Thursday, 11 December 2008

Aircraft carrier delays.

In a feared announcement, the two new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy will be delayed, for either one or two years. Construction work is going to start, safeguarding jobs, but the tasks will be spread out over a longer period. In the meantime, the two existing Invincible-class aircraft carriers (down from three), will be kept in service to cover the gap.

Firstly, it should become clear what a big deal these ships are. Each one, at a projected 60-65,000 tons, will be larger than any ship the Royal Navy has ever sailed before. They would still be dwarfed by the gigantic 100,000 ton American Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, but are far bigger than the current 22,000-ton Invincible class aircraft carriers that the Royal Navy operates. This shows what a big investment the ships are. Or, as some people claim, what a big target they will make.

As usual for matters on the Royal Navy, the best place to get in-depth information is Richard Beedall 's excellent 'Navy Matters' website.

It would have been very hard for the Government to cancel these ships, although I get the distinct impression that they may have been tempted to. The £3.9 billion contract was only signed on the 1st of July after a wait of many years, and the initial work appeared to have consisted of the ordering of long-lead items (these are items that take a long time to be procured, such as generators, engines, and 80,000 tons of steel). Despite this, it does not look as though any steel has actually yet been cut. The Government has not exactly been in a hurry to see the project go ahead.

Part of the problem is that the Royal Navy, which styles itself as being the 'Senior Service', does not have much of a role in the ongoing and very expensive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those two operations are mostly land-based, and the Royal Navy does not have a natural fit. However, that would be a very short-sighted viewpoint. A strong navy is very important for the UK's security, and should not be run down just because there is no immediate need.

Having said this, there might be some positives to come out of this delay. The carriers will be designed to fly the American F35 plane - a successor to the British Harrier jump jet. The F35 is being built in three variants, only one of which (the F-35B Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing) could fly from the carrier. Unfortunately the F35 program is being delayed, the costs are not yet set, and there is a good chance that the first of the ships would have been ready before the plane was delivered to the Royal Navy. The Government's reaction to this capability gap was unclear, but the delay could allow the planes to arrive in time for the ships (assuming that the ships themselves are not further delayed).

However, there are other ways of filling this gap, aside from delaying the ships. When they were first planned, the ships were going to be part of a fleet of three, with one being built and operated by the French. It was hoped that this would reduce costs, but recently the French delayed any decision to build the carrier until much later - 2011 or 2012. However, the French had no interest in the advanced STOVL capabilities, and wanted to fly CATOBAR planes such as the Rafale-M that they currently operate from the troubled Charles DeGaulle nuclear carrier. For this reason the ships were designed to be fitted with catapults (to launch the planes) and arrestor wires (to stop them), something the British ships would not need. It has always been said that the two British ships are being designed to be fitted with catapults and arrestors at a later date if required.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both CATOBAR and STOVL operation, in terms of capabilities, cost, performance and flexibility.

A recent BAe study is claimed to have shown that the Typhoon could be built to land on carriers without major difficulty, and would be more cost-effective. If that is indeed the case, then the Tranche-3 planes could be modified to be carrier planes, and we would not need to purchase the F-35B. It would also probably have a great deal of commonality with the RAF Eurofighters, and increase export potential to those countries that have (or wish to have ) carriers. India, in particular, is spending billions on new Russian fighter planes.

For the last couple of years there has been talk that the British Government wanted to scrap the planned procurement of the final 88 tranche-3 Eurofighter Typhoons for the RAF. However, this would have caused them to pay a hefty penalty (some say £1 billion) to the partner countries. For this reason, it is claimed that the Government are desperately looking around for someone to sell them to.

I, in my capacity as a distinct non-expert, personally favour navalising the Typhoon. The Typhoon is a very capable plane, and has been in service for a few years now, although it is constantly being improved. The F35-B, on the other hand, is late, and only prototypes have flown. The biggest reason that I favour the Typhoon however, is a bit of 'Not Invented Here' syndrome. Some parts of the F-35 are being produced in the UK as what are called 'industrial offsets'. This means that some parts of the planes - aft fuselage and empennage (vertical and horizontal tails), and some subsystems, are going to be built by BAe in the UK. However, we will not be performing the final assembly - that will be done in the US. As the cost of each F-35 increases, the value of those industrial offsets will decrease. For our own national security, we need to be able to assemble and modify the planes - we can do much more of that with the Typhoon than the F-35. There have also been some heated discussions about whether we will be able to modify the systems software to fit our weapons, or whether we would be forced to buy US-made weapons for the plane.

Already the US is trying to cancel the General Electric / Rolls-Royce F136 engine for the F-35, which would leave only the American Pratt and Witney F136 engine available. If we get the F35 with F136 engines, we will just be giving more money to the US.

If the BAe study is corect, and the Typhoon can be relatively easily navalised - then it is the way to go. The major things that will need doing are; addition of an arrestor hook; anti-corrosion measures; strengthening of the undercarriage; and addtion of flight systems to allow carrier-deck landings and take-offs. I would like to see the Government doing an open investigation of this option.

Which plane is the best-fit for the new carriers would depend on exactly what the perceived purpose of the carriers is, and the sort of conflicts that they will be asked to fight in. Eurofighters would have much more range and, perhaps, greater capability, but would lack stealth. At the end of the day, it will be a political decision. Stealth, which the Americans claim is the bee's knees, is not necesarilly as important or perfect as people make out. For one thing, it is exceptionally expensive, both in monetary and performance terms. To simplify the argument, if the role that the carriers will be fulfilling needs stealth, then go for the F-35. If it does not, go for the Typhoon.

However, I am starting to worry that there will not be any ships to fly them off. The carriers are just too easy a target for a cash-strapped Government. Already our two carriers routinely do not carry Harriers, and the crews are havng to be trained using US and Spanish Harriers.

As is the manner of this Government, the announcement was made at the same time as a visit to Yeovil in Somerset to announce the go-ahead for the 62-string fleet of the Augusta-Westland 'future Lynx Helicopter' project. Good news that they hoped would offset the bad?

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