Tag Archives: aircraft carrier

Another Aircraft Carrier U-turn

Artist depiction of the Queen Elizabeth-class,...

Artist depiction of the Queen Elizabeth-class, two of which are under construction for the Royal Navy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m several days late in reporting this one, but earlier in the week it emerged that the current governing coalition is planning to perform a u-turn and introduce both Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers into service. Previously, it had planned to mothball one. Both will enter service with the Royal Navy once completed, as was originally planned by the previous Labour Government.

The mothball option emerged in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, which also opted to purchase conventional ‘cat and trap’ versions of the joint strike fighter rather than the vertical version -a decision that was also reversed earlier this year. Yet another defence u-turn raises questions about the coalitions judgement – whilst changing your mind is nothing to be ashamed of if the situation demands it, that decision makers have got so many things wrong in the first place is worrying. If decisions about acquiring equipment appear to be unsound, how much confidence can we – or more importantly our servicemen – have about the decision making when it comes to commiting troops?

I have always been a firm believer that there is no point in having just one of anything in defence terms. If you only have one aircraft carrier, it can only be fully operational half of the time. At best. And if you feel that you can do without it 6 months of the year, do you really need it that other 6 months? The French have had all kinds of trouble with their carrier Charles de Gaulle, and whenever she’s in port, the French have no other carrier. The Falklands – and the Royal Navy’s recent operational tempo – shows that to have one ship effective at any one time, you need at least one, preferably two more in refit or working up. One suspects that the current era of no strike carriers was prompted by the RAF trying to prove that we do not need them at all. That philosophy has clearly proved to be unsound, with carrier-borne air cover proving to be effective – militarily and financially – over Libya.

According to Defence sources, the first Carrier – Queen Elizabeth – should be undergoing sea trials by 2017. Sections being constructed in shipyards around Britain are currently being assembled in Scotland. Both ships will be based in Portsmouth, and extensive work is going on in Pompey to configure jetties and supporting infrastructure to take them. Seeing them steam into Portsmouth for the first time is bound to be an impressive sight. They are perhaps overkill for out financial means nowadays, and probably bigger than we really need militarily, but on the flip side, it is difficult to overestimate what an impact a 60,000 ton flat top could project.

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Another F-35 Volte Face

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II, bu...

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you all about today announcement by the Defence Secretary in the House of Commons explaining the Government’s decision to backtrack and purchase the STOVL version of the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter, instead of the conventional carrier version. The original plan was, of course, to purchase the STOVL version – ie F-35B – as replacement for the Harriers, to operate from the new Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers.

The coalition has now performed two u-turns on the Joint Strike Fighter issue. First, soon after coming into office they abandoned the vertical take-off verson, in favour of  the higher performance variant. Now, having seen the costs for installing catapults and traps on the aircraft carriers spiral, they have decided to go back to the vertical take off variant.

One cannot help but feel that this constant to-ing and fro-ing has probably added a significant amount to the cost, for no discernible gain, and will almost certainly delay their introduction into service. And as anyone who has worked in retail will tell you, there is nothing more annoying than a customer who keeps changing their mind every five minutes. It’s bad enough if someone is buying a book or a loaf of bread, but 50+ fighter aircraft?

There are some upshots to the decision. It is possible that both aircraft carriers will come into service, and slightly earlier in 2018, compared to lengthy delays if they had to be converted to ‘cat and trap’. There have been some concerns that the B version has a less impressive performance than the C version. Compare the following specs:

  • Range – B version, 900 nautical miles; C Version, 1,400 nautical miles
  • combat radius – B version, 469 nautical miles; C Version, 615 nautical miles

The lack of range is apparently due to the B version having to accomodate extra plant for vertical landing, which eats into its fuel capacity. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but the differences do not seem too critical – isn’t the beauty of an aircraft carrier that you can move it 100 miles closer in if need be, and if safe to do so? Apparently the B version will be able to carry less weapons than the C version as well, however I am having trouble finding firm specifications for this. It should also be remembered that the B version will, in theory, be able to operate short-term or in an emergency from other ships that have landing spaces, or from rough airstrips on land – neither of which the F-35 C can do. By way of a contrast, the Sea Harrier had a combat radius of 540 nautical miles, but didn’t have such a high performance as the F-35 in other respects. I seem to recall that the SHAR was hardly bristling with armaments either.

