Thursday, December 29, 2011

A final analysis of the Libya experience

Unified Protector is the sole NATO mission officially complete and finished, and it has also been an important operation which saw the US showing, for the first time and very evidently, what Robert Gates had announced in several of his speeches as Defense Secretary of the USA: the United States are no longer willing to do all the work in the European area, have new priorities in South East Asia, and generally no longer have a great appetite for shouldering the challenges of the Mediterranean area unless NATO steps up its contribution and works as a realistic, capable partner.
In fact, comparing Unified Protector and Allied Force, the NATO intervention against Slobodan Milosevic, it is very evident the difference: 90% of the targets hit during Unified Protector were attacked by NATO assets, an almost exact reverse of the balance in Allied Force, which saw NATO only hit roughly 10% of the targets.

However, it would be wrong to take this as a proof of maturity of NATO, because the US were still fundamental for the viability of the operation, and in fact Unified Protector had almost as many shadows as it had lights. The most embarrassing fact was the inability of several European countries to sustain even just a mild air effort such as Unified Protector, with countries literally running out of bombs in just a few weeks. Other countries, namely Germany, refused to take part into the operations. Interoperability problems emerged in communications and even in fuel (and planning) matters, with the Swedish Gripens arriving in Sigonella only to find that they needed fuel unavailable on the base, which is used by the US Navy and only had JP5 fuel, with the Gripen needing civilian Jet A1 fuel. Until JP8 fuel could be made available, the 8 Gripens were either grounded or forced to take off light and immediately after top up their fuel tanks from a Sweden C130 air tanker.

A whole range of “specialized” capabilities were in short supply and relied almost totally or entirely on the US contribution. This goes from certain kind of weaponry, starting from cruise missiles (Tomahawk) to go through RECCE, ISTAR, electronic war, Psyops from the air, air transport, drones and air to air refueling, with 30 out of 40 air tankers employed coming from the US.    
At one time, the Royal Danish Air Force was the only force in the operation with the BLU-109 bunker-busting warhead, urgently needed to target reinforced structures and ammo depots, but kind of rare. The RAF followed, deploying Paveway III with BLU-109 warhead to Gioia del Colle for use on the Tornado GR4.

The final report of Unified Protector tells of the combined effort of a force of around 200 airplanes, made available by Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Italy, United Kingdom, France, Greece, Norwey, Holland, Spain, Turkey and United States, plus (external to NATO) United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar and Sweden. They flew a total of 26.320 sorties, of which 9658 strike sorties, hitting 5900 targets, with an average (calculated from March 31) of 120 sorties per day.
Outside these numbers sits the – still largely unknown – contribution of the makeshift aviation of the rebel forces, made of captured airplanes or of machines and crews joining the rebels and coming from the government forces. Apparently, the rebels air force has some 3 or 4 Mig21UM, 4 Mig23UB, around 10 J-21, G-2 and L-39 and L39ZO trainers, SIAI Marchetti SF.260 and a dozen cargo aircrafts between BAE 146-300, IL76 and Antonov AN26 , plus around 12 helicopters Mi-8, Mi-14, Mi-17 and Mi-24. Perhaps most important, anyway, was the reported use of mini drones in the rebels’s forces: Canadian-produced ‘Aeryon Scout’ minidrones proved apparently very precious. 

The targets destroyed by NATO are  600 armoured vehicles, 405 artillery pieces, 600 military buildings and infrastructures, 1270 ammo depots (over an estimate of over 4000 present in Libya!) and 690 air defence sites.  

In terms of sorties, American airplanes, despite the US’s “secondary role”, actually flew 30% of the sorties, followed by France (21%), United Kingdom (11%) and Italy (10%). The data about Italian participation is particularly interesting and will be later better analyzed because it represents perhaps the greatest effort ever of the AMI since the second world war, in terms of quality at least, if not in numbers. The data is also all the more impressive due to Italy’s initial reluctance in joining or sustaining the intervention.

In terms of targets hit, France, UK and Italy account for 35% of the targets destroyed, but it is Denmark which has the best score and ratio of missions/target struck, having hit a shocking 17% of the targets. The six Lockheed Martin F-16AM fighters deployed by Denmark on Sigonella airport, Sicily, delivered in fact 930 bombs in 595 missions (data updated to 24 October).
It would be interesting to know which kind of targets Denmark was assigned. Given that they were the only ones with bunker-buster bombs and practically always dropped at least a bomb in each mission, they probably have hit almost exclusively buildings and infrastructure.

