Tuesday, March 13, 2012

March 26 should bring forth some interesting news

Philip Hammond is expected to release a statement on the Planning Round 2012 process on March 26, the first step in learning what the MOD will be able to finance this year, and what plans have been made for the future. In April, on the 12 if forecasts are respected, further data should come out, specifically regarding the Future Army Structures (Next Steps) studies.

We should have confirmation of the Puma HC2 survival, but also, at least according to the Telegraph, the go-ahead and funding for the Merlin HC3 mid-life upgrade, including navalization prior to transfer to the Commando Helicopter Force by 2016, in time to replace the Sea King. We can expect steps forwards on the FASGW(H) or "Sea Skua II" missile for the Wildcat, which was effectively confirmed in the latest agreements with France.
If we are to believe the Telegraph, there should also be some good news in terms of weaponry integration on the Typhoon, with Brimstone and Storm Shadow being possibly released for service before 2014, the current aspirational date.
The Type 26 frigate should officially move into Detailed Design phase, but i do not give any credit to over enthusiastic rumors of the builing program being brought forwards: it just won't happen, nice as it would be.

The biggest news of all, though, could be the return to the F35B.
Born as a not very credible rumor on the press some time ago, the news is shaping up to be more and more consistent, and is insistently circulating all over the press.
Most importantly, the talks between UK and US on a return to the B variant have been officially confirmed by U.S. Navy Vice Admiral David Venlet, program manager for the Joint Strike Fighter.
He also said, importantly:

“I have told them at various levels of the government, we are with you whatever you need”
This does not mean that the decision is taken, but the option is definitely there, and now it is very realistic.

I've already expressed my beliefs on the matter more than once, so i won't return on them. I will only notice that, with the cost of cats and traps conversion reportedly being higher than expected, it might be the only way to go.
Not the best one, because i remain convinced of the fact that the F35B will cost more through-life, and the added flexibility of the C variant and of the catapults themselves are more than desirable. However, if the Telegraph is right and the upper cost estimate for converting Prince of Wales is now put at 1.8 billion, there might very well be no alternative. Such an high cost means serious troubles for squeezing the 300 millions a year for 5 years bill into a budget which is already excessively tight as it is.

Moreover, and i think this might have a part in it too, converting the second carrier post-built, always expected to be more expensive than conversion at build, would likely be way too expensive to ever be fitted into the future budgets, making Queen Elizabeth's future so much more uncertain.
If the cost of conversion is avoided, Queen Elizabeth can play its hopes of survival over a much reduced cost, its yearly running bill alone. And since that will range from as little as a few tens of millions to around one hundred millions, it will be much easier to make the point, especially because the advantages of having two vessels simply cannot be overstated.

Again, going B variant puts an end to much of the carrier-cooperation with France, further reinforcing the need for two national aviation-capable hulls in the water.

Considering that with the B variant both carriers would be aviation-ready at build, there will at least be the advantage of a much greater chance for the Navy to argue for the retention of both in service, even if it means losing HMS Ocean a bit early, in 2016, to squeeze everything into the money available.

I do not expect Carrier Enabled Power Projection to change at all; the carriers will continue to cover the LPH need as well, even if a rethink effectively happens. It is also likely that 12 planes will remain the expected standard airgroup (don't forget that we save on conversion, but pay more for the planes!), but this is a no news because, in peacetime, 12 planes were going to be the norm even when the full airwing figure of 36 was used and the plan was to buy 150, then 138 airplanes.  

The Financial Times gives the news as something pretty much definitive. David Cameron is on a two-days visit to Washington, today and tomorrow, and he might talk about the imminent rethink, it has been suggested.
It is going to be a rather troublesome and embarrassing U-turn for the government, which will make their flank vulnerable. They have accused (not without reasons) labour of getting it all wrong, but now they are reverting to the labour plan, after spending perhaps 40 million in studies and in an advanced simulator for carrier-landing training at BAE system. The switch will also re-ignite criticism on the decision of getting rid of the Harrier, throwing away STOVL currency and experience, only to have to re-generate it following a rethink some 18 months later.

For the above reasons, such a re-rethink remains a politically white-hot move.
However, the defence minister now is "Spreadsheet" Phil, and if he can't fit conversions cost in his budget, he might well force a new change of heart over the program, no matter the criticism.

As long as both carriers are retained, and enough planes acquired, all is overall acceptable.
Both the B and C variant are full multimission airplanes with great capabilities. Each variant has its advantages and defects, like everything.
I continue to have reserves on the long-term economic wisdom of a B variant choice, but my utmost worry is to secure the entry in service of both vessels, both fixed-wing aviation ready, and if conversion costs are growing like that, i might be forced to support the rethink.

The RAF has much better luck at making the case for buying expensive items (read budget-draining 37 billions-worth Typhoon program) than the Navy, so buying the carriers "cheap" and helping the RAF sorting out the JCA funding battle to get as many F35Bs as possible might very well be the Navy's best shot.

