Saturday, April 5, 2014

The incoming aircraft carriers: more than just carriers

HMS Queen Elizabeth will be officially named in a ceremony planned for July 4, and the ship will be pulled out of dry dock soon afterwards, so that a major, historic milestone is quickly approaching. The importance of these new carriers for the Royal Navy goes beyond the "simple" regeneration of naval fixed wing aircraft capability, expanding well into the amphibious domain. This truth has not yet been fully understood by many external observers, which continue to focus on impressive, but far less relevant aspects of the program. In this article i want to take a look at the current situation and explain how the carrier's air group is taking shape.
There is still confusion about what role the new aircraft carrier(s?) will have in the Royal Navy once they enter in service. Of course there’s realistic worrying about having enough aircraft embarked, both because doubts reasonably remain on how the RAF will utilize the aircraft (which it owns) and because the UK’s order for the F-35B is currently standing at 48, down from what once was an ambition for 150, then 138 from roughly 2006 onwards. More orders might be made in the 2020s, but no one is willing to bet on those as of now, and actually even the planned buy of 48 has to pass through the SDSR 2015 and multiple successive Gate points, which might actually reduce the number even further. I will try and provide a more in depth explanation of what is happening.

More than anything else, however, in this article i want to explain just how important the new carriers are for the future of the british amphibious capability as well. This is a key aspect, which needs to be cleared, because getting the carriers wrong would not only end the Fleet Air Arm's fixed wing branch once and for all, but also deal a very heavy blow to the Royal Marines. 

The aircraft to be carried

The Joint Combat Aircraft program, which is the purchase of the F-35B, is currently sitting at its Main Gate 4 decision point. This major development was announced a few weeks ago, with Philip Hammond releasing an interview to the BBC and with several reports appearing on the press. This main gate reportedly covers the purchase of 14 F-35B plus spares and infrastructure investment, not better specified yet, to support the whole planned fleet. It was understood that a formal announcement in Parliament would follow, but so far this has not happened. 

Of course, this silence has been interpreted by some as a way of the british government to distance itself from the F-35B, but this is absolutely false. There was never going to be a big contract signed at once for the 14 jets, but only an internal budget-setting exercise to cover purchases that will happen over several years, in different production lots, over multiple contracts signed through the F-35 Joint Project Office and the Pentagon.
The idea seems to entail receiving 14 F-35B by 2018, in order to form the training fleet in Beaufort and stand up the core of the first operational squadron (617 Sqn RAF). The UK has already ordered four jets, three of which are instrumented test aircraft destined to the soon-to-stand-up OEU Sqn (XVII Sqn RAF) on Edwards AFB, in the United States. BK-1, BK-2 and BK-4 are the instrumented aircraft, while BK-3 is not instrumented and will join the operational or training fleet.
The training fleet (expected to eventually number some 6 aircraft, judging from earlier plans) will be based on the US Marines air base Beaufort, where, in 2016, 617 Sqn will officially stand up again (the squadron disbanded on 1st April this year, with the Tornado GR4). The core of the squadron will be trained in America, before transferring in the UK, in Marham, by 2018. 

Aircraft Carrier Alliance image
If this plan is respected, the 14 aircraft the UK will soon be ordering will have to be spread at most on LRIP 8, LRIP 9 and possibly LRIP 10. This is based on the roughly 2 years it takes from contract finalization to delivery. The UK has long been expected to order 4 F-35B in LRIP 8, and on March 25, 2014, the Long Lead contract for the LRIP 9 has been signed, including materials for 6 F-35Bs for the UK. That leaves 4 more to be ordered later in LRIP 10 to make up the total of 14. The aircrafts in production lots beyond the 10th would only be delivered in 2019 and in the following years, as roughly two years separate the signing of the final production contract and the delivery of the airplane. 
In early march there was also the news of a 7 million dollar contract signed for site-activation activities for starting to make RAF Marham the main operating base for the british F-35Bs. So, even if without a formal announcement in Parliament, the acquisition programme is indeed going on.

RAF Marham is expected to be built up to include a full Integrated Training Centre, which means the UK plans to step away from training in the US to do things domestically. The ITC won’t begin operations before 2019, but we can expect investment for it to begin soon enough, if the plan does not change. The UK appears interested to gain money by selling training services in its ITC to other European customers of the F-35. Mainly, talks are ongoing with Norway. A recent agreement is pretty clear in foreshadowing the idea at the base of the collaboration: Norway’s state-owned AIM hopes to do depot maintenance for the engines of the british F-35 fleet. AIM signed an agreement with Lochkeed Martin and Pratt & Whitney in april 2012 to secure its role as a depot maintenance hub for the F-135 engine, and now wants to secure a long term gain, exploiting such role.
Norway, in exchange, would send its pilots training in the british ITC, instead of sending them all the way to Luke, in the US. 

It has been announced in Parliament that the F-35s will not wear squadron specific colors, but only the low-visibility grey national markings. Hope there will be a rethink...
... so we can see something like this. Image by
Or at least, something like this, in grey. Image @ Al Clark,
Depending on how things go with the announced new Defence White Paper in Italy, UK and Norway will probably have new talks with Rome about expanded cooperation. The Italian FACO in Cameri is expected to become the regional MRO facility for the F-35, which means doing depot maintenance and upgrades installation for the aircraft of the USAF-Europe as well as those of all other countries that will buy in.
As of today, a single MRO centre is expected in Europe and in the Mediterranean area, so that the options will be restricted: UK and Norway will have to choose between Cameri and the MRO facilities in the US.
Italy could collaborate with the UK by co-financing Meteor missile integration (discussions ongoing) and by sending its personnel to the UK for training in the british ITC, instead of sending people all the way to Luke and Beaufort in the USA. In exchange, the british F-35Bs could have their depot maintenance done in Cameri. Finding a fair agreement with Norway will be tougher, as Italy has already agreed to have its F-135 engines serviced by the Dutch, which are getting their F-35s assembled (and in future maintained) in Cameri in exchange.