The Libya effort, nation by nation

Belgium – 6 F16 deployed to Araxos, in Greece.

Canada – 7 CF18 Hornet and 2 CP140 “Aurora” (P3 Orion Marittime Patrol Aircrafts), based in
Trapani-Birgi and flying respectively 450 and 179 sorties. (2%)

Denmark – 6 F16 in Sigonella, 595 missions, 930 strikes (17% of strikes with just around 2% of sorties!).

United Arab Emirates – 6 Mirage 2000 and 6 F16 based on Decimomannu, Sardinia.

France – 5600 sorties flown by Armee de l’air and Marine Nationale (21%), of which 3100 strike missions (32% NOTE: not all strike missions saw the use of weapons), 1200 reconnaissance missions, 400 air defence missions, 340 missions for control of the air space and of the No Fly Zone and 580 air refueling missions, for 27.000 flying hours. They accounted for 750 targets hit (12%) with the use of 950 guided weapons including 15 SCALP cruise missiles and 225 AASM bombs. French ships fired over 3000 shells of 76 and 100 mm of caliber in Naval Gunfire Support missions.

France employed 5 Rafale and a single Harfang drone from Sigonella (after the Charles De Gaulle returned to port) and 6 Mirage 2000D, 4 Mirage F1CE, one AWACS E3F and one air tanker KC-135 based in Suda (Creete), where they worked alongside the Mirages of Qatar which needed assistance as this was their first war missions (note: Qatar Mirages weren’t even technically cleared for air ground missions and weaponry, but still went into strike missions and dropped a number of bombs).

The Marine Nationalle contributed with 10 Rafale M, 6 Super Etendards and 2 E2C Hawkeye embarked on Charles de Gaulle, along with several helicopters, giving a maximum airgroup size of 25. The CdG worked in Libya for 120 days, with a record of 63 spent entirely at sea without any break (far from the 150 of HMS Invincible in the Falklands in 1982 anyway!). In this period, there were 2380 launches and recovery of airplanes and 3600 flying hours were logged in, generating 840 strike sorties, 390 reconnaissance sorties with Rafale M with recce pods, 120 E2C sorties and 240 buddy-buddy refueling sorties. The contribute of the carrier group was very significant: when she left to head back to port (she needed respite after having been four months in the Indian Ocean to fly Rafales over Afghanistan before joining Libya ops) she had accounted for 33% of the sorties and most of the strikes conduced to date, and to partially replace her and the advantages given by its capability to stay near the fight, Rafales were sent to the base of Sigonella in Sicily, perhaps the closest base of all those available.    

The La Tonnere LHD went into battle with 4 Puma helicopters (probably for CSAR and other duties), 2 Tiger attack helicopters and 12 multirole Gazelle helos modernized, 8 armed with HOT anti tank missiles, 2 with Mistral AA missiles for escort role and 2 with 20 mm gunpods. The helicopters flew 450 sorties (4,5%) but destroyed no less than 550 targets (nearly 10%), expending 431 HOT plus an unspecified number of 68 mm rockets and 20 mm rounds.

Jordan – 6 F16A-MLU, on Aviano air base, used only to escort Jordan cargo planes which were used to deliver supplies (and weapons?) to the rebels.    

United Kingdom – The UK forces flew 3100 sorties (11%) of which around 2100 (21%) were strike missions. At least 18.000 flying hours were logged in, with 640 (11%) targets having been hit with the use of 1420 guided ammunitions, inclusive of a number of Tomahawks and 110 Hellfire missiles fired by AAC Apaches. 4100 rounds of 30 mm gun were used, along with at least 19 CRV7 rockets. HMS Liverpool fired 240 shells from her gun. In the moment of maximum effort, the deployed component counted 16 Tornado GR4 and 6 Typhoon FRG4 on Gioia del Colle, 5 Apache helicopters on HMS Ocean (along with at least two Sea King MK7 AEW and a number of Lynx in force-protection role). The force included a Sentinel R1 plane flying from Akrotiri (in the last few days it moved on Gioia del Colle), 3 E3D Sentry AWACS and 3 VC10 air tankers flying from Trapani-Birgi, from where they were quite rudely kicked out in October, thankfully at mission practically over for lucky coincidence, because the local administration needed the airport free for welcoming well-paying civilian tourists.
It was embarrassing, but expected: the base had only been made available up to the 20 of October from the very start. Initially, it was expected that it would have been more than enough, but as we know Unified Protector was extended twice, and the timeframe turned out being too tight, even if thankfully not by much.
For a while, the RAF was able to contribute to the intelligence and SIGINT effort by delaying the planned retirement of the Nimrod R1, but ultimately this asset was retired, and not even Ellamy was considered a sufficient reason to further delay the end.