The decision making regarding the Joint Strike Fighter project has been flawed from day one. Perhaps setting out to buy the STOVL versions was not the wisest decision in hindsight, but to decide to switch to the C version, and then back to the B version again in a year shows a serious case of indecision and narrow-mindedness. A decision that was supposed to save money in the long run, ended up costing us more money in the short term and not happening anyway. Let’s hope that this kind of defence procurement strategic direction never transgresses into decision making in war.

Still, I cannot help but feel that we would have been far better off purchasing some F-18’s off the shelf in the first place – both in terms of cost and capabilitity.

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Operation Enduring Freedom: America’s Afghan War 2001 to 2002 by Tim Ripley

This really is a first class book. Ordinarily, I would argue that it is very difficult to write history, in particular military history, until at least thirty years have passed. Sometimes events that happened relatively recently are very difficult to analyse, without the benifit of sufficient hindsight. But here Tim Ripley has given a first class exposition of one of the most controversial conflicts of modern times.

Ripley goes into incredible detail, and I am sure that his description of the air war in particular will be new to most readers. I for one had no idea what aircraft were operating where over Afghanistan. Pointedly, the US Navy had to move two aircraft carriers to the Pakistan coast, as there were no suitable usable airfields in the surrounding countries. Hence most of the tactical aircraft flying on Enduring Freedom were US Navy. But of course, we know that Aircraft Carriers are a luxury, because our leaders and betters tell us so (irony!).

One area in which the US did perform very well in 2001 and 2002 was the integration of Defence and intelligence. In this scenario, Central Command worked almost seamlessly with the CIA, who had significant experience in Afghanistan. The use of technology by the US was also an incredible force multiplier. The Taliban simply had no answer to the UAV’s such as the Predator, and could not hide from the satellite technology and high tec communications that enabled the US to fight in a way that the Taliban could never counter.

The complex social fabric of Afghanistan is absolutely crucial to understand. Made up of a veritable patchwork quilt of tribes and ethnic backgrounds, its not surprising perhaps that Afghanistan has spent the majority of its existence in some kind of upheaval. The tribal loyalties in particular are something that Ripley does well to describe. Even then, I had trouble keeping track of all of the different forces at play, particularly as tribes could change their loyalties at the drop of a hat. In a similar manner, Pakistan’s President Musharaf seems to have been playing the US. Pakistan had supported the Taliban prior to 9/11, and only switched sides when threatened with dire consequences by the US. But Pakistani forces did very little to secure the Afghan border, and then handed over hundreds of supposed prisoners, who it rapidly transpired were not terrorists or illegal combatants at all.

One thing that does emege, and confirms my impression, is that Donald Rumsfeld was completely inept as Secretary of Defence and, looking back, seems to have got almost all of the major calls wrong, basing his decision making on neo-conservative ideals rather than the strategic or tactical realities. This was a worrying trend that continued into the Iraq Invasion in 2003.

Ripley’s closing argument is that in some respects, the apparent success of operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 was really a hollow victory. Yes, Bin Laden was on the run and the Taliban fell. The US Forces and their allies had won the war, but thanks to Rumsfeld’s intellectually bankrupt policies, they lost the peace. With more sensible humanitarian and infrastructure work, the kind of troop deployments required from 2006 onwards – such as the British Army’s bloody campaign in Helmand – would have been un-necessary. The momentum was lost, as Iraq took up everyone’s attention.

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Aircraft Carriers and air cover

The Royal Navy Invincible-class aircraft carri...

Image via Wikipedia

In 1982, Britain was able to send two Aircraft Carriers to the South Atlantic – Invincible and Hermes. The Royal Navy was also safe in the knowledge that it had one more aircaft carrier close to completion – Illustrious – and another that could in theory be regenerated in the long term, Bulwark. But even then, it was felt that two flat tops was nowhere near enough.

