Cameron 'to change his mind' on the one thing he got right in Defence
US carrier kit would be really expensive ... says BAE
Comment The Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2010 was, overall, a total cockup: but there was one major decision in it which made good sense for British servicemen and taxpayers. It now seems more and more likely that Prime Minister David Cameron, prompted by arms mammoth BAE Systems and by the RAF, intends to reverse that move and continue the destruction of British combat power which has been underway now for more than a decade.
That's a lot of doors and lids and motors ... and all stealthed. Ouch.
We refer, of course, to the choice of which version of the F-35 stealth jet the UK is to buy - which determines what equipment Britain's future aircraft carriers will need.
This choice should be nice and simple. The F-35C, intended for catapult launch and tailhook/arrester-wire landing, will be much cheaper than the jumpjet F-35B - both to buy and to operate. It will be unavailable for maintenance far less often (the F-35B is the world's only supersonic stealth jumpjet - it is one of the most complicated machines in the world and will be a maintenance nightmare). The F-35C, unburdened with the B's vertical thrust equipment, will also offer much superior performance.
So the tailhook jet is both better and cheaper. And, perhaps best of all, British carriers equipped with catapults and arrester gear would also be able to play host to many other kinds of tailhook aircraft. This would not only mean that French Rafales or US F-18 Hornets could fly from British decks - it would also mean that the Hawkeye radar craft used by both navies could do so, finally offering the British fleet the proper airborne radar coverage which would have saved so many soldiers' and sailors' lives in the Falklands1.
The only reason that Britain had originally planned in the 1990s to buy the B version of the F-35 was that there was no way back then to fit the carriers with catapults. All naval catapults then in service required supplies of high-power steam to operate: in today's French and US carriers this steam is produced by the ships' nuclear propulsion, but Britain decided it could not afford a nuclear carrier. Thus the British ships are to have gas-turbine engines, which cannot produce steam. Therefore they could not have catapults. (In theory one might add special auxiliary steam boilers just for the cats, but such a design would be nearly as expensive as a nuclear ship and hugely less capable. The UK never seriously considered that plan, though France did for a while.)
But things have changed since the 1990s. America has moved forward and developed new electromagnetic catapults which need only electrical power to operate. A landbased test system has been in operation in the States for some time without problems, and the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) is to be installed in the next US supercarrier: CVN-78, aka USS Gerald R Ford. The Ford is now at an advanced state of build and there is no option to revert her to steam. There is no doubt that EMALS is ready for service - despite certain British politicians' recent witless claims to the contrary. It has already shown that it can launch F-35Cs (and Hawkeyes):
It was well known in Britain that this was on the cards, and so HMSs Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth were designed so that they could easily be fitted with catapults should the necessary technology appear. As the British ships are to have electrical transmissions, meaning that they will have ample electrical power to run EMALS without further alteration, installing catapults will be about as simple an operation as one could reasonably ask for.
Given all this it was pretty much a no-brainer to switch the planned UK F-35 order from B to C version, and Mr Cameron duly did so in 2010: making the new carriers hugely more useful at a stroke and saving Britain vast sums of money down the road which would otherwise have been spent on expensive F-35Bs and exotic, custom built vertical-landing radar aircraft.
Good news for the armed forces and the taxpayers, then. Congratulations Mr Cameron. But it was bad news for a much more influential grouping: the British-headquartered arms industry. It was also very bad news for the Royal Air Force.
Jet engine firm Rolls-Royce sometimes gets mentioned in this context. Rolls makes the lift fans and swivelling exhaust nozzles for the F-35B, so they could expect some minor losses of orders with the British shift to the C model. But the US Marines are still going to buy B version F-35s, in much greater numbers than the UK would have done, so it's not a big deal for Rolls-Royce. In any case, Rolls couldn't directly do a lot about the decision.
But the shift offered a very damaging prospect indeed to the real monster of the British arms biz, BAE Systems plc. BAE is nowadays mainly an American company, having shut British factories and fired British employees continually for the last 20 years as it used huge revenues garnered mainly from the UK taxpayer2 to buy up US firms. It now employs many more Americans than it does Brits, and makes most of its money in the States. Nonetheless, the company still owns the great bulk of the remaining UK arms industry as part of its global portfolio and it is most unwilling to release its stranglehold on the MoD's budget.
The shift from F-35B to C in itself wouldn't directly affect BAE much: it is an F-35 subcontractor, but the parts it makes would be used in either version. And, as discussed, Britain's F-35 purchase of a hundred or so jets matters very little among the thousands of orders expected during the life of the programme.
