Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Queens and Princes: The Road Ahead for UK Carrier Aviation

 "The navy of any great power has the dream to have one or more aircraft carriers. The question is not whether you have an aircraft carrier, but what you do with your aircraft carrier."
- Major General Qian Lihua, director of the Chinese Defense Ministry's Foreign Affairs Office.

As it stands the UK is currently in the middle of a long process, which will culminate in the regeneration of key national capability: the ability to fly fixed wing aircraft from the decks of its carriers. Once this process is complete, some time in the early 2020s, the Royal Navy will return to operating full size carriers for the first time since Ark Royal, the last of the Audacious class, decommissioned in 1979. The new Queen Elizabeth class are true supercarriers, though not cast from the same mold as the US Navy's current Nimitz and Gerald R. Ford classes, they can still employ an impressive array of fixed and rotary wing aircraft. Although the class will be fitted with deck equipment for short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft like the F-35B, including the famous "ski-jump", they are of a similar size to the US Navy's former Forrestal and Kitty Hawk class carriers. It is easy to see that there is vast scope for modification and upgrade throughout their service lives, a process which every previous class of British carriers since the Second World War has undergone. The only certain thing is that these ships will end their service lives looking very different from the way they began them. Thankfully, unlike their predecessors, significant margins for growth have been built into the two ~70,000 ton ships from the start.

The short term shape of the carriers and their air groups is now mostly known, with the 2015 SDSR clearing up some of the speculation; especially with regards to the number of F-35B to be routinely embarked. The purchase of 42 airframes, with the specified purpose of arming the carriers with a "full air group", indicates that we could see the Tailored Air Group (TAG) routinely including an F-35B squadron; with a total of around 24 fixed-wing aircraft. This leaves a further 16 "slots" in the TAG available for a range of rotary wing assets, including the Army's Apache and the RAF operated Chinook. This is one of the most pioneering parts of the UK carrier concept: operating them as RN-led tri service assets. In theory these ships could simultaneously host RAF, Fleet Air Arm and Army Air Corps aircraft and maintainance crews. Making all this work in practice, in a challenging maritime environment, is likely to be a major test of the viability of the concept. It is encouraging that the tri service concept builds upon years of hard won experience, gained from the RAF/FAA Joint Force Harrier and the RAF/FAA/AAC Joint Helicopter Command. Small numbers of RAF Harriers have, in the past, operated from the decks of RN light carriers. As recently as 2011 the AAC flew some of its Apache gunships from HMS Ocean during the intervention in Libya. However, the scale of the Queen Elizabeth carriers and the sheer number of aircraft operating from her will inevitably complicate matters. Nevertheless, the concept is certainly exciting and will give the UK a truly flexible asset and a first class capability, if they can pull it off.

So, what might the future hold for these ships, the aircraft that fly from them and the people that will make the whole thing work?

"Jointness" and the Joint Strike Fighter:
As it stands the medium-term plan for the UK's fleet of F-35B Joint Strike Fighters has been spelled out. With the initial aircraft divided between the RAF's 617 "Dambusters" Sqdn. and the FAA's 809 "Immortals" Sqdn. Both of which will be based at RAF Marham in Norfolk, the UK hub for F-35. The pilots and maintainers in both squadrons will be a mix of RAF and FAA personnel, with the bulk likely being drawn from the RAF. The entirety of the UK F-35 fleet will also be officially "owned" by the RAF, this means that the RN will have a more limited degree of control over the FAA badged squadrons than in the past. Looking to history for a precedent for this sort of arrangement seems to throw up an eventual outcome that doesn't bode well for the current structure. Between 1924 and 1937 UK naval aviation was given over to a branch of the RAF, over the ensuing thirteen years a clear divide emerged between the naval aviators and their land based counterparts. While "FAA squadrons" will exist in the future structure they will, in effect, function as a naval branch of the RAF in all but name. Squadrons routinely deployed to the carriers, likely the FAA badged ones, will develop a more "naval mentality" and slowly diverge in skills and attitudes from those that do so far less frequently or not at all. While the planned common pool of pilots may seem like a way around this, it may in fact end up militating against the development of the skilled naval aviators necessary to get the most from the carriers.

