Sunday, April 29, 2012

Highlanders safe, but Scots Dragoons gone?

The press reports that, differently from what we heard in the last few months, 4th SCOTS battalion, the Highlanders, will not be cut. It is end of the road for the junior regiment, however, 5th SCOTS Argyll and Sutherland.
And the only regular tank regiment from Scotland, the Scots Dragoon Guards regiment, is to be removed from the regular army, possibly becoming a TA formation (depending on what the Army does to its tank fleet).

The article also reports that an announcement about the Army cuts and disbandments is now due in June, much later than expected.

If the report is true and correct, where does this leave us?

5th SCOTS is an airmobile battalion of infantry and represents the 4th maneuver battalion of 16 Air Assault brigade, so if it is disbanded the brigade is either reduced to 3 infantry battalions or given a re-roled battalion. Perhaps, 4th SCOTS: currently the Highlanders are armoured infantry on Warrior, but this is almost certainly going to change as the armoured battalions are cut from 8+1 to 5+1.
So there is inconsistency in the plan outlined by the press compared with what we are expecting basing ourselves on the SDSR Multi Role Brigade plan.

There is also inconsistency, worse and harder to remedy to, brought up by the disbandment of the Scots Dragoon Guards: what happens with the SDSR promise that each MRB would have its tank element?   

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Type 26; the future of the Afghan vehicle fleet, the F35 saga

Type 26 Update: new BAE video

Once again, not very showy and not very good in quality, but there's a new Type 26 video from BAE, released at DSA 2012 in Malaysi,a and it seems to prove some of the good spotters on this blog right: there's a VLS silo in the funnel. This new video shows it well. Its sizes seem to match the main missile silo, which could mean as many as 24 cells. 


Congratulations to the several readers who saw it already in the first video i reported: for how much i tried, i personally struggled to see it, but this new video seems to definitely confirm that something's up there.

Hard to imagine the RN finding the money to put VLS in there when they have difficulties funding the main silo, but we at least know that the design offers this chance. Other highlights: the helicopter hangar door is single (no dog kennel as we all hoped) but, to me, it looks a bit narrow. A single, large hangar is a fundamental requisite for helicopter + UAV operations, so i'm hoping in an hangar at least as large as the Type 45's one. 

A question still to be answered is that of the Flexible Mission Deck. Is it still present? The Royal Navy's Yearbook 2011/12 reports that yes, it is still present. Then again, it still shows the old Type 26 photos. BAE's Global Combat Ship webpage is just about as up-to-date regarding images, though, so it might very well not mean that the info is out of date.
As i wrote in the recent article on the Navy's yearbook, the publication reports, about the Type 26:

The yearbook confirms that the Flex Mission Deck is present. Probably sized, according to BAE data, to take up to 11 standard containers or 4 12m boats.

The yearbook also tells us of the current preferred propulsion option, which is for a CODLOG solution on 4 diesels connected to two large electric motors, generating cruise speed as high as 18 knots, with a direct drive gas turbine for sprints of minimum 26 knots.
Other options have been/are considered, including an integrated all electric solution or a wholly diesel one.

In terms of weapons fit, the yearbook is quite clear about the RN's want to fit the Type 26 with a new medium calibre gun, capable of firing long range, precision guided ammunition. It is very much the identikit of the Oto Melara 127/64 with Vulcano ammunition, especially since the BAE 127/54 rival has been badly damaged by the US cancellation of the guided ammunition meant for it.
Fitting TLAM long range land attack missiles is "subject of further studies" (read: we are trying to get money for it, won't be easy), but regardless of the decision on TLAM it remains the RN's ambition to have the Type 26 fitted at build with a large VLS silo (24 cells) in which land attack missiles and the future anti-ship missile would be carried.  

The Type 26 frigate is to "reverse" the Type 45 situation (20% of technology carried through, 80% new kit) by de-risking most of its mission system thanks to the Type 23 mid-life upgrade program.
Type 26 will inherit from the Dukes the Type 997 radar (Artisan 3D), the Type 2087 towed sonar (8x) and its command system will be a derivation of the current DNA(2)/CMS-1.
The adoption of proven, in-service kit for almost 80% of the ship's systems is meant to keep costs and risks down, as there is no margin for error in this crucial program.

The future of Mastiff

On 19 April Philip Davies made a question i've been waiting for for a long time, and got an interesting answer:

Philip Davies: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans his Department has to bring all Mastiff, Ridgback and Foxhound vehicles back to the UK after the British role in Afghanistan has been completed. [102414]
Nick Harvey: It is intended to bring all serviceable Mastiff, Ridgback and Foxhound vehicles back from Afghanistan but the specific details, including timing and locations, are still to be determined. It is planned to return the vehicles to a number of sites across the UK and wider Ministry of Defence estate. We expect to make decisions on which vehicles will be retained as part of the core equipment programme during the course of the next year.
Philip Davies: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether his Department plans to keep sections of the Army fully trained in the use of Mastiff, Ridgback and Foxhound vehicles for use in future counter-insurgency operations. [102416]
Nick Harvey: It is not yet known which of these of vehicles will be retained as part of the core equipment programme. However, the Army's training programme will continue to reflect their use for as long as there is a requirement to do so.

Unfortunately Davies did not include Warthog and Jackal in his question, and Harvey accurately avoided expanding on the matter himself.
On Foxhound, we pretty much already knew: Foxhound is already considered part of the Core Budget (the second order for 100 vehicles has also been already funded from Core, and not under UOR method), while it is interesting to hear that Mastiff and Ridgback are coming back to the UK.
Somewhat sensibly, the long term future of both will be decided in Planning Round 2013, it seems, after this year's Planning Round gives (hopefully) a clear indication of the force structure that the Army has to develop.

Using a Voyager for VIP transport role?  

It is not a bad proposal. One of the 5 "on-call" Voyagers could well fill this need. And you have to admit that the press and industry do make a good point: if you go abroad to advertise the Airbus products but show up in a chartered Boeing, you don't look very smart.

The Voyager is also an obvious candidate for the UK's eventual participation in the currently tri-national Air Tanker initiative launched within NATO by France, Germany and the Netherlands in order to provide, by 2020, a greater european air tanker capability, based on the Airbus 330 platform, of which France plans a fleet of 14, with orders for the first 5/7 to come next year.

F35 saga

We are still dealing with an unjustified, unspecified inflated carrier conversion cost figure having ballooned from a NAO estimate of 800 million and a MOD allocation of 950 millions to 1.8 billion or even 2 billions, depending on the newspaper talking of it. 
According to the US Navy, the EMALS and AAG cost has not changed, and the modifications to the carrier itself and additional worktime are not worth more than 400 million pounds, meaning that the 950 million allocation is actually still more than valid and also has a margin for cost overgrowth. 