Fast forward thirty years, and Britain is in a very perilous situation when it comes to the provision of naval air cover. The on-duty strike carrier role was retired in the SDSR, leading to the decomissioning of HMS Ark Royal, and the re-roling of Illustrious to LPH. This effectively means that Britain is unable to project air power by sea.

Retaking the Falklands without air cover would be problematic to say the least. Even if Mount Pleasant and Port Stanley runways were disabled – either by under runway munitions or Tomahawk strikes – the Islands are still well within range of Argentine jets flying from the mainland. And even though the Argentines did not replace their considerable losses in 1982, and for the most part are flying outdated airframes, their air presence would still present a considerable threat to any task force in the South Atlantic without air superiority.

The interesting thing is, that in 1982 the task force did not gain what you might term complete air superiority prior to the land campaign. The Harriers gave a very good account of themselves against anything that the Argentines could launch, but they were not able to completely prevent attacks on the landings at San Carlos, nor Exocet strikes such as that on the Atlantic Conveyor. In that respect, the 1982 campaign did show that you can win a land war without air superiority. Not that such an approach is advisable, of course.

So what alternatives are there to carrier-based air support? The Type 45 Destroyers have been much vaunted for their anti-air capability, and whilst I am not completely au faix with their technology, most commentators describe them as being very capable. The Sea Viper system could probably provide very effective defence against Argentine aircraft. Although designed as an aircraft carrier escort, without a carrier to play goalkeeper to, they could be freed up for picket duty such as the Type 42 Destroyers were in 1982. Not to digress, of course – we’ll look at Destroyers in more detail later.

We are told that Ark Royal is technically at ‘extended readiness’, but believe me, it would be a miracle if she sailed again – practically all of her fittings have been ripped out. And the Dockyard really doesn’t have the workforce the make her ready with any kind of urgency.  Added to which, the expertise and experience to operate a carrier at sea would be lacking, not to mention the fact that only a handful of Sea Harriers are in storage.

By the turn of the next decade, however, things could change dramatically. IF they come in on time and on budget, the Queen Elizabeth class carriers could be a real game changer – I wouldn’t fancy being an Argentine pilot with a naval air wing of F35’s floating in the South Atlantic, technologically far in advance of anything that the Argentines can offer up. But until then, any planning has to take place on the basis of not having carriers. In that respect what options are available? Much has been made of defence co-operation with France, but I find it hard to believe that the French would lend us Charles de Gaulle to provide air cover for a Task Force. I just can’t see French Rafale pilots risking their hides for a war that really isn’t theirs. In the same respect I cannot see the Americans getting involved to the extent of lending us a carrier.

One option that has been mooted – and it really is an outside bet – is the possibilty of somehow getting together a carrier air group from Sea Harriers in storage at Culdrose, and other Harriers that haven’t yet been sold or stripped down. In all honesty, I don’t know enough about how many there are, and how feasible this is. But I know it is something that has been discussed elsewhere, as has the possibility of Britain somehow acquiring second hand Harriers from elsewhere – perhaps India – as an interim measure if the need arose. Interesting thought, but I’m not sure its something that we could rely on. It would require a protracted conflict to give the time to get a carrier up to speed, whether that be Illustrious from the LPH role, or re-comissioning Ark Royal.

New intensity has been shed on the aircraft carrier situation by recent events since the SDSR, particularly in Libya. Although Britain managed to contribute to the NATO operation quite effectively – with air assets flying from Britain and Italy, and ships in the Med – you can bet that there will have been more than a few curses in Whitehall that we couldn’t send Ark Royal loaded with Harriers. According to unconfirmed reports, the RAF even requested the use of an Aircraft Carrier to cut down on flying time and operating costs. Whilst land-based aircraft are nice to have, they are subject to basing costs and air space and overflight issues. An aircraft carrier can go wherever it is wanted or needed. And whilst we managed ok without one, France and Italy – both much closer to Libya – still deployed theirs. In other situations,

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Busy time in naval news circles

British crewmen lift a Royal Air Force British...

