Friday, May 10, 2013

What is really wrong with the aircraft carriers...

The new NAO report on the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers program (also known as CVF, Carrier Vessel Future) unsurprisingly describes a world of ignorance within the MOD, and exposes the costs connected with some of the bad decisions made in the years.

But the 74 millions wasted in this double switch is nothing compared to the damage caused by far worse and even less coherent decisions taken by this government and by those which came before it. The 2008 decision to slow the program down, taken by Labour, added more than 1.5 billion of costs in the long term while adding absolutely nothing in terms of capability, so Labour should have the decency of just shutting up about this program in particular. 
But even this disaster is not quite the one i'm going to talk about. 

The real tragedy here is the lack of any capability to clearly select a path and follow it through with coherence. The ongoing uncertainty, the constant rethinks, the inability to recognize the capabilities that absolutely need to be preserved, are the real problems UK defence is wrestling with. 

Much more than carriers

Since the SDSR came out, i’ve been lamenting the total lack of coherence and strategy that is so evident in british military planning. The latest NAO carrier strike report adds even more to this astonishing awareness: the government and the MOD have no real idea of what they want to do.

There is not a focus. There is not a clear idea of what capabilities are needed and consequently no real plan to avoid gapping all of them in sequence. The ability of the MOD to fill up pages and pages of meaningless, useless rambling is amazing, but there is no evidence of a coherent plan behind the description “deployable armed forces”.

Deployable how? With what ambitions? With what means?

The provision of carrier strike is only part of an alarming lack of planning for the future. The “deployable armed forces” of the SDSR are facing, among others:

Soon to be gapped capability to deploy special forces safely by air, due to imminent withdrawal from service of the suitably kitted C130Ks, without Project HERMES having delivered the same level of capability on the C130Js.

Depleted capability to transport heavy equipment by sea, thanks to the removal of 2 out of 6 of the Point-class RO-RO vessels.

Insufficient air cargo capability, despite the welcome purchase of the C17s.

Depleted capability for the Army to operate in the Littoral and sustain its logistic effort in presence of water obstacles (removal from service of the Ramped Craft Logistic vessels without a replacement)

Dramatically reduced amphibious capability, due to the removal of 1 Bay-class LSD and the mothballing of one of the two LPDs.

Much depleted capability to operate at sea in presence of underwater and surface threats, due to the lack of a maritime patrol aircraft.

Much higher risks are due to be accepted in future when deploying the fleet in dangerous areas, due to the gapping of maritime airborne early warning capability.

Lack of air cover for the fleet for at least seven more years.

Most of the key enablers making complex deployments abroad possible have been or will be removed from service in the next few years. How does this fit in the ridiculous, vague claim about still having deployable forces?

It is time the MOD decided what it wants to be able to do, and take coherent decisions to reach the target.

The carriers are key enablers for an expeditionary force. They are indispensable in a wide range of scenarios which require the projection of military power far away from the UK’s shores. They are perfect for interventions that chiefly require air power, such as operations in Libya in 2011. But they are also excellent to gain air superiority far away from home and protect the arrival of land forces, including land-based aviation, which is notoriously most vulnerable on the ground, and which would incur huge risks in trying to deploy to a menaced base in a war zone in absence of friendly forces providing cover.

And they are of course essential to support a forcible entry operation, especially an amphibious assault.

For the UK, the two new aircraft carriers in construction are even more important because they are also the only possible replacement for the current LPHs platforms (HMS Illustrious and HMS Ocean), since the notional LPH(Replacement) program has been dead in the water at least since 2006.

A tiny spark of understanding of this factor emerged in the SDSR, when the Carrier Enabled Power Projection concept was revealed, and there was the first open talk of using the new vessels to carry not just fast jets, but Marines and their helicopters at the same time.

Ever since, the UK’s Strike Carriers have effectively been, in the facts if not in the design, Landing Helicopter Aviation vessels (LHAs). The Queen Elizabeth class is not just a replacement for the Invincible class carriers, but it is going to be the successor to HMS Ocean and to the “Commando carrier” HMS Illustrious (in itself a “re-rolled” Invincible class vessel).

Although non optimal, this is a coherent approach, and the only one financially sustainable and feasible, as the MOD is simply not going to be given the money to build and run the QE class purely for carrier strike, while fielding a number of sufficiently capable amphibious vessels.

While France has the nuclear powered Charles de Gaulle in the carrier role and three Mistral LHDs in the amphibious role, the UK will have to approach the problem differently.

In itself, this is because a quite debatable choice was made in the 90s to build an amphibious fleet made up by ships built around a single, main role: the LPDs (HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark) carry the best part of the task force’s landing crafts and the command and control facilities. The Bay-class LSDs carry the most of the “first wave” vehicles (more equipment would disembark later on from the civilian-standard Point RO-RO cargo vessels) while HMS Ocean (which had to have a sister which in the end was never built) would carry a big share of the Marines, and nearly all of the helicopters.

The separation in roles is dramatically reflected in the ships’ designs: the LPDs and LSDs have large flight decks, but lack hangars. Carrying and maintaining large number of helicopters on open decks at sea is nearly unthinkable, so HMS Ocean’s vast hangar is an absolutely fundamental part of any amphibious task force.

The separation of the roles is not a wrong concept in itself, but it is not a concept suited to the Royal Navy’s budget. As the failure in building a sister for HMS Ocean and the reduction in the original planned number of Bay LSDs (up to six, then reduced to four) remind us, even when the plan was first conceived it was not financially sound.