So, from where does the 1.8 billion figure come? 
My personl opinion is that the press got it wrong and it is reporting the figure in an absolutely misleading way. The conversion cost of the single carrier has not increased 8not that much at least!), with 1.8 / 2 billion being the cost of conversion for both hulls. Which would more than fit the only official cost estimations we have, coming from the NAO, the MOD and the US Navy, 3 sources that, in my book, matter a lot more than the Daily Mail. 
This is of course still a cost increase because, as we know, the original 2010 plan was to convert only Prince of Wales and rely on carrier sharing with the french to put the british planes on Charles De Gaulle when the carrier was not available. 
The key point is that Charles de Gaulle is unsuitable for operations with the heavy F35C, as its deck is not adequate. This was first reported in a Parliamentary Defence Committee report, and when i first signaled it, i was ridiculed by many. I stand vindicated now, as the CdG unsuitability is confirmed. 
However, you will agree with me that a lot of things change between being fed with the story that fitting two catapults and 3 wires costs almost as much as building the vessel whole and having that pricetag covering two conversions.  
It would be very important to have clarity on this point.

In absence of an adequate second deck provided by France, converting the second CVF becomes indispensable, and there appears the 1.8 / 2 billion cost figure, with the new, magic question being: is it still worth the price? 
Question which is followed by an even less comfortable: "if it is still worth the price, where the hell do we find all that money in the short term?"

Answering these two questions is the key. 

According to US DoD figures, the F35B will cost 25% more than the C through-life to support.
In terms of acquisition costs, the 2012 figures for the expected Recurring Flyaway Unit Cost (the pricetag of a complete F35 airframe ready to go, but excluding spares, training and support) are: 

F35C - 87 USD million
F35B - 106.5 USD million 

From these figures comes the "600 million pounds" saving that has been reported by the Press several times when the subject is the F35C. The 600 million pounds savings is calculated on an  initial order for 50 airframes.

A Telegraph article reporting of a leaked "top secret" OPEVAL exercise internal at the MOD reports, however, that the F35B limitations in terms of range, payload and availability would require an order of 135 to match the same requirements met by 97 F35C.

The interesting bit is that the "about 100 airframes" target reported by RAF sources would convert to a rather accurate (and very interesting) planned number of 97 F35C. That would be a very excellent number to work with, because it could sustain a good 5 frontline squadrons plus OCU, or Fleet Replacement Squadron in US terms. In economic terms:
cost of 97 F35C = 8439 US million [5241 million pounds, roughly, in today's pounds, so it would fit within the rumored "5 billion budget"]
cost of 97 F35B = 10330.5 US million [6415.2 million pounds]

Difference: 1174.2 million pounds.

Number of F35B theorically achievable with 8439 US million [the budget is more than likely to stay the same, after all] = 79 vs 97 F35C

Difference in million pounds if 135 F35B were to be ordered (will never happen, but if we are to believe the Telegraph this is the number of B it takes to meet the requirements covered by 97 C)

8929 million pounds [135 F35B]
6415.2 million pounds [97 F35C]

2513.2 million pounds of difference.

[135 F35C would cost 7293,6 million pounds, again over 1.6 billion saved]

There is who has already suggested that this report is a "Navy trick" aiming to provide the government with a cost figure that justifies spending for the conversion of the carriers. What can i say, perhaps. Or maybe no. 
The first who argued for the F35C, and we know thanks to Lockheed Martin sources, was the RAF, who's been wanting the C as a Tornado replacement since at least 2005. They might have changed their mind and now want the B very badly, but i do not exactly think so.
Launching accuses of "Navy tricks", though, stinks. And it clashes against a reality which from many years now sees the Navy quite regularly screwed and outplayed, and which is all but denounced by Liam Fox himself, who after the SDSR period at a conference had to bitterly note
“Sometimes I get the impression that the Navy is less successful, even less willing, at selling itself than the other services.”


“I was accused by some of being the only dark blue suit in the SDSR apart from the First Sea Lord.”
The Navy playing tricks within the MOD? Would be kind of about time they started, but it is unlikely that they have gained any real foothold in the right positions in order to do so, since the still recent past.

I want the best decision to be made. I want two carriers available, and the planes to fly off them also available. My preference goes to the C, for a number of reasons, from its better and smoother progress in the testing and development to the much better weight growth margin which gives it much more helpful breath space to evolve, fix eventual issues yet to be discovered, and reach entry in service as an effective airplane, to the fact that the only "hard" cost figures we have all point to it being a much cheaper and cost-effective choice. 
I also value the flexibility and future-proof nature of a big CATOBAR carrier: future UCAV? It can go aboard. CATOBAR plane? It can go aboard. STOVL plane? It can go aboard. US Navy, USMC, French, Italian airplane? They all can use a big CATOBAR CVF.
Name it, and the big CATOBAR ship almost certainly can do it. 

The bit about UCAV is likely to be particularly important in future. I've talked with B supporters who say that we'll just fit EMCATs from Converteam or, guess it, EMALS, in future, when the drones make up more and more of the UK's airpower (the RAF itself expects that one third of its force will be made up by UAVs in 20 years time!), but to me this sounds absolutely ridiculous. If we are expecting to need catapults in a few years time, then it is absolutely clear that we should get them now, not buy the most expensive and less capable airplane, be constrained by it for 30 years or more will also paying for catapults and wires soon after. 

I recognize, however, that it is not a decision to be taken in isolation. 
The F35B should come with a lower requirement in terms of training for carrier qualification, which is very important to ensure that the RAF can embark with minimum notice. If a genuine assessment of the pros and cons suggests going with the B, i'll be the first wishing the F35B well, for it to work and work well.

However, i want it to be a genuine assessment of all pros and cons. And ideally, since carrier strike is what we want to achieve, we should finally detach the requirement from the RAF desire of spending the most of the time on land, in a comfortable airfield such as Marham, and only bother to go at sea when it really can't be avoided, unless they can provide genuine financial and operational justifications for the arrangement, for example explaining what is a second land-based jet fleet going to add to the defence capability of the UK other than numeric consistency.   
This is the original sin of the whole matter, to me. This (wrong) way of approaching carrier strike, by trying to present CVF as a floating, mobile RAF airport over which the Navy has just 40% of the say.

Sorry, this is just the wrong way of doing things. We are trying to put a land force on a ship, meeting the inexorable issues that this implies, and potentially choosing the "wrong" aircraft in order to make it possible, instead of having a naval force, which can with zero issues (other than, possibly, losing carrier currency is the ops go on and on and on for years, but this is another matter and the Harrier GR9 is there to demonstrate that, in this particular case, the B would not do any better) go on land when necessary.
And we are having to deal with this as a consequence of a dubiously wise maneuver in the SDSR 1998. Time to look into it again, and make an honest analysis of what is really needed and what must be achieved. 

The benefits of re-established naval aviation are clear: 

- Air Cover for the Fleet 
- Independent capability of deploying airpower in a place and time of UK's choosing
- More effective use of available resources thanks to the possibility of going closer to the target

Given that the airplane and weaponry employed would be the same, primarily-focus the fleet on land negates and reduces the benefits, if anything.