As of October 2013, Lockheed Martin expects that the UK, in 2018, will have taken delivery of some 17 aircraft, with 9 based in Marham with 617 Sqn, 3 in Edwards with XVII Sqn, and 5 more as training fleet in Beaufort. 

The expected 2018 situation for the F-35, as of October 2013

In terms of UK-specific trials, work to develop and validate the Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing tecnique has resumed after being stopped over 2010 and 2011 when the plan was temporarily changed in favor of acquiring the C variant of the F-35. Work is now ongoing with computer simulations in Warton. SRVL will improve performance in hot climates, produce less stress on the vertical lift system and add thousands of pounds of useful payload at recovery. The F-35B is to be capable to land vertically with some 5000 pounds of unused fuel and ordnance, which is a value far higher than the Harrier's and close to the 6000 pounds carrier bring back of the old F-18 Hornet, but it could prove insufficient were the aircraft to be heavily loaded with, for example, Storm Shadow cruise missiles that the UK hopes to integrate in the future. 
SRVL could add some 2000 lbs of additional payload margin, which would do wonders to enable safe operations with heavy configurations. 

It has also been reported that it is likely that up to three F-35Bs, including one of the british ones, will do their first flight across the Atlantic in the Summer, to participate at the RIAT and Farnborough airshow. 

Beyond the F-35B

The CROWSNEST program for the replacement of the Sea King MK7 ASaC has finally started to roll, and the In Service Date has been moved closer in time, to reduce the gap that will be formed when the Sea King goes out of service.

The Merlin HM2 fleet will be fitted with a palletized radar suite enabling the helicopters to take up the role of Airborne Surveillance and Control platforms. 

The Merlin HC3 and HC3A of the Royal Air Force are going to be navalized and transformed into amphibious support helicopters, under a contract which has finally been signed. It will however take time to have the whole fleet of 25 machines fully ready.

Last, but not least, the Apache attack helicopters of the British Army are now being all fitted with additional naval features, including an emergency flotation device, to enable them to serve on board of warships in a safer and more effective way.

Details of these and other helicopter programs can be found in this detailed article.

A key role in amphibious operations

A factor that not always is kept in mind when talking of the new carriers, however, is that they will not just be fundamental to restore the british capability to deploy airpower at sea and from the sea, but they will also be absolutely vital for ensuring that the amphibious capability of the UK continues to exist and to respect the levels set by the SDSR 2010.
The defence planning assumption is that the Royal Navy has to be able to land a Royal Marines commando group with related vehicles, helicopters and supports, sealifting and then landing a total of roughly 1800 men.
This is only possible using one LPD of the Albion class, one LPH and the three remaining Bay class LSDs. The LPD is fundamental because it brings to the party the command and control facilities and the most part of the landing crafts available to the group, as well as vehicles and substantial amounts of stores. The LPH is fundamental as it carries the most men and almost the totality of the helicopters. The LPD and the LSDs have very limited aviation facilities, and no hangar, so the LPH is absolutely vital in order to ensure that the battlegroup can be supported from the air and moved by air.
The LSDs transport men, boats and landing crafts, bulky materials, normally at least one army workboat, mexeflotes and a lot of the vehicles and stores of the group.

None of these components can go missing, otherwise the whole force is in serious trouble. The 1800 men figure is not casual: it is quite clearly calculated on summing the capacity of the vessels remaining in force.

LPD: 305 men
LSDs: 356 men (x 3)
LPH: around 600   

The Royal Navy has two LPDs, but only one is in service at any one time, following the SDSR 2010. Currently, HMS Bulwark is in service and acting as the flagship of the fleet, while HMS Albion has been de-stored, disarmed and tied up in Devonport, in the amphibious center now known as HMS Tamar, where it is languishing, sealed up and fitted with controlled humidity devices to preserve her. The plan as of now is that in 2016, when HMS Bulwark hits refit time, HMS Albion will be re-activated, and the two ships will swap places.

The LPHs are also two, as of now, but again this is virtual only: HMS Ocean is about to come out of major refit, while HMS Illustrious has been working as LPH / Commando Carrier in the meanwhile.
HMS Ocean will be back into action soon enough, but that will be the end of HMS Illustrious, as she will be decommissioned.
HMS Ocean is more or less just air assault. It can lower a pontoon in the water at the back that serves as a steel beach. Light vehicles can drive down a ramp and use the floating pontoon to board landing crafts, but the LPH carries just a relatively tiny number of small vehicles and trailers (tipically Land Rovers). Other than that, she is pure air assault. 

HMS Ocean with the floating steel beach deployed
An LCU MK10 carrying BV206 vehicles comes to the steel beach during exercises in Norway
HMS Ocean normally carries just L118 Light Guns, land rovers with trailers and some BV206s
This photo of HMS Ocean during operation Ellamy shows the steel beach pontoon folded up and stored on top of the structure protecting the vehicle ramp going down from flight deck to vehicle deck

HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are LPDs with an alarmingly low capacity for soldiers (only about 300 unless you start being less permissive with the space each man has, but that is not good for months-long deployments abroad which are now the norm for amphibious task groups including the RN's RFTG), and the LPDs offer limited air facilities, with no hangar.

The Point-class RoRo strategic sealift vessels are fundamental to carry stores and lots of vehicles for the support of the landing force, but they have no accommodation for troops, and can only carry vehicles and stores meant to be loaded ashore later, when the beach head is secure.
Besides, the Points are down to 4, from the 6 they used to be, as two were released from MOD service, despite the SDSR 2010 document promising specifically that all six would stay. 