The reality is that, had the Royal Navy pursued the Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) path and built Bulwark and Albion in such configuration, much better capability would have been obtained. The French Mistral class vessels are there to remind us of the mistake made.

The credibility of the amphibious capabilities of the UK in the era that will follow the decommissioning of HMS Ocean rests in the cavernous hangars of the QE vessels and on their vast flight decks: the new carriers are desperately needed to keep the RN able to deploy meaningful task groups in the future.

Can’t think more than half an hour ahead

The return to the F35B has one only real advantage over the F35C: it removes the large short term expenditure which would have been needed to modify HMS Prince of Wales at build to take aboard the US EMALS catapults and AAG arrestor wires.

In the long term, the F35B risks to cost more and is surely going to deliver less capability than the F35C. In terms of costs, the NAO notes that the F35B is at least 10 million pounds more expensive, per plane, than the F35C. More importantly, its through-life running costs will be 20% higher. And other sources have suggested 25% higher.

There is a real risk that the reversion to the F35B will end up being a “save now, spend more later” decision. The NAO in its report suggests that, over a 30 years period, the F35B will cost 600 million less than the F35C option, but I’m unconvinced.

We could regret this decision in the future for a whole range of reasons: the inferior capability of the F35B could end up being a problem some day. Its cost, already expected to be higher, could escalate further. Worse, catapults and wires could soon end up being needed all the same, when the importance of large, weapon-capable unmanned aerial vehicles will grow enough to make them indispensable even for a MOD which is getting way too used to look the other way and ignore uncomfortable facts.  

For now, the MOD is hiding its head under the sand by deciding that the first UCAV (notionally planned for the 2030) will be a purely RAF affair, and will only operate out of land bases.

A great example of joint thinking and long term strategic planning, isn’t it?

I have to accept the bitter truth, however: in this case, the MOD did not have the chance to think ahead. The treasury was in no case going to help the MOD cover the higher initial costs of the catapults solution, so there was no way to accommodate the conversion costs in the budget without cutting savagely back in many other areas of Defence. 
However, the decision to return to the B can only be truly accepted, supported and welcomed if it means retaining both carriers in service. The high cost of fitting catapults and wires would have made it virtually impossible to operate both ships in carrier role. The second could and should have served as LPH, for the reasons covered earlier, even though the lack of strategic thinking of course made the government conceive the absurd, insane idea of selling or mothballing such a precious asset.  

However, the F35B makes it possible to operate both vessels as LHAs, combining the provision of combat air capability to the provision of helicopter support to amphibious operations. With the advantage that, with two hulls, an LHA is always available for deployment. 
The one thing that the return to the F35B must give us is the entry in service of both ships. 

Of course, the above concept is too simple to be readily grasped by government and MOD, and we are vaguely tempted with the option of having both ships in service, while the actual decision is pushed back to 2015.

If we ever needed a reminder of the appalling inability to think more than half an hour into the future, we have just been given it.

Self-inflicted problems

The capabilities of the F35 for the UK are further harmed by, again, the lack of a coherent plan inside the MOD. So far, the UK has only required the integration of ASRAAM and Paveway IV onto the aircraft, and according to the NAO even these requirements haven’t yet been finalized and fully costed.

There is also an ongoing saga about how and where the ASRAAM will have to be fitted on the F35: at the beginning there was a (ridiculous) requirement to integrate four ASRAAM for internal carriage. Why the RAF deemed necessary to spend huge amounts of money to try and carry four short range, infrared-guided missiles in the enclosed weapon bays of a stealth fighter goes beyond my possibilities of understanding. A return to the first Sea Harrier, with the ASRAAM carried internally replacing the Sidewinder carried externally?

It becomes even more ridiculous when you think that no one else is bothering with trying to integrate an IR missile for internal carriage on the F35; and it becomes worse when you realize that carrying 4 ASRAAMs internally means not carrying AMRAAM and not carrying air to ground weaponry.

In 2008, the difficulties and cost of such a stupid idea became clearer, and the plan changed, with ASRAAM to be integrated on the two internal AA stations in replacement of the AMRAAM and on the two AA-only external stations under the wings.

Today, it is not clear if this is still the plan of if the ASRAAM is now only due for external integration. 

ASRAAM: stations 4, 5, 7, 8 then rethink, 1, 4, 8, 11. And now?

With the AMRAAM due to leave british service by 2017 and a plan for the integration of Meteor on the F35 having not been finalized yet, the F35 at entry in service risks being as well armed for air to air combat as a Tornado GR4. How to downgrade a multirole aircraft to an under-armed bomb truck.

For a good few years, it appeared that the UK might not integrate Meteor at all on the F35. Hard not to think that the RAF was doing so not to harm procurement of the Typhoon. After all, the one service getting the bad end of the deal would have been the Navy, which ever since it lost the Sea Harrier FA2 has been tragically lacking a capable fighter for the air defence of the fleet.

Fortunately, MBDA, aiming to export opportunities, self-funded efforts to make the Meteor compatible with the weapon bays of the F35, and now the MOD seems to have regained a little bit of wisdom: a recent interview saw the Italian chief of the defence staff confirm that the UK has asked Italy to join a bi-national effort to integrate the Meteor on the JSF, presumably as part of the Block IV software release.

We have to hope that this is confirmed, otherwise the F35 might be done to the sole ASRAAM for a good few years, well into the 2020s.