As to the (not very relevant, but very annoying on the other hand) war of words about who-is-lobbying for what, it is worth remembering that in 2006 Tom Burbage, LM director of the F35 program, said that the UK planned a buy of 138 F35, of which 80 would be B, forming 4 Squadrons and an OCU as a replacement for the Joint Force Harrier and to provide the airwing of CVF, with the remaining airplanes forming two more (smaller) squadrons plus an OCU as Tornado replacement for land based deep strike.
It was reported that this entailed a split buy, with the F35B for the carriers and the long-range, higher-payload F35C for the RAF deep strike.
Later on, in 2007, talk for a single type order of 80/85 F35C started to emerge, and it is evident that things evolved from there up to the surprise decision in the SDSR 2010.

Better to be careful when you accuse the "evil" Navy of plotting to support the F35C: for what we know, it appears more likely that the Navy is now scared of having to shoulder a much greater expense than hoped for CVF conversion due to the clear need for two hulls as CdG won't do, and is thus arguing for the B, with at least part of the RAF pressing for the C.
Which makes far more sense when you think that:

A - The Navy pays for CVF - so converting both hulls means, for them, finding more money
B - The RAF pays for the F35 - so C for them means paying a lot less and getting more

Do you really think that the RAF is arguing for a plane that would cost them more and do less, while the Navy eagerly calls for a greater cost to face in the build program?
You might be seeing this upside-down.

It is a very complex and very embarrassing story, in any case, caused first of all by the lack of a clear strategy, by the never-successful mixture of RAF and RN on the naval aviation front, and especially by a lack of understanding of the need for and of the workings of carrier aviation.
I hope the decision which eventually is taken proves to be the correct one, but so far the premises are far from reassuring.

USMC and USN TACAIR agreement and F35 plans

Up to 2011, the USMC was still planning a buy of 420 F35B, for a sole STOVL force. This was, in part, son of the 2001-old prediction (later proved false by a good margin) that the C variant would be the most expensive of the 3.
By 14 March 2011, things had changed, and time was mature for a new Tactical Airpower integration agreement between the US Navy and the USMC, which brought forwards, along with other adjustments, the well-known change from a 420 B order to a 340 B, 80 C USMC order.

The future US Navy air component is to line 35 Strike squadrons, of which 20, out to at least 2030, will fly on the Super Hornet (half on the two-seat F/A-18F and half on the single seat E), with 15 squadrons flying the F35C thanks to an order for 260 airplanes.
The US Navy is standing up a first Fleet Replacement Squadron, with 15 F35C, based on the F35 Integrated Training Center on Eglin air force base, and is finalizing the program for the transition of the legacy F/A-18C fleet to the F35C.
In particular, the transition will start on the West Coast, where, from 2015, the active squadrons on the 18C will start changing airplane. A total of 7 active squadrons will convert to the C on the West Coast, and each squadron will have 10 F35C.
In 2017 they will be joined by the Fleet Replacement Squadron responsible for the West Coast, which will have 30 airplanes.
109 F/A-18C are thus being replaced by 100 F35C, to be all based, almost certainly, on the Leemore air base.

The East Cost squadrons will begin transition to the C in 2019. There should be 8 more active squadrons and another large Fleet Replacement Squadron, even if the plan has yet to be announced. There should also be at least one Reserve Component squadron on the F35C.

A possible utilization of the Navy F35C would thus be:

160 assigned to frontline squadrons (16 squadrons including one reserve sqn - plan still evolving)
75 in Fleet Replacement Squadrons [15 on the ITC, 30 in the West Coast FRS and probably 30 in an East Coast FRS]
25 OEU/Attrition

The USMC will have 21 Active and 3 Reserve squadrons: 5 squadrons (10 airplanes each) will be on the F35C.
The 420 USMC F35s will be used in the following way:

282 airplanes assigned to Active and Reserve squadrons
64 airplanes committed to Training
6 in OEU
68 attrition reserve

The 80 F35C of the Marines will form squadrons on "10 plus" airplanes each, leaving up to 30 for training and attrition.

The 340 F35B are to be assigned to 9 Expeditionary Squadrons, each with 10 airplanes, with the task of supplying airplanes to the 7 Marine Expeditionary Units, for employment on the LHDs and LHA ships.
A normal LHA/LHD detachment will have 6 F35B and 9 pilots. There is thus plenty of airplanes to put machines on each deck.

A further 7 Squadrons, larger, will stand up for land deployment, each with 16 airplanes. Four of these squadrons will be based on Yuma AB.
These squadrons will rotate and one will at all times be located in Japan, on Iwakuni AB: prior to the 2011 TACAIR agreement with the US Navy, this task was covered by F/A-18 squadrons of the Navy on behalf of the Marines.
Last, there will be 3 Reserve Squadrons, all on F35B.

Prior to the 2011 TACAIR deal, the Marines planned, as said earlier, for an all B fleet, which would have lined 3 Fleet Replacement Squadrons, each with at least 20 airplanes.
There is not yet a detailed plan for the FRSs now that the F35C is part of the picture, but a share of the 64 airframes assigned to training will no doubt be made up by the C.
A 20-airplanes Fleet Replacement Squadron on the F35B is part of the Eglin ITC, and two more F35B FRS were planned: i guess that there might still be, but line, perhaps, 15 F35B each instead of 20, with another FRS having the F35C.
The FY2012 Marines Aviation Plan, once published, should explain this: normally, their documents are wonderfully detailed. FY2011 Plan sure is, and it is immensely interesting even though the F35 part is clearly outdated as it is still an all-B plan.

The Naval Aviation Vision 2012, released in January, describes the future of the 10 Carrier Air Wings of the US Navy:

44 Strike Fighers [2x Super Hornet sqn, 12 airplanes each, one two-seat and one single seat]
                            [2x F35C sqn, 10 airplanes each]
5 AEW&C            [1x E2D Hawkeye sqn with 4/5 airplanes]
11 helicopters      [+8 distributed within the battlegroup, all of the MH60R type]
2/3 Carrier On-board Delivery [Greyhound and then future replacement]
4/6 UCAVs           [from 2018 or, more likely, 2020]
5 Electronic Warfare [1x EA-18G Growler squadron with 5 airplanes]

556 Super Hornet are available/on order so to sustain a 20 Squadron force up to 2030.
75 E2D Hawkeye are being purchased for 10 squadrons plus Fleet Replacement Squadron, 1 Reserve Squadron (will continue to use the E2C).
114 EA-18G Growler on order, to sustain 14 Squadrons [10 for the Carrier Air Wings, 4 "Expeditionary", needed also to fill a big hole in EW capability since the termination of the USAF B52 Standoff Jammer Capability], one Fleet Replacement Squadron with 12 airplanes.