Harriers on Illustrious - maybe not a thing of the past

It’s been a very busy few days in naval news circles.

Firstly, the BBC reported that the bill for the CVF/QE class Aircraft Carrier project has rised by another billion pounds to nearly £7bn. And according to the reports, it still seems uncertain exactly whether one or two – or any – of the aircraft carriers will be fitted to operate jet aircraft. BBC Business Editor Robert Peston offers an explanation here. My take? Costs rises in big projects are always described as ‘just one of those things’, but when its the public purse thats carrying the can, is that good enough?

Secondly, last Thursday the Portsmouth News carried an exclusive report from un-named senior naval sources that HMS Illustrious is being equipped to operate Harriers. Is it possible that the crisis in Libya, and the RAF’s unconfirmed plea for an Aircraft Carrier have forced a very tacit u-turn from the Coalition Government?Originally Illustrious was going in for a ‘regular’ refit as a strike carrier. Then we were told that she was being fitted out as a Helicopter Carrier to fill in for HMS Ocean while she is in refit, and now the possibility of her being a strike carrier again is floated out. As we discussed here recently, it does not take much to turn a helicopter carrier into a harrier carrier – higher grade paint, plus of course spares and armaments. And crucially Illustrious still has her ski ramp. The Harriers themselves have not been scrapped, and are in storage at RAF Cottesmore. Apparently it would take around two months for them to be regenerated a fit state for operations. It seems like a sensible step to me, but of course a sensible step would have been to keep Ark Royal in the first place.

Finally, the recent issue of Warship: International Fleet Review is good value as usual. A healthy dose of deserved spite directed at the Coalition Government and the Strategic Defence Review, and plenty of sound editorial on how events in Libya and the Arab world have undermined the Defence Review only a matter of weeks after it was published. For me, the big question is, if the current Government can get its Defence Policy so wrong, do we trust them to ever get it right at all? How did the Government allow themselves to be hoodwinked so badly by the RAF? If only some of our politicians had a grasp of history – they would have known that the RAF ‘moved’ Australia on the map to suit their arguments, and apparently won the air war in the Falklands singlehandedly.

Also in Warship IFR, there are some interesting opinions – believable, in my view – that the Defence Review was soft on the RAF thanks to underhand lobbying and bad advice from light blue quarters, and also as a sop to the then Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, who was asked to step down as soon as the review was completed. Having read a lot of the thinking from the current CDS, General Sir David Richards, I doubt very much whether he would have wanted the RAF to remain as it has, with most of its expensive toys retained. How did anyone think it was a good idea to have a Defence Review steered by a senior officer who then left, leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces?

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Warships: Interational Fleet Review

HMS Liverpool, a Royal Navy Type 42 Batch 2 ai...

HMS Liverpool, en-route to Libya

I’ve just picked up the latest copy of this fascinating magazine. As usual it makes for a measured, insightful but pointed read.

Iran has recently sent warships through the Suez Canal, after signing a defence pact with Syria. Transit through the canal is governed by the Egyptian Government, and the post-Mubarak leadership broke a tacit agreement with Israel and the US to not allow Iranian vessels through. The pact with Syria and the prospect of Iranian vessels in the Mediterranean – especially off the Israeli coast -changes the strategic picture in the Middle East somewhat.

The Magazine also highlights the folly of the Government’s Defence Cuts, in that the Royal Navy Frigate leading the British contribution to the sea blockade of Libya, HMS Cumberland, is due to come home to decomission soon. The ship we are sending to relieve her, HMS Liverpool, is an elderly Batch 2 Type 42 Destroyer, which is also due to be scrapped within a couple of years. France, meanwhile, has sent its Aircraft Carrier Charles de Gaulle, and Italy has been using its significant amphibious capability. Britain appears increasingly impotent, especially when consider that even China has sent a Warship. However old and labour intensive they are, the Type 22’s are extremely capable ships, and they are not being replaced. An editorial takes Cameron’s SDSR to pieces, arguing that its credibility has been torn to shreds by events in Libya. Britain is now a second rate player on the European-international stage.

