UK Carriers & Air Group – Do HMG & MoD Know What They Are Doing?

DefenceSynergia had its naval specialists trawl through the archives to find out what the HMG & MoD position on UK Carrier Strike actually was. In an article from a July 2008 colour supplement – not long after Main Gate was reached and the contract for UK’s Queen Elizabeth (QE) Class carriers was finally signed – they found a report on a visit by journalists to the carrier design team office in Bristol.

These are some of those points:

The Cost of UK Carrier Production. The then cost of both carriers was stated to be £3.9bn and reported to compare favourably with the “$14bn [£9bn] cost of the then current 100,000 ton American carriers. However, with hind sight this turned out to be quite incorrect; USS George H W Bush was delivered in the summer of 2009, ahead of schedule at a cost of $6.2bn (£4bn). Since then the cost of the two 65,000 ton UK carriers has escalated to £5.35bn, partly due to the programme being slowed down by HMG.

The Survivability Factor.

The 2008 article goes on to confirm that side armour has been deleted, but NOT, allegedly, as a cost saving measure. A senior project Platform Design Director is quoted as saying, “the CVFs first line of defence is the frigates and the new Type 45 destroyers around us.” He continues, “our only self-defence is close-in weapons systems, and small guns. Instead, what you have on the ship is 36 of the most lethal aircraft ever made.” No mention is made of a sub-surface threat or protection to prevent hostile submarines attacking, possibly at distance with anti-carrier cruise missiles [a known threat since the Cold War.] And of course we now know that MoD is only buying an ‘initial’ batch of 48 F35B Lightning II out of the original requirement for 138 and that only between 8-12 of these range, performance and payload restricted jets will be routinely embarked.

Nuclear versus Oil.

The project director then comments that “one of the first things to go in the design was nuclear power…”because“…this is a brand new ship, so getting through all the safety aspects of nuclear power would have been hideously expensive.” But DefenceSynergia wonders why the Director should think this? Do we (the British) not already build – have done so for decades – nuclear submarines, so what is the big deal here? If we seriously could not cope nationally, we could always ask the American’s. After all, they built their first nuclear carrier in 1961 and have some experience in the field.

Furthermore, did no one do the mathematics involving the cost of fossil fuel versus nuclear throughout the 50 year service period of these ships? Did they consider the cost of providing fleet auxiliary ‘oilers’ in addition to replenishment support or consider the continuing cost of fossil fuel to MoD over the 40 to 50 years service of the QE Class?

But beyond the glossy PR article what do we know.

Consider these further points:

Design Versatility. These QE Class ships were first envisaged in SDR98 and the design study covered a decade or so up to Main Gate, during which time assurances were given regarding the adaptability of the design to accommodate cats and traps. How then, is it, that a 2010 decision to convert to cat n trap was abandoned by MoD following Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA) estimates of an additional £2 and 3bn per ship? [Bear in mind that hull number three, the now cancelled French carrier, was always going to be a conventional cat and trap ship based on the same design as the UK hulls.] Therefore, DefenceSynergia wonders why it was deemed virtually impossible, except at enormous cost, to implement a fully recognised design feature in the original carrier operational requirement (OR)? At the time the Prince of Wales (PoW) construction was at an even earlier stage. So is it not conceivable that modifications using modern drawing, 3D models and computer aided designs could be made for that hull at minimal cost. We must bear in mind that the United States offer involving Electro Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and its associated costs (circa £890m per ship) were, and are, in the public domain, and so Defence Equipment & Support (DES) and the ACA have some way to go to explain the disparity between £900m and the £2 to 3bn quoted.

Alternative Systems. There would then be the issue of MoD ignoring a potential alternative cat n trap systems like steam and the Internal Combustion Catapult Aircraft Launch System (ICCALS) which has the potential to be a game changer on both cost and performance grounds. DefenceSynergia does not advocate any particular commercial product but in 2010 we did assist the inventor of ICCALS to put forward his US tested system to MoD. We now know, from written MoD responses, that ICCALS was not even considered, despite its extremely competitive price tag (under £500m for both carriers), because the system was not offered to MoD by the US Department of Defense (DoD).

MoD could not use British invented steam catapults because of their decision to rule out nuclear power and could not, apparently, use ICCALS without USA approval!. So MoD options to meet their own OR are restricted through self inflicted planning constraints.

The Air Wing Component. As SDSR98 had as an aim, the re-establishment of UK carrier strike, surely the best options needed to be thoroughly examined. DefenceSynergia wonders what the design studies, carried out between 2000 and 2008, actually achieved?

A Floating ‘Paper Tiger’. Whilst possibly being forced on MoD by budget restrictions, having only a maximum of twelve fast jet aircraft routinely embarked on a carrier away from the UK is a pathetic use of a 65000 ton platform. Other carrier nations, including potential enemies, will embark up to 60 or more fast jets. Even assuming that 10 F35B will be available for operations at any one time, that all the on-board systems are optimal and that the enemy conveniently engages well within the 480nm range of the F35B a kill ratio of up to 6:1 will be required just to achieve parity. However, as the F35B is restricted to 4.5 g in a sustained turning fight is it the hope of MoD that the enemy can be engaged beyond visual range (BVR) or that only 1960’s era fast jet opponents are engaged?

Logistic Support and Hidden Costs.  It is quite clear that the F-35B is going to be an expensive and complex aircraft to maintain, as has been pointed out in DoD reports, and although individual components are expected to be more reliable, the problem comes from the sheer number and complexity of components. This is why it is so important to ascertain that the Autonomic Logistic Information System (ALIS) is both available and costed into the UK procurement process. As the ALIS system is designed to conduct and electronically send constant operation fault diagnosis reports this will require an ALIS hub being established on the carrier as well as at the UK home base.

Battle Space Management and Force Multipliers. We must then consider Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW/AWAC) for battle-space management and Air to Air Refuelling (AAR) to extend and multiply force effect. If the UK is seriously intending to maintain these ships as strike carriers [stated in official government and MoD documents) the enablers to do this must be in-place, but they are not. Comments by the design team to the effect that…“a carrier can operate 15 miles offshore without the need for shore bases are, frankly, nonsense and only conceivable if the potential enemy has no air force or shore based long range artillery or missile defence systems.

Due diligence = MoD knowing what its OR actually is and then matching its finance and planning to achieve it. The QE carrier (minus cats n traps) with F35B short takeoff and rolling landing (STORL) air group does not meet the OR.