- Britain and the Royal Navy will soon have two new capital warships in service: the Queen Elizabeth class Pocket Super Carriers. They should provide the Royal Navy Air Force (more often and confusingly referred to as the Fleet Air Arm) with highly mobile and versatile platforms from which Britain will be able to project Foreign Policy (military, political and diplomatic power) across the oceans of the world in defence of our national interests as an Island Nation.
- However, the strategic versatility and utility of the new carriers could be dramatically reduced over the next 50 years if short-term financial expediency (rather than stated policy and realistic capability) is allowed to control the configuration of the ship’s flight decks and the associated air groups that will be embarked.
- The Naval Service needs the two carriers to deliver Carrier Strike and Amphibiosity from 2019 in accordance with SDSR 2010 policy. Operational wisdom and experience dictates that both roles cannot be conducted simultaneously by one carrier. Indeed the ship fittings and embarked support arrangements are quite different for each role: to the extent that, logically, they could reasonably be deemed to be mutually exclusive.
- If one takes into account the limited number of F-35 aircraft that will be procured as well as the training requirement for Royal Marines and first echelon ground forces, it appears highly unlikely that both decks would be required simultaneously for carrier strike (F-35 operations). This draws the logical conclusion that one carrier should be dedicated to carrier strike operations and the other to amphibious operations, as an LPH.
- Our carrier strike programme has already been dovetailed and de-conflicted with the French carrier strike programme to ensure that Europe always has a carrier strike capability available. It is understood (and quite logically so) that the United States would prefer to have such an arrangement with a full carrier strike capability rather than a much lesser capability being available from each of the two British carriers.
- It is therefore of critical importance that the UK carrier designated for the full carrier strike role should be configured to provide an optimum level of carrier strike capability.
- This paper addresses this need.
- In spite of opposition from the Royal Navy, early in the last decade the Government Defence Committee decided that the choice of fast jet combat aircraft to be flown from the new carriers was to be the F-35B Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft. This required the fitting of a flight deck ramp for take-off – thereby enabling the aircraft to launch with a useable weapons payload.
- SDSR 2010 recommended that this had been the wrong choice and that the F-35C should now be procured for the carriers instead of the STOVL aircraft – and this would require an angled flight deck rather than a ramp-fitted flight deck. The logic behind this new way ahead was very straightforward and was strongly supported by the Royal Navy. In brief, the main arguments supporting the new way ahead were as follows:
a) The F-35C has almost double the radius of combat of the STOVL B variant without Air to Air Refuelling (720 nautical miles v 380 nautical miles).
b) The F-35C has a 12,000lb payload advantage over the ‘B’ which is 6,000lb of fuel and 6,000lb of weapons with external stores. This drops to a still very significant 9,000lb advantage when only internal stores are used (the ‘B’ is limited to less than half the weapons payload internally). This translates into a ‘B’ aircraft which can carry far less ordnance, has a limited combat radius and has far less endurance on task.
c) The through life cost of the F-35C is expected to be 25% cheaper than for the STOVL ‘B’ variant.
d) The National Security Council may also have included in their deliberations that our carrier decks, being much thinner than those of US Marine Corps amphibious carriers, may be unable to withstand the excessive heat created by F-35B vertical landing.
- DSTL analysis has also demonstrated that the F-35B would not be able to launch at all from a flat deck in the extremely hot climates that will be experienced East of Suez. And, critically, it may well not be able to recover on board at all to a flat deck or a ramp-fitted deck in such climates without ditching ordnance and expensive stores. (See paragraph 35, below for more detail.)
A Change in Course?
- It is understood that the Chief of Defence Materiel (CDM), the Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) department and DCDS CAP AVM Hillier have now tried to persuade the Secretary of State to change course once again by reverting to the much less capable F-35B STOVL aircraft.