The Point class Ro-Ro ships carry huge amounts of vehicles and stores
The LSDs used to be four, but the SDSR 2010 saw Largs Bay withdrawn from service and sold to Australia. Of the three that remain, one is permanently deployed in the Persian gulf (right now it is Cardigan Bay) to act as mothership for the MCM force based in Bahrain. Cardigan Bay has been fitted with a prefabricated shelter on deck, as a hangar of sorts, and has been recently assigned a permanent Lynx helicopter flight. It has also now been equipped with a Sea Eagle UAV system, which is entering in service in this week.

The end result is that the daily reality of the amphibious force is the ability to sealift and land a smaller force than the 1800 promised in the SDSR. The vessels can of course be crammed with more men for short periods of time (up to 700 on the LPD and LSDs, and over 800 on HMS Ocean) but this is not a very realistic capability, because it is not accompanied by an increase in stores and vehicles carried. And anyway, the men will start finding the crowded vessels unbearable very quickly, in a matter of days.

For a normal, yearly deployment such as Cougar 13 this year, the Response Force Task Group spends months at sea, so the ships are preferably lightly loaded in terms of men. The already mentioned Cougar 13 is a good example: 42 Commando, the formation currently at high readiness, did not embark whole on the ships. For example, Lima company was flown out to Albania ahead of the rest of the formation moving on the ships. The occasion was exploited to conduct mountain training.
The company then traded place with Kilo company. The end result is that the amphibious battlegroup pretty much never was fully present at once on the ships. Aside from the training requirements dictating the independent movements of companies, the availability of only 2 Bay-class LSDs has obviously part of the responsibility.

The big problem on the horizon, however, is the planned decommissioning of HMS Ocean, without replacement, in 2019. The task force however obviously continues to require a big platform for the amphibious assault helicopters and for the transport of hundreds of men, and this is where the carriers step in.
Since the platform for helicopters is going without a direct replacement, the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers will have to be hybrids. It is not a choice, it is an unavoidable necessity. And hopefully the new ships can pull such a mixed role off. They will be, in fact, closer to America than to a supercarrier. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines will need to be able to cram hundreds of marines into Queen Elizabeth, along with some stores and perhaps some air-liftable vehicles and L118 Light Guns too. Helicopters, including Chinook and Apache, will have to be carried. And in addition to that, at least a squadron of F-35B, if airpower is to be finally brought back to the fleet.
The fact that the new vessels are so large gives hope that the hybrid role can be covered well, despite the design of the ship being clearly centered on delivering fast jet sorties, not to land and support troops ashore.

The Royal Navy has finally formally recognized the need to operate the new carrier as a hybrid in the SDSR 2010, with the public description of the Carrier Enabled Power Projection concept. A surprisingly detailed note was shown in the SDSR fact sheets, when it was described that:

We will plan concurrently to operate a mix of helicopters as well as Joint Strike Fighters from the carrier. This will include up to 12 Chinook or Merlin transport helicopters and eight Apache attack helicopters. The precise mix will depend on the mission.

There are obvious challenges to be faced and won, if this has to work. Embarking and employing simultaneously jets and helicopters for amphibious assaults is not at all easy. The US Marines do it routinely on ships smaller than the QE-class carriers, but specifically thought all along for such use. And anyway, the fixed wing component they use in such cases is normally made up by just 6 Harriers (possibly growing up to 10 F-35B on the new America LHAs). Obviously, they enjoy the formidable cover offered by the US Navy supercarriers: the UK doesn’t, so it will have to embark more jets to give the task force proper cover.
A key difficulty is finding suitable space for the many hundred men needed. Fast jets and helicopters require a large number of maintenance and deck personnel, and having to add hundreds of Royal Marines means needing lots of accommodations.
The needs of the Royal Marines are different from those of an aircraft ground engineer, besides: the Marines need space for their weapons and kit, and also need to be accommodated in spaces properly dimensioned and located around the vessel: they need to be able, once kitted up and ready to go, to walk easily up to the flight deck or to the ship’s boats, to board landing crafts and helicopters.

Fortunately, a secondary role as Commando Carrier was always part of the aircraft carriers design, so that there are wide corridors and spaces for the embarkation of troops. The December 2013 issue of Navy News includes one of the very first, rare mentions of these arrangements. There are accommodation quarters for “easily” 250 men, with wide assault routes. 250 men, however, will not be enough, and it will always be a struggle to balance embarked forces and air wing personnel numbers and accommodations. 
The Marines will probably be able to board boats and landing crafts from the boat boarding area in the stern of the carriers, which can be accessed via stairs going down from the hangar deck. It has not yet been cleared whether the boat areas of the carriers feature spaces and cranes sufficient for the embarkation of LCVP MK5 landing crafts. 

This photo, courtesy of, shows well the stairs leading down to the boat boarding area. A crane is fitted to a sponson just beneath the flight deck level, and it could be useful to move stores to and from boats coming up behind the carrier.
It is not yet clear if the larger boat areas are LCVP MK5 capable. Image from
This image from earlier phases of the building process shows (evidenced in blue by me) one of the large openings in the sponsons for the launch and recovery of ship's boats.

Other problems come from trying to operate large number of helicopters as well as fixed wing jets. The design of the deck of the carrier is being developed and refined with these conflicting needs in mind. As of September 2013, the Royal Navy was reportedly trying to carefully design the deck to achieve 10 helicopter ops spots.

If the “hybrid carrier” works, we will have a high value vessel which will be forced to sail far closer to the shore than we'd like it to. It is true that the Royal Navy is planning for escort ships sporting flight decks big enough to easily accommodate even the Chinook (Type 45 already in service, and even the new Type 26 frigate is planned to have such capability), which could be used as forward refueling sites to allow the carrier to stay further back and still fly troops ashore by helicopter, but the feasibility of such concept is questionable.

