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.