The Paveway IV is only meant to be integrated on the two internal AG stations. Why?

Good question. I can’t find an answer.

Other weapons have been deleted from the list of requirements (Paveway II and III, Brimstone, Storm Shadow) and will only reappear… sometime, later on. Maybe with the Block V software release.

Just maybe, though. The NAO reports:

The Department is now planning to procure 48 STOVL aircraft in the first tranche in the same quantity and production profile as the carrier variant. Given that the STOVL variant will deliver an aircraft with less range and endurance over a target area compared to the carrier variant, the decision potentially represents a reduction in capability. However, since 2010, the Department has confirmed that it does not have plans to use weapons which would require the greater payload capacity of the carrier variant.

That reads to me like an admission that the F35B is not planned anymore to be able to employ weapons such as Storm Shadow. I hope I’m wrong, because it would make absolutely no sense if this was the case. They hopefully mean that they have no plan to procure a 2000 pounds bomb for internal carriage (the F35B has weapon bays that are 14 inches shorter than the F35C’s ones, limiting it to weapons with the same volumes as the US 1000 lbs JDAM.  

However, the things that make no sense are so common these days around the MOD that it wouldn’t surprise me if my pessimist interpretation was correct.

Among other self-inflicted problems, it is worth highlighting these passages of the NAO report:

As the Carrier Strike capability draws upon both air and navy forces, there is a risk of divergent views on delivering its benefits. There have also been a wide range of views as to what constituted the wider capability known as Carrier Enabled Power Projection while the Senior Responsible Owner has lacked budgetary power and authority to bring coherence to its elements which draw upon the different forces.

As a result, and to address concerns raised by the Committee of Public Accounts, in response to our Carrier Strike report, the Department made the Programme Director of Carrier Strike a full-time, two-star role and gave the role of Senior Responsible Owner for Carrier Enabled Power Projection to a three-star officer responsible for capability decisions across the Department. This move has effectively strengthened the budgetary authority of the role and in April 2013 their mandate was also clarified. The Senior Responsible Owner chairs an Executive Programme Board which is attended by those responsible for the delivery of all of the key elements of the capability. These changes are a welcome clarification of previously inadequate governance arrangements; however, the Senior Responsible Owner will continue to face difficult challenges in successfully delivering the Carrier Strike capability and overcoming the historic, cultural differences between the forces.

I don’t even want to comment this. I think it speaks by itself. To keep the matter under some degree of control, it has taken the formation of a castle of multi-star posts, just like it happened when Joint Helicopter Command had to be formed to remedy to the inconvenient placement of the battlefield support helicopters under RAF command instead of in the hands of the Army.

Thanks for confirming once more that bringing the RAF into the business of naval aviation ranks high among the worst decisions ever made.

The only relief provided by the NAO report is the information that the Chief of Defence Staff is uncomfortable with the lack of carrier air capability and applied pressure to avoid gapping it for any longer time than strictly unavoidable. This is reassuring. However, Chiefs change, and the presence of the RAF in the carrier air equation risks being a source of problems and infighting forever. Will we always enjoy the presence of a Chief of Defence Staff capable to preserve the carrier capability, or will we end up having a new Harrier tragedy?

Or a Nimrod tragedy, too. You can choose your favorite disaster.

Lack of vision

Another stunning demonstration of the lack of honesty and understanding within the MOD planning is the disastrous approach to the replacement of the Airborne Early Warning capability currently provided to the fleet (and to the joint force, as the enduring commitment to Afghanistan demonstrates) by the Sea King MK7 ASaC.

Already some time ago I had written that I was only waiting for the inexorable coming of the idiotic comment sayings that, with no carriers in the water, we don’t need AEW either.

Could I be kept waiting for once? Of course not.

Defense News reports on the NAO document and notes the statement offered by Hammond in reply:

The Department does not consider that the phased introduction of Crowsnest undermines the delivery of carrier-strike capability. Crowsnest will enter service at the same time as HMS Queen Elizabeth and will be fully operational by 2022. Until then, its maritime surveillance capabilities will be augmented by other platforms and systems.

There is one, and one only advantage that an helicopter-based AEW solution offers over the much more capable Hawkeye aircraft: an helicopter can be based on almost any kind of modern warship.

Sea King MK7 has in recent times been operating from HMS Ocean as well as HMS Illustrious, and it has also been aboard Type 45 destroyers.

An helicopter AEW platform, or HEW, If you want, with the H for Heliborne, has the advantage that it can provide any kind of flotilla an invaluable AEW solution, even if there is no large flat top in sight.

HEW does NOT NEED the carrier.  

The carrier NEEDS the HEW platform.

Moreover, not only the carrier needs HEW, the whole fleet NEEDS HEW.

Conclusion: the lack of a carrier does nothing to reduce the importance of HEW.

The need for early warning of incoming air and, later on, missile attacks has been clear even since the 1940s. The massive air attacks, and the threat of the japanese Kamikaze in the Pacific theatre were the original driver for the quick development of early warning solutions.

First was the radar picket ship, vessels fitted with powerful radars sent ahead of the task force to form a first line of defence and to provide early warning to the thick of the force.

Of course, being on a picket ship was a very dangerous job: picket ships were the first to be attacked and the first to be sunk.

Desperation with this situation brought to the light a number of imaginative solutions, including the use of submersibles fitted with radars, destined to stay on the surface to track enemy air activity. Submersibles were harder to spot from the sky, and could always dive underwater, so they had much better chances of surviving the day. But they also made for poor platforms for air control radars.

