Now able to make full use of Twitter, Humphrey was intrigued to read comments on one Twitter feed linked to discussion about the Royal Navy which was looking at the deployment of 9 Merlin helicopters onto HMS ILLUSTRIOUS. The debate swung on three main areas – the fact it was good news this was happening, it was a travesty that the paying off of ILLUSTRIOUS would lead to a capability gap which running her on could avoid till CVF was in service, and that it was down to ‘Government cuts’ that the Royal Navy found itself in this situation.
To Humphrey's mind, there is more to this argument than a debate over cuts, and its one which is very thought provoking. If one looks back to the genesis of the CVF project in the late 1990s, the original concept called for two carriers to enter service in the 2012-2014 time frame (with a follow on delay for trials) ahead of full capability some two years after. At the same time the plan for the Invincible class remained constant, confirming the pay off dates as 2006, 2012 and 2015 – e.g. roughly the thirty year mark. This allowed for the CVS to be used to provide one hull for carrier strike, and one hull primarily to work as an LPH in place of HMS OCEAN when needed, or alternatively for ASW / Training as required.
As with any plan, the real world soon intervened and by the mid-late 2000s, the MOD was forced to defer the entry into service dates by about two years. This decision has been criticised publicly as adding immensely to the bill, but it is important to understand the context of the time. During this period the world was undergoing a major financial crisis and funding was drying up. Meanwhile the MOD was only beginning to comprehend the scale of the commitment to Afghanistan, which at this time looked like lasting at least another decade, while it still had ongoing commitments to Iraq. Coupled to this reality that the Land campaign was THE campaign – at least for another 10 years, was the reality that the MOD equipment programme was simply unsustainable in its current form.
The best way of simply describing the problem is to assume that of all the projects due to be funded on a rolling 10 year cycle, there were several points within this where a number of projects all required substantial funding, which in turn was substantially more than was available. The options were limited – you could delete projects (but you’d need to delete a major one to make savings), or you could de-scope them (buy same kit but with less capability and hope you could upgrade it in due course), or you could defer them (e.g. move the spending profile around and try to delay spending money at the same time).
The result was that MOD chose to defer expenditure on CVF, rather than delete other projects. This is important to understand – the scale of the crisis was such that had the MOD not deferred CVF then several major projects would almost certainly have had to have been scrapped to find the equivalent savings. This could have significantly impacted on the ability of the RN to bring other new capabilities into service – its perhaps intriguing that it was around this time that stories emerged of the RN seeking to sell the T45 hulls 5&6.
Two other points are worth noting here – firstly that these decisions were put together and recommended by military personnel, and endorsed by Ministers. There is an occasionally disturbing narrative emerging that somehow the military had this inflicted on them, which is plain wrong. Secondly, there was a clear understanding that the deferring CVF option would result in greater long term cost, but it would keep the project alive.
|The CVF as conceived|
What does it all mean?
In practical terms, once the decision was taken to slow construction, it became almost impossible to speed construction back up again. This is a combination of the construction yards amending their workplans to order and produce long lead items at certain times which often takes many months or years to change. The nature of the CVF build, relying on blocks being built around the UK meant that many different shipyards were impacted, not just one location.
Secondly, the work needed to put things in place to support the arrival of CVF was also effectively deferred for some time too. Bringing a new ship into service these days is not just a case of sailing a hull into Portsmouth and handing it over. Behind the scenes training contracts, simulators, supply chains, personnel career drafting are all impacted. It is even down to the little things of ensuring that the harbours are dredged and shore supply is sufficient to cope with the ships demand. What this means is that when the entry was deferred, a host of other work was also deferred, helpful in generating short term savings on hard pressed budgets, but more challenging in ensuring that any speeding up could bring the ship in to service too quickly.
Even if CVF hadn't have been deferred in the mid 2000s, the question must surely be, how bad could things have been in the 2010 SDSR? When people look at the SDSR they often forget that its role was to set a 10 year vision for the MOD and UK defence – it essentially tells a story of getting the UK from a financially unsustainable military committed to land operations in Afghanistan, through withdrawal and force regeneration, and then by 2020 to the point where they can deploy again on global intervention operations supported by the next generation of equipment.
There was always going to be an SDSR in 2010, whoever won the election, and the funding for the MOD was always going to be an issue. SDSR will be remembered as the review in which the RN lost ARK ROYAL and Harrier. This decision has been covered elsewhere on this site (LINK HERE), but no matter how often it is revisited, to Humphrey's mind it makes financial and objective sense, even if subjectively it was very painful. But, what arguably saved CVF was the realisation that QUEEN ELIZABETH (QE) was still nearly five years away from launch, and PRINCE OF WALES (POW) was even further behind. By contrast, had the RN committed to the original plans, QEC would have been fairly close to launching, and POW would have been well under construction.
This poses a dilemma for the RN – the big forgotten cut of the SDSR was a nearly 20% cut to RN manpower, which tore a huge chunk out of the fleet and which arguably will have repercussions for several years to come. A financially strapped RN in the SDSR facing imminent introduction of a new carrier, and a second on the way may well have found it impossible to find the funds and people to keep both the CVF and CVS class going. Although Humphrey is merely indulging in idle speculation here, to his mind he cannot see the RN of 2010 keeping both CVF and CVS. Indeed, given how bad things were then, the immediate paying off of both CVS, deletion of Harrier and a possible sale of at least one CVF seem probable.
