US Navy says electric jet-flinger tech looking good

Just in time to save the Royal Navy - or just too late?

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Comment - If it's so obvious - Why aren't we doing it?

F-35B in flight test. Credit: Lockheed Martin


It's really a no-brainer. The MoD had its reasons for not planning catapult ships to begin with: nobody was sure that electric catapults would work, for one thing, and the cost of nuclear carriers or ones with duplicated steam and gas engine rooms would have been much too high.

But the risk of technical failure is plainly not such any longer as to daunt the USN, even given the very high stakes the Americans are playing for - the effective crippling of their latest multibillion-dollar supercarrier. What's stopping the MoD from doing the right thing, and simply going to electric catapults and F-18s?

Well, firstly there will be/have been a huge interservice struggle between the Royal Navy and RAF on the issue. The RAF absolutely doesn't want to see the Navy in control of a big fleet of F-18s, especially at a time when its own jet fleet is probably going to be seriously cut back. F-18s would make RAF Eurofighters look really bad in many circumstances: not as air-to-air fighters, but in the much more common roles of strike and battlefield support. F-18s' running costs would also be hugely lower than those of Eurofighter. Worst of all, the F-18 is available with a lot of very sophisticated electronic warfare and suppression-of-air-defences options which the RAF passionately wants for the Eurofighter. (Australia has recently ordered Hornets specially designed so that such EW kit can be added later, and the UK would be foolish not to take up this option.)

If the Royal Navy got F-18s and E-2s, it would rival the RAF in air power - exceed it, perhaps, in some important respects. Having managed to break out of the stranglehold of small-scale British/European aerospace industry, the Fleet Air Arm would offer a lot more bang per buck than the probable all-Eurofighter RAF of the future. Theoretically the RAF could own and operate the planes, or many of them anyway as is now the case with Harriers, but the airmen don't want to operate carrier planes as routine and the Navy doesn't want to let them. Backing for catapult carriers and cheap planes will be far from universal in the Navy, too - many sailors would sooner spend the money on frigates or submarines - and nonexistent in the air force.

This sort of schizophrenic bureaucratic infighting is absolutely real: just such a power struggle was a major factor in the preservation of the idiotic ongoing buy of Future Lynx helicopters by the Army Air Corps. Bigger, better, cheaper Blackhawks could have been bought instead - but a Blackhawk is big enough that the RAF could argue they should be RAF aircraft, not Army, under the MoD's arcane rules. Thus the soldiers settled for poorer, more expensive choppers, to be delivered after many years' delay - as it would keep them out of the RAF's acquisitive hands. The airmen didn't mind, just so long as they didn't have to suffer the sight of soldiers flying big, useful aircraft.

Getting back to catapults and carrier planes, there's another sabotage factor at work. Unfortunately, the Americans are leaning on us to buy F-35s. If Britain pulls out of the F-35 - even temporarily until costs fall, followed perhaps by purchase of F-35Cs in future - that would be a severe blow to the embattled programme in the States. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has lately been forced to defend the F-35 against its numerous American critics, has recently told British defence minister Liam Fox that backing for the F-35 is one of the most important things that the Pentagon would like to see preserved in the UK's defence cuts.

So it's really just the UK taxpayer who might like to see last week's EMALS news translate into action at the MoD and two powerful carriers with strong airgroups appear in the RN order of battle for much less money than had been planned. There have been small hints lately that some in the MoD were at least suggesting catapult carriers, but no more than hints.

Unfortunately the chances are that something else will happen. We might get the ships, or just one ship (flip a coin - is it in drydock when the next crisis breaks out?) with an inadequate number of F-35Bs and no proper radar aircraft. Perhaps more likely still they will simply be scrapped, writing off the hundreds of millions already spent and more in contractual cancellation fees, and the navy will be bought off with some pointless new frigates - busting the RN at last back down into the second division with the other no-proper-aviation navies, the fate it struggled so hard to avoid before the Falklands (and just as well, or the Falklands War could never have been fought).

It's a gloomy prospect. ®

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