Nonetheless, the US Navy did use many such EW vessels. The last such boat to be kitted for the role was a nuclear propelled submarine!

Fortunately, by then, technology had progressed enough to make airborne EW platforms viable and effective.

Already once the Royal Navy had the great idea of gapping the AEW capability. It was swiftly punished with the Falklands War, which saw the senior service having to take a step back in time, all the way to using picket ships and, to a degree, submarine EW as well, when five submarines formed a line on the edge of Argentina's 12-nautical-mile (22 km; 14 mi) territorial limit to provide some form of early warning of incoming air raids.  

A cost was paid for this in sunk ships and lost lives. HMS Sheffield is a good image of this, as she was a picket ship, deployed ahead of the main force to make up for the lost capability provided, until not much time before, by the Gannet AEW aircrafts of the old HMS Ark Royal (IV).

Evidently, not enough ships and lives were lost, because the MOD is once again planning to gap this vital capability, from 2016 all the way to 2020 or, more exactly, 2022. Four to six years of return to “stone age” for the Navy.

There is no hiding behind the superior capabilities of the Type 45 and of its Sea Viper missiles. Physics has not changed, and the radar horizon for the detection of low-flying enemies continues to be too close to the ship for defences to work properly.

And at the Falklands the threat was the subsonic Exocet. Today, the threat could well be a massive, supersonic Yakhont missile fired by the BASTION coastal defence batteries sold by Russia to countries such as Siria.

Defences might have improved, but offensive weapons also have, and a missile coming low on the waves at Mach 2 or 3 will leave a ship struggling to react in the few seconds it’ll have between detection of the incoming threat and impact.

But perhaps mr. Hammond believes that the enemy will not want to use its missiles against frigates, destroyers, amphibs and merchant ships. Maybe the enemy will only fire its missiles if there is a carrier to try and hit.

Maybe. But I don’t think so. And Hezbollah doesn’t, either. There’s many people out there who probably don’t agree with mr. Hammond.

I hope, not for him but for the sailors that would pay the ultimate price in such an event, that he can get away with this insane decision without having his own HMS Sheffield moment. 

A decision taken is never definitive  

Another dramatic problem is the dramatic way in which programs even of primary importance tend to drag on and on and on without ever delivering. Even when the MOD takes a decision and starts some kind of activity, it takes uncountable years and uncountable acronyms and "studies" and "assessment phases" and "main gates" and "planning rounds" to get any progress in. 
Again, we return to the tragedy of AEW. 

The Royal Navy has been trying to find a replacemet for Sea King MK7 for well over a decade. We were still in the 1990s when the Future Organic Airborne Early Warning Aircraft (FOAEW) started. And with further research we might find out that the activities started earlier still. 
In the early 2000s the acronym changed, to MASC (Maritime Airborne Surveillance and Control) and in 2010 we arrived to the current CROWSNEST name. 

Capability delivered: none. 

Only this year CROWSNEST has entered the Assessment Phase. The selected path is to fit palletized radar equipment to the existing fleet of Merlin HM2 helicopters, with two proposals to choose from: Northropp Grumman/Lochkeed propose the VIGILANCE radar pod, which they have been testing in flight since last year, on a Merlin HM2. 
Thales proposes migrating the CERBERUS/Searchwater 2000AEW kit from the existing Sea King MK7 to a the slightly modified Merlin HM2 airframe. 

Thales proposal, with existing radar from Sea King MK7 migrated and fitted on sliding rails on the side of the Merlin HM2 fuselage.
The Vigilance pod proposed by Lochkeed.
Nothing revolutionary at all, in other words. It proposes to use an helicopter which will return in full service after the upgrade to HM2 standard over the next year. An helicopter that is currently planned to leave service in 2030, notably. 
If Thales wins, even the radar could remain the same, perhaps just touched up a bit. 

Yet they are dragging it along, for budget and non-budget reasons, so much to expect an entry in service only in 2020, with systems that won't be fully operational before the end of 2022. 
That's 9 years from the start of the Assessment Phase, and well over two decades after the whole saga began.    

To set the proportions straight, the E2 Hawkeye was born from a US Navy requirement in 1956, entered service as E2A in 1964 and by 1971 it had been completely upgraded twice, up to E2C standard. All in 15 years

I won't add anything else. I think facts speak loud enough. 


  1. Excellent commentary again, Gabriele. I do, however, detect a note of weariness with the British establishment's propensity to expend time and money in vast amounts manoeuvering around issues rather than addressing them. It appears to take as long for us to get something into service as it does Italy to get Sr. Berlusconi into jail!

    1. Wrong. We might never get Berlusconi in jail, in fact... his colleagues very much deserve to follow him there, after all.
      They won't allow him to open the way, i fear.

  2. It seems to me that UK's future security strategy and consequent defense implementation is purely driven by budget (or lack of it to be more precise) consideration.

  3. Excellent analysis, thank you. In essence what we have with the QEC/F35B is an oversized "force projection ship" which is not optimised for any role, certainly not fleet air defence. No doubt the RN will muddle through and make the best of a bad situation but it looks like the whole carrier project has been a massive wasted opportunity.

  4. By Opinion3

    How do these people sleep at time gapping AEW?

    The other two bugbears are

    Sell/mothball a carrier - are you serious?
    Sell Sentinel - its new, works and used frequently.