The USMC is not getting any Growler: they will use to exhaustion the remaining Prowler, [22 in 4 Squadrons] decommissioning one squadron per year from 2016 onwards. The replacement will be the stealthy Next Generation Jammer, mounted on the F35B (the Navy will use it on the Growler and possibly on the C), and a UAV with an Electronic Warfare payload.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Airplanes that don't want to die

The C130K just wants to continue to be of precious service. Its retirement has been delayed at least twice, and it seems likely that a third reprieve is imminent as part of Planning Round 2012.
There are some 8 old C130K left in service in the RAF at the moment, and the plan was for them all to be retired by year's end. However, the C130K is the favorite airplane of the Special Forces, and carries all of the (classified and not) additional kit that SF ops require, from the two large underwing additional fuel tanks to additional radios and navigation devices.

The 25 C130J of the RAF were to get a software upgrade (Block 7) as part of the international, US-led C130 upgrade and maintenance program. This software upgrade would enable the addition of all of the SF kit into the airplane, making it possible to retire the old K, but the upgrade has been delayed several times. A spokesman for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics said the upgrade will “enter Phase II flight tests this summer. We are awaiting a schedule for [installation] from the USAF.”
In other words, the software is still being tested, and it is not currently available, while the RAF had been planning to have Block 7.0 software embodied on its C130J by September 2011, so to give the go ahead to Project Hermes: the installation of SF gear, to be done by November 2012. The following month, the K fleet would be gone forever.

Now this plan is no longer current, and when you add to the picture the delays to the A400 Atlas (in 2008 it was planned that it would enter RAF service by December 2011) and the incoming needs and challenges of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, you see why keeping the C130K left for some more time makes a lot of sense.
We will see if the option is approved under Planning Round 12. The issue is, as always, finding the money for keeping the fleet running for a longer time, but it seems very likely that the 8 C130K will continue to fly, probably in 47 Squadron, the one earmarked for SF operations. 

The need for additional airlift to support the withdrawal from Afghanistan is such that the RAF is getting, as we know, an 8th C17 and 2 BAE 146-200 QC airplanes (these procured as UOR), but there reportedly are at least two more options being considered as part of PR12: keeping the Tristar running for longer in the air transport role, and leasing a couple of USAF C17 to rise the fleet consistency, at least temporarily, to 10. 

In the long term, a most welcome development would be, in the case, the retention of the two BAE 146 post-Afghanistan and, if they really are leased, the eventual definitive purchase of the two C17.
That would be a major boost for the air transport fleet, one that is always very much needed.

According to the SDSR, the C130J out of service date has been anticipated to 2022, but there is reportedly already talks and hopes of actually retaining at least a part of the fleet. The way to do it could be similar to what is happening with the K: Special Forces ops. The A400 might well be too big for most SF ops, and anyway the Atlas would have to be fitted with specialist equipment for the job: why not keep around a squadron of C130J, already kitted, for SF support...? 

Another airplane that does not want to die is the Sentinel R1. Its performances in Afghanistan and Libya are helping it, and Raytheon UK is valiantly fighting alongside the RAF to give government all reasons to retain the small but precious fleet in the long term.
The UK is now likely to retain Sentinel R1 (a good news once in a while!) and offer it as its participation in the NATO Air Ground Surveillance programme. This way, the UK will be able to access to the NATO-owned fleet of 5 Global Hawk Block 40, which is likely to be reinforced by a fleet of 7 Heron TP drones made available by France and by 5 EuroHawk (the German variant of the Global Hawk, kitting for Signals Intelligence).
Such an AGS fleet makes for a formidable expansion in the capabilities of the Alliance, and for the UK access to this array of sensors is very desirable. Contributing the Sentinel, instead of cash, is a double-win as it helps the RAF to make the case for the retention of the precious, nationally-owned capability.
Raytheon UK, on its part, is offering the MOD a low-cost software mod that would allow the Sentinel's radar to effectively scan the sea and track surface contacts, relieving a bit of the problem caused by the loss of an MPA platform.
They are also trying to save the 5 Shadow R1 airplanes, also doomed post Afghanistan as of SDSR, by, again, offering to fit a naval-search radar on them to expand their (classified) mission capabilities.

The retention of Sentinel and Shadow, and an improvement in sea-search capabilities would both be more than welcome news.
But one thing should be made clear: a Sentinel capable of tracking ships and boats does not a Maritime Patrol Aircraft make, as the MPA's most unique and precious capability, and the one really missed, is that of detecting and attacking surface and subsurface targets. 
And Sentinel will never be able to track subsurface targets, and never will be able to attack any kind of target, as it has not weight growth margins to enable modifications for weapons carriage.

Reinstating a true MPA capability as soon as possible should be very high on the list of "To Do". 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Some precious snippets of info

The Royal Navy yearbook for 2011/12 contains more info than most ministerial statements, when one reads it. There's many very interesting snippets of first-class information laying here and there all over its articles, and i'm going to report them all here, because they are of clear interest.

Opening statement by minister Philip Hammond

I know this is a difficult time for the Armed Forces as we act to bring the Defence budget into balance and restructure for the future, but the adaptable posture set out by the Strategic Defence and Security Review is the right way to ensure that we sustain the capabilities and skills required to protect Britain now and for the long term. This, of course, includes the ability to project power at considerable distance – before, during, and after any military intervention – and this means Britain must remain a maritime power.
Maritime power not only protects vital trade routes and, therefore, prosperity, it also enables us to gain access to, and operate in, other domains in far-flung parts of the world in support of a wide range of national and international objectives. It provides choice and flexibility without necessarily committing to a footprint ashore.
Sea-basing can overcome the challenges associated with securing access, air-basing and overflight permissions for combat operations. So I am clear that the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, deploying the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter and a mixed helicopter force, will be an integral part of Britain’s future armoury – an armoury that will also consist of Astute-class submarines, new Type 45 destroyers, upgraded maritime helicopter fleets and, soon after 2020, Type 26 Global Combat Ships, all enabled by new Fleet Support Ships.
This will be an impressive and capable Fleet – one of the most powerful in the world – but it is the skill and commitment of the sailors and marines that will provide this hardware with purpose and direction. As this publication shows, the United Kingdom needs the Royal Navy, now and in the years ahead. I am determined that, as we move forward together, our national ambition is matched by our maritime ambition, to ensure that Britain remains strong and secure.

CVF - Carrier Enabled Power Projection

Initial work carried out by the ACA has shaped planning assumptions, as well as identifying a strategy outline. Given that block build work on QUEEN ELIZABETH is now well advanced, a decision to retrofit catapults and arrestor gear would inevitably cause major disruption to the programme.
Instead, HMS PRINCE OF WALES – the second-ofclass, for which manufacture activities began in May 2011 – will be configured for CV operations from the initial build stage.
Construction of HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH will continue in the meantime. This will maintain momentum on the programme, allowing the first-of-class to prove the platform, power and propulsion, and mission system; provide crew training; and achieve rotary-wing clearances.
QUEEN ELIZABETH will then enter a state of extended readiness around 2019, when PRINCE OF WALES is accepted from build.
To support the conversion demonstration phase, the MoD and the US Navy have signed an agreement under which the US will provide the UK with engineering and technical assistance, in order to help define aircraft launch and recovery equipment requirements. The UK has decided to use the same EMALS (Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System) that will equip the US Navy’s next carrier, USS GERALD R. FORD (CVN-78).