Allowing some pilots, wearing light or dark blue uniforms, to spend much of their career conducting carrier operations at sea will eventually result in the slow re-emergence of a group of professional naval aviators that will not fit especially comfortably into the planned joint structure. The same could be said of the ground crews and maintainers, with certain people gravitating towards the naval environment and drafts on the carriers while others remain ashore. Whether this will eventually lead to a natural split in the joint force, with the navy taking control of some of the aircraft once the FAA rebuilds the necessary skills and personnel base to do so, remains to be seen. Although the cost of doing so for the RN will likely remain prohibitive. What is very much more likely is that de-facto divisions will emerge within the joint force, with the FAA badged squadrons containing the preponderance of experienced carrier pilots and "navalised" maintainers. The land-based squadrons' pilots will continue to qualify for carrier operations, but will likely spend less time at sea building up to the same levels of practical experience as their counterparts in the naval squadrons.

A USMC F-35B lands aboard the USS Wasp
Future of the air group:
The range of aircraft due to be flown from the decks of the Queen Elizabeth carriers in the medium-term is already clear at this point. The core of any TAG is always likely to be a number of F-35B to cover carrier air defence, strike and combat ISTAR. The number will vary depending on the task at hand, but I would think the ship would routinely deploy with a minimum of 12 on board-maintaining core naval aviation skills, providing CAP for the carrier group and allowing the ship to rapidly re-role for basic strike operations at very short notice. In the "maximum effort" scenario where both decks are in action simultaneously, with one acting as an enlarged LPH and the other a full strike carrier, I would still expect to see F-35B operating from both ships.
Merlin will form the second part of the core TAG, whether carrying the "Crowsnest" Airborne Early Warning (AEW) equipment, Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) gear or in the HC3/4 cargo and troop transport configuration. What is reasonably certain is that Merlin, especially in the "Crowsnest" configuration, will nearly always be present aboard these ships.
The RN's Wildcats will also likely be a regular feature covering the surveillance, utility and surface strike (with the new Sea Venom lightweight anti-ship missile) roles. However, the limited number of airframes in RN service and high demand for the aircraft from other parts of the fleet, especially the forward-deployed escorts, may stand in the way of a regular presence on the carriers. The same case could be made for the ASW variant of the Merlin, the HM.2, with only 18 front-line airframes available to cover the needs of the escort fleet and the carriers. With regards to Wildcat best use of the tri service operations concept should be made by looking at close co-operation with the AAC, exploiting the possibility of routinely hosting of a number of Army Wildcats to ease the strain on the RN's fleet. This would also have the benefit of building and then sustaining the skills base necessary to rapidly and effectively embark and integrate Army helicopters and AAC crews at short notice if necessary.

Outside the core component aircraft of the TAG the carriers are also likely to see Army Apaches and RAF Chinooks embarked occasionally, on a less frequent basis. In order to operate these aircraft effectively from the carriers, pilots and aircraft will need to be exposed to the demands of operating in the maritime environment on a semi-regular basis. Similarly the ship-side aircraft handlers will need to build and maintain their experience dealing with very large helicopters such as Chinook. While it is helpful that both Apache and Chinook have already been deployed at sea, aboard HMS Ocean, the scale and tempo of deck operations aboard a carrier that will be simultaneously operating large numbers of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft will be very different. The RN is lucky that the basic needs of carrier operations, folding rotor blades and protection from salt corrosion, have already been built into the British Apaches. However, while Chinook does have the necessary corrosion resistance it lacks folding main rotors. Although the carriers' aircraft lifts have been designed to handle Chinook without folding blades these aircraft will take up a great deal of space in the hangar without them. This is acceptable if Chinook is only intermittently embarked for specific tasks. However, if it becomes a regular part of the air group then upgrading some or all of the Chinook fleet with powered folding rotors, or exploiting the unpowered folding mechanism already present, should be a high priority.