At least, even with all the conflicting requirements crammed together, all the three key capabilities of any naval / amphibious task force will be present: fast jets for air cover and support, helicopters, troops.
But if it does not work, we will have a disaster, with amphibious capabilities badly maimed and with air strike capabilities set to remain dramatically limited by the very small number of F-35B that are going to be purchased. In practice, the gap in embarked fixed wing aviation would be closed (at least in part), but a gap in amphibious rotorcraft capability and simply in amphibious troops lift will open, making the whole task force just as crippled. It would be a case of swapping  a problem for another.

The next time someone asks what the carriers are for, or wonders why they are so big, remind them that they are very much needed, and that their huge sizes are to be blessed, as smaller vessels would never be able to approach the kind of mixed role that lays ahead. And no, there is no guarrantee at all that building smaller carriers would have been made it possible to also build dedicate LHDs. It is pretty likely that the cost of more numerous, relatively smaller ships would have been equal, if not higher, especially considering that the CVF vessels have very small crews. More, smaller ships would have almost certainly required more personnel to crew and support them, and personnel is exactly what the Royal Navy post SDSR does not have.

It is painful to watch two fine LHDs of the Mistral class being built for Russia, knowing that having at least one such vessel in Royal Navy service would solve much of the problem, and represent an excellent boost in capability. But I’m not going to spend much time daydreaming: the deal will go ahead, as the money is too much and too good to pass up. Paris is highly unlikely to truncate the deal, and even if it did, the MOD has no budget to procure the vessels. Not one, and certainly not both. Besides, the ships would need some serious work done to remove the Russian kit and have Royal Navy equipment fitted in its place, which would make the purchase even more financially challenging.
Even in the best case scenario, the problem won’t be solved until HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are replaced, most likely by large LHDs. Until then, the Royal Navy will have to make do.

This leaves the big question: will both carriers enter in service, or will the Royal Navy get only one?
If both carriers are kept, but one is held in reserve, mothballed like Albion, only coming out of its "coma" every six years to replace the sister as she goes into refit, the problem remains: perhaps a major operation (but it has to be really big) would see the second hull hastily reactivated (ala HMS Intrepid back in 1982) with the fleet then faced by the decision of perhaps using one as carrier and one as LPH, so only one of the two has to sail close to the shore.
However, this neat separation would probably be judged unworkable because if either of the two ships was damaged the task force would lose most or all of either air power or amphibious helilift. Probably, even with both ships in the task force, fast jets, Marines, helicopters and stores would still be split among the two in roughly equal terms for prudence.
In normal years and normal operations, the RFTG would still be faced with the problems coming from having a single flat top for two roles.
The above situation (with one carrier active, one tied up in port with sealed doors and Controlled Humidity kit installed to try and keep it together while it languishes in port for years on end) is probably the best outcome we can realistically hope for in 2015. Which is a bad scenario, but... not the worst of possibilities, at least.

If both ships are regularly operated, side by side, the RFTG could sail (most of the time) with both carriers in the group, one working as LPH, one as carrier (in "peacetime". In war, the split described before would probably still be preferred). This would cost more in terms of money and manpower, and i'm not optimistic. I don't think we are going to see it happening, sadly.
Even if we do see it happening, there will still be periods in which only one of the two hulls is available, with the other in refit. So the problem still pops up, but at intervals. 

Chinook night operations on HMS Illustrious during exercise Joint Warrior 14-1, in april 2014

So, the Perfect Solution is already out of the window, and it has crashed to the ground already years ago: the problem won't be eased until Albion and Bulwark are (hopefully) replaced with (hopefully) two LHDs, allowing the carrier to act as a carrier, while the large LHD carries both the large landing crafts and the helicopters, and more men.
The question is whether or not the Good Enough Solution (hybrid carrier / assault ship ala America but with greater number of fixed wing aircraft embarked, operated and supported) is achievable and workable. Considering that QEC is considerably larger than America, i think it should be achievable. But it is far from sure. It depends on how the spaces inside the carrier have been configured, on accommodations, on lots of other factors.

The worry here is that this reality has apparently been fully grasped only in 2010, with the emerging of the famous Carrier Enabled Power Projection acronym, which includes this double role problem (along with other things less directly connected to the carrier, such as MARS and CROWSNEST). My hope is that proper thinking about this problem was actually going on from many years earlier inside the RN and the design team which worked on the carriers. I hope they actually worked on the "Commando Aircraft Carrier" (which is something different from both the Commando Carrier and from the Aircraft Carrier) from much earlier, and that 2010 only marked the date in which the Royal Navy publicly admitted that, with no replacement for Ocean on the way, QEC would have, in a way or another, to do it all. Some provisions for a secondary LPH role are understood to have been into the requirements all along, and i hope they have provided a good base to build upon.

If it wasn't so, and planning for it only began in haste in 2010, the carrier design is probably going to struggle in taking the full burden of the requirements on the horizon because the time for making adequate adjustments was allowed to pass and go.
In a way or another, the concept must be made to work, because there is no real alternative in hand’s reach. What is clear is that the carriers are definitely needed. Next time someone asks, you’ll know how to reply.


  1. Thank you, Gabriele, an excellent post, as always. I just have two small remarks:

    1. I think that in an "all out" / crisis / real war scenario, most of the troops would have to be carried in STUFT anyway, as in '82. So I wouldn't worry too much about the troop carrying capacity of the RN + RFA - I'd rather make sure that there are some liners in the Merchant Navy that could be taken up.