The yearbook of course makes no mention of a u-turn reversing the u-turn and still talks of the F35C. The most interesting bit is that the studies for CEPP have come up with a LHA capability estimate. The CVF is described as embarking a Commando battlegroup (no less than 600 men) with a squadron of 12 F35C, at least 12 between Chinooks and Merlin helicopters and 8 Apache.

Type 26 frigate

The yearbook confirms that the Flex Mission Deck is present. Probably sized, according to BAE data, to take up to 11 standard containers or 4 12m boats.

The yearbook also tells us of the current preferred propulsion option, which is for a CODLOG solution on 4 diesels connected to two large electric motors, generating cruise speed as high as 18 knots, with a direct drive gas turbine for sprints of minimum 26 knots.
Other options have been/are considered, including an integrated all electric solution or a wholly diesel one.

In terms of weapons fit, the yearbook is quite clear about the RN's want to fit the Type 26 with a new medium calibre gun, capable of firing long range, precision guided ammunition. It is very much the identikit of the Oto Melara 127/64 with Vulcano ammunition, especially since the BAE 127/54 rival has been badly damaged by the US cancellation of the guided ammunition meant for it.
Fitting TLAM long range land attack missiles is "subject of further studies" (read: we are trying to get money for it, won't be easy), but regardless of the decision on TLAM it remains the RN's ambition to have the Type 26 fitted at build with a large VLS silo (24 cells) in which land attack missiles and the future anti-ship missile would be carried.  

The Type 26 frigate is to "reverse" the Type 45 situation (20% of technology carried through, 80% new kit) by de-risking most of its mission system thanks to the Type 23 mid-life upgrade program.
Type 26 will inherit from the Dukes the Type 997 radar (Artisan 3D), the Type 2087 towed sonar (8x) and its command system will be a derivation of the current DNA(2)/CMS-1.
The adoption of proven, in-service kit for almost 80% of the ship's systems is meant to keep costs and risks down, as there is no margin for error in this crucial program.

Astute SSN  

The article confirms that Astute is compatible with the Chalfont special forces delivery equipment (the american-made Swimmers Delivery System used by the Navy SEALS; the UK has 3 of these mini-subs). This restores an insertion capability that the Special Boat Service had temporarily lost since 2009 when HMS Spartan, the only submarine left in the fleet capable to employ the system, was retired.

Helicopters galore  
There is no uncertainty or hesitation in the yearbook about the Merlin MK4 (HC4): the navalization of the RAF's HC3 remains planned, and entry in service with the Commando Helicopter Force after transfer is planned by 2016 when the Sea King bows out.
An unspecified number of Royal Marines personnel has already trained on the Merlin HC3 last year, and 2012 is to see a further 12 pilots and 35 maintainers training on the type.

The Merlin HM2 is to be in service by 2013, and as part of Crowsnest it will take on the AEW role as replacement for the Sea King ASaC 7 by around 2016.
It is not clear if all the Merlin HM2 fleet will be able to re-role for AEW when needed, or if only one of the two "carrier squadrons" (814 and 820) will have its helicopters "modded" to take on the role. The choice of the HM2 as all-doing platform is due to advantage the Lochkeed Martin proposal, which sees the fitting of two radar pods (Vigilance pods) in place of the torpedoes on a normal Merlin HM2. The system is run through the 2 already present consoles, with option for adding a further 2.
AgustaWestland and Thales have changed their offering (which was to deploy the current Searchwater "bag from the rear ramp of a Merlin HC3) by proposing the installation of two rails on the side of the fuselage allowing the radar bag to slid upwards for landing and deploy downwards for use in flight, with a 360° field of view. The Westland proposal might be disadvantaged by the need for a complex software integration of Cerberus into the existing HM2 consoles, something that Lockheed (which is carrying out the HM2 upgrade) has bipassed by developing Vigilance literally on the Merlin HM2 all along.
My biggest worry is that the 30 Merlin HM2 are going to be very, very busy covering all the tasks and getting all the calls.
Without a dedicate replacement for the Sea King MK7, the Fleet Air Arm will also end up losing two squadrons and quite a lot of personnel.

847 NAS, the squadron that flies recce and light assault/attack missions in support of 3rd Commando brigade, will be the first squadron to convert to the new Wildcat helicopter. It will fly 6 Wildcat AH1 helos in the Army configuration, and will convert on them in 2013.
The first Wildcat army squadron is planned to enter active service in 2014. 652 squadron, 1st Regiment AAC is thought the be the first squadron to convert to the new machine, but changes could still happen, especially since the 1st Regiment AAC, based in Germany and flying the old Lynx AH7, is in my view very much on the firing line of the incoming army cuts and restructuring. I expect it to be closed down. Note that this is my gut feeling though, so don't take it as Truth coming from the sky.  
Between 2013 and 2017 the Royal Navy will receive its 28 naval Wildcats, which will go into 815 NAS. In-service date for the Wildcat navy is 2015.

Successor SSBN

Delightful info dropped in about this delicate subject of which we otherwise hear very little, as well.
The yearbook confirms that the Common Missile Compartment being jointly developed with the US has 12 missile tubes, but that studies are ongoing for developing a variant of it with just 8 tubes, as mandated by the SDSR.
One has to wonder when the US will eventually grow tired of constant rethinks, between F35 and Trident. And i also wonder, knowing how much these design activities cost, if it is worth it to tamper with a design that has been ongoing for a few years by now, or if the cost of developing the smaller "child" module will negate any real saving from being obtained.
The yearbook does not expand on this factor, but i remember reading somewhere that the CMC modules for the british SSBNs could be built in the US and shipped through the Atlantic for assembly in Barrow. Does feel a bit off with me, but if it was to be confirmed i wouldn't be amazed.

Sizeable american content will be present due to the selection of the PWR-3 reactor for the propulsion. The reactor has more advanced safety features than the PWR-2 used on Vanguard and is more advanced than even the PWR-2 Evolved that powers the Astutes.

Surprisingly, the yearbook states that the replacement SSBN will be slightly larger than Vanguard, despite having just 8 or 12 tubes against 16 for the Vanguard.
It must be noted that the new launch tubes will be larger, though, to make room for future uses (multiple revolver launchers with TLAM missiles, unmanned vehicles, and the eventual Trident II D5 replacement, planned for 2040 at the earliest and known as Trident II E6): the Vanguard tubes are 2.21 meters in diameter, and the new ones will probably be over 3 meters wide.
The PWR-3 is also probably a bit larger, and, like with the Astute, the need for more comfortable accommodation for the crew is probably a factor in the growth.
Anyway, the growth is to be kept at a minimum, since the current Vanguard infrastructure must be viable for the Successor as well: the new submarines will be able to employ the same ship lifts, which are used to take the entire boat out of the waters of the River Clyde.

