carrier strike capability, which was announced in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, was always subject to a detailed piece of work to assess the costs and risks involved in converting a Queen Elizabeth Class carrier. That work is ongoing. 

UPDATE - David Cameron: if costs and facts change, we will change our decisions. 

British Forces News reports on today's debate in parliament, which included a rather hot exchange of accusations over the F35 situation. David Cameron has not confirmed the rethink, but he's made clear that it is a very real option on the table.

A very different rumor

Totally contrary to the current majority of rumors and voices and official statements from the US, this very interesting article reports that the US might be about to announce a drastic downsizing of their F35B order, from 340 airplanes for 20 squadrons to 65 for just 4. As a consequence, they say that Obama has personally recommended Cameron to stay with the F35C, and bring in service a full force carrier strike capability with the CVFs converted and equipped with the C variant.
Indeed, Obama is said to have pressed Cameron hard on the subject of defence, trying to bring the prime minister to an even larger rethink of the SDSR, possibly tweaking upwards the current 82.000-man army figure as well.

While i can certainly believe that pressure is coming from the US to keep Britain's military capabilities relevant (they did lobby, unfortunately not very successfully, already when the SDSR was being written), i do not believe such a dramatic change on the F35B plan is likely, and i honestly do not put much credit into the picture drawn by the article. I don't believe it is correct.

However, i think it is definitely worth reading it all the same. What if they turn out being right, after all...? The Pentagon is, in fact, recalculating the F35 program costs right now, with an announcement on the results due soon and with the GAO having estimated, on its part, a cost-growth for the Joint Strike Fighter program of some 15 billion dollars from 2010, 5 of which relating to development issues and expenses and 10 billions stemming for rescheduled production and other manufacture issues.   
No rethink on the F35 plan is expected, regardless of what eventually comes out of the report, but as always, only time will tell.  

If we could go CATOBAR...

It would be better. But it remains fundamental to secure the entry in service of both CVFs, which must be used at their best, and both must be fixed-wing aviation ready, otherwise, when the vessel fitted with catapults is unavailable, the RN's task group is deprived of its fixed wing component just like there was no carrier at all.

The RN investigated with Lockheed Martin the possibility of turning an F35B into a mini flying tanker to refuel other F35Bs, to expand their mission range, which is rather short.
With the F35C, a Buddy-Buddy refueling system is just as desirable, and indeed it emerged as a requirement following the SDSR switch, as a solution for refueling airplanes in flight is needed to keep the F35Cs in the air for a longer time when, for whatever reason, the deck of the carrier is not ready for landing ops.

For AEW, as of now the RN has had to downsize its ambitions, and the limited money available means that the fleet of 30 Merlin HM2 is going to assume yet a new mission, that of airborne early warning, being modified under Crowsnest program (here and here) for carriage and employment of radar and mission system.

CATOBAR, however, would open the door for a solution which might possibly cost just as little, and provide much greater capability, without burdening the small Merlin HM2 fleet with yet another role.
The solution to both of the above requirements could come from the US, via Brazil.

In 2010 Brazil acquired 8 Northrop Grumman C1A Trader airplanes from the US, at the cost of just 234,000 dollars for all six. The Trader is the Carrier On Board delivery of the Tracker airplane family, the embarked twin engine machine that worked in the US Navy before the Hawkeye/Greyhound. The Traders were retired from US Navy service in 1988 and since then tens and tens of Traders and Trackers have been parked in the desert at Tucson, in one of the immense airplane graveyards of the US forces. Note, however, that these graveyards are position in this area for a good reason: the desert in this case is not source of damage, but source of a natural controlled humidity environment that does much to keep the parked airplanes in acceptable conditions. This is fundamental, and makes the Trader/Tracker very attractive because these sturdy airplanes have been retired with lots of airframe hours still to be spent. They are young airframes, and while before 2010 the proposed military conversions of old Traders have not had much success, tens of Traders have been sold and converted for civilian use, mostly as firebombers for launching fire retardant from the sky over arsons in Arizona.