- Of critical importance to the future capability of UK carrier strike is the configuration of the flight deck.
a) The F-35B STOVL aircraft requires the flight deck to be fitted with a Launch Ramp. This makes the flight deck incompatible with the operation of other, conventional fixed wing carrier aircraft (other Fast Jet, AEW, ISTAR, fixed wing Unmanned Carrier Air Vehicles and Carrier Supply).
b) The F-35C requires an angled deck fitted with catapults and arresting gear. This makes the flight deck fully compatible with the operation of other, conventional fixed wing carrier aircraft (other Fast Jet, AEW, ISTAR, fixed wing Unmanned Carrier Air Vehicles and Carrier Supply).
A Ramp-Fitted Deck.
- The reasons why Britain moved from aircraft carriers fitted with angled decks to smaller ships fitted with Ramps or Ski Jumps at the end of the 70s were:
a) The government of the day realised that the decision taken in the 60s to discontinue our carrier fleet was a mistake.
b) The fleet at sea could not be protected from the Soviet air threat by land-based air and needed to have embarked fast jet fighter aircraft to provide the requisite air defence capability.
c) The most rapid resolution of this urgent need would be through the introduction to service of a modified Harrier aircraft.
d) The Sea Harrier that was developed to meet the requirement needed a launch ramp in order to be able to get airborne with an adequate fuel and weapons payload.
e) With the majority of defence funding going into defending the homeland base from the Cold War Soviet threat, the construction of a larger conventional carrier with an angled deck was then unaffordable.
- The Ramp or Ski Jump was fitted to the Invincible class of carrier and to HMS Hermes in 1979 to enable the new Sea Harrier aircraft to take off with a larger fuel and weapons payload. It was later used by the Naval Air Force Harrier GR7/9 squadrons to the same purpose.
- If we are to operate the F-35B STOVL aircraft from our new carriers, a Ramp or Ski Jump will be required for the same reason.
- These ramp-fitted carriers were fully tested in combat during the Falklands War of 1982 but although the Navy Sea Harrier won the air to air war against considerable numerical odds by shooting down 25 Argentinian aircraft in combat (and losing none to the Argentinian fighter aircraft), the carrier air groups lacked the services of Airborne Early Warning aircraft (AEW) and Air to Air Refuelling tankers (AAR). The land-based AEW and AAR aircraft did not have the reach to support Operation ‘Corporate’.
Limitations and Consequences already experienced.
- The lack of embarked AEW and AAR capability severely restricted the ability of the Command to:
a) Detect and monitor the movement of threat aircraft (whether fighter/attack, air intercept, reconnaissance or logistic support).
b) Extend the reach/radius of action of its embarked multirole Sea Harrier fighter aircraft.
- The Sea Harrier did not have a buddy-buddy air to air refuelling capability nor did it have a modern long-range radar with look down/shoot down capability (this would have compensated in part for the lack of a specialised embarked AEW aircraft).
- These limitations placed the carrier battle group at much higher risk, restricted its ability to move further away from threat aircraft bases and this directly resulted in the loss of HMS Sheffield and the Atlantic Conveyor. It also reduced the ability of the Command to:
a) Detect and interdict the logistic air supplies being delivered to Argentinean ground forces on the Islands.
b) Provide a sustained and robust air defence barrier around the amphibious landing operations taking place in San Carlos Water – arguably leading to the tragic loss of HMS Ardent, HMS Coventry and HMS Antelope.
The Queen Elizabeth Class Carrier fitted with a Ramp.
- The ramp configuration of the Queen Elizabeth class carrier is only necessary to facilitate the operation of the F-35B STOVL fast jet aircraft. But, at the same time, it will severely restrict the configuration and capability of the embarked air group:
a) The F-35B does not have a buddy-buddy air to air refuelling capability to extend its combat radius and endurance on task. Providing it with this capability may not be possible owing to its specialist STOVL configuration – and if it were possible:
- i. It is likely to cost more than the buddy-buddy conversion cost of the F-35C.