    2. On the other hand, I would worry much more about the tactical use of a QE in the "dual" (aircraft + commando carrier) role. The aircraft carrier should be placed as far as possible from the enemy / shore, whereas a commando carrier should be placed quite close. And if you put the ship "somewhere in the middle", you would kind of "miss two birds with one stone". It would be both dangerously close and thus too vulnerable AND too far for the commando helicopters to work properly. I've been thinking about this dilemma for several years now but I still cannot see a good answer. The escort "stepping stone" you suggest doesn't seem good enough to me. Perhaps a "night in - day out" movement would solve the problem. Dunno.

  2. I am a big supporter of the carriers, always have been, but nevertheless its a lash up, lets be honest.
    My option would be to buy both the French Mistrals with foreign aid money. Which makes the French reasonably happy and stuffs the Russians.
    The MOD could then do what it does best; sell two or three perfectly good ships: HMS Bulwark, Albion and Ocean; which makes the treasury and MOD happy.
    Voila problem solved, Instant gratification.

    1. The problem is that government won't allow the use of foreign aid money. And the second problem is that selling the LPDs and Ocean would not be easy at all: can't see many customers lining up to the door. The countries which want and can fund this type of vessels normally choose to build them by themselves, and build them larger and more capable.

    2. I hope Ocean is kept going until a replacement is built along the lines of the Mistrals or bigger. This seems to be the type of amphibious vessel most Navies are looking to doesn't it?
      Your blog is fascinating and helps some of us keep up to date with RN developments. Wonderfully informative,thanks.

    3. HMS Ocean is seen as going out of service in 2019, without a direct replacement. Bringing into service Prince of Wales is the only "replacement" that the RN can hope to get.

      Unless the SDSR 2015 ends up being very positive and brings a significant budget boost. But it looks very unlikely...

  3. Good article Gab. As you say the CVF Commando Aircraft Carrier is the only show in town so the RN will make it work.

    I think that the key challenge for SDSR 2015 is what amphibious capability needs and can afford. The US is investing big on Sea Basing an OTH deployment, but there are many critics. Also, can anyone seriously see an assault against a defended beach.

    For example a CVF and a Bay combo can carry as many troops as a French LHD, the question remains how to get them ashore and supplied. To me an auxiliary carrying the assault craft could be as much the answer as much as LPDs / LHDs.

    1. It depends on what you mean by defended beach. The strategic mobility of amphibious forces is meant specifically to avoid going where the enemy is ready to receive you.
      A defended beach therefore means something like San Carlos, not something like Omaha beach in Normandy...!

      One way to improve the sealift capability is MARS SSS. I've talked about it in an earlier article: the CGI images come out so far show a ship with dock for landing craft and a pair of LCVPs. MARS SSS could help in two ways: providing some addiitonal lift in the task force itself, and replacing both Fort Victoria and the Bay LSD used as mothership in the gulf. That would release the third Bay ship back to its primary roles of amphibious platform, and help a good bit.
      But the amphibious support aviation would still need a big hangar and big flight deck: MARS SSS will have large helicopter support facilities, but it is nothing like a LHD or carrier. It can help spread the load around, though.

      For me, investing in amphibious capability is the right thing to do. The response force task group is a very powerful tool. You only need to look at the last three years to see how much the Cougar deployments have delivered. Having the possibility to put a powerful force on the horizon of an hostile country is a major deterrent, and a major strategic capability.

    2. Agree on the SSS, though I think a third aviation support ship should be added later, large enough to operate the F35B even in just VTOL mode. Could also be mainly RFA manned if needed. This could then give the option for 3 RFTGs to be operated in rotation.

      The cost would be the LPDs and Argus (POW is already going to take out Ocean), hence the need for a different approach needed for amphibious assault.

  4. Good article, I have some concern's regarding the carriers ability to defend themselves if they are to operate closer to shore in the commando role, I still have not seen any mention of the QE class getting fitted with any kind of short range SAM for self defence, Along the lines of the american nimitz class Sea Sparrow or the french CDG with the sylver launchers carrying the MBDA Aster 15.

    1. Part of the cheapness. CVA-01 was to have had a full area air defence capability and as built so did the Invincibles.

    2. Last year they concluded a study about fitting CAMM missiles to the carriers, and calculated how much it would cost. Fact is, nothing else has been heard since, and i figure it is highly unlikely that they will actually fit the missile launchers.

    3. Gab's right, highly unlikely at the moment and not a budgetary priority with T45, T23/T26 and a F35/Crowsnest CAP thrown into the mix.

      The way CAMM is hyped up it will be a fairly cheap, quick and easy fit at some future point if the need is ever justified. The canisters should practically bolt on and CVF will already be operating the Artisan radar which is handy, although CAMM can apparently be synced with lots of different systems anyway.

  5. Gabriele,

    Excellent article and spot-on bit of analysis. I can't really add much more but two points do come to mind.

    1) It seems most likely that the two CVF will be operated in the same fashion that the flat top fleet has been since 2010- basically only one operational with another in refit/reserve

    2) I suspect we will see an almost continuous series of modifications to get them to to work well in the LPH role- rather as happened with the Invincibles in their latter years

  6. Excellent post as usual. Two comments. First you did not mention 809NAS which has been announced as being the first Fleet Air Arm squadron and will stand up at the same time as 617.
    Second, and I know you are well aware of it, is bodies. With barely 35K hot bodies, the RN will be hard put to man two carriers and the rest. Ocean still has plenty of hull life but she will have to go to release a ships company for PoW. One can only hope that SDSR2015 will allow an RN manning uplift.

    1. Are you sure 809 will stand up at the same time as 617? I don't think a date has been given, so far, and the purchase of the aircrafts needed for the second squadron is left for Main Gate 5, a further decision point connected to the next SDSR.

      617 stands up in 2016 in the US and works up for two years before coming back to the UK with a first core of 9 aircraft or so, according to what i've seen so far. It looks pretty likely to me that 809 will stand up in 2018, and probably take another two years before becoming a frontline unit. The full capability of the two squadrons is possibly to come not before 2023...

