With this u-turn, we need two aircraft carriers

It seems that even the Government is now beginning to accept the need to review the SDSR. Unfortunately, the fiasco over the Joint Strike Fighter does not inspire confidence

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F-35B taking off
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Peter Cannon
On 14 May 2012 09:43

This week's U-turn on which variant of the Joint Strike Fighter was to be purchased for the UK's two new aircraft carriers was a major embarrassment for the Coalition Government’s defence policy. The Government has decided to revert back to the F-35B short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) jump jet, having announced in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) of 2010 that we were switching from the F-35B to the F-35C carrier variant (CV), a conventional take-off jet.

At the time of the SDSR, the Coalition was scathing of the previous Labour government's decision to go for the F-35B, describing it as an "error" as it would leave us with "carriers that would have been unable to work properly with our closest military allies". The Government decided to switch to the F-35C as it was "a version of the Joint Strike Fighter with a longer range and able to carry more weapons". This also meant changing the design of one of the carriers to install catapults and arrestor wires in order to accommodate the new conventional take-off jet.

Yet this decision was overshadowed by two others on the UK's carrier strike capability.

One was the decision to retire the UK's Harrier jet and existing Invincible class carriers. This decision leaves the UK with no carrier strike capability until the new Queen Elizabeth class carriers come into operation.

“In the short term, there are few circumstances we can envisage where the ability to deploy airpower from the sea will be essential.” Such attempts to predict the future are notoriously flawed. The SDSR recognises that we need aircraft carriers because “over the longer term, we cannot assume that bases for land-based aircraft will always be available when and where we need them.” Yet such an assumption would not only be a mistake ‘over the longer term’, but in the short term as well. We cannot tell what threats we may face in the next decade, but whatever they are, we will be unable to deploy an aircraft carrier and will be dependent on land bases in friendly countries for actions overseas.

The second decision was to build both of the two new aircraft carriers but to only use one, with the SDSR arguing “We will need to operate only one aircraft carrier.” The problem with only having one operational carrier is that it cannot be deployed all year round, and therefore cannot provide a continuous and always-ready carrier strike capability. For a continuous carrier strike capability, we need two carriers. It also means that if the UK’s one carrier is put out of use by and hostile action, the UK has no other carrier it could use. Carrier strike capability would, once again, take years to regenerate.

The SDSR states that one of the carriers will therefore be held "at extended readiness", or: “Alternatively, we might sell one of the carriers, relying on cooperation with a close ally to provide continuous carrier-strike capability.” Needless to say, selling one of the two carriers would permanently put it beyond any form of readiness at all, while relying on another country for continuous carrier-strike capability is risky and problematic.

It was therefore decided that only one of the carriers would be fitted with the catapults and arrestor gear necessary for the F-35C jets. It is concerns over the cost and delays involved in adapting the carrier in this way that has led to the u-turn.

It was reported in March that defence secretary, Philip Hammond, recommended switching back to the F-35B as the Ministry of Defence feared that the cost of converting the carrier would treble to £1.8billion and that the service date would be pushed back beyond 2020. The US Navy advised against this change, argued that adapting the carrier would cost less than half the £1.8billion suggested and reassured the MOD that the risks of the new catapult and arrestor system would be underwritten by the US, which is ordering the F-35 for its carrier force.

The UK's National Security Council, however, decided to endorse the switch back to the F-35B, a move which had the support of British military chiefs who feared the damage that would be done by the escalating costs and extended timescale involved in adapting the carrier for the F-35C. They believed that reverting to the F-35B, by contrast, could come into service by 2018 and would open up the possibility of using both carriers.

There are, however, significant drawbacks. The F-35 has a longer range, carries heavier weapons and can spend a longer time in the air. The F-35B involves greater risks around vertical take-off and the difficulties with vertical take-off and landing in high temperatures, which affect engine power. Taken on its own, this decision is therefore a downgrading of the UK’s carrier strike capability and yet another cost-saving exercise. It also means that, in the meantime, millions of pounds have been wasted.

The one redeeming feature of this u-turn will come if it does allow both aircraft carriers to be brought into operation. While the Defence Secretary told Parliament that this u-turn will "give us the ability to use both carriers to provide continuous carrier availability", he went on to say that "a final decision on the use of the second carrier will be taken as part of SDSR 2015". This leaves open the possibility of the UK having a less capable fighter jet and still only having one aircraft carrier, and therefore lacking a continuous carrier strike capability. That would be a disastrous outcome for our armed forces.

This reversal of such a major decision of the SDSR should also leave the other decisions taken in the SDSR open to review. Alarmingly, the First Sea Lord has argued that with the scheduled reductions in the size of the Royal Navy, there will not be enough manpower in the Navy to operate two aircraft carriers. This must be addressed, as we need two aircraft carriers to provide a continuous carrier capability and to be taken seriously as a military power.

The shrinking of the Royal Air Force and the British Army must be reconsidered. It seems that even the Government is now beginning to accept the need to review the SDSR. Unfortunately, the fiasco over the Joint Strike Fighter does not inspire confidence.

Peter Cannon is a Research Associate at the Henry Jackson Society

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