- ii. It will add weight to the aircraft thereby further reducing its combat radius/weapons payload (see paragraphs 9 a) and b), above).
b) No other carrier capable aircraft will be able to operate from the deck thereby preventing the embarkation of specialist AEW, ISTAR and/or AAR aircraft – and indeed is likely to prevent the future operation of cost-effective Unmanned Carrier Air Vehicles (UCAVs) and/or Carrier On Board logistics/delivery aircraft.
- It should be clear from paragraphs 13 to 19, above that the fitting of a Ramp to Britain’s new Pocket Super Carriers:
a) Reduces the reach and strike/attack capability of the embarked air group – and prevents the extension of this with the future embarkation of Unmanned Carrier Air Vehicles.
b) Considerably reduces the flexibility of movement and therefore the safety of the carrier battle group and associated naval forces (NB the loss of Sheffield and Atlantic Conveyor).
c) Drastically reduces the ability of the air group to defend itself and associated naval forces through the lack of embarked AEW and AAR capability (NB the loss of Ardent, Coventry and Antelope).
d) Relegates the capability of these capital ships from effective strike carriers to that of amphibious air support vessels.
- Britain therefore:
a) Is paying for a super carrier capability that, if properly configured, would enable our nation to project Foreign Policy (robust power and influence) and to defend our overseas interests for decades to come – but, through poor advice,
b) Could negate much of this strategically necessary capability by fitting the flight deck with a ramp.
The Angled Deck.
- Following the end of the Cold War, successive Defence Reviews recognised that Britain’s Foreign Policy did indeed require the services of conventional aircraft carriers for:
a) The projection of Foreign Policy in terms of military, political and diplomatic power,
b) The deterrence of those that would do us harm and
c) The protection of our trade routes, energy supplies and overseas interests.
- At the same time, the requirement for a Joint Strike Fighter was confirmed and Britain decided to opt for the F 35 Lightning II stealth fighter that was being developed by the United States for its land-based air force, its naval air force and its US Marine Corps air force. Three variants were to be available: F-35A for land-based use only; F-35B Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) for amphibious operations with the Marine Corps; F-35C for strike carrier operations.
- The variant that the Royal Navy needed and wanted was the F-35C. The aircraft would have many more blue water roles than just supporting amphibious operations and these would be better fulfilled by the ‘C’ variant. Naval warfare experts also fully understood the serious implications and limitations associated with a STOVL aircraft that needed to operate from a ramp fitted carrier flight deck (as summarised at paragraph 21, above).
- Unfortunately, Britain had a joint requirement for an aircraft to satisfy the needs of both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy Air Force and only one common variant was to be procured. The loudest voice on the Government Defence Committee (that decided the choice of aircraft type) was that of the Royal Air Force who insisted on opting for the F-35B – against the express wishes of the Naval Staff.
The Change to the F-35C and the Angled Deck.
- During SDSR 2010 deliberations, it was realised that the F-35C should have been chosen in the first instance because:
a) It had a much greater radius of action – providing Britain with an extremely flexible deep strike capability in addition to that of the submarine launched Tomahawk.
b) It could be fitted with a buddy-buddy air to air refuelling system thereby providing the safety factor during deck landing operations and dramatically increasing the endurance on task and range of the aircraft for combat operations. (It is doubtful whether such a buddy-buddy refuelling system can be provided for the F 35B without inordinate cost and unacceptable further weight penalty.)
c) It could launch with a much greater weapons payload than the ‘B’ and remain on task longer.
d) It could recover to the deck without jettisoning very expensive weapons/stores in extremely hot climates/high-temperature environments – whereas it is likely that the ‘B’ will not be able to: particularly as their engines age and become less powerful.
e) Its greater range capability provides the Command with much greater flexibility of movement and therefore safety of the carrier battle group.
f) An angled flight deck with catapults and arresting gear would allow the operation of specialist AEW aircraft, ISTAR aircraft, logistic support aircraft and, significantly, Unmanned Carrier Air Vehicles which are likely to provide a carrier battle group with very much enhanced ISTAR and deep strike capability at relatively low cost.