The Brazilian navy hopes to refurbish the 8 airplanes they bought to create an embarked squadron with air tanker and AEW planes for their small aircraft carrier, the Sau Paolo, which cannot take the Hawkeye.  
And in December 2011 they placed their first related order, contracting Marsh Aerospace, an Arizona-based company specialized in refurbishing Trader airplanes for civilian and military roles. The contract is for refurbishing a first block of 4 airframes and replacing the aircraft’s original Wright R-1820-8WA powerplants with Honeywell TPE331-14GR turboprops equipped with Hartzell HC-135MA-5 five-blade propellers. Marsh will also upgrade the avionics and communication/navigation suite, but it will, most importantly, install inflight refuelling equipment with a centreline hose and drogue system. The four airplanes are to be known as KC-2 Turbo Traders, and will be all delivered by 2015.
There is no indication of how much fuel they can carry, but the Trader with its old engines has a large fuselage which can be fitted with 9 seats or used to carry over 3500 kg of payload. As firebombers, the Trackers carry 3032 liters of Fire Retardant in the fuselage, so there is quite some space for additional fuel tanks expanding the airplane's already considerable fuel capacity.
It won't be a Voyager, of course, but it will be better than a Buddy Buddy solution, and won't 'waste' a fighter bomber in tanker role.
The contract value is 167 million dollars. Added to the purchase cost, each tanker will cost just 41.7 million dollars.

Carrierborne air tanker? You bet, and for bargain price as well!

Within the year the Brazilian navy hopes to give the go ahead to a second contract for turning at least 2 of the other airframes into embarked AEW platforms. Interestingly, the Eliradar HEW-784 and Thales Searchwater 2000 sensors viewed as prime candidates for being selected as main sensor system. The HEW-784 is used by the 4 italian Merlin AEW helicopters, while the Searchwater 2000 is used by the Sea King MK7 and is, together with Vigilance pod (APG-80 derivative radar from LM) the main competitor for the RN's future AEW solution as well.

The Trader modified for AEW role would contain the radar in a drop-down radome deploying when in flight from the bottom of the fuselage. This solution is not new for Trader/Trackers, since the original ASW variant of the Tracker used this method for deploying its search radar.
The airplane will carry 2 or 3 consoles for the radar operators, and almost certainly will be re-engined like the KC-2 Turbo Trader. 

And AEW solution as well. Not an Hawkeye, but a quantum leap in capability from an helicopter based solution. 25.000 feet of patrol altitude against 15.000 at most, and up to 7 hours in the air. As a plus, it is intended to use the Searchwater 2000 which the RN already uses. Again, it promises to be cheap as chips.

The advantages of a Turbo Trader solution for AEW are very noticeable: it has a longer range, is faster, can stay in the air for longer and, very important, fly much higher than an helicopter, giving a better detection range to its radar. A Sea King MK7 can fly its surveillance patrols at 15.000 feet, but will routinely stay down at just 10.000, while a normal Trader will fly at 18.000 and a re-engined one will be able to patrol at 25.000 feet, exploiting the Searchwater's performances much better.
And if the airplane was fitted with a refueling probe, its tanker sister could expand its patrol endurance in any moment.

The Brazilian navy is very serious about its expanding and improving Navy and carrier strike capability. It has also chosen a remarkably cost-effective solution to air refuelling and AEW. 
FY2013 DoD figures put the cost of an Hawkeye for the US Navy at 208.2 million dollars, to give an idea. If Brazil or the UK ordered it, the Foreign Military Sale mechanism would immediately add 15% most cost in taxation, and both countries, having to start a fleet from zero differently from the US Navy, would have to spend a lot more money in start-up contracts for spares, support, training and infrastructure. An Hawkeye/Greyhound fleet would be awesome, but it makes for a very expensive solution.
It makes you appreciate the cheapness and good cost/effect ratio of the Brazilian solution.  

If only the Royal Navy could do the same!   

Problem is that the lesson of the need for carrier strike has not yet sunk deep enough into the minds of politicians, which are not being as firm and determined as they should be. Sea blindness is still at large. So that funding remains tight, and everything ends up being a compromise. 


  1. Hi,

    Very interesting article as normal.

