Cameron's F-35 U-turn: BAE Systems still calls the shots at No 10
Threat of cheap, powerful kit for UK forces warded off
Comment So there it is: done. As this is written, defence minister Phillip Hammond is on his feet in the House of Commons, trying to justify the fact that he and his boss, David Cameron, have decided that the Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier (maybe carriers) will not now have any catapults or arrester gear in order to save money. This means that the only aeroplanes able to fly from British decks will be the F-35B supersonic stealth jumpjets.
Maybe there's some way you could put more doors and motors and extra doodads on there and give yourself some more stealth and maintenance headaches ... it's hard to say how, though
It's well known that the F-35B will cost a lot more to buy and more to run than the F-35C catapult version: and it's also well known that the main cost of aircraft carriers is not the ships but the planes. So, right out of the gate, we can see that this is a foolish decision.
In fact it's a lot worse than it seems, as the contest in real life was not between the F-35B and the F-35C: it was between the F-35B and - for the immediate future - one or another cheap, powerful, modern carrier jet already in service. This would most most likely have been the F-18 Hornet as used by the US Navy and many other air forces around the globe, but possibly the French Rafale instead of or alongside Hornets.
In fact the UK will not be able to afford either the F-35B or the F-35C in any large numbers any time soon. Both planes are, after all, brand new supersonic stealth aircraft - only the second make of supersonic stealth aircraft ever built, in fact, and the first ever which can land on ships. They are brand new, bleeding edge kit and will cost accordingly. Both planes are still in flight test at the moment, in fact, and the F-35 programme as a whole has suffered serious cost and time overruns. This has led to delays to US orders, which have in turn pushed up costs for other early purchasers. Production is still at a low rate only.
Thus, if the Royal Navy had managed to get its hands on a catapult carrier, it would have been compelled (very happily!) to buy or lease an interim carrier jet to tide it over until a reasonable number of F-35Cs could be bought for a reasonable price - probably at some point in the 2020s. There would be no need for a full force of F-35Cs any sooner than the 2030s, by which point they would be affordable and there might be a real need for their stealth and other advanced capabilities.
Fortunately in that case, the F-18 Hornet - the US Navy's current combat plane - would be easily and cheaply obtained. Many hundreds of Hornets have already been made, a large worldwide fleet is in operation and so running costs are low, production would otherwise cease fairly soon. The Hornet would be a steal. Royal Navy pilots are already flying it, in preparation for the happy day when a catapult-equipped HMS Prince of Wales should join the British fleet and Britain would get a powerful carrier air capability again and avoid such future embarrassments as Libya, where just about everyone else was able to put more aircraft into the sky above the battlefields.
Of course this would have been disastrous news for some people. Once there were some F-18s with British markings on them, there would almost never be any good reason to send our existing landbased combat jets - the Tornado and the Eurofighter - to war. Both of these planes cost enormous sums to use: they were built by ineffient and fragmented international consortia, they aren't in service in very large numbers, and the maintenance and support contracts under which the British forces operate them are cripplingly expensive. In the only likely mission for British jets in the near future - ground attack - they are both inferior in performance and capability to the F-18. As for the seldom-required air-to-air combat mission, the Tornado is incapable of this and the Eurofighter probably isn't a lot better than a Hornet. Not that it matters: air to air combat hardly ever happens and when it does the adversary planes and pilots are never good enough to cause any proper Western aircraft a problem (unless there is a lack of radar aircraft, of course, which there will be thanks to today's announcement).
So once we had some F-18s we would seldom bother using our Eurofighters and Tornados, and we would surely rethink our current plans to massively upgrade them. We might in fact, if we were smart, reconsider having them at all.
And this would be terrible news for the company which has those fat service contracts under which those planes are run, the company which built the British parts of them: namely BAE Systems plc. This firm is nowadays a multinational which makes most of its money - and has the great majority of its employees - outside the UK, but it still owns the great bulk of the remaining British defence industry. As such it would lose many, many billions if the Eurofighter was not upgraded for ground attack, if the Tornado was got rid of - or just if those two planes didn't get flown so much.
A catapult carrier in the Royal Navy, then, is something that BAE Systems passionately does not want to see happen.
Guess who gets to set the price for putting catapults on the carriers?