    When its been paid for keep it, when it hasn't (maybe the Army Wildcats) cancel or delay procurement. I rate Hammond but these three decisions are the stuff of loonies.

    I should note that the QE and POW I expect to be both in service, and I also expect the Sentinels to be kept in service.

    1. We all expect the QEs to both make it into service. It is also widely expected that Sentinel will stay and Reaper will also be brought into core.

      But as a matter of fact, these are still little more than hopes. It is not policy. It is not a plan. They are leaving it all undecided, waiting for 2015...

  5. This three way struggle going on between the services needs to stop we need a forward as one strategy, Either that or the Raf needs to be folded back into the army and royal navy, army running the helicopters, Navy the fixed wing.

  6. An excellent, concise and sadly all too accurate article on the current pickle(s) we find ourselves in. We don't even appear to be making any effort to prolong the use of the Sea King HEWs (I like the term) until Merlin is ready. Bonkers.

  7. Gaby

    "the MOD is once again planning to gap this vital capability, from 2016 all the way to 2020 or, more exactly, 2022. Four to six years of return to “stone age” for the Navy."

    I would concur absolutely with Wise Ape on prolonging the use of the Sea King AEW variants. Surely we can never risk capital ships like "Illustrious" and "Ocean" on the high seas without adequate AEW, let alone hugely expensive capital ships like the CVFs, when they finally come on stream. If Crowsnest does not reach full operating capability until the last quarter of 2022, then that leaves two years when even those ships will not be protected, doesn't it? Madness! The solution must be to "run on" the "Baggies".

  8. The passion here is understandable and commendable, but the issues this report exposes (and it's worth remembering that it's mainly about the reversion decision, not the original SDSR decision) are mostly about risk and its management. The MOD doesn't have the luxury of operating with an unlimited budget, and it can't create equipment out of thin air, so it has to prioritise. At the moment, that means concentrating on what supports current operations (mostly Afghanistan), and what operates against current or the highest probability threats.

    So with AEW, it's neither 'insane' nor 'bonkers'. Essentially MOD has increased its risk - it knows it has a weakness now (and then a gap from 2016), but at least it understands this. What that does is reduce options in terms of what we can do, or mean that when we conduct operations in certain areas we'll need support from allies. It's only when it comes to making an actual decision on the deployment of forces - do they send out the Response Force Task Group into a high-threat area without AEW - that we'll know whether they're bonkers or not.

    And that's why we get the response on a 'layered defence'. Because you can use Sentry if you're near to land, or Type 45, or embarked Wildcat or Merlin to provide some form of defence, but it won't be nearly as good as AEW (ie not very 'early'). MOD would be silly if it claimed it was an equivalent level of protection. And if we're conducting major operations it's likely we'll have allied AEW (in fact, even with SKASaC, isn't 1982 the last time we put ourselves into a high-threat area without Allied shipping?).

    So this is all about making the best of a bad hand. After 2015, and the end of operations in Afghanistan, we can expect to see the Army resetting and priority coming to the Navy as part of the focus on regenerating contingency operations. At that point, the limited headroom in the budget becomes important because that's what could be allocated to the carriers, or to accelerate Crowsnest (the delay of which has been almost entirely budgetary - the technology is pretty well understood and mature). Even as it stands, the first Crowsnest fitted Mk3 start flying in 2020 according to the NAO graphic above, and you could have enough for an initial operating capability by the end of that year or 2021 (bearing in mind FOC is about numbers and breadth of use - you can deploy before then).

    So the situation is deeply uncomfortable, but it's wrong to say there's no thinking being done or planning assumptions being made (eg on Reaper and Sentinel); as MOD said regardig the HCDC report on maritime surveillance (another area with considerable weaknesses) they're conducting an Air ISTAR study and looking as unmanned systems for the Navy (later than the US, but better late than never).

    The Securocrat

    1. I just cannot agree. AEW will be lost two years after Afghanistan is over. As of now, it is there. Out in Afghanistan, and on HMS Ocean/Illustrious for Libya ops, for the Olympics or for a Cougar deployment.

      It is not Afghanistan the cause, and it is not wise planning. It just isn't.
      And it isn't coherent, either, when you claim with pride that you are "boosting ISTAR" and then:

      - remove maritime ISTAR almost entirely losing both MPA and AEW

      - say you will withdraw Sentinel

      - still plan not to take Reaper into core budget

      If this is boosting ISTAR, better not to try and think what it would be like if they said they were downgrading it.

      Is the MOD aware of the problem? I really much hope so.
      Still, it's not a valid excuse in my book.

  9. I would point out while that the £1.5 billion lengthening of the CVF build process while not adding any capability did pay for the industrial capability being retained in the UK, between the different projects avoiding what happened with the Astute Class subs. This is something often overlooked.

    1. It is overlooked because it is not quite true. 1.5 billion is a lot of money, and it could have been used to buy something else at the end of the carrier construction.

      As the NAO reminded us in its reports, the delays imposed to the Astutes have already cost the MOD almost as much as ordering that 8th submarine that the first sea lord had been pretty much crying for.

      It just wasn't a smart way to run the defence budget, overcommitting every penny, year on year, and then having to cut or delay programs (increasing overall costs) because there was no money in-year to pay even for long-running projects the MOD knew all too well it had to finance.
      That's how the black hole came into life, and THIS is what is too often overlooked. Better to remember it, and avoid doing it again.