The Apache flew only around 25 sorties, but hit successfully over 100 targets. They were supported by 99 Sea King MK7 sorties guiding them through the enemy defences. Despite the brilliant success of this first experience of war from the sea, the Apache proved to be not quite navalized enough, and some 44 planned missions could not be flown. The AAC, post-Libya, has compiled a list of the things that the Apache still needs to work from ships in safety, and it is a quite significant list.

An important british contribution was made with submarine-launched Tomahawk missiles, but this highlighted some problems as well: with a stock of just around 60 missiles, each submarine has just few TLAMs to carry, and they are soon left without missiles. Replenish a submarine of TLAMs in open sea is currently not possible, it takes at least a safe harbor, and according to rumors emergency replenishments had to be done with the help of the large US Navy TLAM stocks due to the difficulty of getting more missiles to the subs in the area.
The problem of the otherwise awesome SSN+TLAM combination, and one of the reasons why the RN has been spending the last few years trying to expand the number of TLAMs in stock and the number of launching platforms as well, namely by trying to get funding for TLAM on the Type 45.   

At least 199 Tomahawks were launched on Libya by March 28, starting with the super-barrage of 112+ on March 19, the opening act. The Uk was part of this strike, but with just a single-digit amount of missiles from HMS Triumph. The SSGN Ohio of the US Navy, at its first big mission, fired, on its own, at least 60 of the missiles.
RN submarines went into double-digit amounts of missiles fired with successive launches throughout March.     

Tornado GR4 flew for 7000 hours (equivalent to 2 years of peacetime airframe usage), with Typhoon accounting for another 2519 hours (to 18 august). The last 4 Typhoons were withdrawn from Gioia on September 23. 10 of the planes had arrived on March 21, but they had in time gone down to 6, 4 of which had been assigned to ground attack missions from April 5, with the first bomb dropped by a Typhoon on April 12. The Tornado force had initially generated a deployed force of 8, which was twice expanded to reach the amount of 16 planes, with 4 flying to Italy on April 4 and 4 more (with a RAPTOR recce pod) following on July 18 to try and fill a gap in the RECCE capability of the coalition.

For the Typhoon this was the baptism of fire, and Italian and British Typhoons flew a combined 4000 hours with great results. In particular, the RAF reported that its Typhoons had a 97% availability rate. The data about missions planned and missions effectively flown would suggest 94.4%, but we can assume that part of the aborted missions were not due to the plane but to changes in the situation of the moment.

Flown hours
Missions planned
Missions flown
Weapons dropped
Transmission of targeting imagery

A report of the performances of RAF Typhoon planes in OP Ellamy

A typical Libya mission was a severe test for the machine and for the crews, both of Tornado and of Typhoon: a typical Iraq CAS mission would cover 560 km, a typical Afghan mission can be expected to go 520 km, while a Libya mission inexorably involved several air refuelings (3, normally) and a travel of, on average, 960 km from Gioia to Libya, followed by missions taking place on an area spanning as many as 1280 miles of length over 5 hours average (at least since May). The Typhoons performed brilliantly, doing these missions with a heavy load comprising a couple of ASRAAM missiles for self defence, 4 1000lbs Paveway II bombs, 1 Litening III pod for targeting and two external 1000 liters fuel tanks and still flying comfortably at 12.200 meters of altitude.

In general, the availability of the machines and their reliability was good, even though there were a few emergency landings in Malta due to mechanical problems aboard Tornado GR4 fighters. No airplanes were lost,

Unsung heroes of Ellamy are, however, the many men of the logistical sector, and in particular, in this case, the men of No 2 Mechanical Transport Squadron (2 MTS) RAF, from Wittering, which During Op ELLAMY, drove 1,169,986 miles (1,882,910km); which is equivalent to travelling around the equator more than 47 times, and carried 8,540 tonnes of freight - the equivalent of 813 Hercules aircraft loads, to keep the forces in Gioia del Colle active. This impressive score was collected by convoys normally counting 10 trucks, traveling some 4000 miles from the UK to Gioia and back over 8 days. 2 MTS also suffered the only operational fatality of the Operation, with the loss of Senior Aircraftman James Smart, who was involved in a deadly road traffic accident as his convoy was transiting through southern Italy. Many more tons of supplies were delivered by air, thanks to RAF cargo planes and chartered flights.