    One issue that concerns me about switch back to the B model, that I haven't seen mentioned anywhere is that the carries would be unable to operate any planned UCAVs. I don't know of any planned VTOL ones. So while not a issue in the near future, I think in the time frame of 2030-2040 we would most likely be wanting to operate UCAVs from the carries.

    Maybe by then there will be a VTOL one or we could develope or own but it seems most likely at the moment that the realistic options of developing a Naval UCAV would be in co-operation with either the US or France and they would both want a CATOBAR one.

    And I would think they would be unlikely to want to repeat the F-35 program of trying to make a common aircraft with different versions. As from the reports of the F-35 problems it seems a lot of them are from the B model and if that hadn't have been a requirement of the program, things would have gone a lot smoother and quicker.

    Maybe by ~2035 UCAV/UAVs will have been found to have lots of unforeseen problems and it wouldn't matter to us if we couldn't operate them. But it could just as easily go the other way and by around then, most forces are thinking of switching to a mainly UCAV force. So then we would be faced with having to convert the carries to CATOBAR after all.

  2. I'm glad you find this article interesting.

    I talked of the UCAV issue in the very first article i made about the possibility of a rethink back to the B variant, here.
    It is most certainly a risk: as of now, the flexibility of a CATOBAR flat top with a big deck is simply unmatched, and with the USN continuing to bet on the CATOBAR carrier, this situation is going to continue well into the foreseeable future. It is part of why going CATOBAR is effectively very desirable.

    Then again, there are evident financial problems, and i think that the most urgent concern has to be trying to secure the future of both ships. Even if it means going with the B variant, and floating out solutions in the future when need will call for it, because there is not an alternative unless the MOD is given an helping hand by the treasury to meet the short term cost.
    In absence of such helping hand, the MOD can't find 200 millions a year for 5 years.
    The whole Type 23 fleet runs on 318 millions a year: you could scrap the whole fleet tomorrow and it still would not be enough.
    With no margin of maneuver, the MOD is forced, want it or not, to be short-termist.

  3. Hi Liger its Cockneyjock1974 here, hows it going? I've followed your thread still and I wish you would contribute on this site. i'm still posting photos my friend lol.

  4. Hi man! Doing well myself, but as this post proves i'm anxiously waiting for the announcements of Planning Round 2012, while trying to write some genuinely informative stuff to help people see the difficulties involved in the Planning Round process.

    But i'll tell you what, i'll register on that forum then, and see if i can contribute to the discussion.

    1. First class mate, thank you. This forum is the premier CVF one IMO, there are more like minded folks on it. Looking forward to the planning round stuff mate.

      PS the Brazilian COD/AEW was an exclusive and a half. Looking forward to seeing you on the new site.

      PS naturally all my photos are yours to publish as per norm.

    2. Thank you!

      You should be able to have interesting subjects for photos soon, with LB02 moving towards Rosyth on 25 May.
      May should prove interesting and busy for you and your camera!

      And i see you've gotten better kit, too, which is great!

    3. Yes i'm looking forward to it, I have some new ideas for different sites to take pics from, I intend to step up a gear. The new kit is doing my head in (can't work it lol) I'm a ship watcher not a cameraman lol.

  5. Hi Gabriele,

    Very good article. Thanks.

    My own humble opinion, is that we should go for 24 operational F35B for the FAA. (I guess that means ordering about 50 aircraft, rather than 100)
    Have both carriers to replace Ocean and Illustrious.
    Operate one carrier with a mixed air group of F35B and Merlin’s.
    The second carrier, to rotate with the first.
    I think having both carriers, which can operate as a CVF and LPH, (or a mix of both), with a versatile air group of F35B and Merlin’s, is by far the best option, with the amount of money available.
    I would also keep one squadron of Tranche 1 Typhoons’ operational. They can operate in the air to air role, replacing a squadron of Tranche 3 Typhoons‘, which can operate in the strike role. That way we can retire the Tornado. That’s got to save some cash, with which we could buy some MPA!