    2. I have been told by a very senior source that 809 will stand up at the same time or very soon after 617

    3. That's interesting. Don't see how it would even work, however, since the aircrafts for the second squadron are years away from even being ordered.

    4. This is PR, i.e. how it looks, not operational reality. Two squadrons sharing cabs/aircraft, now we know why no single service markings, huh?

  7. The RN will make it work.

    The critical thing is getting 2 carriers.

    Are you still coming to your second homeland Gabriele? :-)

    1. I hope to arrange a visit in the UK soon enough, but probably not for the naming ceremony, since it is not an open event, and i couldn't access anyway. Might be more interesting to visit Rosyth later, when QE will be parked in the basin for fitting out and the Prince will be taking shape in the dock.

  8. Very interesting and thought provoking article.

    If we take it as a given that there isn't the budget or personnel to operate both QE carriers what do you think is the optimal way to match the assets available to the roles required?

    Is it really to have both QE carriers and Albion/Bulwark on rotation?

    What would you think of having 1 QE carrier and Ocean on one rotation with Albion/Bulwark on the other? (Perhaps the 2nd QE carrier could just be left very nearly completed in a high state of readiness?)

    Or having the 2 QE carriers on one rotation with either of Albion or Bulwark in rotation with Ocean?

    What do you think is the optimal way to manage 2 QE carriers, Ocean, Albion and Bulwark to meet both the RN's and Marines requirements within the likely budget available?

    1. Ocean will be gone by the end of 2019, and i don't think there's going to be any change to that plan.

      For how i see it, if the Response Force Task Group has to be capable and belieavable, it must include 1 LPD, 1 carrier, and as many Bays as possible.

      One likely scenario is having the two carriers alternating into service like Albion and Bulwark already do, i guess.
      It means that there are moments of the year in which the ships aren't really immediately available, but it makes it possible to deploy the task force with the required mix of carrier, LPD and LSDs.

    2. I see that as being the likeliest and currently best outcome Gab. QE & POW in the same cycle as Albion & Bulwark isn't perfect, but it at least provides active vessels for 4-6 months of the year so they can go off on annual RFTG deployments with the active vessel in or around port the rest of the time but able to deploy fairly rapidly with a mixture of hard work and good luck if the need ever arose.

      One carrier with one crew just doesn't provide a viable solution for what the RN and UK defence policy currently wants/needs. I can see a RFTG with 1x CVF, 1xLPD & 2x LSD being the best outcome. MARS SSS is another crucial component, both as you say to spread aviation, landing craft and some troop/equipment capacity across a greater number of hulls but also to get them providing a mother-ship for East of Suez and enable 2x Bay's to slot into the RFTG on a routine basis.

  9. What is your source that the Ro Ros are now 4 instead of 6? And does less really mean less? Is there going to WWIII?

    1. Less definitely means less, at these numbers. There's very little left of what there was, say, no more than 10 years ago. It has long ceased to be just about mass: there are whole capabilities lost, and others that risk being lost soon. Less is most definitely less.

      As for the source, here you go:

      Scroll to find the relevant written answer.

  10. Gaby

    Great article. However, I would like one or two points to be cleared up, if you can.

    “HMS Ocean is more or less just air assault. It can lower a pontoon in the water at the back that serves as a steel beach.” Is the claim that “HMS Ocean” is more or less just air assault strictly true? I am sure that I have seen pictures of the vessel with LCVPs suspended from davits positioned amidships. In fact, I think they are shown in your photo. It is also stated in at least one reliable reference book that it can carry four LCVP Mk5s.

    “If it wasn't so, and planning for it only began in haste in 2010, the carrier design is probably going to struggle in taking the full burden of the requirements on the horizon because the time for making adequate adjustments was allowed to pass and go. In a way or another, the concept must be made to work, because there is no real alternative in hand’s reach.”

    The task force designed to re-take the Falklands was headed by “Hermes and “Invincible”, smaller ships by far than our future carriers. They were given multiple tasks , rather along the lines of the ones you have described for our future “Commando Aircraft Carriers” (to carry aircraft, helicopters and Marines) and yet somehow the tasks were achieved.

    Which brings me to my last point. You say that “Invincible” will be de-commissioned when “Ocean” returns from her re-fit. What will happen if trouble blows up again in the Falklands in the five or six years between now and when we have the new carriers fully operational? Would we have to cope with just one flat-top?

  11. Of course Ocean carries LCVP MK5, but that doesn't really add too much to her capabilities. Her possibilities of carrying vehicles and sending them ashore are very limited all the same.

    And yes, in the Falklands the carriers had to carry some of the men, and the helicopters. It brought forth all kind of limitations: Hermes had to dash closer to the islands at night in some occasions, to bring ashore mostly special forces. At night it was relatively safe because Argentina could strike pretty much only in daylight, but would an operation today see an enemy equally limited? There's every reason to doubt of it.

    Also note that shortage of helicopters, and the lack of a suitable amphibious platform with a large deck, was very much at the root of the requirement for HMS Ocean.
    As a matter of fact, the operation in the Falklands was carried out despite a chronical shortage of helicopter support, made even worse by the sinking of the Atlantic Conveyor, which carried several.

    No one in a sane state of mind would suggest doing a major operation again with such limitations in place.
    And yes, HMS Illustrious will be decommissioned before the end of the year. That will leave only Ocean until QE becomes operational, in 2017 or so.
    HMS Ocean herself will bow out when Prince of Wales still has all its sea trials ahead of her.

