Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/11/17/carriers_now_for_india/

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

Grauniad has lunch with BAE

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 17th November 2009 14:52 GMT

Analysis Yet another scheme by the MoD for cutting costs on the Royal Navy's new aircraft carriers has surfaced in the media, with claims now being aired that one of the two ships might be sold to India.

The Guardian reports that India "has recently lodged a firm expression of interest to buy one of the two state-of-the-art 65,000 tonne carriers" and that an unnamed "defence source" has told the paper's Tim Webb that "selling a carrier is one very serious option".

As Webb is the Graun's industrial editor, and glovepuppeting of biz correspondents by big companies is the most common way for such stories to appear, we can probably take it that the tale emanates from someone in the industrial consortium building the ships, led by BAE Systems. This is the more so as the article repeatedly states that contract penalties would make it impossibly expensive for the government to cancel one or both of the ships, which is probably the main message that Webb's industry informant was trying to push.

As contract details on big defence bids are kept secret ("commercially sensitive"), it's always easy for the companies involved to make such claims, usually without any great fear of the MoD actually mounting any counter-argument. BAE claimed for many years that the government was firmly locked in to buying 232 of its horrifyingly expensive Eurofighter jets, a claim which has now been exposed as hollow following involvement by Treasury lawyers.

The Graun claims that BAE is "currently drawing up a formal estimate of the cost the government would incur from cancelling the order", and one can be sure, as BAE are building the carriers, that the company's own estimate will indeed state that it would cost even more to cancel than it would to build the ships.

But that's not to say that the Treasury, having read the same contracts, would take the same view. So in fact it may well be financially feasible to cancel one or both of the ships - especially once their running costs into the future are taken into account.

If the government were to sell one to India, of course, it would avoid those running costs - and brilliantly from BAE's viewpoint, it would still pay to build the ship. Hence the firm is naturally keen to push the idea and at the same time spread the notion that cancellation would be desperately pricey. It's to be hoped that the Guardian's Webb at least got a good lunch out of it.

The only people who would get nothing in this scenario would be the Royal Navy, who would miss out on the year-round carrier capability they have already accepted massive cuts to get. The other people who might come out worse off are the taxpayers - it would be very unusual in a deal of this type for India to pay full price, so the taxpayers would lose money in addition to losing the national clout that a carrier always on patrol confers.

It seems India must have written to BAE. Well, fair enough, BAE does run UK foreign policy

Just to finish up on the Guardian story, we checked with the MoD today and they said that "we have had no written expression of interest from India" in buying one of the carriers. If the request had been "lodged" with another government department, one would expect the MoD to have been kept informed, so it seems that India didn't write to anyone in Whitehall.

"BAE do a lot of business with India, maybe someone's said something to them," added an MoD spokesman. "I can't say what might have been said at a defence expo or wherever, but we've had nothing formal."

Perhaps India "lodged" their expression of interest with BAE, understandably thinking that the company actually runs British foreign policy. No matter.

Moving on, there are a couple of things to add on the matter of the current obsessive public debate over the new carriers. One thing the Graun got right on this - though as ever with an interesting use of grammar - was that the carrier project has "become a totemic in the issue" of the upcoming defence cuts.

Everyone in the media, and also disappointingly in the army (one would expect this of the air force) is baying for the carriers' blood, usually on the grounds that a) they are frightfully expensive, and b) they - and indeed perhaps the whole navy - are useless for modern wars such as Afghanistan.

The first thing to note here is that the carrier project itself is quite small beer as MoD kit purchases go. At £4bn estimated - say £5bn worst case - it is dwarfed by many other ongoing efforts.

Nobody, strangely, is pointing the finger at the outrageously expensive and pointless Nimrod MRA4 subhunters, whose support and maintenance bills in the next couple of decades are set to cost enough to buy four carriers. Perhaps this is due to the very successful pretence mounted by the RAF that subhunting Nimrods have some kind of useful role to play in Afghanistan.

Still, though, there are many other plans more worthy of public scorn than the carriers. The RAF would also like to spend as much as the entire carrier project merely on upgrades to its fleet of Eurofighters, so as to transform them from marginally-useful landbased air-to-air fighters with "austere" strike abilities into almost completely useless deep-penetration bombers.

The Army also has something on the order of £14bn budgeted for what it calls Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), the replacement of the UK's existing heavy armoured formations. It is absolutely the case that large parts of the British tank juggernaut are getting very old; it is far less clear that the whole thing should be replaced with something very similar. And yet the three main bits of FRES - Heavy, Scout and Utility - have a suspicious resemblance to the present array of Challenger tanks, Scimitar recce and Warrior armoured-infantry vehicles.

Nobody's saying that the army doesn't need some new vehicles; but it's quite possible to question the need for a new and even more expensive tank army in these post-Cold-war days. There may be no need to spend £14bn - enough for about six aircraft carriers - on FRES or whatever.

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. ®