Government carrier strike rethink a shambles – Toby Fenwick
We can all welcome Nick Harvey’s work with the defence secretary Phillip Hammond in producing what appears to be the first balanced MoD budget since at least the 1997 defence review. Time will tell if their projections hold water. However, the armed forces minister’s recent article on Liberal Democrat Voice is redolent of MoD press office spin, and has several important elements that need debating. Moving back to the vertical take off and landing variant of the joint strike fighter (JSF) – known as the F-35B – is hardly the panacea Nick Harvey pretends. There were several reasons why the military warmly welcomed the switch to a conventional cats ‘n’ traps carrier and aircraft (F-35C) in the 2010 defence review.
First, there have been no figures released to substantiate the massive increase in conversion costs that Mr Harvey refers to. Nor do we know on what basis these figures have been calculated. Are they for the conversion alone? Are they through life costs based on an assessment of the differential operating costs and training requirements of the jump-jet F-35B and conventional take off and landing F-35C? If so, where are the data sources, what are the assumptions and how were they calculated?
Second, performance: the F-35C carries a larger payload further than the F-35B. Radius of action is critical to projecting carrier airpower, so buying the shorter range jet significantly constrains your military options. This was demonstrated 30 years ago in the Falklands, where the Harriers were limited to short periods over the islands, and the carriers had to be kept at a safe distance from the Argentine air bases. Not only will this choice constrain UK military options now, it will do so for the next 30 years.
Third, the joint strike fighter carries much of its weaponry internally to ensure that it can evade radar through its stealth technologies. The F-35C has larger internal bomb bays so that all of the UK’s existing bombs and missiles can be carried inside the stealthy bays. However, the F-35B has smaller bays and cannot carry the larger bombs in the UK inventory, nor, reportedly, can it carry the RAF’s current long-range AMRAAM missile or the new air to air missile (METEOR) without modification.
Fourth, the F-35B is the most complex and most expensive JSF variant. It was also placed on technical probation by the US Dept of Defense in 2011, and it remains a work in progress. Moreover, with the US marine corps already reducing their orders in favour of the more capable F-35C, not only will the unit cost increase, but at a time when the US government is looking for large defence cuts, the F-35B is also the most likely to be cancelled after the 2012 presidential election. If it is cancelled, the UK will have no other fixed wing aircraft to purchase, rendering the carriers impotent. And were this to happen, the government would then have to convert the carriers to cat ‘n’ trap configuration if it wanted any fixed wing aircraft to fly from the decks. A strange case of a U-turn on a U-turn on a U-turn.
Fifth, carrier airpower is about much more than just the fast jets. The support aircraft – tankers, radar aircraft, transport aircraft as well as helicopters – are critical. Unfortunately, scrapping cats ‘n’ traps means that all of the off the shelf options for tanking, airborne early warning and carrier on board supply delivery are unworkable. The UK will be reliant on helicopter based options instead, which are much less capable, as well as being unique to the UK, and thus comparatively expensive. The entire capability of the UK carrier programme will be significantly and permanently downgraded, and we will lose interoperability with our French and US navy allies.
Sixth, the suggestion that the government’s decision makes the carriers operational sooner is both misleading and a red herring. It is apparently the case that if the Royal Navy stuck with the F-35C, the converted carrier would not be operational with its airwing until 2023; if the F-35B is ready on time, this could be 2021. However, if the UK were to order a different aircraft with cats ‘n’ traps, the carrier could enter service as soon as the carrier was converted – well before 2023, and probably by 2019. Two aircraft could fulfil this requirement: France’s Rafale or the US F-18 E/F Super Hornet.
With a probable price of at least £100m each, (around twice as expensive as the Eurofighter Typhoon) the F-35 is both enormously capable and enormously expensive, meaning that even in the US forces there is pressure for cheaper options. This is at least one of the reasons that the US Navy continues to order F-18E/F Super Hornets at a third of the cost of the F-35C, let alone the more expensive F-35B. With a 25 year life, the US Navy clearly assesses that these aircraft will remain viable beyond 2030.
Given that the probable cost of the carrier programme’s ships and aircraft is above £15bn, and represents a 30 year investment, it is critical to get the choice of aircraft right. Therefore, if the F-35C was technically better for the UK’s needs – as it was in 2010 – it would seem reasonable to wait 18 months to ensure that the UK secures the best possible value for money. But if the cost was so high that the F-18E/F Super Hornet was good enough for the UK – as it is for at least part of the US Navy – then we could have the carriers in service well before the F-35B, even allowing the time to convert it to cats ‘n’ traps.
The suggestion that the change back to the F-35B will get the carrier into service quicker is unlikely to be the key driver. Indeed, if it was, it smacks of poor stewardship of defence value for money.
So, far from the sunny language used by Mr Harvey about “changed facts”. What appears to have happened is a straight cost driven decision because of a budget crunch. Strategic considerations clearly lay second to cost, not least given the coalition government’s criticism of the previous government for opting for the F-35B instead of cats ‘n’ traps in the 2010 defence review.
It would be refreshing if Mr Harvey could at least admit this. But to do so would be to admit that there were other savings options in the MoD budget to make the money available for the cats ‘n’ traps conversions, which he and Phillip Hammond declined to make, resulting in this expensive fiasco. At CentreForum, we published a report [pdf] in March advocating the scrapping of Trident and transferring the funding to recapitalise the armed forces. Item one? A fully equipped pair of carriers with their aircraft and supporting equipment. Sadly, a major opportunity missed.
Toby Fenwick is a research associate of CentreForum. A version of this article appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice on 31 May 2012.