Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/05/18/blighty_carrier_deal_announced/

UK Carriers safe: Other war-tech ripe for the chopper

Why won't our flat-tops have catapults, anyway?

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 18th May 2008 07:02 GMT

Analysis The UK government has confirmed to shipbuilding executives that it will shortly place orders for two large new aircraft carriers, after years of uncertainty. But the move has been accompanied by renewed wrangling over Ministry of Defence (MoD) accounts, and seems likely to foreshadow cuts to some other major equipment programme.

The Financial Times reports that Amyas Morse, MoD commercial director, telephoned BAE Systems and Vosper Thorneycroft (VT) this week with the carrier news. The intention is that BAE and VT, the last serious firms left standing in British shipbuilding, will effectively merge their shipyards in a joint venture to build the carriers.

The difficulty with this is that the carrier bills will start coming in swiftly - over the next few years - and the MoD budget is already heavily overbooked. A partial accounting solution has apparently been agreed, under which the MoD will be allowed to shift money between years and accounts in a fashion not normally permitted by the Treasury. But something will have to give eventually - and in exchange for temporary leniency, it appears that the MoD must now grit its teeth and save some money elsewhere.

"We are determined to do more to support our people," an MoD spokesman told the FT.

"We need to better prioritise... the equipment programme to better support the front line."

This means buying things which are actually useful for modern wars of the type Britain has fought almost continuously since the end of World War II, and which seem set to continue indefinitely. That is, mainly low-intensity land battles against enemies without major air or naval forces (though they may occasionally have small navies, small air forces and large numbers of old-fashioned land units, as in the Falklands or Gulf I and II).

Carriers will be handy for this type of war. So will the new generation of army vehicles - the Future Combat Systems - which have likewise got the nod in Whitehall. Mainstream politicians like Gordon Brown and his Tory rivals also consider that Trident nuclear-missile submarines are worth having, which means that the now-building Astute-class attack subs are also pretty safe. It seems certain that enough Astutes will be ordered to keep the Barrow submarine yard open until it can begin work on the Trident replacement.

But that still leaves plenty of stuff on the current MoD shopping list which would mainly be useful against some enemy which had a serious air force and/or navy but didn't have any nukes* - a fairly rare kind of country already, and set to get rarer.

The MoD could get rid of the new Nimrod MRA4 subhunter planes, for instance, which have tripled in price and are running years late. It could cancel the third tranche of enhanced Eurofighter Typhoon superjets, and force the RAF to use the 144 it has already ordered. (under current plans many would be discarded.) The MoD could stop buying horrifically expensive, not-very-good Type 45 destroyers after the six on order are built; the only thing they might be good for is defending aircraft carriers against ship-killing missiles and six will be plenty for that. (The carriers can actually look after themselves pretty well anyway, if they have the right planes.)

There are also some things which will be reasonably useful but which could be bought much more cheaply and quickly - for instance, the Future Lynx choppers from AgustaWestland. Hundreds of millions would be saved by axing them and buying bigger, better, cheaper copters from Sikorsky - and these would be delivered faster as well.

All that would more than sort out the MoD's finances, and leave plenty over; but it would mean a bloodbath for the UK's domestic arms industry. Blighty's arms makers, until lately, felt that their place at the tax trough was safe under the benevolent rule of Lord Drayson - the recently ousted MoD procurement minister.

But the cold new wind of austerity blowing along Whitehall has put them and their high prices under the spotlight. This is deserved: their products always require foreign tech support, their vaunted technical innovations (in recent times, anyway) often appear to draw heavily on other countries' work, and their claims to be the bedrock of the UK tech base seem rather flimsy. Money given to them doesn't really secure jobs in the UK; rather, it is spent buying up US companies.

The carriers are in the clear, at least. So what will we taxpayers get for our £2bn per ship? Americans spending that much money get a Nimitz-class nuclear powered supercarrier, a ship which on its own can defeat most national air forces.

Funnily enough, we Brits won't get anything like that. The new UK carriers, for a start, will not be nuclear-propelled. The US Navy doesn't use nuke power just for fun - there are good reasons why it makes sense for carriers. In particular, nuclear is the only kind of modern-day warship propulsion which can easily generate the huge steam power required by current catapult launch systems. There are vague notions brewing in America regarding electrically-powered cats, to go with the electric transmissions favoured in the latest warships, but electric launchers won't be ready in time for the UK.

As a result, the Brit carriers - though easily big enough - won't have catapults at all. This means that they won't be able to launch normal carrier planes, and thus that the UK must buy the jump-jet version of the new F-35, at needlessly vast expense. We will also have to buy some kind of highly specialised (hence expensive) fleet airborne-radar craft - perhaps the unfortunately-named "TOSS" version of the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor.

Neither the new jumpjets nor the TOSS will be as capable as simpler, more conventional alternatives. They will also be hugely more expensive. The decision to make the carriers non-nuclear was taken mainly on cost grounds rather than for any ideological reason - after all, the UK already has many nuclear-powered submarines - but the savings may very well be wiped out and to spare by the added aircraft costs.

It is true that the carriers could be fitted with catapults if and when the Yanks get round to making some electric ones. But to make this worthwhile you'd then need to buy another whole new lot of arrester-hook jets, and a catapult radar bird too (the current excellent offers on E-2D Hawkeyes probably won't be available any more, sadly).

It won't happen - not the way things are going, anyway. There's further gloom on the horizon for those with Blighty's military clout (and fighting service people) at heart - indeed, for those interested in any form of government activity other than the NHS. As the FT also points out today, even the Tories have agreed to a health budget rising in real terms. As overall government spending probably won't now be able to rise in real terms the way it has been planned to, this means that other government departments without broad support across the country - sciences/space, defence, that kind of thing - will be looking at more budget cuts to come. ®

Bootnote

*The Cold War was perhaps a special case, as nuclear armed France, Blighty and the US had non-nuclear allies between them and the Iron Curtain. It was seen as possibly worthwhile for the Soviets to grab off West Germany, Belgium et al in a sudden conventionally armed assault - feeling sure that the NATO nuclear nations wouldn't think it worth destroying the world to save their allies, which would probably have been true.

Thus it seemed worthwhile to the Russians to have conventional forces able to do so. And in turn the Westerners thought it worth having conventional forces which might hold the Soviet ones off, or at least postpone for a while the awful decision: give up allies to the commies, or go nuclear.

There are those in the Pentagon today who apparently feel the same way about Taiwan as the big NATO powers did about West Germany, and that the PLA(N) is in something like the position that Third Shock Army was in 1985.