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The truth on the Navy carrier debacle? Industry got away with murder

Sold 'adaptable' ships which couldn't be adapted

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Analysis The Ministry of Defence is in the pillory again today, being corporately pelted for the recent unedifying sequence of events in which the Coalition government decided in 2010 to fit the Royal Navy's new aircraft carriers with catapults - and then abruptly changed its mind in 2012, reverting to the former plan which will see them able to carry jump-jets and helicopters only.

Artist's concept of the new Queen Elizabeth class carrier. Credit: RN

This is an adaptable design ...

The new thing today is the issue of a report by the Parliamentary Defence committee, a group of MPs which is supposed to conduct oversight on British defence matters but which under its current chairman (the Right Honourable James Arbuthnot MP) functions mainly as an advocacy organisation for the rapacious British arms industry. You can read the report here.

Much of the document is devoted to Arbuthnot's usual exhortations for the MoD to provide gold-plated deals to British weapons manufacturers. However the MPs of the committee also take time out in particular to lambast the ministry and the government over the carrier volte-face. They write:

The decision in 2010 to change to the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter was the largest single procurement decision in the [strategic defence review of that year]. It is clear that the decision was rushed and based upon incomplete and inaccurate policy development ... We urge the MoD to learn the lessons of this closed, rushed and flawed decision of 2010.

Regular readers will recall the basics of the story. The ability to add catapults and arrester gear to the ships had been specified from the earliest stages of their design. The only difficulty in doing so was that the vessels have gas-turbine propulsion, not nuclear, in order to reduce costs. Gas propulsion cannot furnish the steam required by normal naval catapults. Cash-strapped Blighty also felt itself unable to cough up to develop new electric catapults, and so it was planned that at least to start with the ships would have no launch or recovery kit beyond a "ski-jump" ramp and would carry jumpjets and helicopters only.

But by 2010 the US had invented electric catapults to put on its next supercarrier, now nearing completion, and was happy to sell some to old Blighty. In perhaps the only good call in the entire 2010 defence review, the Prime Minister and the MoD team decided that they would purchase the US electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) and fit it to at least one of the British carriers.

This would mean that the associated F-35 stealth fighter buy would need to change from the F-35B jumpjet version to the F-35C catapult type, and this change generally dominated the headlines. In particular, when the government later swerved back to the jumpjet plan, it was pointed out that the F-35C, not being as far along in test and development as the F-35B, would probably not reach the British fleet until 2023 or later - so extending the long wait for restored carrier air capability.

But that was rather to miss the point. Britain having idiotically got rid of its small remaining fleet of Harrier jumpjets, the only aircraft which could possibly be obtained to fly from non-catapult ships would be the F-35B, as it is the only jumpjet now being made. It is also the most complex combat aircraft ever built, the first and only plane to combine stealth, supersonic speed and vertical thrust all in one. It is well known that, while it may arrive a little sooner than the F-35C, F-35B will be more expensive to buy and run and less capable in the air.

In truth, both F-35 variants are likely to be so expensive that Britain will never be able to afford very many of them: certainly not enough to maintain a 40-strong air group with the fleet. If we only buy F-35s, our big new carriers will sail the seas largely empty, carrying 12 jets at most.

But with a catapult ship, none of that matters as it would then be possible to use many other kinds of plane. In particular a big fleet of F-18 Hornets, as used today by the US Navy and many others, could be bought or leased very cheaply as large numbers of F-18s are already in service. The tricky question of fleet radar aircraft also becomes simple to solve once you have catapults: the Hawkeye pocket AWACS as used by the US and France becomes an option, as opposed to custom built - so, expensive - and not very capable whirlybird solutions.

Once you had a catapult carrier, the case for F-18 (or perhaps Rafales from France) would be irresistible. The ships will be there for 50 years or more, visibly cruising around more than half empty, so sooner or later some administration would be bound to cave in and buy some nice, cheap, modern non-F35 jets to fill their empty decks - if this was possible.

And as the F-18 (or Rafale) is better than any other plane now in British service for all likely missions (and perfectly good in the unlikely case of serious air-to-air combat against any plausible enemy), this would be an excellent thing all round. The carrier jet could perfectly well operate from land bases if required. The MoD might then reconsider the wisdom of keeping its current ruinously expensive-to-run and not very good Eurofighter (aka Typhoon) and Tornado fleets - certainly the aged, crappy Tornado and probably a lot of the Eurofighters too would be marked for the chop. The MoD would surely not bother expensively upgrading the Eurofighter for ground attack as it currently plans to, with the F-18 (already an excellent strike plane) on hand and a fistful of far more sophisticated F-35Cs for tricky jobs on the way.

So the catapult decision was pretty much a no-brainer once EMALS appeared. The puzzler was why on Earth it later got rescinded, on the grounds that putting catapults into the ships was not going to cost £900m - as the 2010 review had estimated - but actually £2bn for the Prince of Wales and maybe £3bn to the Queen Elizabeth. This would be to double the projected price of the two ships.

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