|The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening II|
Conservative governments usually “own” defence. Tories are traditionally thought to be hawkish or at least strong on UK defence policy. Not so this government, which has become marred by indecision and incompetence.
The reported U-turn by the coalition government on which version of the F-35 stealth fighter to buy is just the latest turn in the tortuous, twisting journey towards rebuilding the Royal Navy’s carrier air power.
First there was the idiotic decision to scrap the Harrier jump jets, under the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2010, reducing the Royal Navy to operating helicopters only from its remaining flat tops for the next decade.
That decision is now an irrecoverable fact of history, while the SDSR has already been cattily renamed by defence analysts as the Suicidal Disarmament and Surrender Retreat.
What matters now is the government’s likely reversal of its SDSR decision to acquire the F-35C version of Lockheed Martin’s Lightening II aircraft, after reappraising the costs of installing deck equipment necessary to handle the ‘C’ variant from the Royal Navy’s future aircraft carriers.
The 2010 decision had reversed the previous Labour government’s commitment to buy the F-35B STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing) version. The ‘B’ version has the advantages and disadvantages of a jump jet: higher costs; more flexibility of use; shorter range; greater mechanical complexity; and lower weapons payload. The Daily Telegraph says it has seen secret military papers advising the government that the 'C' variant will be the more capable in a range of hypothetical war scenarios.
Officially, we do know that the decision over which variant to buy is under government review, chaired by money men at the Treasury – the same ones that sabotaged the SDSR as a blinkered cost cutting plan rather than a genuinely strategic exercise – and the result of this new F-35 review is expected imminently.
Royal Navy 'leak'?
Unofficially, the story that Prime Minister David Cameron’s government will now U-turn and acquire the F-35B, has been rumoured for months. Unusually, it looks like the Royal Navy itself has jumped the gun, seemingly leaking the supposed conclusion of that review before the government has announced the results, according to a story in the Scotsman yesterday.
Whether by accident or by design, the senior service issued a press release yesterday stating that the F-35B STOVL variant: “will deliver the punch of the Royal Navy’s future carriers at the end of the decade”.
As of yesterday evening the press release itself was no longer visible on the Royal Navy website’s newsroom, while the direct link to the press release webpage no longer works, making the disclosure look more like an embarrassing naval PR goof, rather than an intentional leak against government.
The navy’s error or indiscretion puts weight behind the U-turn reports that were already circulating, first via the Times, then in gory detail in the Mail and elsewhere, all citing a leak by “senior Downing Street sources” that the government will indeed backtrack and adopt the F-35B STOVL aircraft.
These reports follow conflicting evidence about the economy of adopting the ‘C’ (non-STOVL) version. First, it was reported that the cost of converting the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers (already under construction) to operate the F-35C would be prohibitive: cancelling out savings on the costlier F-35B jump jets with the cost of installing catapults and arresting trap wires (cats and traps) to aid F-35Cs to take-off and land on the ships’ decks.
Then there is Mr Cameron’s political pet project to make future Royal Navy carrier aviation interoperable with the French Navy, which uses cats and traps aboard its own ageing carrier, the Charles de Gaulle. That promised interoperability weighed in favour of choosing the F-35C, but would disappear immediately if the government reverts – as reported – to the F-35B.
However, the Royal Navy's experience of fast-jet carrier aviation since the 1970s has been with the Harrier family of aircraft, the original STOVL platform. In comparison, the service has no institutional memory of operating conventional jets with arrestor gear, cats and traps, making training to operate 'C' version that bit tougher.
The folly of cutting British maritime power projection, relying on France to support UK defence commitments, is interwoven with Argentina’s sabre rattling over the Falklands. The French have no interest in helping us in the South Atlantic. On the other hand, Cristina de Kirchner’s noisy diplomatic campaign to influence the islands’ sovereignty began to surface in the wake of the SDSR.
The US Navy is Britain’s traditional partner at sea for much of the past century. A century’s imperial decline has transformed the relationship, with Britain cast in a supporting role to our American cousins.
|Now you see it: with cats & traps|
David Cameron’s policy of reliance on interoperability with allies is heavily dependent on the US Navy and its use of cats and traps. Pilots and deck personnel are already on exchange with the Americans, who continue to rely on cats and traps on their super carriers and STOVL planes on their assault ships, planning to purchase both F-35 versions.
The fact of the situation is that UK interoperability with the US Navy’s eleven super carriers is much more useful than fickle Anglo-French entente, even if the second QE-class carrier (Prince of Wales) is sold to France, still a possibility, dependent on the nation’s finances a decade ahead.
|Now you don't: fitted for STOVL|
Analysts from the American Department of Defense have reportedly claimed that UK Treasury bean counters have over-estimated the cost of putting cats and traps aboard the QE-class, bearing the good news that the US would carry some of the cost burden of installing cats and traps aboard Britain’s own carriers.
