The Royal Navy has conducted its first fixed wing carrier operations in almost a decade after F-35B aircraft landed on the deck on the UK’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth. How does this move fit into the strategic plans for the service and what is the logic behind the plans? Here, our Lima Charlie columnist gives an insider analysis.
HMS Queen Elizabeth has embarked a number of F-35B jets and is conducting basic flying trials to ensure the carrier is able to safely and effectively operate the aircraft at sea.
These trials will mark the culmination of almost 20 years of work across the Ministry of Defence to bring into service both the largest surface warships, and the most complex fighter aircraft, ever operated by the British Armed Forces.
The path to get here has been complex and challenging, and at times precarious. The programme dates back to the early 1990s when the studies to replace the three Invincible class began.
While these ships all gave sterling service, it was clear that they were far too small to operate the next generation of aircraft (fixed wing and helicopter), which were much larger than their predecessors.
The decision was taken to proceed with a much larger design, able to embark more aircraft (around 40, compared to barely 20 before) and also operate far more effectively, generating a much higher number of sorties per day than their predecessor.
The 1998 Strategic Defence Review confirmed the decision to procure two carriers, although it was unclear if they would be ‘conventional’ (relying on catapults and arrestor wires to launch and recover aircraft), or ‘STOVL’ (using a ski jump and vertical recovery in the same way as the Invincible class). Both methods had merits and challenges, and the decision was ultimately taken to go for a STOVL design.
Named Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, construction began in 2009. Almost immediately challenges to the plan were encountered when the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), introduced as a means of balancing the defence budget, which had a £36 billion ‘black hole (programmed costs for projects without identified funding) in it reported.
As part of the review, proposals were made to make major cuts to the armed forces and try to solve these budget problems.
At the heart of this were plans to dispose of the Harrier GR9 force, that made up the seagoing fixed wing capability for the Royal Navy and RAF several years early, scrap HMS Ark five years early and reduce the UK amphibious capability too, reducing the requirement for helicopter carriers. HMS Illustrious was retained in service primarily to cover for HMS Ocean, which was undergoing a refit.
As a compensating measure, the Royal Navy agreed to convert one of the two carriers under construction to a ‘CTOL’ (conventional) design, able to use angled decks and catapults (likely to have been HMS Prince of Wales). Once she entered service, Queen Elizabeth would be mothballed and either converted or sold. The future plan for the RN envisaged it being based around a single operational fixed wing carrier group.
These plans aroused significant concern and opposition, but there was considerable logic behind them.
When the review was being carried out, it was clear that the bulk of UK operations would be tied up in Afghanistan until around 2014-2015.
It would then take several years to return forces home, rest, refit and retrain and then be ready to deploy and be sustained in large numbers.
Practically, it was unlikely to see forces ready for operational duties again in large numbers until about 2020. This meant the likelihood of needing large amounts of intervention forces was reduced as UK efforts were focused on Afghanistan or recovery.
At the same time, the Harrier force was increasingly elderly, and in relatively poor state of repair. Several years of high intensity deployments to Afghanistan had put real pressure on the force.
The RAF realised that due to the scale of the cuts it had to make, at least one fast jet fleet needed to be scrapped to make the savings needed.
Keeping aircraft in service, even in minimal numbers means keeping an enormous amount of support staff, training courses, supply and repair contracts and the myriad of administration in place to keep the aircraft airworthy. If fast jet fleet is scrapped, then significant wider savings can be made.
The RAF faced the decision of either scrapping the Tornado GR4 or Harrier GR9 force. The Tornado force was used in a variety of roles ranging from traditional delivery of munitions through to reconnaissance and as a cruise missile platform through the use of Storm Shadow.
This force was numerically larger (about 140 strong versus roughly 70 strong), and was due at the time to serve until the mid-2020s.
By contrast the Harrier, while capable had more limited performance and was not cleared to carry out many of the roles already filled by the Tornado (particularly Storm Shadow).