Very interestingly, the yearbook notes that the main design features are frozen: there's already a definitive guideline plan for the submarine. And it draws heavily from the Astute SSN. According to the report, the SSBN will have the same control systems (adjusted for the size difference, of course!), the same sonar fit (so the excellent 2076 with all its arrays) and the same tactical torpedo system, which suggests that the front of the subs, sizes aside, will be very similar, with the same systems and arrangements and even with 6 torpedo tubes.
Is it an indication that the call for a more dual-role submarine, capable to act as SSN/SSGN is being listened to? Possibly, yes.
The commonality with the Astute is so relevant that, according to the report: "A crew trained for an Astute class would slot fairly easily into the new missile boat."    

That's one very sensible approach. By 2016, main gate decisions will have to be finalized, so that more substantial long lead orders can be placed, to keep the program moving on schedule.
Moving on schedule and sticking to a firm, clear plan is simply VITAL for avoiding cost growth and other issues.

Regarding the other two Services, i've been sadly able to find less new and substantial info. The Army's plans are still very much walking in the air and looking nervously down with the fear of falling off the sky at any moment. And this won't improve until the new force structure is announced.

However, a couple of very small but good info are that there's a program, Project Outpost, likely to soon fall under management by the new Joint Forces Command, that aims to select some or all of the base-ISTAR technologies employed as 'Cortez' system in Afghanistan. This ranges from mast-mounted thermal cameras to the Boomerang shot detection system to ground-observation radars mounted on towers all the way up to 5 aerostats used in Afghanistan to provide an unblinking eye in the sky capable to stay in the air for a couple of weeks to constantly survey the area around a FOB.
Who's read my army pieces know that retaining Cortez for the future is, in my view, a must. I've even proposed putting it in a regular/TA royal artillery mixed regiment as part of a Joint Force Protection Brigade.
I don't know if my suggestion will ever be followed, even from a distance, but the RAF Regiment is working closely with the Army on Project Outpost, and this is what i envisaged all along with my FP brigade proposal.  

Another bit of kit that is to be retained at all costs is the G3-supplied, containerized Role 2 hospital of Camp Bastion. The 3500 square meters containerized structure features an operating theater that supports two operating tables; six high-dependency beds; two isolation beds; a CT scanner; and two general wards to provide care facilities for up to 32 people.
The complex also contains an X-ray room, pathology lab and primary health care facilities with six treatment rooms and two rooms for dental surgeries, along with office space, toilets and staff refreshment areas.
I've heard nothing about keeping this in the long term, but i hope that the right decision will eventually be taken in time.

Another program going on is about identifying the UOR vehicles to be brought into core budget. Apparently, Talisman is high in the list of what the Army wishes to retain, and again i applaud this, because it is a capability to retain and cherish. Jackal is another vehicle thought to have a long future ahead, and lots of attention is going into Mastiff and Ridgeback as well, obviously. There is very little info about the current planning, but an article i've read seems to suggest that the smaller, 4x4 Ridgeback is favorite.
Mastiff presents serious compatibility problems with the british roads, and this is a bigger issue than one can think at first, apparently.

Regarding the already mentioned RAF Regiment, it remains planned that, by 2015, 2 out of 8 Field Squadrons will disband. A "proportionate" cut in the 8 reserve Field Squadrons is being determined and planned out.
Meanwhile, the Joint CBRN Regiment, after losing the Army participation (two squadrons from 1st Royal Tank Regiment, driving the now retired Fuchs) has been restructured and renamed 20 Wing CBRN, RAF Regiment.   
Among the programs for the future is the acquisition of an NBC-proof Role 3 field hospital.

The first UK F35 has flown; CATOBAR training penalty; SCOTS battalions to disband

Friday the 13, the F35B named BK-1, first of the three F35s that the UK has ordered (3 B variants, but the third is to be swapped for a USMC F35C, probably to be known as CK-1) has enjoyed its first flight piloted by Lockheed Martin test pilot Bill Gigliotti, staying airborne for some 45 minutes and undergoing the first in a series of functional flight tests before the jet is handed over to the Ministry of Defence.

The MoD will then begin training and further testing at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida later this year, possibly standing up a squadron as F35 OCU and fleet replacement squadron. Previous plans envisaged a 6-jets strong UK presence in the Eglin F35 Integrated Training Centre. Now, of course, there's uncertainty.

Meanwhile, today the Treasury-led review into the costing of CATOBAR and F35 switch is expected to report, and tomorrow the National Security Council should look into the matter. According to the press, the wind is blowing the F35B's way, but prudence is a must in this case.

Regarding the infamous "training penalty" of CATOBAR ops, an immensely helpful document, to which i was linked by Grand Logistics (god bless you my friend!) is the US Navy Landing Signal Officer's manual. 

The "tremendous" training penalty is here broken down in good detail. For the US pilots, Initial Carrier Qualification comes with 12 Day landings (10 of which arrested) and 8 Night landings (6 arrested). The first night flight should last a minimum of 20 minutes. Carrier Qualification is to be achieved during a period of no longer than 30 days.
After achieving currency, the pilot is ready for service, and needs to keep current by refreshing his qualification by, of course, operating from a carrier.

Depending on the time that passes since he's last been qualified, he has to carry on some training to renew his currency.
If 12 months or more pass from he's last been current, he has to face once more the whole 20 landings ICQ, while if he's last been current 60 days to 6 months earlier, the pilot needs facing a Field Landing Carrier Practice (in this video you can see French naval pilots doing their FLCP - needs a runway, one carrier landing lights aid system, the Landing Signal Officer and, for night FLCP with more than two airplanes in the air, one LSO assistant ), followed by 4 day landings (2 to 3 of them arrested) and 2 night landings. No longer than 5 days should pass between FLCP and the first landing on the aircraft carrier.

A whole table of the time periods and associated training needs is available in the manual in chapter 6.2.

The manual also contain an interesting "harmony guideline" figure for the aircrew day: the pilot can't be asked to exceed

a. Ten arrested landings
b. Four night arrested landings
c. Six and one-half hours in the cockpit

per day.

For the Hawkeye and Greyhound crew, the limit is for 3 sorties per day, but there is no maximum hours value. Each Hawkeye sortie is, of course, longer than that of a fast jet.

In the meanwhile, as we wait for the Army restructuring announcements as well, the Mail on Sunday reports that, as long anticipated by many, we will have to kiss goodbye to both 4th SCOTS battalion "The Highlanders" and 5th SCOTS "Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders".

Sunday, April 15, 2012

CVF and JCA: why i'd go CATOBAR

F35B and F35C: the airplane situation

Of immense interest is the 2011 Department of Defence Annual Report for the Office of the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation which gives us an up to date major picture of the current F35 development and testing situation. In the detail, it tells of everything that still does not work with the F35, and details the progress of the program in 2011. 

