A decision has finally been reached on the F35 procurement, with Phillip Hammond formally announcing to the Commons that the STOVL version is to be purchased. This author has deliberately held off commenting previously on the F35 saga, preferring to wait for a formal announcement in the House before making his own assessment. It is now time to suggest that contrary to much of the media coverage, the decision reached was the correct one.
Imagine the anger that would be in today’s papers had Phillip Hammond announced that there had been a 100% cost increase in the procurement of the catapults required to turn CVF into a conventional carrier. Doubtless commentators would have noted with incredulity that MOD had managed to bring about a £1 billion cost increase in just 18 months, and that it was near scandalous that they were continuing with this procurement at a point when the STOVL aircraft offered a far cheaper alternative. It is likely that people would demand lessons be learned, and question whether anything had changed since SDSR.
This author believes that whatever decision was announced yesterday, the MOD would have been roundly attacked today. It is a classic example of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. The media and various commentators would have sought to put the worst possible spin on whichever decision was taken. The author does find it amusing that the MOD is being attacked for deciding to save money and not procure something that probably would have been massively over budget.
To this author, the decision to switch back to the F35B is probably the right decision. It is never easy to make a U-turn in defence procurement – just look at the way that the Nimrod decision continues to make uncomfortable column reading for the MOD. In this case though, and based on the evidence put to the House, it seems that a minimum of three years delay, and a £1 billion overrun already seem a sensible enough reason to go back to the original plan.
The first point to note is that if the project had escalated by £1 billion already, and if it was going to take at least another 11 years to enter service, then further cost increases were almost certain to occur. This would have made the CVF project ever more unaffordable at a time when funding remains tight. What other projects would the MOD have had to cancel to keep the CTOL version on track when the costs grew further? Cancellation now may have incurred some costs, but far less than seeing this through to the bitter end.
The next critical point – the key structure of the SDSR was to restructure the UK forces to deliver a structured force capability in 2020. The CVF project is central to the notion that by this point, the military will have regenerated after HERRICK and will be ready to resume a more interventionary posture. The loss of a credible carrier strike capability from this would have removed the central plank of the Force 2020 vision and undermined much of the other 2010 SDSR assumptions.
It is worth remembering that the UK now intends to conduct strategic defence reviews every five years. The switch to STOVL means that on current plans the UK will regain a Carrier Strike capability in around 2017. This means that barring a very serious change of defence direction in the next Defence Review (due in 2015), it is likely that not only will CVF enter service, but that the option is now clearly on the table to ensure that both carriers are retained. Adopting the CTOL would have meant the RN needing to put the case for CVF in 2015, 2020, and depending on just how delayed CTOL became, the 2025 defence reviews as well.
Given the 2010 review’s willingness to put sacred cows on the options list and then take the option (for instance Nimrod or Harrier), it seems credible to say that the switch to STOVL could have saved CVF for the RN. It is easy to imagine a situation with government in 2020 being open to the ‘delete/sell CVF’ option, if CTOL had been delayed again and was looking at a 2025 or beyond entry to service.
The longer the UK waits to regenerate Carrier Strike, the more difficult it will become to do this. By 2023, the RN would have been out of the full time fixed wing carrier business for over 20 years (since withdrawal of the Sea Harrier), and out of the small & occasional deployment of fixed wing carriers for nearly 15 years. Its not just a case of trying to put the officers into positions to fly CTOL aircraft at this point, it’s the loss of an entire generation of officers who have not worked with Carriers, who do not understand their practical importance at the centre of the fleet. Its nearly 15 years when opponents of carrier aviation can make the whispering claims that if we can manage this long, then why do we need this ability at all? Its much easier to keep a capability when already in service, even in this day and age. The reversion to STOVL will ensure that the training pipeline will begin to churn pilots, engineers and other critical members of the carrier community back into the system within the next few years. This gives the RN a chance to try to continue the knowledge and experience of carrier ops into the next generation of personnel, something that could easily have been lost with the delay in CTOL entry to service.
|F35B in flight|
A Better Platform for UK Aspirations?
Humphrey has a sneaking suspicion that many of the proponents of the CTOL CVF were seduced by the vision of the RN returning to a capability of operating big deck carriers, and deploying near USN levels of aircraft at sea, while sitting off a hostile enemy coastline and threatening to level it to the ground.
The harsher reality is that the RN would have struggled to put more than 12 JSF to sea on a CTOL carrier on a good day, plus supporting helicopters. In reality, this author suspects that based on the likely small numbers of JSF that will be bought, even a 12 aircraft embarkation will be relatively unusual. To that end, the RN could have ended up with a very large platform embarking nowhere near its true capability. At the same time, it is hard to envisage any credible scenario in which the UK would need to embark 36 CTOL JSF and surge to sea in a ‘sink the Bismarck redux’ manner.