Its one ‘unique selling point’ was its ability to embark on carriers, although after several years on OP HERRICK, this was a role that was rarely exercised and in fact the RN had spent a long time without operating harrier deployments from its carrier decks.
This meant that if the Tornado was withdrawn, it would leave a major capability gap for the Harrier to fill that could take several years and a lot of money to fix, with no guarantee of success if the weapon integration work failed.
Given Harrier was also due out of service earlier than Tornado, it would have meant more money required to run on a tired airframe even further than originally planned.
The reality is that even if Harrier had been kept in service, it would have probably marked the end of its time as a carrier borne aircraft. The sheer range of tasks carried out by Tornado would have meant that every available Harrier would be needed to support land-based tasking, and not go to sea.
The wider logic of scrapping the Harriers, based on the 2010 assumptions, was that if the Royal Navy was moving to operating a CTOL carrier, then it made sense to build up a cadre of aircrew who knew how to carry out these operations.
STOVL carrier operations require a very different set of skills to CTOL, particularly for the launch and recovery of jets, and it is a capability the Navy last had in 1978.
An entirely new generation of pilots needed to learn from scratch how to operate CTOL at sea. The Harrier could not provide this experience, but the US Navy could.
Thanks to the extremely close relationship between the US and Royal Navies, a deal was struck whereby the Royal Navy would send both aircrew and deck crew out to form contingents on their carriers, and qualify as F18 exchange pilots, helping learn the wide range of skills needed to safely operate at sea.
For the last few years, most deploying US Navy carriers have had Royal Navy pilots, officers and flight deck ratings embarked as a truly integrated part of their crews in order to maintain and develop the knowledge needed.
This hugely successful programme has played a major role in the Royal Navy’s ability to redevelop its carrier capability – there is tremendous gratitude to the US Navy for all the support it has offered to make this possible.
The 2010 SDSR realistically therefore meant the practical end of the RN’s ambitions to operate fixed wing aircraft at sea for the next decade, regardless of whether Harrier or Tornado was kept in service. Instead the path was set for a period without a fixed wing carrier, but a clear plan to get the Royal Navy back into the game late in the decade.
In the following years the carrier programme remained on track, albeit subject to changes such as the decision to not pursue the CTOL conversion when it became clear that the sheer cost involved, coupled with the significant technological risk posed from adopting certain technologies like new catapults meant it was just unaffordable to continue.
Instead, the Royal Navy chose to revert to the previous STOVL design, but the CVF design remains able to be adapted later in their life to be a CTOL carrier, with appropriate spaces and compartments built into the design that could house arresting wires and catapult technology if required.
There were some complaints that the reversion to STOVL would mean that the Royal Navy could not ‘cross deck’ with other nations carrier aircraft. In reality, this is a significantly overblown issue – in the over 100-year history of aircraft carrier operations, there has only been one single instance of a nation embarking and operating another nation’s aircraft for any length of time during wartime – that was with HMS Victorious in 1943 in the Pacific Ocean, working with the US Navy.
While cross-decking (landing on another carrier) is reasonably common, and some joint training does occur (for instance the French Navy occasionally embarks its Rafale force on US carriers to help keep crew currency up), it is a complex process to deliver.
It requires a lot of planning, down to issues like spare parts, ensuring aircraft can be repaired and serviced onboard, that the munitions facilities can carry and support another nations weapons and that the appropriate communications and mission planning software is available.
All of this is complicated and takes time to develop – in a world where there are only two allied nations operating fixed wing carriers (the US and the French), the reality is that cross-decking of fixed wing aircraft as a concept is something that the UK would have very rarely done as a CTOL carrier operator.
By contrast, the US Marine Corps will also be operating the F-35B, and is keen to embark on board Royal Navy carriers as a means of getting their aircraft to sea on a proper carrier platform.
The existing US Navy force of amphibious assault ships carry some US Harriers / F-35B, but the Royal Navy platforms provide an opportunity to get their aircraft to sea in large numbers.
Realistically, the decision to go STOVL makes it more likely that the Royal Navy will be able to ‘crossdeck’ other nations aircraft as a result, particularly given other nations like Italy and Spain are also likely to acquire the STOVL F35 too for their navies.