  12. Excellent post as always maybe he Idea is to make the MARS SSS with a through deck giving it more vertical landing spots with the stores buried deep in its hull the refuelling points could be retractable but even this is half hearted the problem is manning and that very few in politics are ex military men of all services and that breeds lack of understanding of the needs of our forces until we get away from career politicos were never going to get what we need do you think if the Chancellor was ex military under blairs reign we would have been under funded like they were I doubt it

    1. Brown and Moore's 'Rebuilding the Royal Navy', which covers design and development of RN Ships from 1945 to the mid 2000s has a bit on through deck replenishment ships. They said the layout limited replenishment to the starbord side of the ship, and that this was unacceptable for the role.

  13. It is sad that the RN has been reduced to its present state. Why should the service that invented the aircraft carrier, angled deck, steam catapult, mirror landing device etc. be reduced to 2nd best?
    I sincerely hope that some politician with a clue gets his act together and fits these two carriers out CATOBAR and gives the Navy a chance.

  14. We need to get the UKs F35 out of direct RAF control and into Joint Forces Command - at least the Navy will then have a chance to 'borrow' the planes once in a while. 809 should have been the first to stand up with the focus on the carrier provision right from the start.

  15. Gabriele,
    Thank you for another great post.
    I think you raise a very good point on the role of the carrier.
    Will it be able to be duel role, acting as a carrier and commando support.
    I have my doubts. Lets Hope with the addition of the MARS support ship that will help to bridge that gap.
    Long term it seems to me to replace Albion/Bulwark with ships that can carry the helicopters needed to support a RM Battle group.
    However, I would like to raise my hand to point out that I don't like the idea of Chinooks and Apaches being used as part of the 3 CDO.
    Merlins and RM Wildcats should be used. Air assets for the army are spread to thin already, allowing them to be spread even thinner is in my view a mistake. Even if you allow 1 Chinook and one Apache squadron per army brigade that still wouldn't cover 5 brigades.

    1. My apologies for the abruptness of this by please "You don't like the idea" Chinooks and Apaches being used as part of 3 CDO....? It is this kind of thinking that gets us into a mess time and again. The British Armed Forces as a whole are not big enough to think in those terms - we need to look at all of the assets available and use them accordingly. In this case, Chinook and Apache are the most numerous aviation assets available and you can't "ring fence" them for "army only" operations - what is "army only" anyway? Are you also saying that RAF F-35 squadrons can't be used on the carrier because they are for "RAF only" operations.....? So that will leave us with 12 F-35, 16 Merlin HC4 and 6 Wildcat AH1 for "navy only operations". We might as well scrap the lot, because it is no where near enough.
      Please live in the real world.....

    2. It is hard to see more than two large operations ongoing at the same time, and even if they are ongoing, they might well be linked. The Merlin HC4, even when it finally arrives, can't do all on its own, the lift capability of the Chinook is absolutely needed. And the 4 Wildcat of 847 NAS won't be able to do more than so much, on their own. Had the original plan gone ahead, 847 NAS would have received its own complement of Apache, but as always in "recent" times the navy got the worst end of the deal.

    3. While the Chinooks and Apaches are busy training with 3 CDO,
      What assets would you have for training with the Army brigades?
      I am of course not against joint forces training or operations.
      As I have said many times on Gabriele's site I am pro RN.
      I would support the another Apache squadron for the RM.
      We all have our own opinions on how assets should be allocated. As a former regular soldier, I like to think I live in the real world. Being told that a 4 tonner is going to be your helicopter training asset for this exercise in my view is not really the best way to train for helicopter deployment. We only have so many helicopters, everyone needs a chance to train on them, not just 3 CDO, who have there own dedicated helicopter force.
      Just the opinion of a former pongo of course.

    4. But that is exactly the point - saying that "you support another Apache squadron for the RN" is not living in the real world. There isn't going to be another Apache squadron for the RN. Indeed the Apache force is likely to fall to just 32 deployable machines - ie significantly less than today. Deployable battlefield helicopters are likely to be limited to 16 Merlin HC4 and 48 Chinook HC4 (Wildcats discounted and Pumas likely to be gone).

      Given the above force there can be no "dedicated" helo force, for 3 CDO or any other formation. There can only be assets allocated without across the 5 deployable brigades as appropriate. Given that 2 of those Brigades (16 AA and 3 CDO) are supposed to be "light" and hence far more reliant on helos than other formations, it is logical that they will gain the majority of training with battlefield helos - that one is nominally "Army" and the other "RM" is totally irrelevant. I agree that it would be great if lots of combined arms training could be done with the heavier units, but given the numbers, that is going to be a challenge and I'd suggest that focusing limited assets where they are needed most is going to have to be the way to go.

      All I am saying is is that we need to think of assets as being UK Armed Forces not "Army" or "Navy" or "RM"....

    5. I agree with much of what you say.
      And sorry I should have put extra funding for an RM Apache Squadron.
      I don't want to get into a bun fight, after all, I doubt the MoD or joint chiefs are paying much attention to our posts.
      But could I point out; That as I understand it, the carriers have about 40 slots for aircraft, allowing for 4 AEW Merlins, 16 Merlins in the commando role and 4 Wildcats, that would leave 16 slots available. Of which 12 would be for F35B's.
      Also, having Chinooks and or Apaches on the carrier would also mean having RAF and Army ground crew, spares etc, leaving even less space for the bootnecks.
      As you so rightly point out, JHC is already very thin on the ground. I reckon on just 36 Chinooks and 32 Apaches available for training and supporting any army operations.
      In my view, that means JHC could only support 3 army brigades.
      The lack of helicopter support, in my view should mean that it is pointless thinking of an army of more than 3 deployable brigades.
      But again, that's just me humble opinion, I am not expecting a phone call from Mr Hammond at any moment.