Of course, the UK government pursuing interoperability is also in US interests; there might be some savings to be had; but the story is unconvincing. The Royal Navy derives some savings from American bulk buying in the cost per unit of the F-35, but at no direct cost to the US Navy.
Equipping the QE-class with cats and traps with American money seems wishful thinking, as well as a different technical proposition from putting cats and traps aboard the Americans’ Ford-class super carriers. But it might still be cheaper than acquiring dearer F-35Bs.
The USS Ford will be the first carrier to showcase US use of new electro-magnetic catapults, following their successful testing, replacing previous steam-powered cats reliant on a carrier's nuclear reactor: something which previously ruled out cats and traps for conventionally powered British carriers. With electricity powering next generation cats, the technology might be better/cheaper than some have feared, while interoperability with the Americans would be best achieved by embracing the electro-magnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), and, by extension, the F-35C.
While the F-35 order and the QE-class programme are still subject to ongoing political uncertainties, solace can be taken from observing that, in the hangars and shipbuilding yards in the US and UK, both projects are progressing according to plans.
|Delivered: The first UK F-35 (B) test plane|
Earlier this month the UK’s first F-35 test plane was handed over to Britain from its American makers Lockheed Martin. Political indecision over which variant the UK will order means that now the first two of the three UK test aircraft will be STOVL F-35Bs, the third test plane ordered will be an F-35C variant.
Construction is also well underway on the QE-class vessels in Portsmouth and on the Clyde: giant sections of hull have already been joined together. Other sections of jigsaw, built already, are ready to be towed by barge towards their assembly. The dredging work scheduled for the bottom of Portsmouth harbour confirms – with great relief – that Pompey will make asuitable home for the huge ships.
Whether the Royal Navy will operate one or two QE-class ships is still uncertain. It cannot be answered without knowing Britain’s fiscal health by 2015, 2020 and beyond. The possibilities include the Navy getting both ships, or just one, with the second ship sold to a close ally. This is in all likelihood France, which has only one carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, a single ship class which has been found defective, unsatisfactory and is probably approaching retirement.
|Takeoff practice for an F-35B aboard USS Wasp|
Operating only one QE-class carrier is bad, because it will need regular spells in dock for refits, resting and other upgrades, undermining the deterrent value of the navy by reducing readiness to rapidly deploy (like in 1982).
The middle option – which seems most likely – is that Britain will keep both ships, but that one will be kept in reserve – “mothballed” – at least to start with. In the short term, that means one ship might be initially outfitted complete with all the bells and whistles to operate the new fighters, reducing readiness.
|Jump jet landing aboard the US Navy's USS Wasp|
However, with service lives measured over the next fifty years, taking a more longsighted view could envision both ships eventually operating – perhaps on a continuous one-in-one-out basis, or maybe side-by-side.
That would allow for a gradually increasing readiness, with both ships eventually brought online to operate the F-35, once the aircraft are delivered, available and operational, in sufficient quantity – the numbers of which will also be up for debate – but which will take well over a decade from now.
It takes some doing for a Conservative government to surrender defence political “ownership” to Labour, but Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy argues a convincing case for it, in his recent comment piece forpolitical news site PoliticsHome.
When former Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher sent a Task Force to re-conquer the Falklands, thirty years ago this month, her Cabinet was studded with former military officers, many of them distinguished veterans from the Second World War.
The comparison is striking between Thatcher’s Conservative government and the present Tory/Liberal-Democrat coalition, headed by former PR man David Cameron, leading a Cabinet mostly consisting of professional politicians without working experience outside Westminster.
But is this view deceptive? Thatcher cemented her premiership with victory in the Falklands, but only a year before engaged the 1981 Nott Review of damaging defence cuts. That review stripped muscle from the armed forces, weakened the Royal Navy, and telegraphed British defence weakness to an opportunistic Junta in Buenos Aires.
|The Falklands War: lesson from thirty years ago|
The parallels with today’s situation are clear, although the present Falklands spat with Cristina Kirchner’s government in Argentina is limited to diplomatic bombshells. Like Thatcher thirty years before, David Cameron’s government was at war within months of taking the axe to the armed forces: waging an air and naval war at arm’s length from Libya just months after the SDSR cleaved defence muscle.
The government inherited a poisoned chalice from Labour in the Ministry of Defence. Tony Blair’s hawkish foreign policy was interventionist in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Kosovo. New Labour postponed a proper defence review while hugely overspending to fund its unsustainable adventurism.
Libya was a far more limited war than Iraq. Inheriting the fiscal ruin left by Labour’s shambolic running of the MoD, the Conservatives are less gung-ho than their adventurist Labour forebears in wielding Britain’s armed forces in government.
Despite its shambolic results, an SDSR was sorely needed by 2010. After launching the exercise, the pre-eminence of George Osborne’s Treasury austerity measures, put before the country’s defence needs, effectively sabotaged the review. That shambles, leading directly up to the present F-35 debacle, leaves the Tories looking no better than Labour at defending defence.