The 2015 SDSR confirmed the importance of the CVF programme, and made the decision to keep both carriers operational at all times. This significant change is often forgotten by those who wanted to see the Royal Navy operate a CTOL carrier, as STOVL will permit both carriers to remain active, rather than one being mothballed or sold.
The challenge though for the Royal Navy is in finding the crew to keep both ships operational.
Naval Service manpower is a perennial challenge, particularly in getting the right number of qualified people in the right place at the right time.
The CVF design called for about 650 crew (plus a few hundred airwing), although already it looks like this may be increased to nearer 800 because of lessons identified during initial trials.
This total of approximately 1,500 compares very favourably with previous generations of carriers, such as HMS Eagle, which would require almost 3000 people on board to keep at sea, while the similar sized US ‘NIMITZ’ class carriers need the best part of 6,000 people on board.
For the Royal Navy though, finding an additional 600-plus crew with the right range of skills and experience is going to prove challenging, and may necessitate difficult trade-offs about which ships should be prioritised for manpower, and which should be potentially kept alongside with gaps in their complement.
HMS Queen Elizabeth went to sea for the first time in 2017 and has spent much of the last 15 months conducting trials to make sure she is able to operate as intended. These trials are lengthy and involve making sure one of the most complicated engineering projects in British history can work as intended and does not have any faults. This cannot be taken for granted, as the French found to their cost when their own carrier Charles de Gualle not only had a propeller fall off in the Atlantic, but also discovered the flight deck was 4m too short to land certain aircraft safely.
While there were some very minor issues blown out of all proportion by some sections of the media (a so-called ‘leak’ where a limited amount of water was found in a bilge space being a good example), it appears that the trials went extremely well.
The ship commissioned in late 2017 and has spent much of 2018 preparing to go to the US to carry out fixed wing trials with the F-35B.
The plan for this deployment is to embark a small number of jets to make sure that the design works as intended, that jets can be supported and operated safely, and that there are no unexpected snags or issues which require rectification.
This is a vital piece of work in understanding the parameters for handling the ship, and knowing the limits and tolerances of the design. Although there has been some grumbling about ‘carriers without aircraft’ the reality is that the process Queen Elizabeth is going through is the same as every other new aircraft carrier design in history, and intended to make sure the design works, that it can embark aircraft and that it is safe to operate them effectively.
This initial deployment will then be backed up by further such exercises over the next 18 months, as the Royal Navy develops and works up the skills required to return to big carrier operations after 40 years of operating much smaller platforms.
This process is vital in building institutional knowledge, working out how to integrate the very complex and capable assets now in, or just entering service, such as the Type 45 destroyer, the refitted Type 23 with SeaCeptor missiles, the Astute class SSN and the Tide class tankers.
Bringing all these assets together, merging them with a proper airwing of F-35 jets, Merlin, Chinook and Apache helicopters and helping work them effectively as a carrier strike group will take time, but the capability on offer will be enormous.
The current expectation is that HMS Prince of Wales will enter service within the next 18 months, while HMS Queen Elizabeth will deploy in late 2020 – 2021, potentially on a deployment to the Gulf and Far East.
This will mark the point when the Royal Navy is finally able to have a fully worked up and operational carrier battlegroup back in service, some 10 years after the last fixed wing carrier paid off, and 22 years since the programme was first conceived.
This is a remarkable story of success, and one that demonstrates the ability of the UK shipbuilding industry to produce exceptionally capable designs and introduce them into service with a minimum of problems.
While there has been a temporary pause in carrier operations, the way ahead is now clear for the Royal Navy to plan for about 50 years of operations with two extremely capable platforms, able to be updated and refitted to encompass the full range of new technologies likely to emerge during this time. This is an exciting time for the Navy, as it brings together a combination of new ships and aircraft and fuses them into a coherent force capable of representing the UK on the global stage.
World class capability for a world class navy.
This article is the latest contribution in our Liam Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.