  16. Gabriele,
    I always love you posts, always accurate always insightful.
    QEC is tending to be seen as a cost saving exercise, and this might be true. Who can say?
    What is looking like a 2*75,000 tonne cost saving exercise however doesn’t quite ring true.
    I’m wondering to what extent we have done this on purpose. QEC contains many new and daring concepts. And it occurs to me how much I wouldn’t want to face one of these ships threatening my coastline, as I simply wouldn’t know if I’m facing 40 fast jets, 40 apaches on ground attack ( see Libya ), or a full marine air assault, or ASW or ASuW.
    The dangerous thought is I could be facing any mix of the above. And I just don’t know.
    The scary things about carrier strike is you don’t know when and where, so you have to try to defend everywhere all the time.
    Now you don’t know what either ?
    Is this by accident ? I’m not so sure.
    What do you think ?

    1. Projecting power from the sea comes with all these advantages, and this was always clear. It sure drove the requirement.

      But the Royal Navy hoped to use the carriers mostly if not exclusively as carriers, while building a dedicate replacement for HMS Ocean. This dedicate replacement was lost to budget cuts, however, so we are where we are...

    2. Agree, but this is where the RN should be focusing on a more capable RFA Aviation Training Ship. Just wondering, could Ocean be practically transfered to RFA for this role?

  17. Gsby,

    "It has been announced in Parliament that the F-35s will not wear squadron specific colors, but only the low-visibility grey national markings."

    Have you discovered the rationale behind this decision? It cannot possibly be anything to do with stealth, or can it? (You mention low-visibility). Is is simply a matter of saving money, which seems too petty for words. Won't do much for squadron morale, I would have thought!

    You might have dealt this this already, in which case apologies.

    1. No, i don't think stealth has a particular part in it. Maybe the squadron colors would be applied in pale grey, but look at US aircraft, including the Raptor: they have all their markings.

      I'm afraid it has to do with the aircraft being few and RAF owned. Better not to have any RN sign on any of the aircraft... But maybe i'm being cynic. Dunno, it just feels like it has no real operational reason to be so.

    2. Well, as all aircraft will be pooled, its much the same reason none of the Tornados or Herc carrying sqn markings anymore... Typhoon was the exception... but that would lead to a hodge podge of markings whenever they deploy, at sea or not.

      Its much less of a faff to have them without any sqn markings. That's all.

  18. Maybe reservists could take up the fishery protection squadron releasing these crews for the new OPV (H) .
    regarding the carriers we need both crewing and being uses why spend billions to have them if its spending it's
    time in reserve.
    We need to begin planning to build Albion and bulwarks replacement hopefully with LHD facilities with full F-35B capabilities for secondary light carrier capabilities for 12-14 F-35B.
    As many people have said on various forums we need to have a slight shift to the maritime environment even to the extent of getting the RM better vehicle's like amphibious carriers.

  19. Do you know how much research effort has gone into designing a more sophisticated ski ramp? For instance is it not a possibility to design one that is 'flat packed' when necessary. Are the g forces involved too great for this? I envisage carbon fibre oblong plates might be the ramp deck- maybe 1 metre in length.
    I still believe the QE class should be fitted with arresters ASAP and be fitted FOR a CAT on the angle take off position. Seeing as these 'B's' are reckoned to land in slow conventional landing mode it is easy to see an early pile up on the flight desk without an angled deck.

    I'll say it here. I think the whole operating concept is half baked from start to finish. I only hope I'm wrong. Anything that is run by the accountants and PC so as not to offend (not the RFC) usually is.

  20. The QE's will obviously be a game changer for the RN, but just in terms of the current RFTG, what is the maximum number of helos that could be carried by the task group for a Sierra Leone type, or slightly larger operation?

    I was trying to work it out eg

    RFTG (operational deployment)

    1 commando carrier (HMS Ocean, as Illustrious will be decommissioned this year)

    Air Group
    2-3 Sea Mk7
    5 Apache AH1s
    8 Sea King Mk4/Merlins
    2 Lynx Mk8 or in the future Wildcats

    For a largish amphibious operation Chinooks would also be required, Ocean's lifts are too small for Chinooks so could two or more be parked on the flight deck without having to reduce the above air group of say 18 helos? If not then the Chinooks would have to be carried by the RFAs.

    1-2 Type 45s - each with 1 Merlin MK2 ASW or two Lynx HMA8 maritime helos.

    2-3 Type 23s - each with a Merlin or Lynx

    1 Albion class LPD - large 2 spot flight deck, but no hanger, could they just operate helos from the flight deck? I read an article that said they could, as they have enough equipment on board to do so. Just one LPD in the task group, unless her sister ship could be reactivated in time

    2 Bay class LSDs - again large flight deck, no hangar, just 2 Bays as Cardigan is forward deployed in the Gulf with the 9th MCM Sqn

    The above force is quite light on transport helos, however several of the RFA ships have quite good aviation facilities:

    RFA Argus - 3 landing spots, able to carry up to 5 Chinooks, 4 hangars.

    RFA Fort Victoria - able to operate 5 Sea Kings or Merlins with space for 3 in the hangar.

    Fort Rosalie class (2 ships) - each able to carry 4 Sea Kings, the Forts have two landing spots, one above the hangar.

    Wave class (2 tankers) - each able to operate 2 Merlin helos, with hanger.

    Rover class (2 small tankers) - helo deck, no hangar.

    RFA Orangeleaf - helo deck, no hangar.

    RFA Diligence - deck for up to Chinook sized helo, no hangar.

    Point class (4 RoRo sealift ships) - abe to ferry 4 Chinooks or Merlins.

    So if the RFGT included the following auxiliaries:

    1 Wave class tanker (2 Merlins)

    RFA Argus (upto 5 Chinooks)

    RFA Fort George (5 Sea Kings or Merlins)

    RFA Diligence

    2 Points

    That would substantially increase the number of helos that could be deployed with the task group, so across all platforms that would be a total of about 35 transport, AEW, ASW and attack helicopters, is that doable?

    Obviously the RFTG would also include a hunter-killer SSN.



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