It is very useful to draw some well-informed conclusions, and contains some interesting data. For example, it emerges that: 

- F35A is 11% behind schedule with its test and validation campaign
- F35B is 9% behind schedule
- F35C is 32% ahead of schedule

We must, of course, look at the 32% ahead of schedule data with the awareness that the C is the variant who entered trials last. The other two variants are ahead of the F35C with their programs of development, testing and validation as they are closer to entering active service. For example the B already went at sea, while the C won't go on an aircraft carrier until next year.
However, A and B are lagging considerably in terms of test points cleared, while the F35C has cleared 32% more test points than planned, which is very reassuring. Having started later also means that more corrections have been incorporated into the C at build, thanks to discoveries made on the other two variants.

The planning, updated to December 2011, is for the three variants to complete their development and testing with many more flights. In each flight, a number of tests are run, in order to validate long lists of requirements. Each airframe requirement makes for 1 or several "test points". As of December 2011, maturity of the F35C was 1002 test flights away, with 12.442 test points yet to clear.
The A still has 827 flights and 10.257 test points to go.
The B 1,437 flights and 15.045 points.

These values of course change rather frequently when a change proves necessary and needs to be flown and trialed, adding new flights and points to clear to the count, but they are indicative of the current plan. 

Regarding the F35B trials at sea on USS Wasp, which were presented by the STOVL prophets as having proven that the B has "no issues" and that the jet blast hazard claims were "nonsense" and that everything actually works perfectly well, well, the reality is actually a bit different. The F35B jet blast does not hole the deck as someone had (rather extremely) prophetized, no, but a jet blast issues exists and the trials at sea only confirmed it. A 75 feet danger radius is reported. 

Jet blast from the F-35Bs is expected to produce unsafe forces on flight deck personnel up to 75 feet from the short take-off line.
This is going to make another serious dent, along with Ship  Borne Rolling Vertical Landing, in the flaunted advantages of STOVL when conducting simultaneous jet and helicopter operations on deck, which some describe as indispansable for the success of Carrier Enabled Power Projection. 
With jet blast hazard and landing runs on the deck, the differences between F35B and F35C in deck usage during ops are getting smaller and smaller.  

Among the F35B issues, is the cracking of a wing carry-through bulkhead cracked before 2,000 hours of airframe life. The required airframe lifetime is 8,000 hours. Repair of the bulkhead on the test article was completed in November 2011, and F-35B durability testing should have restarted in January 2012.

Following the bulkhead crack in the F-35B test article, analysis verified the existence of numerous other life‑limited parts on all three variants. The program began developing plans to correct these deficiencies in existing aircraft by repair/modifications, and designing changes to the production process. The most significant of these in terms of complexity, aircraft downtime, and difficulty of the modification required for existing aircraft is the forward wing root rib on the F-35A [which failed after some 3000 hours] and F-35B aircraft.

The F35C's own durability testing are due to start in the next while, if it hasn't already. By August last year the C had completed all of its structural test points, including drop tests to simulate rough carrier landing stress on the airframe. 

The F35B has had  a large number of parts re-designed and replaced and corrected, and the reports notes that, so far, there's no plan in place for rolling in the modifications in production airplanes. The report acknowledges: 

The program has not completed the final re-designs and plans to correct deficiencies through modifications of F-35B production aircraft intended for the fleet, which cannot be monitored in-flight because these aircraft are not instrumented. Production aircraft will be restricted from STOVL-mode flight operations until Service airworthiness authorities grant a flight clearance. A significant amount of flight test and development of system maturity of the final STOVL-mode door and propulsion system designs remains to be accomplished. A system mature enough for unmonitored STOVL-mode flight may be needed as early as late 2012 to coincide with the delivery of lot 4 F-35B aircraft to the Marine Corps at Yuma, Arizona. If testing of the changes is not complete and needed modifications are not installed by late 2012, aircraft at Yuma will fly in CTOL‑mode only.

The full extent of issues so far detected in the airframe doors and STOVL propulsion assembly is reported in a table, and makes for rather depressing reading, with some of the solutions in development already planned not to be ready before LRIP 7 while other solutions have yet to be determined, tested, and planned for adoption on production standard airplanes. 

The table of the F35B propulsion and door issues, as presented in the report.
There is also serious problems with overheating of the clutch that can prevent the STOVL mode to be angaged (how do you land at that point if your only runway is the carrier, or is just too short for a CTOL landing???) for which a real solution does not yet exists, and the driveshaft has to be redesigned. 

Besides, the F35B has a margin for growth of sole 230 pounds before it breaks its not-to-exceed weight planned for 2015. An additional 142 pounds might be secured by a greater descent rate to touchdown, but it is far from certain, and even so that means just 372 pounds of weight growth margin available, before the deadly line is crossed, with several years of testing and development yet to go, and no military service at all done. 
Talk about constrained airframes... 

The report notes: 

This additional weight [the 142 additional pounds of margin, to 372 total] increases the margin to 1.2 percent of current weight and allows for 0.36 percent weight growth
per year. Managing weight growth with such tight margins for the balance of SDD will be a significant challenge, especially with over 70 percent of the scheduled F-35B flight sciences test flights remaining to be accomplished in the next 60 months. For comparison, weight growth on the F/A-18 E/F was approximately 0.69 percent per year for  the first 42 months following first flight.

Again, undesirable wing roll-off, airframe buffet, and sideslip occurred in transonic flight regimes, and handling characteristics as a consequence do not meet requirements. It is likely that no more changes will be made to the plane, and it will be the requirements that are reviewed and reduced, in order for the plane to "meet" them!

The final word on the F35B can be identified in this passage: 

In October 2011, the program successfully conducted initial amphibious ship trials with STOVL aircraft in accordance with the new, restructured plan for 2011; however, significant work and flight tests remain to verify and incorporate modifications
to STOVL aircraft required to correct known STOVL deficiencies and prepare the system for operational use.

Regarding the F35C, the report says: 

F-35C Flight Sciences
• As F-35C flight sciences focused on preparation for and execution of carrier launch and landing testing at Lakehurst, a limited amount of other envelope expansion occurred in 2011.
The F-35C flight sciences test points accomplished thus far are approximately 15 percent of the total expected in SDD.