Don’t forget how difficult budgetary decisions were back then, and the ‘black hole’ loomed large in everyone's mind. Its impossible to see how Harrier would have survived the SDSR even with CVF entering service, and if costs could be saved by reducing to one carrier with the option of a second some years later and a run on LPH, then this is probably what would have occurred. Put simply the money and manpower would not have existed to keep running both classes running in the 2012-2015 time period.
Instead what really happened was that CVF was still so far off from entry to service, and so many jobs around the UK depended on their being built, as well as the reality that without CVF entering service, military shipbuilding in the UK would probably then die, the hulls were essentially safe. One could make an ‘alternate history’ argument that the deferral of two years probably saved the CVF for the Royal Navy.
Back to the Future
So, returning to the debate about HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, the question is, is there really going to be a capability gap when she leaves service? On paper yes, the RN will lose a big deck platform capable of embarking a large number of Merlins and conducting carrier based aviation on them for a period of time. HMS OCEAN is not designed to operate or support ASW Merlins (she is a remarkably austerely kitted out vessel), and could not offer the same capability.
But, lets consider how the CVS have been used in the last few years. Although initially built for ASW purposes, since the 1998 SDR, they have essentially been used as both carrier strike and LPHs. Although there has been the occasional embarkation of ASW aircraft for exercises, it has been unusual to see a CVS operating in the dedicated ASW role. After SDSR 2010, one of the reasons for running on ILLUSTRIOUS was to ensure that she could cover while HMS OCEAN had a refit, and not to provide ASW capability at sea.
So even with the loss of the last CVS, the UK is not losing a finally honed carrier based squadron level of ASW capability. Instead it is taking a short term hit, which in reality is no different to the situation that has been going on for many years, in which the Merlin fleet embarks in small numbers not large ones. There remain several hulls in the fleet (AOR, AEFS and PCRS) which in an emergency could embark a reasonable number of airframes. But again one has to remember the numbers – the RN only has a small number of front line Merlins – take out the ships flights, and the training and support aircraft and realistically it is pushing it to deploy a squadron of 9 Merlins on one deployment.
Does this matter though? Certainly it is less than during the heyday of the Cold War, when the RN put a lot of carrier based ASW to sea. But the threat has significantly changed - so even with the loss of the last CVS, the UK is not losing a finally honed carrier based squadron level of ASW capability. Instead it is taking a short term hit, which in reality is no different to the situation that has been going on for many years, in which the Merlin fleet embarks in small numbers not large ones. There remain several hulls in the fleet (AOR, AEFS and PCRS) which in an emergency could embark a reasonable number of airframes. But again one has to remember the numbers – the RN only has a small number of front line Merlins – take out the ships flights, and the training and support aircraft and realistically it is pushing it to deploy a squadron of 9 Merlins on one deployment. Additionally its worth remembering that in the brave new world of CVF, its unlikely to see more than 6 Merlins embarked, as the intent seems to be primarily to use her as either Carrier Strike or LPH and not an ASW carrier.
Arguably for the RN today the primary threat is about protecting the SSBN force and ensuring that maritime chokepoints are not at risk from singleton SSKs. Both of these are tasks to which there is a lot of resource and capability dedicated already (although it is reasonable to say that the Nimrod MR2 is sorely missed). Its also worth noting that most other carrier operating navies (with the exception of the USN) don’t really do squadron based deployments of ASW helicopters at sea any-more – it looks great in the odd photo, but isn't really something practised in large numbers. Instead ASW is as much about singleton or small numbers of ships and aircraft prosecuting individual targets, rather than the wolfpacks that were feared during WW2 and the Cold War.
|HMS ARK ROYAL|
The final and most critical point to remember about the RN when discussing keeping ships and aircraft at sea is finding the manpower to do this. While it is easy to call for keeping on a CVS till the second CVF arrives, the reality is that the RN today is desperately short of manpower across a wide range of areas. One only has to look at the official data published on manning to realise there are gaps and imbalances across the fleet. The 20% manpower cut in SDSR is arguably even more challenging, as once the RM, FAA and Submarine Service personnel are stripped out, the RN only has around 15000 personnel in the ‘surface fleet’ to source billets for. Keeping a CVS on requires nearly 700 people (plus Air Group) to be available – that’s nearly 5% of the surface fleet on top of every other requirement. This also places a lot of pressure on certain pinch point areas – its not just about dabbers painting the flight deck, but about engineers, officers of the watch and other deeply specialist skills. Manpower in the Naval Service is a finely balanced act and one where even minor changes, or an early resignation can have far reaching consequences. It is reasonable to say then that had the RN decided to focus resources on running both a CVF and a CVS at present, then wider fleet manpower would be very badly affected – if the choice came between running on a carrier, or paying off escorts into reserve, gapping posts and making other harsh changes in order to support two carriers at sea, which is the better choice?
So in summary, while it is always interesting to read views which suggest that the RN could or should run on a Carrier, or that it was only down to Government cuts that some things didn’t happen, the reality is more challenging. The RN is extremely lucky to be able to focus on getting at least one CVF into service, and re-enter into the small group of navies capable of operating fixed wing aviation at sea. But, it is always a fine balancing act of resources, capabilities and manpower to do this, and the RN can only do extra things by making compensating reductions elsewhere. The question is whether this is a price worth paying for the illusion of capability, mindful that the deployment of a squadron of Merlins on a carrier is a very rare event indeed – is this what the RN needs, or is it dedicating resources and effort to smaller less high profile roles but which have a greater operational effect?