|F35 taking of from HMS Queen Elizabeth|
At present the F35B is slated to fulfill this requirement. However with cost over runs in the program as well as reduced capabilities both the Navy and Air Force are looking at alternatives.
This debate also takes place in the wider context of the SDSR. Asking two primary questions. Should the navy have a carrier strike capability and is the RAF necessary in the modern age.
I will outline the various choices for the JCA and how they will impact the wider questions that the SDSR is attempting to solve.
F35B lightning II
While much of its cost and capability is still unclear their are many fundamentals that we can draw upon. Firstly the F35B will be the most expensive variant of the F35 family. Secondly in terms of weapons load, speed and range it will be the poorest performer.
With this in mind the F35 would seem like the worst choice. However its STOVL ability will allow it to save money over time as the assumption is that a STOVL aircraft will not require cats and traps on the carriers. Pilots will have to train less which will also save money.
Further more a STOVL aircraft can operate closer to the front lines from smaller airfields so can have a higher sortie rate and provide better close air support for troops on the ground. The US Marine Corps Harriers were able to generate the highest sortie rate of any aircraft during the 1991 Gulf War for this reason.
F35 C Lightning II
A CATOBAR design meant solely for the US Navy as a replacement for the older F18's. This aircraft will have the highest SPECS of any of the JSF aircraft in terms of range and payload. It will be significantly cheaper than the B version.
The main drawback will be the need for catapults on the carriers. While the CVF program has been designed with sufficient space to incorporate Catapults it has no steam boilers. In order to operate a catapult it will need to use an electromagnetic system. At present this technology is plagued with difficulties. Although both the RN and USN are continuing to develop their own versions.
FA 18 E/F
The drawbacks are that this design is nearly 20 years old. Even in its more advanced version its future potential is probably limited. As the JCA is intended to operate well into the 2040's the F18 may not be able to keep up.
SAAB has proposed a version of its Griffin Fighter to India to fulfil its need for a carrier based fighter. The idea is that by using precision landing technology the land based fighter can be navalised with little modification. Griffin represents probably the least capable fighter choice and with a land based version costing £40 million it is likely a carrier version would be nearly as expensive as Rafale with less capability than the F18
CATOBAR VS STOVL
The choice of CATOBAR and STOVL versions will also have wider effects. Probably the most significant choice will be that of the Airborne Early Warning platform. With out AEW the Royal Navy suffered heavy losses in the Falklands. In a bid to improve its ability it brought in a AEW version of the Sea King mk 7. However with limited range and altitude this helicopter version is no where near as capable as a Hawk-Eye E2 or an AWACS E3D.
At present the RN intends to fly a Merlin Based AEW platform for its future requirement. Boeing is keen to offer an AEW based on its V22 Osprey however this is likely to be a very expensive aircraft. It will also now allow for any commonality with the RAF.
STOVL aircraft can fly in weather that CATOBAR planes cannot and the carrier is not required to turn into the wind for take offs and landing's. This can be very useful for operations at sea. They also have a reduced training requirement and land based RAF pilots would be able to operate from the carrier with little additional training.
It is important for the military to purchase its equipment with a view on maintaining the UK's industrial base. This would favour a navalised Typhoon. However with 15% of the JSF built in the UK (far more than the UK's potential orders) the JSF will have a key role in maintaining UK aerospace manufacturers. Especially BAE and Rolls Royce. RR who make the lift fan for the F35B have stated they will loose 300-700 British jobs if the UK does not order the F35B. The choice between B or C would have little effect on BAE. RR along with General Electric have been lobbying hard to build a jointly developed engine for the F35. It is unclear at the moment weather the US will reinstate this program however they are said to be keen at generating competition to keep Pratt and Whitney's costs down. I would say given GE's massive industrial and political base its more than likely that they will get the go ahead at some point. This may mean that we can get our own F35's with Rolls Royce Engines.
Being able to independently operate the aircraft is key to the UK. After congress failed to ratify a treaty allowing the UK access to technology the UK threatened to pull out. Re assurances from President Bush and the eventual ratification of the treaty calmed the UK's fears however their is still some debate on weather the UK will have full access to the software source code.
Traditionally the UK likes to buy US equipment then improve the operating software. They did this in the case of the Apache and ended up selling it back to the Americans.
It is likely that France and Sweden would give full access to their technology so the UK could independently operate the aircraft.
The final JCA decision will be taken in the context of the wider debate currently surrounding the SDSR. With a cost of £10 billion the JCA is one of the prime targets for cuts. The Navy's carriers will cost an additional £4 billion to construct on top. As usual the RAF is keen to get rid of the Navy's aviation capability to preserve it's own.
However both the Navy and Army are questioning the need for the RAF with its large number of strike fighters. With little threat to Europe or the UK the military's key role is now power projection. The RAF wedded to its large land bases has been of very little use in the Wars fought after the 1991 Gulf War. Instead most of it's task has been providing strategic airlift for the Army as well as helicopters support. It has to be said these are areas that the RAF does not like to operate. The RAF has also failed many of its required tasks especially in helicopter support.
What option to choose for the JCA
With the high cost a navalising land based aircraft the Gripen and Typhoon are probably non starters. The high cost of Rafale in comparison to the F18 rules it out too.
That leaves us with 3 possible aircraft
The Queen Elizabeth will operate 36 JCA's. In order to maintain 36 JCA's on ship a total purchase of 63 aircraft will be necessary. To operate two air wings we will need to purchase 126 JCA's
This would give the following total purchase prices
F35 B unit cost £100 million total cost £12.6 billion
F35 C unit cost £ 85 million total cost £ 10.7 billion
F18 EF unit cost £40 million total cost £5.04 billion
On a cost basis the F18 wins hands down. A purchase of F18's could save the tax payer around £7 billion. However pulling out of the JSF program would mean that the UK's work share would likely be dramatically reduced. The JSF program is likely to cost in excess of $700 billion. The UK shares 15% of that work roughly $105 billion. This would represent the largest ever export in UK history and accounts for tens of thousands of high tech jobs.