What truly matters is to get two working carriers, because they will have to alternate in role and be the leading vessel in the Royal Navy's future task group, embarking troops, fixed wing aviation and helicopters.
With no LPH replacement in sight, a single carrier makes for a double loss. If catapults have to mean a single carrier, then my answer is a loud no.
If to get two we have to go B, then so be it. 


  1. Hi Gabriele,

    Well my wish list for both those dates are:
    March 26th;
    The go ahead for 24 operational F35B
    (I always thought that 36 aircraft strike carrier was beyond the UK, the two new carriers operating as a multi role platform for F35B, UAV and Merlin)
    An extra 12 operational Typhoons
    (To replace Tornado, no F35’s for the RAF)
    An order for 9 MPA
    Another astute.
    The number of Type 26 to be 14.
    April 12th;
    The future structure to be; (Regular)
    1 Armoured, 3 Medium (FRES) and 1 Quick reaction Light Brigades. (5 battalions in each)
    (I just can’t see how they can get 5 MRB, 16 AA and the army element of 3 CDO brigade from an army strength of 82.000).

    But, I don’t think we will get that much from either. The F35 project to be reviewed, and the future force army, to x number of brigades, and a review board set up to see how best to achieve that.


  2. I'd be very happy just with confirmation of Merlin navalization and Typhoon weapons integration. F35 orders will not come before next year, and the buildup will be gradual even from there.
    It once was planned to place orders for 36 airplanes between 2013 and 2018, with more orders to follow all the way up to 2027 to total 150 or 138... now the new orders schedule will likely include some 50 airplanes between 2013 and 2023.

    Extra Typhoons, NO, please...! Beautiful as it is, that plane has sucked the life out of the defence budget, and 5 frontline squadrons of it are more than enough.

    Order for MPAs, i'd like that to come, instead, that's for sure. But there won't be any MPA in FY2012, that's for sure...

    Another Astute would be nice, too, but it is another fantasy, unfortunately.

    And as of now, i fear i must say i hope for the B variant to be chosen for real.
    Both CVFs must enter service, it is imperative... and with conversion cost, this won't happen. Better 2 with Bs than only a part time carrier capability, even if with better planes.

  3. Hi Gabriele,
    Thanks for the reply.

    12 Typhoons has to be cheaper than 96 Tornado's?
    and the RAF are going to really be upset if they don't get any new toys! As I can't see them gettting any F35's.


  4. But the RAF effectively gets ALL the F35s. They all come, like the Harriers did since 2000, under RAF Group 1 operational control.
    The RAF is committed to have a 40% RN participation in the F35C, which will hopefully mean at least a dark-blue squadron, plus of course navy personnel in the remaining sqns (2? 3?) as well.

    But this is about it.
    It is not how it should be done, as carrier air should be naval and work to fleet rules... But it is what is happening.

    As to Tornado, personally i'd "like" (only financially speaking, not real liking) an early retirement in 2015. In 2015 the current 1.5 billion contract with BAE for availability will have to be renewed, and it will cost at least a billion, alone.
    Grounding the fleet in 2015 is bound to save no less than 2 billions in near-cash terms in the following five years, even before we count the harder-to-calculate costs of training, sorties, personnel and such. 2 billions are a bare minimum estimate for the pure "big logistics" savings. (BAE Availability contract, Rolls Royce RB199 engine availability contract etcetera)

    If the RAF truly needs (NEEDS, not wants) more numbers, my answer is to scrap the current plan of having all Typhoon Tranche 1 retired by 2019 and retain part/all of them instead, at least until the F35 fleet is in working shape.
    The Tranche 1 are perfectly good for air defence considering the realistic needs of these days, so they could be given to 3 and 6 Squadrons for QRA, while the Tranche 2 and 3 go to the other squadrons for swing-role tasking because of their complete capability.
    Might well enable the formation of a further squadron, even: after all, it would mean having as many as 159 Typhoons in service, against a current forecast in the long term of 107 sustaining a 5 squadrons frontline strenght: there is bound to be a difference with 52 planes more in the force, i would hope...!

    As a good news for the day, Brimstone 2 is taking shape and might start coming around already next year. It is part of the SPEAR effort. http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/mbda-reveals-brimstone-2-missile-work-for-uk-369437/

  5. Hi Gabriele

    Don't forget the rumours show a certain F-35B bias with the focus on discrediting the 2010 SDSR and the Government. I think that coversion price is a red herring to throw off the fact that neither F-35 variant are fit for purpose and won't be ready when needed for 2020.
    I do think you will find other studies being seriously looked at apart from F-35B switch back, including alternative aircraft to meet the carrier aircraft requirement.
    Somehow i can't see DC making such a U-turn as its would highlight the SDSR 2010 as a farce and also bring into question the two carrier cooperation deals with the US & France.
    Personnally i can see them spliting the JCA requirment, look for an off the shelf solution for the RN to form up a couple of Squadrons, possibly making use of joint maintenance with either the USN or MN to keep costs down. Then let the F-35C continue on th back burner for the RAF as a Tornado replacement as they can eventually complement the RN to fulfill the original carrier strike role.