Elsewhere, the new Australian Aircraft Carrier HMAS Canberra has been launched at the Navantia yard in Ferrol, Spain. Based on the Spanish ship Juan Carlos, she and her sister HMAS Adelaide are officially termed Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD).  They have enough space to operate two dozen helicopters, a ski-ramp and the potential for operating VSTOL jets (Australia is purchasing Joint Strike Fighter), and an amphibious dock to the rear. At well over 20,000 tons she is much larger than anything the mother country has built for years, and represents a quantum leap for Australia, both in terms of size and capability. Something Britain could really do with.

Finally – and some might say amusingly – we get a round-up of the UK independence party‘s Defence manifesto. And interesting reading it makes too. They propose to retain British Forces completely under national control, and to maintain a fleet of – wait for it:

  • 3 Aicraft Carriers
  • 4 Ballistic Missile Submarines
  • 12 Nuclear Attack Submarines
  • 11 Destroyers
  • 20 Frigates
  • 6 Amphibious vessels
  • 21 Minewarfare vessels
  • 7 Offshore Patrol Vessels
  • 55 Strike Fighters
  • Retain 3 Commando Brigade

This sounds impressive. But remember, this is essentially what we had only 10 years ago anyway. This extensive building programme would cost a lot, but would generate jobs and boost the shipbuilding industry, and would guarantee the future of jobs at bases such as Portsmouth, Devonport and Rosyth. How to fund it? Well, UKIP suggest stopping our annual international aid bill of £10bn to countries that have space programmes, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. Sounds loopy, but there are grains of truth therein.

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Reports that RAF requested a carrier for Libya

Today’s Portsmouth News contains a report that the RAF has asked the Ministry of Defence to reinstate one of the Royal Navy’s axed Aircraft Carriers, along with the Harrier GR9 aircraft to fly from them.

According to defence analyst Francis Tusa, senior officers in the RAF asked for an aircraft carrier to help enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, but the request was turned down by 10 Downing Street for political reasons:

“I’ve been told by grade A1 sources that the RAF wanted a flat-top but Number 10 simply wouldn’t allow it. I think they’d rather cut their own fingers off before that happened”

Mr Tusa goes on to explain that the Tornado jets flying missions to Libya are costing £35,000 per hour to fly, and that Italy is also charging allies ‘eye-watering’ costs for using its bases. Again, these figures are believable. It just goes to show what those with more than half a brain cell have known all along – aircraft carriers are the best value  piece of Defence equipment for what they can do. Not limited to friendly bases or overflight restrictions, aircraft carriers can go anywhere – what genius! The concept was only invented back in 1918….

Bringing back an Aircraft Carrier and the Harriers would be hugely embarassing to the Government, so soon after the Strategic Defence and Security Review decided that we could do without carrier-borne air cover for 10 years. The RAF, apparently, had argued that they could provide air cover from any land bases, thus making the carriers un-necessary. Less than 6 months later – if these reports are true – the RAF has basically admitted that its argument was ill-founded, and therefore based on self-preservation rather than British defence interests.

Sadly, the only carrier that could be brought back – Ark Royal – has been decomissioned, and largely gutted while tied up in Portsmouth dockyard. All of the living accomodation has been removed, and no doubt they will soon start on the plant and electronics. I suspect this has been done quickly to make it impossible to bring her back and spare any embarrasment. You only have to look at how quickly the Nimrod’s were butchered to see that axed Defence equipment is being shredded with un-nerving haste.

Of course a Downing Street spokesman has denied that any request has been made, but we only have to look at the fate of John Nott’s political career after the Falklands War to see what backtracking on defence reviews can do to the frocks. Sadly, while in 1982 Admirals Lewin, Leach and Fieldhouse were able to save the Navy’s future and liberate the Falkland Islanders, as the Nott cuts had not yet taken full effect.

I have to say I would not be suprised if it was true. And if so, it must call into serious question the ignorance of politicians, the apparently devious advice given by Air Marshals during the Defence Review, and once again the Royal Navy’s inability to fight its corner.

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