Operation Ellamy was a success, but it was a reminder of the many issues connected with mounting an air campaign abroad, even with “safe” and “granted” support by an hosting country such as Italy. There were real issues to deal with. Gioia del Colle lacked accommodation, with expensive solution being the many local hotels; the base lacked proper facilities, and its runways weren’t in good conditions. Trapani-Birgi was available with a timer, and ultimately the RAF was asked to leave. Malta said no. Cyprus loudly asked not to fly combat missions from Akrotiri. The distance made everything more complex and more expensive, and the funny bit comes when one tries to think of what would have happened had the option of truck convoys being unavailable.
Driving a truck from Marham to Gioia in peacetime is a big feat, but still a normal one. Truckers in Europe do it all the time. Delivering over 8000 tons of supplies to a base abroad, especially with Afghanistan still ongoing, would have been a massive problem had the base been somewhere else.

‘Operation Ellamy was not the model for how we want to do things in the future,’ said Gp Capt Richard Hill, A4 Force commander and station commander of RAF Wittering and Cottesmore.
‘The pump had not been primed: aircraft arrived in theatre before logistics support was on location. They struggled to keep up,’ he told delegates at the Military Logistics Conference in Bristol on 29 November 2011. Within days, several Typhoon aircraft had become unavailable because of unserviceabilities and the units were beginning to run out of munitions.

During the early days of the conflict, munitions for the aircraft had to be flown in on RAF transport aircraft because land supply lines were only just becoming established.
However, flying munitions by air is neither cost-effective nor efficient, and the rates at which bombs were being dropped meant that munitions began running out. Furthermore, no weapons were available to the RAF at Gioia del Colle.
‘Gioia del Colle was not how we left it eight to 10 years ago,’ Hill noted.
In August the RAF website reported how personnel at the base were forced to do ‘regeneration’ work in consultation with the commanders of the Italian airbase. In 20 days alongside Italian contractors, the RAF resurfaced the eroded taxiways and parking areas and erected sun shelters for the aircraft. They also cleared the site of foreign object debris.

For this and for other reasons, the argument for aircraft carriers emerged strengthened by the Libya experience.

Greece – made available an Embraer 145 AWACS and a number of Super Puma helicopters.

Italy – made available most of the bases used in the operation (Trapani-Birgi, Decimomannu, Sigonella, Gioia) and the command and control infrastructure, namely the NATO HQ in Naples, which had been, just in the summer, at risk of closure during the major restructuring of NATO infrastructure and was “saved” and very conveniently immediately used by the alliance, as a payback for Italy making the bases available for the offensive. This is to be seen as the main reason behind the insistence of Italy in asking for a NATO leadership over the operation, menacing to negate host nation support if a binational France-Britain guidance was chosen instead.

The military contribute of Italy went past the mere provision of host support, however. For Unified Protector, the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (AMI – Italian Air Force) did form the Task Group Air “Birgi” on the airport with the same name, near Trapani. The TGA was assigned F16 from 37th Wing, Typhoon from 4th Wing, Tornado IDS from 6th Wing, Tornado ECR (SEAD/Electronic War) from 50th Wing, AMX light attack planes from 32 and 51 Wings and, from August 10, the recently delivered Reaper drones ordered from the US and arrived just in time, flown from the airbase of Amendola by 32 Wing’s personnel. The Italian air force also made available a KC130J air tanker from the 46th Air Brigade and the first KC767 strategic air tanker, which finally entered service with 14 Wing, after long delays due to Boeing issues with the preparation of the 4 planes ordered.

Italy flew 2500 sorties (9%), 1900 of which were made by the AMI for 7300 flying hours. 8 AV8B+ Harrier of the Navy, embarked on the aircraft carrier Garibaldi, flew a further 1223 hours in 560 sorties. A total of 714 guided weapons were used (over 500 of which by the AMI), destroying 750 targets (12%). The AMI was practically the only force which assisted the otherwise exclusively American electronic war effort, flying a G.222VS with signal intelligence kit and the Tornado ECR in SEAD missions.   
For the AMI it was also the occasion for a series of first great achievements: for the first time Italian warplanes employed the Storm Shadow missile (96% success rate) and the US-built JDAM. Unfortunately, an order for 500 Small Diameter Bombs has yet to deliver, so this useful, small weapon with low collateral damage was not available yet. Some 340.000 images were recovered, of 1600 different targets, by Tornado and AMX recce planes, along with 250 hours of video imagery from the Reapers.