The move to STOVL makes a more sensible use of the hull – essentially CVF will operate in the same manner as the Invincible’s have done very successfully for over 30 years – merging limited fixed wing operations, with the ability to surge larger aircraft groups to sea in extremis, with the operation of multiple helicopter types for other aviation roles. The vision of a CVF operating with a small group of JSF, merged with Chinooks, Apache and Merlin seems appealing. Suggestions on technical internet forums (such as PPRUNE) imply that it is a lot easier to run a carrier with the STOVL/Helo airwing envisaged than running a CTOL/Helo airgroup laid out in SDSR.
The CVF then will by 2020 be capable of putting a sensible airgroup to sea which is a logical evolution of that which has gone before. To this author, it makes far more sense to have these vessels in service capable of intervention in the most literal sense, rather than as a more specialised CTOL carrier.
While some will bemoan the loss of cross deck interoperability with the USN, an objective look would suggest that the requirement to do this is probably a lot lower than we’d like to assume. The USN is getting smaller and is likely to have sufficient space on its extant carriers to operate the future airgroups envisaged. Even today the average CVN ‘only’ puts to sea with some 40-50 F18 fighters embarked. While having access to a UK deck may be a nice to have, it is incredibly hard to envisage situations where the USN is so critically short of both available carriers AND land based airpower that they would regret not having CVF available. Such a situation has not occurred since WW2, and is unlikely to ever do so again. The US will doubtless be grateful that the CVF exists, even as a STOVL platform, and that is what matters.
One of the positives emerging from this is the strong hint that both vessels will remain available, with one in permanent commission. Previously under SDSR the intent was to only have one carrier available, and the conversion costs of the 2nd carrier would have been considered later. The hint of a move to having both hulls able to be in commission is extremely good news.
It is important to remember that this does not mean the RN will certainly have two CVFs at sea full time. The manning structure of the RN after SDSR is built on the assumption of one carrier – a fleet of 22,500 personnel (plus Royal Marines) has remarkably little slack in it once you remove the submarine service and FAA from the equation. Finding the spare 600 crew plus airgroup to operate a second CVF in full service is going to need manpower savings elsewhere. Given the RN has almost no slack, the question is, what does the RN want to stop doing to keep both CVFs at sea?
Wider European Implications?
There are wider implications from this decision. The Italian and Spanish navies are likely to be secretly pleased at the return to STOVL. It will reduce unit costs of the F35B, and this means they are more likely to be able to afford successors to the Harrier fleets.
The decision places France in a more interesting place. As noted elsewhere on the site, Charles De Gaulle is getting older, and previously co-operation had been built on the idea of jointly providing CTOL carriers working in a more co-operative manner. The French will now have to consider not only how they source a future carrier, but more importantly work out in the medium term what will fly from it? At some point soon work will need to begin to identify Rafales successor. It seems fair to suggest that no country, not even the USA, could afford the costs of building a national carrier strike aircraft alone. The decision today means that the French will need to consider in the medium term how their carrier force is going to work. Already the French are a part time carrier navy, and this availability is only going to get worse as CDG gets older. The loss of a UK CTOL platform is going to place huge pressure on the French defence budget to source a new hull, and successor aircraft in a similar time frame to when the SSBN replacement is likely to be due. There will be difficult decisions ahead for Paris.
How damaging is this really?
No politician likes to make a U-turn, and this has doubtless been embarrassing for Ministers to make this announcement – particularly when they are returning to a policy of the previous Government that they had criticised. Some will argue that the UK would still be a carrier going nation had they kept to that policy. But a reality check is needed here.
Even if the SDSR 2010 had not adopted CTOL, this author’s strictly personal view is that the UK would not currently be operating Harrier. Ultimately the SDSR was about not only reviewing UK national strategy, but seeking to reduce a very large budget overspend. In order to make the savings required in 2010, it was clear that an aircraft fleet would have to leave service. Had the Tornado GR4 been taken out of service, then Harriers would not be merrily flying today from ARK ROYAL.
Instead the Harrier fleet would have had to be redeployed to Op HERRICK, and right now the much denuded force of barely 70 airframes would be trying to maintain 12 airframes in Kandahar – which in reality would have wiped out the force for effective tasking elsewhere. The Harrier fleet would be almost certainly committed to HERRICK, and the UK would not have been able to do OP ELLAMY with anywhere near as much success, as there would have been no Tornado, and no spare Harriers to go to Libya.
It is fair to say that at best the UK may have managed a very occasional training deployment, but in reality the Harrier force would have been so heavily tasked, that it would not have had much spare capacity.
Looking back with hindsight, it becomes clear that SDSR was always going to be forced to temporarily end UK carrier based airpower. This author believes that the decision to go back to STOVL has probably saved it for the long term. It was the right decision, and while it will be argued for decades to come, it is this author’s view that it was the right thing to do.