AAC WAH.64 Apache gunships operating from the deck of HMS Ocean
Looking slightly ahead into the next decade a single V-22 Osprey squadron should, if the money becomes available, be given serious consideration. The range of F-35B is already the shortest of all three variants, with forced loiter times an inherent part of carrier operations, air to air refueling (AAR) would be a very valuable support capability. The V-22 Aerial Refueling System (VARS) is a palletised probe and drogue tanking kit already in development for the US Marine Corps, for use with their F-35Bs. VARS initial operating capability is expected to be reached in 2017, so the system would be substantially de-risked in the event of a UK buy in the 2020s. While introducing a whole new aircraft and its supply chain into UK service would be costly, V-22 and VARS is the only realistic option open that is compatible with a STOVL carrier. With 16 airframes, for a squadron of 12 and a reserve of four, and eight VARS kits the UK could provide a continuous AAR capability for both carriers in the "maximum effort" scenario. The spare aircraft could also be flown from bases ashore to provide additional refueling capacity alongside the Voyager fleet during routine carrier operations, where only a single ship will be at sea. Of course, because VARS is a palletised kit, some of the aircraft could also be used in the heavy lift and troop transport roles for which they were originally designed; freeing up RAF Chinooks for operations ashore. The Osprey would also be able to cover most of what the US Navy calls the "Carrier Onboard Delivery" (COD) role, moving personnel and stores long distances from ship to shore and vice versa. Although the V-22 lacks the cargo space to carry the Pratt & Whitney F-135 engine for the F-35, it's range and carrying capacity are still impressive. It seems to be the case anyway that in RN service the spare engines will be carried by the accompanying MARS solid support ship: able to transfer them to the carrier via their heavy RAS gear when needed. So the Osprey's lack of capability in that area wouldn't be a severe drawback. Overall the V-22 would be a very useful option to add to the Queen Elizabeth carriers' TAG if, in future, the money becomes available.

A USMC V-22 Osprey refueling an F-18 with the VARS drogue
Another interesting area for future development will be the operation of short takeoff and landing drones. A number of the current generation of propeller-driven long endurance UAVs operate at low enough speeds to consider carrier operations without catapults a serious proposition. A naval version of the Watchkeeper surveillance drone, or simply using some of the Army's could be one possibility for an initial round of trials to prove the concept. If successful, it could pave the way for trials with larger UAVs such as Predator, possibly using a simple pneumatic catapult for launch. All this is, however, a long way off. Although proving the concept and clearing the carriers to operate larger surveillance drones than the RN's ScanEagle would certainly be something to investigate and develop in the medium term.

Overall, by the time the Queen Elizabeth carriers reach their full operating capability in the mid-2020s the RN will have a pair of very capable ships with robust air groups, able to be tailored to suit specific missions. While the phrase "second only to the United States" is so often repeated by MoD and government officials that it's become a bit of a cliché, the capability offered by the Queen Elizabeths will almost certainly live up to those ambitious words. There are ways that this impressive capability could be further enhanced, with V-22 for AAR, heavy lift and COD, and grown over time by trialing UAVs; with a view to eventually including them in the array of aircraft that can be operated from the carriers' decks. If the TAG concept is properly implemented and a variety of aircraft from the RAF, FAA and AAC are routinely embarked for training in the maritime environment then these ships will deliver on the impressive flexibility they were designed to offer.

Operating both carriers:
SDSR 2015 delivered the pledge that the UK would operate both ships simultaneously to ensure one carrier will always be available for deployment 24/7/365. What this will mean in practice is that most of the time one ship will be alongside in the UK, usually undergoing repairs or a refit, while the other acts as the duty carrier: available to respond to events and deploy at short notice. However, as the RN discovered with its previous carriers, leaving ships alongside with minimal manning for prolonged periods of time leads to steady material deterioration and shortens the lives of the ships. Both Invincible and Ark Royal fell afoul of this, spending significant time unmanned and alongside in 3 Basin badly effected the material state of both ships. With only two Queen Elizabeth carriers available the RN cannot afford to make the same mistake, effectively mothballing one ship at a time for lack of crew will shorten the life of a class that could, given adequate care, serve for half a century. Failure to properly man and service both ships at all times would inevitably impose avoidable maintenance costs further down the line and steadily erode the RN's ability to surge two carriers as a "maximum effort" as a serious war fighting contingency against a near-peer opponent.