  6. That's the use i envisage for the carriers: according to Mer et Marine, a respected french magazine about maritime matters, a CVF in "LHA" role has been assessed as able to carry 600 Royal Marines, 12 F35C or B and up to "three dozen helicopters".
    The helicopter used for the calculation is almost certainly the Merlin: the CVF hangar is big enough for 45 folded Merlin helos...!

    Helicopters will be a lot less than that, routinely, but it is great capability. Ocean carries 480 soldiers on a normal day, for example, and max 18 helos.

    A CVF with a mixed air wing comprising an F35 squadron, Merlin HC4s, Chinooks and Apache would be a formidable afloat staging point for any kind of military operation.

    That's why i want two, as i will explain in greater detail when i get around to writing my SDSR 2020 Royal Navy piece.
    And i also agree on the Typhoon/Tornado part... who knows if SDSR2015 will listen at us on this point?

    For now, thank you for reading, and for your comment!

  7. Hi Gabriele,
    Whilst the 'Military Photo's' blog in regard to CVF is interesting,it is in general a chat room where varying opinions can be aired. This is in one way a good thing but does tend to ignore the serious issues,in favour of the more popular items much like the 'Navy News'

    While your contribution to this thread would no doubt be welcomed,I would sooner read your in depth articles on here rather than some 'dumbed down' version elsewhere.
    Sorry if that sounds a little arrogant,but just my opinion

    1. My comments on forums won't affect what i write on my blog, or the quality of my research into hard facts, no worries!
      Forums can be good to share quick snippets of info, and of course, see good things such as Cockneyjock's photos!

  8. Not sure that there is still a sufficient quantity of usable Trader (COD) and Tracer (AEW) airframes. The better ones have and are still being taken for conversion to fire-fighters and there weren't that many compared to the number of Trackers (ASW). The Tracker airframe is different and maybe not suitable for conversion to AEW or Tanker. There is also the problem of spare parts. I guess the UK would need 12 aircraft for conversion (say 6 AEW and 6 Tanker) plus some for spares: 15 or so in total. Are these available?
    The Brasilian project is progressing slowly: first it was going to be Embraer, now it is Marsh Aviation to do the conversion (engines and avionics). Embraer may still do the AEW part.
    For the Brasilian Navy, their carrier operations are all about learning the trade. The Sao Paolo seldom sails with a full complement of aircraft or on 'expeditionary' training cruises. Most of the time it are training sorties within the Brasilain EEZ. They do not need a carrier in the world as it is today. They are preparing themselves for 20 years or so from now when they expect to be one of the big boys in the major league. By then they want two new carriers with modern aircraft.
    This to indicate that their requirements are limited and these can be met by converting second-hand airframes. The UK needs to cover more than just low-intensity training. They need aircraft to go to sea and intensive operations for 6 or more months. A converted Trader or Tracer may fall short.

  9. Hi Gabriele

    Geoff B here I could accept the switch if the F-35B had suddenly massively improved over the last 12 months but its hasn't. The current SecDef bottled it and folded to USMC & LM pressure to remove the probation before all of the issues had been effectively resolved, whilst they have improved matters by switch the STOVL testbeds from BF-1 there is still alot of work to do to prove itself a viable airframe. Thus all the reasons the SDSR quoted as reasons for change still stand and just becuase the F-35C has now been delayed by the USN i think they should rview the F-35 as a JCA choice rather than jump from one disatser to another and back again.

    I suspect you right and they are now factoring in converting both ships to CATOBAR for the hike in conversion costs. I suspect its the fact they can't face the queen to say the ship named in her honour and likely to be launched by her may be destined for an uncertain future after first of class trials.

    I would have liked then to stay the course with CVF and get at least PoW in service and hold QE in limbo until she too can be refitted. Switch JCA to an off the shelf design and put the F-35C onto the RAF as a Tornado replacement. Then by the 2030's we can either decide to replace the F-18/Rafale with either more F-35C or join the NGAD program with the USAF which may replace our JCA aircraft and possibly Typhoon in the long run.