- There were other favourable factors related to the F-35C variant and the angled deck:
a) The through life cost of the aircraft was estimated to be 25% less than that of the F-35B.
b) The preservation of Royal Navy Air Force carrier operating expertise was being made available through exchange appointments with the United States Navy – with our aviators and engineers operating the F-18 Super Hornet fighter aircraft from the decks of U.S. Navy super carriers. Such invaluable expertise would not be available at the same level from exchanges with the F-35B operating from US Marine Corps amphibious carriers/warships.
Implications of a Further Change Back to a Ramp Fitted Flight Deck.
- It is considered highly probable that those who have suggested to the Secretary of State that Britain should now revert to the F-35B STOVL aircraft and the associated ramp-fitted deck have not paid due regard to the severe and negative operational capability (and therefore cost-effective) implications of such a way ahead and the effect that this could have in the long term for the projection of British Foreign Policy. What is very certain is that if a decision is now taken to revert to the F-35B this would relegate the capability of our two new Pocket Super Carriers to the limited capability of amphibious support vessels. It is doubtful whether this is what the Right Honourable Philip Hammond MP envisaged when he stated that the two new carriers were at the heart of Britain’s defence strategy.
- Lord Levene’s Defence Reform Unit has stressed that those responsible for such fundamentally important procurement decisions must be held accountable. It would therefore be wise and prudent for the Secretary of State and his colleagues to take a much closer and more critical look at the advice that he has received concerning this matter. He must ascertain whether that advice is based on misleading information and/or on the wilful omission of various facts.
- He may be aware of a recent paper published by one of the leading Research Fellows at RUSI. (Reference: “Choosing Plan B: Reviewing the UK’s Choice of Joint Strike Fighter” by Elizabeth Quintana, Senior Research Fellow, RUSI. http://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C4F6C9D5A2F291/). This triggered many critical responses (e.g. http://www.phoenixthinktank.org/2012/03/rebuke-at-rusi-over-f35b-article/ ). It is understood that many in Whitehall were also disturbed/unimpressed with some of the misguided opinions, facts and conclusions expressed in the paper. It is further understood that the well-respected author received much of the misleading information from the sources within Whitehall/MoD that may also be advising Mr Hammond.
Key Points That May Not Have Been Addressed to the Minister.
- The United States does not consider the ‘B’ to be a strike capable aircraft. Instead it is looked upon logically and narrowly as a Close Air Support platform for specific use by the US Marine Corps in Amphibious Operations. One of the important reasons that the F-35C was the preferred choice in SDSR 2010 was because it enjoyed the deep strike capability that the ‘B’ does not.
- The ‘B’ aircraft will not be available/cleared to return to the United Kingdom for in service duty until the third quarter of 2018. At that juncture the only weapons clearance it will have is for the Pave Way IV bomb. In the same timescale, the ‘C’ will have a full strike capability with a wide range of weapons up to a size of 2500lb cleared for use. (It is understood that the ‘B’ will also have to undergo a rigorous UK flight and weapons test program at considerable expense and delay before its full inventory of weapons will be cleared – the ‘C’ will be exempt from such weapons clearance tests.)
- Deck operations – Launch. DSTL analysis has shown that for the F-35B the deck run required for a flat deck launch increases significantly in high sea states, high temperatures and with low wind over the deck – to an extent that often the aircraft will not be able to launch in the conditions to be expected East of Suez. The ‘C’ is not affected by this. Therefore, in switching to the ‘B’ the UK is considering reverting to an aircraft which does not deliver carrier strike, has less endurance, carries less payload and which cannot launch from a flat deck under the very climatic conditions expected to be experienced during power projection carrier strike operations.