  10. Hi Gabriele. I understand your thinking on the idea that the carriers will be used for much more than just Air warfare and will be most likely also used to carry marines/helicopters

    well almost certainly as they're seems to be no replacement for HMS Ocean.

    but surely this concept though is going to prevent us from being able to engage in all types of operations.

    what if a scenario existed that we had to to be able to deploy amphibious troops onto land but also provide air cover for them against an enemy that too also had air cover. to do that u would have to deploy that carrier extremely close to land to deploy the troops via helicopters (due to there limited range of helicopters). that would create less maneuverability, threat of ground based anti-ship missiles, less radar coverage and the possibility of saturation air attacks (like in San Carlos bay, Falklands). also because it would be carrying transport helicopters there would be a limited number of F35's (would that reduced number be able to cope with the enemy air threat??) surely they cant be used in this way?? it seems awfully risky to the carriers. But also much reduced capability from having a dedicated LPH supported by a carrier.

    Although i appreciate this situation would be very rare and that in a situation such as a sierra Leone the carrier acting as both a carrier and a LPH would work fine.

    the problem could be solved in that situation with the deployment of both carriers. one with an air group and the other the helicopters/marines. but as of now we are currently hearing that the other carrier will be in extended readiness or may even be sold, so that looks unlikely to happen at the current moment of thinking.

    What are your views on this?

    1. My view is simple: if they don't keep both in service, it's useless to even continue debating the subject because it means there really is no hope of ever getting anything right.

    2. Have to agree without both carriers the royal navy is finished as an effective fighting force

  11. Gabby

    From a doctrinal / concept of operations perspective there is nothing wrong with an amphibious capability based on seperate classes of ship, e.g. LSD, LPH etc.

    As you point out the Albion carry the majority of landing craft, they are also the amphibious ops command ship AND they should have had hangers, which were of course cut out of the design for cost reasons.

    However separate types of ship, should actually be cheaper to procure and run than Mistral / Juan Carlos / WASP class etc. Considerable aviation facilities, a wet dock and vehicle and personnel transport capacity all in one vessel makes for a more complex and thus more expensive design.

    IF HMG funded defence appropriately, then an RN / RFA ARG of:

    1 x Albion
    1 x LPH
    2 x ALSD (Bay Class)
    2 x Ro-Ro

    (with the other ships of each class in maintenance / refit / work up etc) then this is a far greater capability than for example France pulling together 2 x Mistral.



    1. The LHD is not very cheap to build, no. But building and running four ships (2 LPD and 2 LPHs) in place of two isn't any cheaper.
      It can deliver greater overall capability, but it is a very expensive solution. That's why the LHD type is growing so popular all around the world.

    2. in hindsight a cavour or mistral type ship equipped to handle F-35B's in a USMC type fashion probably would have been a better way to go. the Brits could still surge F-35B's when necessary but on balance would be able to deploy a very capable force ashore when needed. lesson learned i guess. in the future i can really see the LHD becoming the "new" aircraft carrier especially if attack fighter sized drones can be launched and recovered from them.

      i too sense your astonishment with the current scale of the cutbacks to the militaries of the West. whats more shocking is that in the Pacific, almost every nation is building up its forces. even little Indonesia is about to have one of the most capable armored forces in the region...qualitatively equal to and numerically superior to Australia and Japan...and China and India are spending like there is no tomorrow.

      which brings me to an ironic thing. India hopes to have two full size carriers in service by the end of this year! India!

      i end my rant with a request. i'm having difficulty finding information on Italian Marines (amphibious forces might be a better description) if you could cover it in the future, I would be grateful!

    3. I will keep it in mind, and perhaps take some time in the future to write a piece on the reforms to the armed forces here in Italy. It is certainly a topic with its elements of interest... and italian armed forces do not get a lot of spotlight in the media, so i guess it could be nice to step in on that.

    4. Open it up further, a biopsy of the major military powers would be interesting.

    5. I would like to write a piece (or better, a series of pieces, probably) that will allow a comparison between France, Germany, Italy and UK in quality of leading military powers in Europe. It has been in my mind for a while. It does take time and lots of work, though.

    6. Looking forward to it.

  12. Nice article as ever. Cant agree enough on AEW.

    To be fair to the endless debate on F35B tho. It does have several advantages to C.

    Its faster by about .2 Mach. It have an improved sortie rate between 1.2 and 1.5 estimate. And can be operated in higher sea states as did harrier.

    Plus of course austier land basing, but lets not get into that :)

    1. On the higher sortie rate, i have my reservations. It does seem to be mainly a US Marines calculation, built on some very specific assumptions, namely on the kind of sortie, its duration and the range at which is performed. We are talking of quite brief sorties, consisting in take off, short range cruise, ground strike, return.

      If we use a more demanding sortie example, and put the hours spent in the air on the same level, the number of sorties isn't higher at all. It equals the C, or is perhaps lower, due to the B requiring more maintenance hours per flying hour. This "trick" is exposed by the fact that the F35B for the UK, which calculates its sortie requirements differently from the USMC, generates much lower number of sorties than the pretty much identical USMC F35B, and just about as many sorties as the F35C.

      The advantage of the F35B over the F35C, eventually, comes to play in presence of particularly rough weather and sea state, in which STOVL normally allows operations to continue, while CATOBAR flying is severely hampered.