• The lack of available flight envelope in the transonic regime currently constrains testing of F-35C aircraft handling qualities. In limited testing using flight control software that
benefitted from F-35A and F-35B testing, the F-35C aircraft performance in the transonic flight regime demonstrated the predicted intensity of uncommanded rolls but higher buffet
levels. The F-35C aircraft was expected to have the greatest challenge of the three variants in the transonic flight regime, which led to the decision to incorporate structural provisions for the installation of external spoilers in one test aircraft.
(Buffet is a problem of all three variants, it seems, and indeed a common problem in american naval jets, since the F-18 notoriously had this kind of issues too!) 
• The carrier launch and landing testing at Lakehurst provided valuable lessons regarding the impacts of these dynamic environments on the aircraft early in the testing.
Corrections and regression testing are needed as a result of the discoveries listed below. The program is also working to correct other performance problems such as excessive
nose gear oscillations during taxi, excessive landing gear retraction times, and overheating of the electro-hydrostatic actuator systems that power the flight controls. The program will subsequently evaluate the need for modifications of production aircraft for these items.
• Discoveries included:
-- Flight test aircraft could not engage the arrestment cable
during tests at the Lakehurst, New Jersey, test facility. The
tail-hook point is undergoing a redesign and the hold-down
damper mechanism requires modifications to enable
successful arrestments on the carrier. Resolution of these
deficiencies is needed for testing to support F-35C ship
trials in late 2013.
-- Hold-back bar and torque arm components, which keep the
F-35C aircraft from moving forward when tensioned on the
catapult at full power, require a redesign due to the use of
incorrect design load factors. Actual loads are greater than
predicted. The impact of these greater‑than‑predicted loads
on strength and fatigue characteristics is under analysis by
the program.
-- Loss of inertial navigation and GPS inputs to pilot displays
occurred during a catapult launch. Root cause analysis was
in progress at the time of this report.
-- The test team conducted initial testing in the transonic
flight regimes with one version of air vehicle software on
aircraft CF-2. Problems similar to the other variants were
observed, such as excessive buffeting and roll-off, at times
making the helmet-mounted displays unreadable.
-- Higher than predicted temperatures exist in the
electro‑hydrostatic actuator system during flight testing
of the aircraft in a landing configuration. This component
provides the force to move control surfaces.

In addition, the F35C acceleration is inferior to the hoped value.

The F35B is still far from its maturity, with several thousand test points more than the other variants to clear and with a huge variety of very serious issues to fix and with a significant amount of changes and redesigning already having taken place.
The F35C has its problems too, but is in a remarkably better shape and, save for the arrestor hook issue, which is said to be due for fixing in the next few months, has not revealed problems potentially show-stopping. The B's extremely low growth margin, with associated Bring Back weight issues, is instead a very serious menace to its viability as embarked plane for CVF. 

CATOBAR reasons and issues 


- Maximum interoperability. Rafale, F-18, F-35C but also STOVL F35B can work from a big CATOBAR deck. The opposite is not true. 

- Future proof. Any kind of naval drone which will be developed in the coming years will be able to operate from the carrier. We will also be able to benefit from research and development done by the US Navy, and benefit of their support and investments into EMALS, AAG, and compatible platforms. 

- Compatible with future adoptions of better COD, AEW and tanker platforms. 

- Maximum military performances. It makes it possible to use the most capable embarked airplanes, and it fits into the operations of the two main allies of the UK. 


- Cost. EMALS and AAG add up-front cost to the carriers, and come with a personnel and training penalty. 

I've tried to quantify the extent of the training penalty connected to CATOBAR ops, but it is not easy at all.
I've discovered that a Sea Harrier FA2 pilot was a Naval All Weather Fighter Pilot after 100 day and 80 night landings on deck, but i've been unable to find a figure for the number of day and night landings necessary to re-certify for ops when the pilots are assigned to active service on the carrier.

On the other side of the barricade, i don't have a figure for the number of landings required for initial pilot certification, but i know that France's carrier pilots re-certify for carrier ops currency by making 6 daytime arrested landings and 4 night time arrested landings. A direct comparison in this latest value would be invaluable in assessing the feasibility of having RAF pilots, initially certified to CATOBAR ops, getting current again quickly to reiforce the naval strike wing embarked on the carrier.

The STOVL prophets say that re-certification with the Harrier required far fewer landings, and was much more readily achievable. They say that with CATOBAR, it wouldn't be possible to have one naval squadron plus 2/3 land squadrons able to reinforce the embarked complement in case of crisis, but we'd need a CATOBAR cadre of at least 3 naval squadrons.
Assuming they are right and it is true,  my reply is: that's how things should have always been.

While there's several clear and rationale reasons for having a naval fixed wing element [provide air defence for the fleet and independent, full spectrum air power even when airbases are not available], which brings to the table some very unique capabilities, i believe the rationale for a separate land based fleet of "deep penetrating" strike planes to replace Tornado has never been weaker. And in many ways it is a duplicate of the carrier strike fleet.

The RAF's JCA plan so far has been to get a land fleet of planes, capable to, at a stretch, migrate on the carrier when necessary. But considered the difficulties of getting land pilots to operate from ships, it will always make more operational sense to have naval pilots instead, who can readily work from land bases if the situation calls for it.
It is much easier to put a naval squadron ashore than a land squadron at sea, it is undeniable.

If CATOBAR requires a greater focus on naval operations, so be it, i say. France does not do bad at all with its own naval aviation, considering that they deployed a sizeable and capable force at sea for Libya ops, even though Charles De Gaulle was back from four months of ops over Afghanistan by less than one month.
They did especially well considering that their naval air force at the time had a single Rafale squadron, 12F, with an establishment of 15 airplanes, plus two Super Etendard squadrons, 11F and 17F.
Now, finally, 11F is converting to Rafale as part of the progressive retirement of the Super Etendard. The naval fixed wing complement is of course completed by 4F squadron, with the 3 E2C Hawkeye. Numerically, if the UK is really to order 50 F35s, the numbers are similar, as France has so far ordered 48 Rafale M, and has lost 3 to accidents, giving them a fleet of potentially just 45 airframes, even if once they were hoping for 60.

Looking at France's small but efficient CATOBAR naval aviation, i say that Britain could no doubt at least match it, standing up three naval-focused, if not naval-owned, squadrons of 14 F35C each (as 2 would normally be roled as Buddy-Buddy tankers).
France trains its naval pilots in the US, where they fly and "trap" on the T-45 Goshawk. When they come back, as few as 12 hours on the Rafale simulator are sufficient to achieve conversion to type. Much like with the F35, there is not a (naval) two-seat Rafale trainer. Differently from the F35, which pretty much never envisaged it, the Rafale N was planned (naval two-seat) and the airforce has the two-seat B variant. From late 2010, the Armee de l'Air has formed a large Rafale training squadron (2/92 Aquitanie) which offers some 4 slots a year for naval pilots to exploit some hours on the two-seat Rafale for combat system advanced training.
The RAF and RN hope to cover this requirement for the F35 with the Hawk T2 and with the simulators.  
On land, carrier landing practice is done by french pilots without a carrier-shaped runway with wires: a standard runway, with a marked "square" area the same size of the one that on a carrier would sport the wires is sufficient for good practice prior to embarkation on the aircraft carrier.

Keep in mind that the F35 promises to come with the best and most realistic simulators ever developed, and much of the training is to be done on sims, so matching what France does with the Rafales is the minimum i expect.

I do not think CATOBAR represents such an insurmontable challenge, if the decision is eventually taken to go ahead with it.
The problem is financing the conversion of the two carriers, essentially. And accepting that naval aviation is a serious trade, that should not be half-assed with part-time solutions.