    Interesting on the Turbo Tracker AEW/Turbotrader AEW or even TurboTracer AEW ?, nice solution although somewhat limited due to the service life left in the Traders. You would have thought they could get Embraer to develop a naval version of one of its modern passenger aircraft to become a Tracker replacement, which could even have some export potential too.

  10. @ WW

    On the availability of airframes, i cannot say much: you might be right, i don't know how many useable platforms are left. Mine is more of a suggestion for a good and cheap option. It does not necessarily mean it is the right way to go.

    But on your considerations about numbers and capabilities, i have to disagree, if nothing else because, sadly, the RN is going to end up with fewer and less capable platforms. No embarked tanker, and modified Merlin HM2 embarking radar domes on the side (AgustaWestland proposal, with Searchwater radar) or two pods on the weapon pylons (Lochkeed Martin Vigilance, APG-80 derivative).
    In the case of the first option, we have the same radar the Brazilians are considering, but mounted on an helicopter and thus destined to fly lower and stay in the air for less time.

    I fear that it would actually be gold all over the place for the RN if they could copy the Brazilian idea.

    @Geoff B

    The C is an all around better choice, but as i've tried to explain in the article, there are pretty good reasons why the MOD is hard pressed to take a decision. And there is no money.
    Unless the government provides emergency funding from the Treasury Reserve, treating catapults as a UOR of sorts, the MOD would have to take an axe and swing it back and forth into the budget cutting relatively small amounts of money, but causing massive contractions in capability.

    I say it again, a LPD runs on 20 millions a year. The whole Type 23 fleet on 318 millions.
    It really is dire to claw back money with cuts.

    As to the F35B, it has not solved all its issues, no, but with the emerging of the tailhook issue, F35B optimists could say to you, not without reasons, that today the biggest risk is actually on the C variant.

    As to the Brazilian trader deal, it is worth saying that the MOD semi-seriously assessed a similar idea in the early years of the long delayed MASC AEW replacement program. Around 2000, the S2 Tracker was considered.
    In 2002, the MOD even thought about converting a number of S3B Viking airplanes to buy cheaply from the US.

    The RN had hoped for 10 to 12 platforms (if helicopter based). In 2003 it was assessed that a buy of 12 new Merlin for AEW role would cost some 500 millions.
    Today it seems likely that the AEW role will be covered by (some of?) the 30 Merlin HM2, already hard worked and high in demand.

    And this despite the availability of 12 Merlin HM1 airframes that, with some funding, could be upgraded to HM2 cockpit and AEW mission system.

    There really is little room for maneuver.

    1. Hi Gabriele,
      I was not questioning the qualities of a convereted Trader/Tracer with Searchwater of Vigilance: indeed way better than a converted Merlin or even Osprey with the same radar.
      But I have my doubts about sustainablity of such converted airframes in high intensity ops. Spares will be hard to get at. That may not be a major problem with the more 'leisurly' pace of Brasilian ops, but the UK need more. Hence my point that the UK may be better off with a less performant but more reliable and available Merlin or Osprey conversion for AEW.
      But I agree with you, that there is no suitable solution for the tanker issue short of using buddy-refueling and thus reducing the number of platforms available for operations.

    2. Well, regarding the spares issues, to have an idea of the scale of the eventual difficulty we'd have to know how much of the old Trader remains unchanged after the conversion: with engines and avionics replaced, most of the parts might well be entirely different from those on the old airplane, and available on the market.
      It might be an issue, but it might also be a problem (relatively) easily solved.

    3. You're right. At this stage, we are both guessing, I think.
      Solomon at his blog reports that the US Navy is (again?) considering converting S3 airframes in storage to tankers.
      That of course is also a way to go and maybe a better one?

  11. Hi Gabriele

    The plot thickens it appears that the Daily Telegraph have confirmd the Gulf News rumour and we wont be hearing about a switch over on Monday !!

    The USN have provided cost estimates of £548 for the kit and £400 for fitting them !!! (I wonder if some in the MOD were actually trying to cost converting both ships ?)

    It also gives an interesting insight into what exactly the Carrier Cooperation deal appears to entails which i think you will find very interesting

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  13. Any internal firing of ASRAAM falls into the category of "good luck".

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