  13. it is also MUCH easier to land on a carrier and requires far less training. Dont lets kid ourselves - at least half of our F35's will be flown by our light blue brethren, and in terms of 'ownership' it has already been decided that the RAF will be the lead service in all matters JCA. If we had gone for the 'C' then it would primarily have been seen by the RAF as a replacement for Tornado, and only the FAA's NSW ( a single Squadron perhaps?) would have spent anything like the time necessary to build and maintain currency in carrier skills. Landing the 'B' is much much easier than the Harrier, but even with the Harrier, for a trained RAF VSTOL pilot landing at sea was not a difficult task, indeed in 1982 many of the 1 Squadron pilots made their very first landing on a ship when they joined up with Hermes in the middle of the Atlantic. By opting for the 'B' we ensure that we will be able to surge when we need, and a 24 (+) JCA airgroup may become something we exercise regularly, if not frequently as one would wish..


    1. That opens up a whole other endless debate, though, about the very unfortunate decision to put the fate of naval aviation effectively in the hands of the RAF.

      At least it served as an example to the world, where when decision time comes the very first thing that there is agreement on is "let's keep away from that RN/RAF joint-thing mess"...

  14. Hi Gabriele,

    Thought you might you and your readers might like to see this:

    A huge amount of data and correspondence on the carriers.

  15. Hi Gabriele
    If I interpret you my way, you are suggesting that if we have to go to war, we would be shafted,
    Under manned , under shipped , under aircraft , basically under every thing,
    Perhaps mr farage was right, when he said the whole of the MOD should be scrapped,
    As they have no idea what they are buying , doing , operating ,and just wasting billions on there own vanity,
    We need help badly it seems , for our sake and the poor people who have to defend the MOD foul ups,
    But anyway-
    Was not the carriers supposed to be future proofed, to be upgraded with traps ect, when they came in for service,
    Can we ask to ship builders to work 24-7 to bring the carriers on line earlier,
    And why, with modern technology cant we produce a British built jump jet,

    I know all these things depend on money, but if, and only if we withdraw from the European union, would Britain have billions to spare,
    Thus the savings from our fees to the EU.
    Sorry if this sounds boring, but I am interested in having a fighting chance, rather that a political situation..

    crissof herts

    1. The F35B IS the Harrier replacement. Producing a British alternative would be an extremely expensive and protracted process. Not worth the effort and expense given that the market for such a jet is limited and most of the nations who want STOVL have already committed themselves to the F35B. I think single-nation projects for complex kit like this are a thing of the past, certainly for nations with finite resources.

    2. thanks for the reply.

  16. Scrap RAF. F35 to RM (AS USMC), Typhoon / Transports to Army.

  17. Very interesting article, which, as always, encompasses many different issues of the same larger matter to finalize the analysis.

    In this case "the lack of any capability to clearly select a path and follow it through with coherence".

    Recently, the French military released a white paper, that also was commented here, about strategic and budgetary guidance for the next decade.

    What you deem more worrisome? The relative lack of vision of the UK or the French vision that anyway acknowledge the needs for bitter cuts and reductions (most notable of all, and relevant to this very topic, the explicit demission of the second aircraft carrier)?

    1. The french are cutting back on their force, but not as badly as the UK. Crucially, even without a second carrier, they are working well to introduce a lot of precious capability, and they are preserving those they have.

      They might not be buying Rivet Joints like the RAF, but they are putting satellites for ELINT and SIGINT intelligence into orbit.

      They might not have C17, but they plan a lot more A400 and the cargo variant of the A330 MRRT, differently from the RAF.

      They have a capable naval aviation and they will update their Hawkeye, perhaps ordering a fourth if they can squeeze it in the budget (they have already asked the US about it).

      They are not losing their Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability.
      They will have slightly fewer top-end escorts on paper, but a greater number of properly kitted ASW ships (11 against 8 for the UK).

      They will have slightly fewer main battle tanks, but a much more mechanised army.

      Overall? France is definitely in a better position than the UK, despite planning for an Army at a readiness level a bit lower than the UK's one.

  18. OT: Finally HMS Daring/Type 45s get to flex their muscles with South East Asian counterparts.

    There should be more FPDA exercises. Time to make use of the logistics deport in Singapore.

  19. I am hoping that X4 MARS SSS can help fill the capability gaps but I still figure that someone is assessing that we can defeat submarine and air threats with our subs and X8 ASW frigates and X6 AD destroyers. This is foolhardy IMHO


    1. We can only hope in 3 MARS SSS vessels, and that's the best case...

  20. Seens the FAA/Navy and MoD is just not bothering with crowsnest. Shambles, seems they are as ineot as the RAF is at times. But well, the SK could soldier on for a bit... but its a vital asset to the fleet.

    I wont comment on your thoughts re the F35. But I agree on crowsnest, those 8 'stored' merlins should be used...though I fear they may now be stripped of parts :/

  21. Gaby

    Why do you think there will only be three MARS SSS vessels? Wasn't the original intention to have four? Have I missed something?

    1. The MARS FT (Fleet Tanker) is due to deliver 4 ships, and is under contract, with the hulls built in South Korea.

      The current MARS SSS (Solid Support Ship) is planning for three large vessels meant to replace Fort Victoria, Fort Austin and Fort Rosalie.
      The MARS SSS requirement was originally for two separate classes of vessels, and 5 hulls in total: two Solid Support vessels for the fleet, and 3 specialized Joint Sea Based Logistic vessels, particularly aimed at supporting amphibious operations and, anyway, forces ashore, not just ships out at sea.