Fortunately for the company, Messrs Cameron and Hammond have seen to it that this won't now happen. They say that "the facts have changed" since the strategic defence review of 2010, in which Cameron outlined the switch to catapult ships.
The "fact" that has changed, we are told, is that the cost of putting catapults into HMS Prince of Wales is now thought to be enormously more than had been estimated - it has increased by as much as ten times over, to perhaps £2bn, pushing up the cost of the carrier project by a third or a half.
This is really strange, as the carriers were designed from the outset to be fitted "for but not with" catapults. It was expected that we might want to add catapults to them at some point in their lives and they were built so as to make this easy. The only reason they didn't have cats to begin with was that their gas-turbine electric propulsion can't produce steam, and until recent years all naval catapults needed steam to work. Britain didn't have the cash to afford a nuclear-powered steam carrier like those of the US and French navies, and didn't care to spend the money to develop electric catapults. Hence we were forced into the jumpjet plan until 2010.
But the US did have the money, and electric catapults have now been developed. The next US supercarrier will have them, and indeed the US has gone so far as to pledge that if there are any technical problems with the new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), the Americans will pay to sort matters out (they'll have to, in order to avoid being saddled with a 100,000-ton helicopter carrier - the USS Gerald R Ford is now well beyond the point at which she could feasibly be reverted to steam cats).
So the ships are built to take cats and the USA has paid all the development costs - and will take on any remaining technological risk. Indeed the US makers estimate the cost of the actual EMALS machinery - the only difficult part of the job - as no more than $200m, £125m). How on Earth can it be that the cost of fitting the US tech to our ships has snowballed so catastrophically, so that it will cost ten or twenty times what the machinery itself does? How can it be that we are now told it will take far longer than had been thought? How can it be that we now think there are so many risks and uncertainties in this new technology, just as the mighty USA has firmly committed its latest multibillion-dollar flagship to that new tech - and indeed, guaranteed it to us?
Who can say exactly how this happened. But it is certainly very strange that this massive shift in perception should have occurred, behind closed doors along Whitehall and in Parliament; and the new version of reality is - bluntly - not at all credible.
And it is pretty well impossible to avoid noticing that the lead contractor on the carriers - the company which gets to set the price of fitting them with catapults - is ... (drum roll) ... none other than BAE Systems plc, the company which stands to lose many, many billions if the Royal Navy gets catapult ships any time soon.
These are the perils of having more or less your entire defence-industrial base controlled by a single company.
Of course, it won't only have been BAE that didn't want to see Royal Navy catapult carriers and Royal Navy F-18s. This would also be tremendously bad news for the Royal Air Force, operator of the Eurofighter and the Tornado, which would then find itself superseded in any likely mission by the dark-blue aviators of the Fleet Air Arm. And BAE still has around 30 per cent of its employees in the UK, so it can still fire large numbers of UK voters when it needs to, which confers massive political clout. (As do its hordes of lobbyists prowling Parliament and Whitehall.)
So we won't get catapult ships. As a result, the Whitehall rumour mill whispers, it might be possible for the Royal Navy to afford both its new carriers, and get them comparatively soon. This could mean that the UK has a ship at sea all or most of the time, ready to act.
But for that, you would need some planes that could fly from it: and that means no choice but the F-35B (like idiots we sold off our non-stealth, non-supersonic - but affordable to run - Harrier jumpjets just recently, and no more will ever be made). The F-35B may be ready for duty a bit sooner than the F-35C, but it will be horrifyingly expensive for a long time - and given its complexity, it will never be cheap to buy or cheap to run like an F-18. Those who maintain and fly the Tornado and the Eurofighter need not fear that it will put them out of work: and the chance of Britain managing to afford enough F-35Bs to fill a carrier all the time any sooner than the late 2020s at the very earliest is minuscule, so having one available all the time won't really be that useful, and having a notional carrier strike capability in 2020 as opposed to 2023 won't be that impressive.
And, of course, the crucial radar aircraft without which fleet fighters at sea are effectively crippled will be another massive problem. The US and France will continue to use the excellent, catapult mini-AWACS Hawkeye E-2, but the Royal Navy will have to struggle on with radar helicopters which can't go nearly as high or stay up nearly as long - and which aren't, therefore, even nearly as good.
Just another normal day at the Ministry of Defence, then: taxpayers seen off, forces denied proper kit ... and BAE Systems laughing all the way to the bank. ®