The AMI also deployed a SPADA SAM battery from 2 Wing for the defence of the Trapani air operations hub, from which high value assets such as the AWACS went into war, and made available HH3F and AB212 SAR and CSAR helicopters to support operations. Navy helicopters flew over 3000 hours.
The Tornado IDS (Italian counterpart of the GR4) also flew a number of Buddy-Buddy tanker missions to try and mitigate the insufficiency of tanker support. Still, during Unified Protector, Malta’s airport had to allow emergency landings several times to NATO warplanes low on fuel.    

Norway – 6 F16 based in Suda, Creete, flew 583 sorties (2%) and dropped 569 bombs. Retired its forces by August 2.

Holland – 6 F16 on Decimomannu, Sardinia. Only for air defence and recce.

Qatar – 6 Mirage 2000 and a C17 based in Suda. Flew strike missions.

Spain – 4 F18 for air defence, a single CN-235 Maritime Patrol Aircraft and two KC707 air tankers. 250 sorties and 700 flying hours. (1%)

United States – The US assets flew 7725 sorties (30%), of which 1845 were strike sorties (19%) even though only 397 saw the use of weaponry. 145 missions were made by two Predator drones. The US lost a F15E to mechanical failure, the crew of which was recovered by a US Marines CSAR mission into Libya with Harriers and MV22 Osprey planes. A MQ8 Fire Scout helicopter drone used by the US Navy was instead shot down. US Marines Harriers from the LDH-3, USS Kearsarge, flew a consistent number of strike sorties. The US supplied Growler electronic war planes and C130s in Psyops and EW variants, plus 30 out of 40 air tankers employed for Unified Protector and a whole range of other capabilities.
They also made available weapons, fuel and spare parts worth 250 USD millions to allies with stocks embarrassingly empty.
They have also provided B2 sorties and the vast majority of the around 200 Tomahawks used against Libya. They also leased a couple of Greyhounds transport planes for Carrier On Board delivery to France, which needed them to support Charles De Gaulle on ops.

The US have put the cost of their Libya role at 1.1 USD billion.

Sweden – Contributed 8, then 5, Gripen fighters and a C130 air tanker, flying 500 sorties (2%).

Turkey – 6 F16 with non-offensive tasking and 2 air tankers. 748 sorties. (3%)

 A few final considerations

Libya was a success, but a partial one. It was, for NATO, an historic moment in which the US took a step backwards and told Europe, for the first time ever, “go at your problems yourselves”. It did so to signal that they do not have the will nor the possibility anymore to contribute over 70% of NATO efforts and capabilities on their own, and especially not a time in which they are shifting their focus on China, basing troops in Australia and planning for a new naval base in Singapore. Europe and the Mediterranean are now periphery, and the European part of NATO is required to do its part much more incisively and look, on its own as much as possible, over its own share of the world.

Libya taught NATO, once more, lessons already known. The insufficiency of ISTAR assets and their absolute value, for example. A welcome news in this sense is that the NATO AGS system, even if downsized again and again in the years, is nearing its entry into service. Its Global Hawk drones will be a welcome addition to the capability of the alliance. Even better is to see that the british posture on the Sentinel R1 retirement has changed, and now the fate of the system is not tied to Afghanistan, but left to SDSR15 for decisions, with a reprieve now seen as highly likely, unless Telemos drones enter service early and prove miraculous. And it is highly unlikely they will: in fact, from a 2018 in-service date there already seems to be a shift towards 2020, at least on the French side. France just put 4 SIGINT satellites into orbit, the UK is pursuing Rivet Joint. Together, these systems will be invaluable, just as much as Sentinel and NATO AGS.

Another lesson learned (at least partially) is that of air refueling, with France advancing its acquisition of new A330 MRTT tankers, with 7 planes to be ordered in 2012/13 and 7 more to follow later on.