      Unfortunately, the JSBL is now gone, and a SSS class of 3 vessels is meant to do it all.

      Unless there are further cuts. The SSS is going to be one of the projects asking for attention (and cash) in the SDSR 2015.
      It will have to compete with other calls for access to the promised 8 billion headroom in the budget.

  22. Gaby

    Thanks for your very detailed reply. Position now very clear to me.

  23. With all the cutbacks to escort vessels are there any plans to fit CAAM or some other short range sam to these carriers to help increase their survivability, inline with other supercarriers?

    1. A study finished in March this year regarding the cost of integrating CAMM missiles on the carriers. I don't know what the result was, and nothing has been heard since. Sincerely, i don't think there will be money for it anytime soon.

      Carrier will have decoys, 3x Phalanx CIWS and 3/4x 30mm guns, but i'm not expecting missiles, at least for now.

  24. Why not the Italian AW 101-AEW?

    1. Because the performance of the AEW radar selected by the italian navy turned out being disappointing, so the RN is not really interested. Even the Italian Navy will be on the look out to try and find something better in the future, most likely.

      Moreover, the italian HEW solution replaces the maritime radar of the Merlin with one larger radar but mounted in the same place.
      The RN does not want to remove the maritime/surface search radar from its Merlins to replace it with an AEW one: the RN wants to keep its Merlins as they are now, so they can be used as ASW or AEW depending on the needs of the moment, embarking or disembarking the palletized AEW kit.
      The italian HEW solution does not really allow such an approach.

  25. Using only the F-35 in the Carrier Air Wing as THE fighter is not really OK to me. Even the future USN wings will still retain Super Hornets. As what you said the F-35 is a bomb truck, comparatively stealthy of course. It just won't fit well in a dogfight or air combat, without sacrificing its stealth.
    Simplifying logistics and the SVTOL capability is important (as well as costs.....), but personally I still support the CATOBAR/STOBAR solution. The F-35s will continue to serve its role as a stealth fighter. It can be used in SEAD/strike missions to take out Air defense and C5I systems to make use of its stealth. Afterwards Typhoons can mop up, which they will also be doing half of the A2A work.

    As a side note, I prefer F-15SEs to complement F-22s and F-35s in USAF. Again I am very much worried about the F-35's Air combat capability and performance against planes like Su-35s, non-5th gens that might be a tough opponent in Air combat. (The payload too). Silent Eagles would fill the gap between F-22s and F-35s, as a semi-stealthy cheaper general purpose aircraft, leaving the other two to do what they are best at.

    PS: Just an amateur on Military, hope you don't mind.

    1. I'm not worried by the F35's performances as a fighter. And the Super Hornet is hardly a superior air defence platform: the reason why it'll keep working hard for many years to come has more to do with budget than with performance.

      CATOBAR was desirable for other reasons: access to the F35C, which is overall superior. Fail-safe plan B with the option of going Super Hornet if the F35 becomes just too expensive or fails to meet some crucial requirements.
      The possibility of going Hawkeye for AEW. The possibility to have serious COD and embarked air tanking capability, and the future-proofing of being ready to embark large UAVs/UCAVs in the future.

    2. Well of course Hawkeyes, UAVs and other support planes is a another reason I support CATOBAR.

      What I meant by having Super Hornets (and carrier version of Typhoon) in the Air Wing is that the F-35 has limited stealth payload. Yes, it can carry similar amount of weapons externally but that would not be ideal while engaging forces with advanced AD capability due to reduced stealth.

      The Navy does not have a F-22 type all air superiority plane, and the internal AA payload of the F-35 is at most 6 AMRAAM (no short range Sidewinders). I am not too familiar with Stealth but I assume carrying more externally would affect it. The Super Hornet would carry a load of missiles and take on less capable non-5th gens with much ease while the F-35 focus on 5th gens and Enemy AA, Radar sutes and AD system.

      Basically is this:

      "The primary purpose of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is to fulfill the ground attack duties now performed by aircraft like the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-18 Hornet, and AV-8B Harrier. In other words, the JSF is often referred to as a "bomb truck" that will attack ground targets once the skies have been cleared of any enemy fighter threat by dedicated air superiority fighters like the F-22 Raptor and F-15 Eagle.
      The biggest driver behind the overall design of the JSF is affordability. The military needs to purchase a large quantity of this class of aircraft to complement larger and more capable planes like the F-22 and F-18E/F Super Hornet that are too expensive to buy in large quantities.
      It is these two factors--its mission as a ground attack platform and the need for low cost--that largely dictate the size, layout, and weapons carriage capabilities of the F-35."

  26. Hi Gabriele,

    Off topic, but as we near the end of the budget round for 2015, and the axe falls on the MoD yet again.
    What do you think will be cut from the budget and have you heard any rumours on that subject?
    I assume that the MoD will have to cut 2 to 3 billion, and that this will mostly come from killing some equipment programmes, and having less white board money?


    1. I have absolutely no idea, and i don't want to think about it, as long as i can avoid to.

  27. Hi Gabriele,
    We at DefenceSynergia continue to fight for cats and traps, as does Nigel Ward, the plain fact is they chose the wrong Aircraft and the wrong catapult. Something we believe can still, even at this late stage, be corrected before 2020.

    What ever happens, the MoD have a due-diligence case to answer, as we believe the UK will never own more than 48 F35B and they certainly failed to explore properly all the options.


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