  6. I'm also hoping for a statement on the MHPC...

    As for the F35 debacle - pull out now... Buy a small number of jets (F18 or Rafael?) with a primary role of fleet air defence to be flown by the FAA and accept all strike would be through TLAM, Apaches or future UAVs. Then keep the Tranche 1 Typhoons for the RAF and upgrade them to handle storm shadow etc.

  7. Firstly Gabriele thanks and kudos for the blog. Really informative and lively.

    F-35B would mean more work for Rolls Royce I believe. If the trade off is 2 carriers, a balanced budget and the possibility of an earlier replacement MPA capability, say, then it is surely a logical decision, even if rather embarrassing for the government.
    If the pressure on budgets keeps up then the RAF being asked to operate Typhoon as a single type is looking increasingly likely, at least for the foreseeable future.
    I see the FT article is accompanied by a photo of a Gripen. Do they know something we don't?


  8. Hi Gabriele,

    Yes, I am with you 100% on keeping the Tranche 1 Typhoons, and making use of them.
    I think the small number of F35B's should go to the FAA!
    If they still go for the cat and traps, we will only ever have one carrier, the cost of retro fitting a carrier must be more than doing it during the build?
    That would leave us with a huge white elephant, I think it's a fair trade off to do a U turn on the F35, and have two multi role carriers.
    Keep up the good work!


  9. @Anonymous

    You are right, there could be an official start to the MHPC assesment phase in the Planning Round, and it would be very good and very interesting. We will see if it effectively appears.


    Thank you for visiting and commenting.
    And well, yes. More F35Bs means more work for Rolls, that i think is undeniable: they have a share in all F35s, but of course they are mostly involved with the B.

    And you make my same reasoning. If the catapults can't be fitted for a good enough price, it ceases to be advantageous even though the B costs more to buy and run.
    And it makes sense to rethink about it.
    I believe two carriers are absolutely indispensable, so i will support any decision that goes in this direction.

    As to the Gripen photo, i think it is merely a rather monumental cock up. Still does not beat an italian journal talking of an Apache and showing a Chinook, though, so i wouldn't panic: i saw worse...!


    Yes, that is the fear: converting post-built is believed to be even more expensive, so there is no way in hell we could get both if the conversion price for PoW appearing in the Telegraph is right.
    QE might still be kept, but as an LPH, and with 1 LPH and 1 Carrier you have none of the two available for more than 200 days per year at the very best.

    With two carriers capable to carry 600 soldiers, 12 F35 and up to 30 helos at the same time, you have a constant, balanced capability to build a task group around.
    And this is what i want to see.

  10. As a thought experiment:
    Suppose the Indian Rafale contract gets confirmed.
    (1) Eurofighter and Rafale stop being in a major competition, so the UK would no-longer be harming its interests by selecting Rafale-M's over the other (equally non-British) alternatives.
    (2) Also, there is now a potential future customer for second-hand (ex-RN) Rafale-M's - the Indian navy.

    Suppose the F-35 still looks high cost, and risky, in the timeframe of building up the first squadrons for the QE or PoW. (Sadly, I think that is a given.)

    How about delaying / cancelling the first 36 F-35's that Britain is due to order - and buying 36 Rafale-M's instead.
    The plan being for the French to provide the operational conversion facility.

    These could be operated specifically by the RN, rather than the RAF, due to the small numbers. Alternatively, it might be good to get the RAF in the habit of operating naval aircraft, first off the French carrier whilst training, and then of the QE's.

    This would make the air group very low risk, and ensure a capable force by the time the PoW is in service.
    It might even allow a capable airgroup by the time the QE is in service, in the EMALs can be kept low (i.e. not the costs in the Telegraph article!)

    This then pushes back the British purchase of the F-35 by several years, (a decade?) by which time the risks and unit cost should have come down substantially.

    Britain then converts to the F-35 as-and-when is best for themselves, without the pressure of an "embarassingly empty carrier".
    The 36 Rafale's then get sold on to India, or perhaps given to the French navy, if doing so would make it affordable for the French to have their desired second carrier? (Possibly built in the UK, if the then-surplace Rafale's were given at no cost to France?)

    Obviously, there is the Political dimension, which is down to the opinions of those involved, and not really open to debate.
    However, ignoring the political dimension for a moment, would that be a practical plan?

  11. Even ignoring all political elements, the Rafale remains a poor choice for the UK. For example, save for Storm Shadow, all other weapons would have to be integrated with UK money, from ASRAAM to AMRAAM to Paveways.

    And France could still not afford an aircraft carrier just by getting back 36 used planes. Less than ever would it ever have the second carrier built in the UK.

    No, it wouldn't work.


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