Wonder if politicians are aware of it...
News of the interest of the MOD for the X47B emerged in a recent written answer of Lord Hastor:
QuestionLord Moonie (Labour)
To ask what discussions they have had with the Government of the United States or Northrop Grumman Corporation about the X-47B unmanned combat air programme.
AnswerLord Astor of Hever (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Defence; Conservative)
The Ministry of Defence has held an initial scoping discussion with the United States Government on the X-47B unmanned combat air programme. Northrop Grumman Corporation has not been involved.
Let's be clear on this, it does not mean that the UK wants to buy the system (at least not anytime soon), but it might be about trying to bring some of the highly advanced american research, with related achievements, into the UK's own drone programme.
But it is worth remembering that the X47B is on track to be trialed at sea on USN carriers in 2013, the same year in which the USN hopes to start trialing the F35C on a Nimitz carrier, and the USN wants, from 2018 or 2020 at the latest, be able to have 4 to 6 UCAVs embarked in each carrier air wing.
The CATOBAR, long endurance, stealth drone for reconnaissance and strike is here now.
As a quick list, the US has:
- Developed software that was capable to guide a Super Hornet in an arrested landing on a carrier at sea without the pilots doing a thing
- Is developing software that will enable the future embarked UCAV to recognize and understand gestures and body language of the deck control crew and officers, which will so be able to guide the drone on deck as they would guide a normal fighter with a man in the cockpit
- They are leading on the technique of air to air refuelling of drones from manned tankers and even from other drones. Tests were conduced also last January as the program progresses.
In the UK, Philip Hammond is still expected (now next week, everything keeps sliding to the right...) to bring the issue of Carrier Strike at the national security council to abandon the CATOBAR path and return to the F35B. Hopefully with the consolation of getting both carriers in service, but note that this is an ambition and not at all a certainty. If we revert to STOVL and still get one single carrier, it is officially the worst decision ever.
Mr. Hammond came out with the genial assesment that converting Prince of Wales at build is expensive, and converting Queen Elizabeth in refit is even more expensive, and i have to say: how smart an observation!
Navy Matters.com, or even my Blog, have been saying this in forever. When people babbled about "converting Queen Elizabeth", i told them again and again "no way at this stage of the work. It'll have to be Prince of Wales, with QE fitted eventually during the first major refit".
I was all but insulted back then, but i was totally, utterly, damned right. Let me have this bit of a fit of rage and revenge. Prince of Wales is the one selected for (eventual, and more and more unlikely) conversion. Not one of the smart guys of the "It will be QE" party has admitted being awfully wrong, unsurprisingly, but still, they were and are.
We still get feed up with the 1.8 billion figure for conversion, which at times becomes 2 billions, which has never been confirmed by official sources. It's a rumor thrown out in the wind which all carrier haters have eagerly made theirs.
The only official statements are from the US Navy, which puts the EMALS and AAG cost at the same pricetag as in 2010, if not a bit lower, and which estimate conversion work cost at 400 million; and a recent answer in Parliament:
QuestionJim Murphy (East Renfrewshire, Labour)
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether Ministers in his Department have received any representations on technical difficulties associated with converting the aircraft carrier to a CATOBAR configuration; from whom any such representations were received; and when they were received.
AnswerPeter Luff (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Defence Equipment, Support and Technology), Defence; Mid Worcestershire, Conservative)
The Ministry of Defence has not received any representations regarding technical difficulties associated with converting the operational Queen Elizabeth Aircraft carrier to a CATOBAR configuration.
So, what are we actually talking about? If there are no difficulties and no cost increases on the American kit, how is the cost-ballooning ever justified?
My guess, as i said already once in another article, is that 1.8 billion is the cost of converting both carriers.The official cost figures add up perfectly to make up the figure, and while coincidences are always possible, they are far less likely than people might think.
Note that there's one whole hell of difference between presenting the cost of ONE conversion as 1.8 billion when said cost is that of converting both ships. If i'm right, this is misleading advice at its best, a revival of Australia moving 500 miles up on the maps to allow land based planes to cover the Royal Navy at sea East of Suez after the retirement of the big carriers.
With the difference that this time it might be the Navy who uses the trick: for the RAF, owner of the JCA program and budget, the F35C is the best choice.
For the RN, given no budget increase, finding the money in the short term for converting the carriers is a huge issue. They might well be the main source of the F35B arguing, due to the scary thought of what might have to be cut in order to find the money for CATOBAR work.
It is very likely, especially considering that the RAF has craved the long range, higher payload F35C at least since 2005, and there's no reason why they should have changed their minds now.
They pay for the planes, and the C does more and costs less. Easy choice.
The Navy has to pay for the ships, and fears that vessels and Marines would have to be cut to save money for CATOBAR, since government won't give any additional funding. I can understand the fear, but i still cannot really support the solution chosen. STOVL is not much of a good decision even if it gets both carriers in service, which, again, is anyway far from sure.
It locks the UK into the F35B box, tying the destiny of the vessels and british airpower at sea to a plane that still does not really work and still risks being a failure. It ties the long-term defence equipment programme to the most expensive and less capable aircraft of the trio. And it makes the carriers effectively outdated even before they enter service.
UCAVs on carriers?
Not on british ones.
But the RAF will no doubt love to tap into the X47B tech for its notional "2030" land-based UCAV to develop in collaboration with France.
After all, they've loved the carrier's hero, the Buccaneer. I'm sure they'll love to turn another naval system in a land machine, throwing away its best capabilities. They might in exchange content themselves with the F35B.
And in the case, you can bet that its lack of range and payload will be used to argue for more UCAV funds for a "proper replacement" for Tornado, for the deep strike missions.
The reality is that an effort should be made to shoulder the short-term cost, with extra funding made available, and later there would be the benefit of the long-term gains.
But this is what the MOD never does.