MPs: This plan for proper navy carriers and jets is crazy!
Quite simply not a clue what they're on about
Analysis Today sees the release of two new reports into the UK's plans for its future aircraft carriers and their aircraft. As is common practice, a National Audit Office document is accompanied by one from the MPs of the Commons Public Accounts Committee.
What we're getting now - and a good thing too.
The event that has inspired the NAO to break into print again is that its beancounters have now been supplied with paperwork from the new National Security Secretariat, the bureaucracy supporting Mr Cameron's new permanent "war cabinet". The NAO hadn't until now been allowed to see the documents supplied to the meetings last year at which the UK changed its carrier plans.
Just to recap, for those who've forgotten. Until last year's strategic defence review by the incoming Coalition (in fact largely by the Tories, controlling all the relevant ministerial posts), old Blighty had nominally intended to buy two large but cheap carriers propelled by gas turbines and without catapults or arrester wires.
This choice of ships meant that the only jets able to fly from their decks would be jumpjets, ones able to use vertical thrust to make hovering (or "rolling vertical") landings. After the retirement of the ageing Harrier, the only such jet available would be the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter B variant.
The trouble with this plan was that the F-35B (which is still going into service with the US Marines on current plans) will be one of the most complicated and expensive-to-run aircraft in the world. It is the first supersonic stealth jumpjet ever seen, packed with brand new and amazing machinery and its expensive stealthy hide pierced by an amazing array of flaps, doors, lids and vents for its vertical thrust equipment (every aperture in a stealth aircraft's skin means severe expense and maintenance burden).
The British NAO and Public Accounts committee MPs both suggest that the costs and risks of this plan were well understood and under control, but they couldn't be more wrong. The F-35B is still in flight test and the costs even of buying it are not yet clear - far less those of running it. For example it is strongly suspected that the terrifically hot exhaust from its downward-pointing engine will damage steel flight decks, to the point where the US government has seen fit to look into protective refrigerated decking for its ships. Furthermore the need to carry its lift fan in its vertical shaft, the swivelling jet exhaust, stabilising side jets and all those doors and lids and their associated motors etc means that the F-35B is by a significant margin a worse performing aircraft than the tailhook version the US Navy are getting, as well as being a lot more expensive.
Another issue which had essentially not been addressed at all under the former carrier plan was that of other types of aircraft needed in a carrier air wing - most importantly, radar aircraft. At the moment the UK uses radar helicopters, a solution improvised too late during during the Falklands war. But a radar aircraft needs to fly high, stay up a long time, and have a long range, and helicopters aren't very good at any of these things. However a no-catapult carrier would effectively condemn the Royal Navy to this as a permanent plan into the future, unless some extremely expensive (and still not particularly good) custom tiltrotor could be obtained one day.
So the former carrier plan was not, actually, a very good one and its costs and risks were in fact poorly understood and liable to be very high - expensive and underperforming aircraft would have meant poor capability and would almost certainly have wiped out the savings made by keeping the ships cheap and simple.
'The technology has yet to be tested' - what's this video showing, then?
The new plan is to fit the ships with catapults and arrester wires. But the MPs of the CPAC have harsh words for this.
The technology proposed has yet to be tested and the version the UK intends to buy will be unique to Britain.
Actually the electromagnetic catapults that will be required have been tested many times, with this now including a launch of the tailhook F-35C that Britain and the US Navy will be buying:
The only thing "unique" about the British fit as opposed to the version that the US Navy is firmly committed to putting on its next carrier is that ours will have two catapults rather than four, scarcely a difference which adds much technical risk.
Oh, but this is risky stuff apparently:
Changing the aircraft will necessitate modifying the carrier after it has been built and before it becomes operational.
Sure, but the carriers were designed from the outset to be fitted "for but not with" catapults and arrester gear. This is not some kind of major rebuild: space was left in the design for cats and traps to be installed.
The reason catapults weren't included straight off was that until the new American electromagnetic catapults came along, the only option was steam catapults. Proper nuclear-powered carriers on US and French lines have steam, but cheap gas-turbine ones don't so Britain can't use steam cats (despite having invented them). It would theoretically be possible to fit special steam boilers alongside the gas turbines, but this would be almost as expensive as simply making a nuclear ship, so Britain never seriously considered it (though France did for a while).
Now that electromagnetic cats are available, fitting them is pretty much a no-brainer. It won't cost much and it will slice huge sums off the costs of buying and running the air groups, while adding hugely to their capability. But you wouldn't learn this from the CPAC MPs:
The conversion of the carriers to using catapults and arrestor gear will push back the in-service date by two years to 2020 and sortie rates will not reach the maximum full operating capability until 2031.
That's a completely ridiculous thing to say. There was no way in the world that the UK was going to afford enough very expensive jumpjet F-35Bs to have any serious carrier force up and running in 2018: even if the cash was there the planes probably won't be on current progress. Britain will not be able to afford any large number for tailhook F-35Cs either - current plans say that the 2020 carrier will boast a rather pathetic air group of just 12 jets - but it would have been a smaller number still if we were still going with the F-35B and vertical lift, and the planes would have been less capable to boot. Obviously full air groups won't happen until (at least) 2031, but it would have been a lot longer if we'd stuck with no catapults and the B version.
No: the decision to put catapults on the ships was entirely correct and can't be faulted. What did get badly messed up was the decision-making on aircraft at the same time. The expensive, not very good Tornado bomber (not capable of carrier ops and only marginally useful in Afghanistan and Libya) was kept, and the highly capable Harrier and present carriers were binned. The savagely expensive-to-run Eurofighter was also kept. These decisions have left us with feeble airstrike capabilities in Libya and Iraq, and the cost of these legacy jets is the main reason we can't afford decent numbers of F-35Cs until 2031.
If we were smart, like the Australians, we'd have got rid of Eurofighter and Tornado both and immediately bought or leased a fleet not of F-35C stealth tailhook planes - not to begin with - but F-18 Hornets as operated right now by the US Navy. Thes would have done a good job from Afghan land bases and from our new carrier deck once it appeared, and would be so cheap (the Hornet line has produced huge numbers of aircraft and costs are now very low) that we could have kept the old Harriers and carriers until the new ships appeared. A small leavening of F-35Cs in due course would suffice for those missions where their advanced stealth and electronics were actually necessary, though proper carrier radar planes might well be an earlier priority.
Funnily enough that option was never even presented to Mr Cameron and his colleagues in their meetings last year, we learn from the NAO documents. That on its own shows just how far and how deep into Whitehall is the reach of BAE Systems plc, which makes or made (and maintains at even greater cost) the Tornado, the Eurofighter, the carriers and large parts of the F-35 ... but not the F-18 Hornet.
If the MPs wanted to criticise something they could criticise that, but instead they chose to make poorly informed attacks on one of the very few things the government got right in last year's review. ®