Political issues such as Germany staying out of the operation, countries refusing to offer basing, or Italy playing games to obtain advantages in exchange for its bases, are unlikely to vanish. The political game is unlikely to change, but Ellamy, launched exclusively from NATO bases and fought on the threshold of home did prove how much cost and risk is connected to the dependence from third party host support.

This was an easy mission, we shouldn’t hide this fact. Unified Protector flew, on a quite long time, a small fraction of the missions flown for Iraq in 2003, or Afghanistan, or during Allied Force. It was a low-intensity air campaign fought by NATO from NATO bases. Yet there were issues with basing, communications, logistics and distances and even with stocks of weaponry running empty in merely weeks. To put things in proportion, 200 days saw 26.000 sorties take place. In 1999, over Serbia, in 78 days over 38.000 sorties were flown, at a rate of 487 per day on average and with highs of 700 missions per day in the critical moments. 4 to 7 times as many missions as were sustained over Libya. It must also be noted that NATO was almost entirely unopposed, and completely owned the sky, and not just because of the TLAM and B2 strikes on SAM sites and radars and command centers, but because of the surprisingly dire state of the Libyan air force and air defence system. Serbia did pose much more of a problem, Iraq also. It is not likely that we will always get away with things so cheaply.
The problems experienced with basing, sustainability and long-endurance coverage are all the more serious when considering these simple facts.

There were also arguable choices in the conduct of the air campaign, especially in the first phase, when coordination was not very good. There was disproportion in the efforts: initially, the main ammo and weapons depots were almost ignored, while a sudden, powerful strike on just the main of 4000 weapons depots would have greatly reduced the capability of Gaddafi forces to fight for so long. Air defence sites and airports which were effectively inoperable as they were did get a big share of attention, that they did not deserve. The effort for attacking vehicles on the ground was plagued by long transit times, insufficient ISTAR and too tight rules of engagement, which all contributed to the dramatic reports coming from Misrata, which was daily ravaged by rockets and artillery fire for months, with NATO airstrikes unable to destroy Gaddafi’s artillery surrounding the rebel fortress. The situation was so dire at one point that the Royal Navy amphibious task group seemed about to be ordered ashore, and France and the UK had drawn up plans for a “Libyan Dunkirk” to bring the rebels out of the town by sea if Gaddafi’s forces were to finally breach the perimeter.
Helicopters were instrumental in improving the situation a bit, and French helicopters in particular proved invaluable in opening the way for the rebels as they advanced on Tripoli.
The strategic direction of the air campaign will have to be analyzed critically to draw up the lessons of the case.

The distance was also a very serious enemy to contend with. Denying won’t do any good. Distance made it difficult to impossible for NATO to establish a proper 24h wide-area coverage. Between a NATO strike and another, Gaddafi forces often counterattacked successfully against the rebels. The most effective NATO missions were those of helicopters flying from HMS Ocean and Tonnere, and those flown by Charles De Gaulle, USS Kearsarge and Garibaldi, and those launched by land-based aircrafts operating from Sigonella, the closest as possible to the targets.
It is a logical consequence, undeniable: more transit time means more cost, more complexity and less efficiency and less time on target, with need for greater air tanker support.

The airplanes taking off from Charles De Gaulle were 15 minutes away from their targets, the Tornados in Gioia del Colle were 1 hour away. The situation on the ground changes a lot in 1 hour, and the targets you take off to hit in that time might be lost, be destroyed or hide or enter in heavily urbanized areas were attacks are not an option, and the mission ends up cancelled without any bomb being dropped. This has happened very frequently.
Planes from Charles De Gaulle flew sorties of 2 hours on average, without air refueling. Land based planes would refuel on average 3 times in the air, and fly for 4 to over 5 hours, but spending roughly the same amount of useful time on the targets. Even though it is standard practice to have a Rafele or two with Buddy-Buddy kit in the air during recovery of planes returning to “mother”, the sea-borne assets practically did not use already stretched AAR assets.  

