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Latest Navy carrier madness: 'Sell 'em to India'

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Anyway, why even argue? Make the carriers billions cheaper by making them better

The list goes on, but hopefully the point is made. There's no reason for the carriers to be "a totemic" in this debate - there are many better candidates.

Finally, of course, one should note that it would be very simple to cut costs on the carriers and at the same time actually make them better.

Blighty could do this by changing their design. At the moment, far from being "state of the art" (cheers again Guardian), the ships are to be supplied without catapults or arrester wires, meaning that only helicopters and STOVL jump-jets will be able to fly from them. This makes for a somewhat cheaper ship, but a shockingly expensive air group.

Not only does the MoD thus have to buy expensive F-35B strike fighters - the only viable jumpjet on the market - it will also require an even more expensive, custom-built, not-very-good helicopter or tiltrotor fleet-radar aircraft of some sort. All these exceedingly complicated aircraft will also be very costly to maintain and run, and won't be as good as ones that don't have to carry vertical-thrust machinery.

The sensible move would be to equip the ships with catapults and wires. This could be done with existing steam cats, either by upgrading the ships to nuclear propulsion or by adding auxiliary boilers in their engine rooms. There wouldn't be all that much to choose between these plans on cost, and you'd get a hugely more capable carrier with the nuclear option as the absence of air intakes and funnels for the engine rooms would open up as much as 20 more aircraft worth of hangar deck.

Alternatively, the ships could be left largely as they are and the UK could take a punt on the new electromagnetic catapult tech now under development for the next US supercarrier.

This would add some cost to the ships, but it would mean immense savings on the much more expensive air groups - another MoD plan at the moment is to buy two ships but only one lot of aircraft, illustrating the difference in prices.

With catapult ships, the Royal Navy could buy highly capable Super Hornet or Rafale tailhook jets - there'd be no need for expensive jumpjets or stealth tech. Two groups' worth of Super Hornets - say 100 - would cost perhaps £7bn, based on a recent deal in Australia. It would probably be possible to play Boeing off against the French Rafale and get a better bargain still.

This would represent savings of at least £5bn over buying F-35Bs; and billions more would be saved by buying cheap, excellent, already-developed Hawkeye radar aircraft rather than expensive TOSS tiltrotors or whatever. This latter saving alone would probably cover the upgrades to the ships.

And there it is, done. Blighty saves at least £7bn on acquisition during the next two decades, right when savings are required, and ends up with a pair of powerful ships carrying the same aircraft - or as good - as US Navy supercarriers do. Should stealth tech actually turn out to be vital, we could buy a limited number of F-35C tailhook planes in the 2020s, once the price drops a bit.

As for the argument that carriers are irrelevant to modern wars, that seems frankly insane in the context of the UK government spending £20bn+ on landbased Euro fighters. Landbased British fighters have never fought in a real war since 1945.

Every time an enemy aircraft has been shot down by a British fighter since World War II, in fact, that British fighter had taken off from a carrier to do so. Try telling the veterans of the Falklands that carrier air isn't relevant: hundreds of them were killed and maimed in Argentine airstrikes that carrier radar planes would have stopped (the task force had none). Hundreds more of them came home safe because carrier fighters stopped many more airstrikes from getting through.

And if the Falklands is too long ago, consider Iraq and Afghanistan. The first British line units deployed into Afghanistan in 2001/2002 did so from a helicopter carrier offshore. Another amphibious assault took place onto Iraq's Al Faw peninsula during the invasion of 2003. Royal Navy carrier fighters have since then spent several years based at Kandahar supporting our ground forces - carrier jets can move ashore, but landbased ones can't move to sea.

If we can afford £20bn+ luxuries like the Eurofighter, which will probably never do more than chase a few antique Russians away from Scotland in Cold War style or loiter in uncontested airspace overseas dropping a few smartbombs - we can afford a brace of powerful carriers and airgroups to fight the real wars. Especially as these latter will cost us many billions less to buy. ®

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