Royal Navy to get two carriers - but only one air group?
OK lads, just run along the deck going 'Brrrmmm'
Analysis The British press is full of reports today that the Royal Navy has agreed to "give up" one of its planned two aircraft carriers - or, more accurately, to give up one of the planned air-groups of F-35 stealth fighters which are intended to fly from them.
The revelations stem from a story in the Times, which claims that a firm plan has been agreed under which Britain would buy just 50 F-35 jets. Rough plans thus far had called for a buy of more than a hundred of the F-35 B version, which is a short-takeoff/vertical-landing (STOVL) jumpjet. The F-35Bs would replace the current force of Harriers run by the Royal Navy and the RAF, which can operate from shore bases or from a cheap carrier lacking catapults and arrester wires.
Under the plan as laid out in the Times, the Ministry of Defence would still buy the two planned new carriers, to be dubbed HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales. However the Prince of Wales would not be operated as a strike carrier with a force of jets; instead she would be a "commando carrier", a floating forward-mounting airbase full of marines, helicopters and drones. This would mean no need to replace HMS Ocean, the navy's current helicopters'n'marines ship - which would, according to the Thunderer, cost £600m in the 20-teens. (That seems pretty steep as Ocean herself only cost £150m in the mid '90s).
The Times quotes an unnamed senior naval officer as saying:
We always knew that the real cost of the carrier project is the JSF fleet to go on them. It would cost us at least £12 billion if we bought all the aircraft we originally asked for. We are waking up to the fact that all those planes are unaffordable. More than half of the £5 billion contracts to build the two new carriers have been contracted, so it is too late to get out of building the ships. This way at least we are covered when Ocean goes out of service.
It has long been known that the RAF doesn't want to replace its own Harrier force - it would rather spend that money upgrading as many of its Eurofighter Typhoons as it can. The horrifyingly expensive Typhoon was designed as a pure air-to-air fighter, and at the moment it mostly still is - though a few RAF ones have been given an "austere" bombing capability.
The RAF would like to rebuild and re-equip as many of its largely irrelevant Typhoons as possible, giving them such things as trendy electronically-scanned radars and air-launched cruise missiles of various sorts. This would, perhaps, enable the Typhoon force to tackle tough enemy air-defence networks of the sort possessed by nations such as Iran and Russia. As the Eurofighter offers no stealth, such attacks would be unsubtle - missile batteries and radars would have to be bombed out of the way before any actual targets could be attacked - but such a battle, now that carpet bombing is out of fashion and nuclear warheads go by rocket, is what airforce people live for and dream of. And indeed, the Times' source apparently says that the RAF would move to an all-Typhoon jet force under the new plan.
The Royal Navy has long felt that it would be unable to buy two carrier groups' worth of jumpjets from its own resources. If the RAF won't buy any, there would be little point in having one carrier always good to go: a total force of 50 planes would be unable to keep a strike group operational continuously. Hence the "commando carrier" scheme. It all makes sense.
MoD: "It's not true ... of course, anything can happen."
But is it true?
Not really - or anyway not yet. "It's not true," a MoD spokesperson told the Reg this morning. "No decisions have been made. The Secretary of State remains one hundred percent committed to the aircraft carriers."
Pressed, however, the MoD's representative did admit that "anything can happen... some difficult decisions will have to be made."
This is no surprise, of course. It's common knowledge that the core MoD budget is and has always been overbooked for the next decade and more - Afghan war or no. Much of the cost of Afghanistan is met by special extra funds from the Treasury, which would cease if troops were withdrawn and leave the MoD facing the same financial mess it has been facing since before 9/11.
So yes, money will indeed have to be saved - even more so with the bills from the economic crisis to be paid and government spending in general to be cut. That much is true; and indeed all the major parties have committed to a full strategic defence review following the election next year.
But there are many better ways to cut money from the MoD than crippling our new carrier force. To give just one example, our new fleet of refurbished De Havilland Comet subhunters (sorry, "Nimrod MRA4s") will cost at least £700m a year to operate. If we put the whole Nimrod force on the scrapheap for which they are so long overdue right now, by the year 2019 we will have saved the £7bn needed to buy the missing eighty-odd JSFs for our second carrier - and the Prince of Wales isn't actually going to be afloat much before then, so that's not a problem.
And you have to say, a carrier group may not be as useful as an infantryman or a cargo helicopter right now: but it would have saved both soldiers' lives and helicopters in the Falklands*. And a war like the Falklands is hugely more likely than a need to singlehandedly attack Iran or China; or a need to fight a powerful enemy submarine force. Carriers are useful for everyday wars, as well as the high-intensity ones which you hope will never happen. Any sensible taxpayer would rather have two carriers - meaning that one would always be available to fight - than a fleet of nine vintage subhunter planes.
There are many, many other such stories. We could buy cheap Sky Warrior auto-drones off the shelf rather than expensive Watchkeepers. We could equip the carriers properly and so buy cheaper F-35 C tailhook planes rather than pricey B-model jumpjets - this would save money straight off, and save a fortune on the vital carrier radar planes. Indeed, we could buy much cheaper Super Hornets to begin with, if we wanted to save a lot of cash. We could bin the expensive, feeble A400M transport and buy nice cheap C-17s instead. Rather than upgrading squadrons of Eurofighters into superbombers at a cost of billions we could buy a force of vastly more cost-effective turboprop strike planes to back our troops in Afghanistan. The list goes on.
Frankly all of this - Times story and all - is just speculation, fag-packet planning by people both inside and outside the MoD. The next piece of real news on this subject will probably come in the Green Paper to be published around the end of the year - and the final word will come in the Strategic Review by the next government.
But even if the Times plan comes to pass, one might note that the F-35 programme will run for many years and that prices will only drop as time goes by - despite the project's current worries. Meanwhile the RN would still have two big carrier-sized ships, quite capable of carrying F-35Bs and with space for the catapults that would allow F-35Cs or Hornets or what you will to fly from them.
We might have to wait until the 2020s, but even under the Times' scenario it seems likely that Blighty would eventually get its two proper carriers after all. ®
*The Welsh Guards were effectively gutted by the Argentine strike on the troopship Sir Galahad at Bluff Cove - a strike a proper air group would easily have stopped. All but one of the task force's vital Chinook troop-carrying helicopters were sunk aboard the Atlantic Conveyor, again by a strike that a proper carrier group would have nailed with ease.