The absence of carriers due to the US limited involvement and to Charles De Gaulle having to retire into port without a replacement available was an issue to planners and further reduced the responsiveness of NATO. Libya might not appear as a “carrier war”, but it actually did prove the point of carriers once more. Italy for example used, when possible, Garibaldi and its Harriers in an open acknowledgement of the greater cost-effectiveness of the combination.
This cost-effectiveness will be further expanded, in the UK, by the availability of large carriers, capable to sustain a Libya-dimensioned effort for over 70 days without replenishment. The F35, when integrated with all the planned weaponry, will be capable to face all kind of missions, unlike the Harrier, and the CVF+F35 will represent the most effective and sole independent mean of projecting air power in a place of UK’s choosing. The large sizes of the carrier will make it possible to launch a more incisive campaign as well, with higher sortie generation rate. Already with 12 F35, 20 strike sorties per day, sustained, are expected. This is already a progress from the 13 missions per day flown during Ellamy, which include all kind of missions and machines, and not just strike ops.
Given enough airplanes and support, and converting the second CVF to catapults as well, the UK carrier force will be able to project air power much more incisively and effectively for a more or less constant period, the two-ships solution ensuring over 500 days a year of availability.

Investing, without “if” and “but”, in the regeneration of this power projection capability is a major step forwards for the UK and for NATO, and meets the wish of the US to see the European countries taking on a greater role, with France and UK leading the European side of NATO and working not just as biggest contributors, but as strategic enablers and coordinators to ensure that the rest of the countries can add their significant contribution and provide the numbers needed to beef up the complete “skeleton” of capabilities provided by the leading countries.  


  1. I think you miss out an important other option for Libya like operations

    A Heavy Bomber.

    Something like the TU-95 (no doubt A400 based) could easily fly from the UK, hover around Libya for many hours, release ranged weapons as targets arise, and then fly home.

    Even better if it could fly from the UK, then land at an Italian airbase, refuel, and then reverse the process, arriving back in the UK for a service.
    Or simply stay operating in Italy.

  2. Elsewhere on this blog and on others i've suggested a more cost-effective solution: the Long Range Non Penetrator strike plane.

    A packet of ramp-launched Storm Shadows fired from an A400 cargo plane would have been a lot more cost effective than Tornado SS raids from Marham. An A400 could deliver the Storm Shadow load of 6 Tornado GR4 without air refueling and perhaps even making it back home without stopping in Italy or elsewhere at all.

    Less expensive.
    A proper manned heavy bomber would cost huge amounts to develop and run if you wanted it to be intercontinental, stealth, survivable and with lots of sensors and weapons to do the "persistent" attack mode or even just deal with contested air space.

    If the bomber is not stealth and fast, it is no more survivavle than a cargo plane with good electronic countermeasures. At that point, RoRo gunship/bomber/missiler kits for cargo planes make more sense operationally and economically.

    But this would be complementary to carrier based airpower, not a replacement. You'll see my phylosophy on the matter here:

  3. I definatly meant a none penetrating aircraft, rather than a Stealth Bomber, although.

    The last one is pretty much what I was shooting for.

    Very true its not a carrier replacement, but at Libya ranges, its a much better platform.

  4. Given your comments on the point of carriers being made by the conflict, I'm interested in your thoughts on this announcement:

  5. The announcement was not a surprise: a rising number of british pilots, from Navy and RAF already do go flying the F/A-18 from the US Carriers, and collaboration was already stepping up before the formal MoU was signed. It was expected.

    I would assume that, when signing the MoU, Hammond was given the reassurances he was seeking about the F35C, its fate as part of the cuts, and the realism of the tail-hook problem solution that is now being pursued after the current hook installation failed at catching the arresting wires in trials.

    Some press has suggested that, like with the submarine Astute in the 90's, the MoU asks the US carrier industry to help the british shipyards with design work for CATOBAR CVF. I don't know if we should believe to this or not: for sure, it's been ages from the last catapult carrier built in the UK, much more time has passed then between Trafalgar and Astute SSNs, so it is unrealistic a suggestion.

    In any case, since the UK is going EMALS and AAG wires, it is essential that american industry looks into CVF and help finalizing the conversion design.
    Collaboration is also ongoing on the various light systems that guide pilots in their landing on the carriers.

    And it'll be years before the F35 pilots of the UK start training at home: they will train in the US at least at the beginning.

    The MoU addresses all this kind of issues, i'm guessing. A similar cooperation is also already in place with France. It proves that the carrier regeneration plan is a serious one and a real priority.

    Now what is important is securing conversion of Queen Elizabeth as well, in her first major refit around 2022. As i've written more than once, i expect a decision in this sense in the SDSR15.

  6. Thank you very much. It certainly suggests to me that both CVF Carriers' futures are bright for the time being.

  7. @Kynth

    Better not to exaggerate with the optimism. The risks are still very high, because the conversion is quite expensive. But there are good reasons to hope in the good decision for 2015, and i tend to be confident enough.


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