But the catapult carriers are pure poison for BAE nonetheless. Once the UK has a catapult carrier, there will naturally be a push to put some planes on it. No matter what the British government says, there's no realistic prospect of any serious number of F-35Cs being available for much of the ship's early life at the very least. The 2010 SDSR documents projected that Britain would field an air group of just twelve F-35Cs in the early 2020s, and this is almost certainly an overestimate: the F-35C has suffered cost increases and delays since then.
Realistically, on current plans HMS Prince of Wales will arrive in service with catapults all complete in just a few years' time, and barely a handful of British F-35Cs - if any at all - will be available to fill her vast hangars, able to hold 40 planes with ease.
So the only combat planes able to fly from Britain's new flagship will be F-18 Hornets as operated by the US Navy, or Rafales as used by the French. US and French jets were always expected to be visitors to Britain's carriers, of course: but nobody thought they'd be the majority - or only - users.
And once we had some Hornets or Rafales ... my word the Eurofighter and Tornado would start to look bad. Can we see where BAE and the RAF would be upset?
But it would be a simple matter to make sure that many or most of the Hornets or Rafales had "ROYAL NAVY" written on them and Fleet Air Arm pilots in their seats. Both aircraft are available to buy or lease very cheaply right now. Boeing's Hornet production-line has been running for ever, supplying a huge fleet of jets to the US Navy and many international customers. F-18 prices are down and there are deals to be done. The French, having been stymied at every turn, are desperate to sell some Rafales and would do almost anything to shift some.
The error in this picture? It wouldn't be F-35s on the deck. Not for a while anyway - and that's a good thing, trust us.
Should an empty or mostly-empty catapult Prince of Wales go to sea in a few years' time, the Royal Navy could probably borrow some F-18s or Rafales for its pilots to fly for free. And once Boeing or Dassault had their foot in the door, progress would almost certainly be rapid. Hornets and Rafales would be so cheap that quite minor amounts of cash would fill the British decks: the temptation to delay buying the pricey F-35, whose Stealth and other advanced tech is only marginally useful against likely real-world enemies, would be irresistible and a sizeable force of British or partly-British Hornets or Rafales would be more or less certain to appear. Indeed, Flightglobal test pilot Peter Collins tells us that Royal Navy pilots are already flying Rafale and F-18, and notes:
A decision to keep with the F-35C and converting at least one of the RN's Queen Elizabeth-class ships could be ably supported by using an interim fixed-wing type, most probably leased.
This would have terrible knock-on consequences for BAE. The carrier Hornets and/or Rafales would then be the best combat aircraft in the British forces for almost all missions: both aircraft are hugely superior to the RAF's large budget- and personnel-intensive fleet of crappy old Tornado land bombers, which was preserved extremely controversially in the 2010 Review, and both are certainly better for ground-attack than the Eurofighter Typhoon as well.
F-18s or Rafales may well be the Eurofighter's peer in the seldom-required air-to-air mission as well (they are the prime air-superiority fighters of France and the US Navy, after all, and there are indications that the Eurofighter is not all it's cracked up to be in air-to-air). They are surely fine for knocking down export MiGs and Sukhois or antique French planes in Libyan or Iraqi or Falklands style. And - this is the cruncher - their costs per flying hour would be much, much lower than those of the viciously expensive-to-run Tornado and Eurofighter fleets. The Hornet would be cheap to run because it is in service worldwide in vast numbers, and the Rafale would be cheap because the French are so desperate they'd probably throw in free servicing just to get a sale at this point.
So cash-strapped British ministers of the future, contemplating the mounting of air operations somewhere or other, would tend almost always to send the cheap, excellent carrier planes. They would probably do this even if the carriers themselves weren't required: carrier aircraft can fly from land runways without the slightest difficulty.
And BAE's huge revenues for servicing and support to the Tornado and Eurofighter would suffer proportionately, as would its chances of ever again managing to sell any of its European-made products. Disaster. The proposed, vastly expensive upgrade of the Eurofighter's ground-attack capabilities would also look like even worse value for money than it already does.
So one can be sure that BAE's colossal force of lobbyists and advocates, which infests Parliament and Whitehall like a whispering plague of cockroaches3, will have swung into action against the catapult ships as soon as the company had time to think about the implications. The prospect of a force of mainly naval Hornets or Rafales under British colours would also be a horrifying one for the Royal Air Force, which would then run a severe risk of not being invited to any future wars, so BAE will have found a ready-made source of allies among the air-marshals.