- Deck Operations – Recovery. In the same conditions referred to at paragraph 34, above (high ambient temperatures and sea states), the weight of the ‘B’ and its limited available thrust is likely to prevent it from being able to hover before landing. In order to get back on board ship it will therefore need to conduct a new flight procedure known as Ship Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL). This is ‘un-cleared and unfunded’ and the landing systems required to enable this have not been fully tested and developed. Indeed at night this is expected to be more challenging than a vertical or arrested recovery. This must be considered a very high risk area for the ‘B’ – and possibly high extra cost.
- Costs. Through lack of oversight and accountability (the blame for which cannot be placed at the door of the Naval Staff but more to the changes forced on the latter by MoD at the highest level), the cost of preparing the two flight decks for the ‘C’ may indeed be approaching £2 billion. For political reasons and short-term expediency, it would appear that this figure has been highlighted in isolation. What needs to be considered as well is that so much has already been stripped from the Queen Elizabeth that to reverse course and get her back to an operating capability with a ramp (and without a ramp the ‘B’ may be inoperable in hot climates) will itself be extremely expensive – and therefore the ‘cost gap’ between the two alternatives significantly narrows. The cost of preparing to take a ramp is substantial and is the subject of work on-going. It is thought that it will cost in excess of £0.5 billion alone just to get the Queen Elizabeth to a very limited operating capability to take helicopters, troops and her own mission systems, let alone rewire and get ready for fast jet ‘B’ operations. These costs must be considered as well and set against the predicted costs of installing ‘cat and trap’ for the ‘C’.
- Accountability. It is not the EMALS catapult launch system that is being redesigned, but the ship – and British Aerospace Systems are supposed to have costed the ‘for but not with’ design into the initial cost of the ship. Why did they not do this?
- Interoperability. The Statement of Intent (SOI) signed by the Secretary of State in January clearly stated interoperability as a desired outcome. Therefore this work has progressed within the SOI working groups – based on the choice of the F-35C. 5 levels have been identified for the integration of support and mission systems in each other’s ships. The US and UK have a desire for level 4 and with the French at level 2 (training/Carrier Qualification) only. A reversion to the F-35B would prevent UK compliance with the SOI.
- The configuration of the Queen Elizabeth class flight deck (Angled Deck or Ramp) will define whether Britain will enjoy the capability of:
a) An extremely versatile and powerful angled deck strike carrier or
b) A much more limited ramp-fitted warship with little more than a capability for amphibious support operations.
The F-35C aircraft will endow the former with the majority of its versatility and power.
The F-35B aircraft would severely limit the versatility and power of our new capital warships. Compared to the ‘C’ it has a very limited weapons payload, radius of combat action and endurance on task – thereby limiting the freedom of movement/safety of the associated carrier battle group.
It is considered that the suggestion to the Secretary of State ‘that SDSR 10 should be overturned and that Britain should now revert to procurement of the F-35B’ is not based upon all the available facts concerning aircraft/ship capability and costs. Indeed, it is considered that the advice received by the Secretary of State is flawed and omits important data and information.
From a review of all the data and the implications associated with reverting to the F-35B, it is concluded that such reversion would be against the national interest and would lead to a severe reduction in Britain’s planned strategic ability over the next 50 years to project Foreign Policy in terms of military, political and diplomatic power.
It is most strongly recommended that a U-turn is not made concerning the choice of aircraft and flight deck configuration for the Queen Elizabeth class carriers.
 This is an apt description because our new carriers will be far more powerful and capable than any of the aircraft carriers in Royal Navy history and yet will be somewhat smaller in size than the super carriers of the United States Navy.
 This configuration includes the type of flight deck and type of fast jet aircraft to be flown from it.
 RUSI figures. See – http://www.phoenixthinktank.org/2012/03/rebuke-at-rusi-over-f35b-article/ . These figures also fit well with Lockheed Martin’s own graphically presented figures.
 None of whom have any in-depth, hands-on experience or expertise in carrier operations or naval warfare.
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