Given these figures pulling out of the program makes little sense even if we could save £7 billion in the short term. We should also remember that the JCA choice will probably represent the last manned fighter every employed by the UK. Choosing a 30 year old design may put us into a difficult position later on. The F35 B and C will also represent a quantum leap in capability over the F18. For these reasons I would discount the F18 EF.
That leaves us with 2 choices. While the F35B will no doubt be a decent aircraft the C version will obviously be far superior. With a bigger faster aircraft able to carry more bombs we could look to employ less airframes and get a similar performance.
For every plane we reduce on the carrier we get rid of 2 airframes. Having an air wing of 36 aircraft seems excessive. For instance 36 strike aircraft is what the RAF was able to deploy in total to Operation Telic the invasion of Iraq in 2003. While the Queen Elizabeth CV can accommodate 40 aircraft or possibly even as many as 50 in an emergency it does not mean that it has to. US carriers can accommodate almost 100 aircraft but rarely sale with more than 60.
The choice of the B variant by the Navy was made before the recommendation for the Queen Elizabeth Class. For a small Invincible type carrier it made sense. However after going to the expense of producing a 65000 tonne super carrier it makes no sense spending more money on a a less capable aircraft when we can buy a cheaper better one.
For these reasons I would recommend a reduced purchase of F35 C. If each queen Elizabeth operated 24 we would require a total purchase of 42 airframes per carrier wing. A total order of 84 airframes in the C variant would mean a total cost of £7.14 billion. That well with in the £10 billion budget allocated to the JCA at present.
24 F35 C would give us a strike ability second only to a Nimitz Class carrier and even then not by a long way. The risks of choosing the C variant are that we have not operated a CATOBAR carrier in a long time and we would need significant training to do so. In fact the RN seems to be ahead of the game on this and has sent more Harrier pilots to the US Navy for training this year than ever before. RN and RAF Harrier pilots are amongst the best in the business and I have no doubt these highly capable aviators would be up to the task.
Secondly their is the issue of the EM catapult. A new Carrier with a new catapult technology and a new aircraft is potentially a recipe for disaster. It will likely take a few years to sort out and they're will probably be a period of 1-2 years when the UK is with out a carrier based strike component. However given this new capability will last for up to 50 years and will represent such a quantum leap in performance it is something we can accept.
Rolls Royce will loose around 130 orders for its lift fans in the F35B version. While this will impact the company significantly it will not be a death nail. Staying in the JSF program will allow the UK, GE and Rolls Royce to continue to lobby for the F136 engine which may lead to significantly more orders for RR in the future than the lift fan ever could have.
The wider debate about how and if the UK should employ strike aircraft is key to the JCA decision. Choosing the F35C and having the ability to place 24 in theatre makes the RAF's current ability to employ 36 GR4 Tornado's and GR9 Harriers seem comparitivley weak.
Purchasing the F35C and operating them under the Fleet Air Arm would allow us to replace the current Harrier and Tornado force. This would see the main strike fighter capability of the UK switch from the RAF to the Royal Navy.
Early retirement of the Tornado is likely to save some £7.5 billion. Enough to pay for the reduced JCA purchase. The Harriers which cost much less would be withdrawn once the JCA was operational. This would leave the RAF operating a single force of just 160 Typhoons. However with the Typhoons Tranche 3 having far superior ground attack capability to the Tornado or harrier the RAF would still have an effective strike package. In an operation the UK could deploy perhaps 24 F35C and 12-24 Typhoons. This would be a significant increase in present capabilities with a much reduced cost.
Choosing the C variant could also lead to other cost savings. We could replace the 7 E3 D century's and the 10 Sea King AEW with a single purchase of 12-14 E2D evolved Hawk eye's. With the cut in aircraft numbers as well as the ability for carriers to operate closer to their area of operation we could also reduce the Tanker fleet. Currently the future strategic tanker contract envisages the need for up to 15 aircraft with 9 being available to the RAF. This new look force could make do with just 6 full time tankers. This could save another £ 8 billion over the life time of the contract.
The RAF should also loose control of its helicopters. It makes far more sense for the Army to operate these than the RAF.
UAV's and UCAV's
To placate the RAF and to enhance future capability we should begin development of a 6th generation UCAV. Possibly based on the BAE Taranis program. The advantage of such an aircraft is that it does not require much in the way of continued training with pilots only needing to operate through simulators. A great deal of these aircraft can be maintained for a fraction of today cost. The UCAV should also be carrier capable. Eventually the Queen Elizabeth's might operate with a combat air wing of
4 E2D Hawk eye
24 F35 C's
12 SeaTaranis UCAV
This would represent a world class carrier air-wing and could be achievable by as early as 2020.
Like it or not in a more unstable world than ever we are going to have to fight more wars. With the increasing islamisation of the middle east and the dwindling supply of natural resources things are only going to get worse.
In order to intervene we need strike aircraft. In every war we have fought since WWII the US Navy has been able to employ its carrier strike force to great effect. In every war since WWII the US Air Force and RAF have struggled to deploy aircraft. If we have strike aircraft we need to make sure we can use them when ever they are needed. Carrier aviation gives us the best chance of this. If the current SDSR is looking to cut cold war relics then surely the massive fleets of cold war jets possessed by the RAF should be the first thing to go. The potential savings could be on the order of £15 billion. Far more than the cost of the Carriers and F35 C's required to repalce them.