And better still: BAE is prime contractor on the carriers! Which means it is BAE who gets to set the price for fitting them with catapults, no matter that the job will actually have to be subcontracted to General Atomics in the USA.
Completely unsurprisingly, it's now widely known that the cost of putting catapults on the Prince of Wales has been found, on investigation, to be a hell of a lot more than anybody thought it possibly could be. US officials, learning of this, have actually felt impelled to write to the Defence Secretary to tell him the real figure, not the absurdly inflated one that BAE (endorsed no doubt by anyone the RAF can influence) has been quoting secretly around Whitehall. The Americans have even gone so far as to pledge to cover any increases above General Atomics' price themselves.
That's an excellent deal, isn't it?
But the British government and Ministry of Defence have a long track record of ignoring excellent deals in favour of deals which will channel a lot of money to BAE Systems: and all the more so where this would maintain advantage for the RAF in its endless, frenzied bureaucratic turf war against the other services' air arms4.
Now we hear that the fix is in. If the Times is to be believed, the service Chiefs have unanimously backed a plan to switch back to the F-35B. No surprises in the case of the RAF, of course: but the Chiefs are predominantly Army generals (three out of five) at the moment. Evidently BAE and the airmen have somehow swung the Army to their side. If they have really got Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, head of the Royal Navy, to agree to this too ... well, the best one can say is that Stanhope has betrayed his Service's future. He ought to resign rather than sign up to this.
But he might not think so: perhaps he was offered a deal on some other matter, though quite frankly it's hard to see how any number of frigates, destroyers or even submarines could make up for the loss of carrier air - and lovely affordable proper carrier air soon, too, not viciously expensive carrier air crippled by the need to have vertical (or near-vertical) landing capability on every aircraft, to appear many years hence.
The National Security Council will be considering the Chiefs' recommendation this week, but decisions like this can really only be made by one man: the Prime Minister, as the heads of the armed services need take orders from nobody else in the final analysis. That said, if Stanhope really has been nobbled, his last-resort powers (conferred by Mrs Thatcher on all Service heads in 1984, perhaps as a muted acknowledgement following the Falklands that her government's pre-war plans to strip the navy of its carriers and Harrier jets had been stupid) won't matter. And BAE Systems' colossal political muscle will probably ensure that the politicians on the Council will be listening primarily to their lobbyists.
The future doesn't look good, as ever, for Britain's taxpayers and her fighting servicemen. But it looks rosy indeed for the empire builders of BAE and the RAF. ®
1The Royal Navy does have an improvised stopgap solution in place, rushed into service too late for the fighting in the South Atlantic, in which a radar is carried aloft by an ageing Sea King helicopter. However a radar aircraft needs to fly high and stay up for a long time: and helicopters aren't good at either of those. This is a second-rate capability at best.
2People often think that BAE's rump UK operations make a lot of their money from exports, but it's not actually true. The al-Yamamah deal under which Saudi Arabia received crappy Tornado jets, useless JP233 suicide weapons and other things for them to carry, some warships and various other things (including openly admitted vast cash payments into bank accounts controlled by Saudi royals and corporate hospitality on a truly epic scale) is said by BAE to have made the company £40bn, for instance. However a single British deal - providing the Eurofighter Typhoon to the RAF - is planned to cost the MoD this much by the time it eventually completes (in reality it is likely to cost a lot, lot more). The UK BAE empire also makes or made all Britain's warships, submarines, bombers, tanks, artillery and many of its guided and complex weapons (mostly the ones which don't work), so one can see that it has received and will receive hugely more money from the UK treasury than the Saudis. The company's stealthy move across the Atlantic has been funded primarily by decades of colossal British government spending.
3Anyone who has spent much time at Defence-related meetings or hearings in the corridors of power will know that the majority of the people in the room are generally armsbiz lobbyists. And those who aren't - civil servants, politicians, uniformed officers - are often looking forward to a future in which they may take up a lucrative position at an arms company.
4The Army has its own equivalent of the navy's Fleet Air Arm: the Army Air Corps, which operates Apache attack choppers and small Lynx utility craft - but, bizarrely, none of the primary troop-carrying aircraft owing to a bureaucratic landgrab by the RAF at the time of the Suez crisis. Unlike most of the Army's corps and regiments, the AAC is not "Royal", and seems unlikely ever to become so as long as the RAF maintains any influence.