An Invincible Class carrier, tied up alongside in HMNB Portsmouth's 3 Basin
It has been said elsewhere but the 2020 SDSR needs to include a substantial increase in RN manpower, to enable the service to adequately crew both ships at all times and surge two carrier decks in an emergency: provided the spare ship isn't in deep refit. Providing adequate crew for both ships would also introduce additional opportunities for training in or near UK waters. The need to provide the RAF and AAC pilots and maintainers with experience of operating in the maritime environment has already been mentioned. With only one carrier deck operating at any time, which may be away on operations, the limited availability of a ship for the component elements of the TAG to train on is concerning. The flexible TAG concept only works if its constituent elements can be called upon at short-notice to form a mission-specific package. While the mock carrier at RNAS Culdrose will be a useful facility for training pilots in deck operations, it is no substitute for realistic training at sea. With a sufficiently manned second ship the RN could, when the ship is available, use the reserve carrier for training around the UK. Employing the Queen Elizabeths in this way ensures that the RN would always have more than enough ship-side crew to keep the duty carrier at full strength, and enough to make the two carrier "maximum effort" a realistic prospect. In order to achieve this though, the RN's total manpower must rise.

Finally, the thorny issue of whether these ships will ever be reconfigured and refitted with catapults and arrestor wires needs addressing. In 2012 the Coalition government looked at the costs of converting both ships, briefly committing to the cat & trap configuration, before reverting to the original STOVL configuration once it became clear that the costs of conversion would be prohibitive. The cost of converting the partially built Prince of Wales was stated to be an additional £2bn, while the class was supposed to be relatively easy to change from STOVL to CATOBAR in reality this does not seem to be the case. Some sources stated at the time the decision was reversed that conversion would have required modifications to over 200 compartments. A mid-life conversion may become necessary if there is no available STOVL replacement for F-35B after its 2045 out of service date. With so many unknowns inherent in predicting what could happen thirty years into the future, all that can be done is to restate much of what we already know.

The QE Carrier flight deck in both the STOVL and CATOBAR configurations
A CATOBAR conversion would be extremely expensive, it would involve very extensive rebuilds of the ships and the generation of a whole new set of training pipelines for pilots, flight controllers and deck crew. It would also mean learning a whole new way of doing things, and it could not be done cheaply or quickly. When all is said and done developing a bespoke UK STOVL aircraft to replace the F-35B might actually end up being the cheaper option, when compared with the cost of the substantial organisational changes that would be necessary. While many long time supporters of the Royal Navy's cause would, no doubt, love to see the UK return to catapult carrier operations the reality is that STOVL currently offers an effective capability at a tolerable cost. In the author's opinion the decision to convert to CATOBAR would only be taken if there was no other alternative, including the development of a bespoke UK STOVL aircraft. The hope at this point should be that the USMC continues to make a convincing case for STOVL aviation within the US armed forces and ultimately gets a like for like F-35B replacement. This would enable the UK to participate in a joint or multilateral programme, with orders large enough to drive down the unit cost. It must be stated again though that predicting the shape of UK naval aviation that far into the future is almost impossible. For all the sentimental and symbolic importance attached to CATOBAR, it is clear at this point that while a mid-life conversion would be possible, it is far from preferable.

Almost from their very inception the Queen Elizabeth class carriers have proved be a subject of controversy. Fierce and sometimes public debates have been held on their relevance in the modern world, usefulness for the UK and the difficulties involved in realising their potential capabilities in practice. The last point was expressed with a clarity that only tabloid journalism could manage in the oft-repeated phrase "carriers with no aircraft". Thankfully, it is now clear that the tabloids were wrong and the public's concern was partly misplaced, the carriers will have a robust TAG with a great deal of potential flexibility and, if necessary, striking power. While there is still a little room for improvement with regards to the air group such as the inclusion of an AAR tanker, Osprey VARS or otherwise, the concept is sound and the aircraft will be available to start realising it by the early-mid 2020s. While the author still has concerns over the long-term durability of the Joint RAF/FAA F-35B arrangement it is certainly a workable plan and may yet prove to be a success. The key to successfully realising the high-minded goal of turning the carriers into tri service aviation ships will be regular joint training for all component parts of the TAG, on the mock carrier deck at RNAS Culdrose but, more importantly: at sea. Without experience and training on a real carrier deck the individual TAG components will likely struggle to adapt to a very different working environment whilst also trying to conduct operations. The old adage train how you fight comes to mind, if we intend to embark RAF Chinooks and F-35s or AAC Apaches and Wildcats then they must spend regular time training aboard one of the carriers. In order to achieve this the RN needs to be given the manpower to operate both carriers simultaneously as often as repair and refit schedules will permit, with the off-duty carrier operating near the UK as a training platform. This would have the added benefit of keeping both ships out of what would effectively be time spent in mothballs: alongside in Portsmouth with a caretaker crew aboard, which shortened the lives of the preceding Invincible class. If the UK intends to make good on it's substantial investment in the Queen Elizabeth carriers they need to be manned sufficiently to maintain them over their 40-50 year lifespan, failure to do so would be yet another example of the MoD being "penny wise and pound foolish".
Finally, while a post-F-35B conversion to the catapult and arrestor wire configuration is theoretically possible, the costs of doing so, and the institutional upheaval it would cause, would be enormous. In the end, despite the emotional pull exerted by the idea of "proper" carriers and the drama of catapult operations, a CATOBAR conversion should only be embarked upon if the only other alternative is scrapping the ships prematurely and wasting the money already sunk into them.

While some commentators have been very dismissive of the UK carrier programme in the author's opinion they could, in time, give the UK a truly first-class capability "second only to the United States". However, in order to achieve that ambitious and, let's not forget, thoroughly attainable goal the UK needs to make good on its current investment in the carriers. This can be achieved by manning and operating both, potentially investing in AAR capability and most importantly ensuring all component parts of the TAG regularly embark and train on the carriers. At the close I will return to the words of Major General Lihua:

 "The question is not whether you have an aircraft carrier, but what you do with your aircraft carrier."


  1. This is called fantasy fleet writing.

  2. Thanks for the feedback, while some of my other articles have certainly edged into the realm of "fantasy fleets" I don't think this one does. It's my concerns about the existing carrier concept and how some of them could be addressed using the equipment and resources the UK already has. The sole exception to that is my view that V-22 would be a useful addition for AAR and COD, which it would be if the UK was in the position to buy a small number in the next 10 years or so. Most of the article is highlighting the critical importance of realistic tri-service operational training if the flexible TAG concept is going to work as planned.

  3. Hi, interesting article. Do you know how many F-35Bs will each carrier have by 2023? George Osborne said 42 (24 for active duty, 18 for training) will be in service by that year. That works out to 12 per ship?

    1. The total UK F-35B force should be 42 aircraft by 2023 in 2 squadron: 617 RAF and 809 FAA. My guess is that following the announcement that the carriers would have "proper" air groups we're looking at ~24 F-35B routinely embarked on the active "duty carrier". Under normal circumstances the UK will only be operating one carrier, with the other in refit, training or work-up.

    2. Hi BritishGrenadier, what do you think of this article?

    3. As I said before I think what'll happen is that the first 42 F-35B will form the core of the tailored air group for the single duty carrier and there will be ~24 of those aircraft routinely (hopefully permanently) embarked. The second carrier will operate in the LPH role when both decks are operational, using the Junglie Sea Kings that have just been transferred from the RAF to the FAA. Once further squadrons of F-35B become available in the mid-2020s then the UK can start looking at upping the surge capacity of both ships. With up to 36 fixed wing Aircraft (plus assorted helicopters) on the duty carrier in an emergency.

    4. Merlins not Sea Kings

    5. Merlins not Sea Kings

  4. Great article, I served on Ark Royal 73/75, and think it is important for the aircrew & pilots to have an identity i.e. Royal Navy personel. Would love to know how to attend the official launch/ commission of the H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth. God speed to all who serve������������⚓️⚓️⚓️������������

    1. As much as i'm inclined to agree with you on the FAA issue, we'll have the next best thing. Currently the FAA just lacks the expertise to bring a complex fast jet into service in an affordable manner. Thus we get the joint RAF/FAA operating model. My hope is that over the longer term we see the FAA use this structure to regenerate back up to a critical mass where they could, if HMG approves, move to a more independent and dedicated naval position.

  5. Great article, I served on Ark Royal 73/75, and think it is important for the aircrew & pilots to have an identity i.e. Royal Navy personel. Would love to know how to attend the official launch/ commission of the H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth. God speed to all who serve������������⚓️⚓️⚓️������������