Monday, 1 July 2013

June 2013 Notes: Possibilities of British Carrier Aviation

Reason for writing: Britain is highly unlikely considering current finances to get enough F-35Bs to properly equip the Fleet Air Arm and RAF so that all the roles of Carrier Strike, Fleet Air Defence, Amphibious Operation Combat Air Support, Suppression of Enemy Air Defences and Land Strike can all be fully covered.  Even if the full order of 138 aircraft are bought, each carrier will presumably take around 32, then any amphibs that come along to replace Ocean & Illustrious will need some, (for arguments sake) aprox 16, that’s 96 aircraft accounted for and whilst in theory fancy accountancy can be done and it can be pointed out that not all the ships will be operating at the same time so those aircraft not in use for those jobs can be used for other roles… but the reality is it’s going to be a fudge job at best, with either Land Strike (and the RAF) or Carrier Strike (and the RN) getting short changed and at least one if not both ending up in a situation for which they are ‘theoretically’ equipped for but in reality haven’t had the chance to train for it and do not have enough equipment to do it. To put it another way, a phrase often quoted is “the best is the enemy of the good” – keep trying for the best means Britain will never have enough when it needs it.

Currently though only 48 aircraft have been ordered – and should that be all that are ordered it would mean problems; even if only the Queen Elizabeth’s are procured.

Key Words/Phrases:

·         VSTOL: Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing, the cheapest system of carrier flight deck, but requires the most expensive aircraft… the Royal Navy (RN) was the first navy to employ this to provide its fixed wing airpower, but that was out of necessity when the first Queen Elizabeth class was cancelled (CVA-01 was due to have been called after the Queen) and all it managed to get built were the ‘Through-Deck Cruisers’ of the Invincible class.

·         CATOBAR: Catapult Assisted Take Off & Barrier Assisted Recovery, the system used on most major aircraft carriers, it allows for the widest range of possible aircraft to operate…but it is also more expensive to install and maintain than the VSTOL flight deck, although that is offset by its capabilities visa-vie aircraft operation.

·         STOL: Short Take Off and Landing

·         F-35 Lightning II (Joint Strike Fighter): produced in multiple variants, B for VSTOL and C for CATOBAR, this is the new stealth jet strike/fighter (what used to be called a Fighter Bomber…i.e. could fight its way to the target, drop its bombs and fight its way back) coming into service with the RN for the Fleet Air Arm to fly off the carriers.

·         Eurofighter Typhoon: Principle aircraft belonging to the Royal Air Force at the moment, a Cold War inspired Dog-Fighter that was used in conjunction with Tornadoes over Libya to do some limited bombing… although it was the much more venerable Tornadoes which had to aim the weapons.

·         UCAV: Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, in this work is mainly used to refer to the   X-47 - The currently under development, but conducting carrier deck operations and flying, Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, the X-47 is the future of stealth strike & reconnaissance; hence there is no coincidence that it looks like a mini B-2 bomber.

·         NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – Britain’s principle strategic alliance,

·         Squadron: there are all sorts of differences in terms of numbers/structure, usually in British practice it’s 12 aircraft, but these notes will be using 16, it’s more practical with the numbers that are able to be accommodated by the ships (44-48 aircraft divides in 3 squadrons, a fusion squadron of 12-16 helicopters variously rolled for ASW/AEW/Commando Transport and two squadrons providing 32 fixed wing aircraft[1]), it saves money in terms of senior officers by reducing the number of senior posts – which fits with the size zero  navy/armed forces that cuts have created (hopefully helping with middle rank bulge).

·         Carrier Strike: strike aircraft launching from carriers

·         ASW: Anti-Submarine Warfare

·         AEW: Airborne Early Warning – flying radar, what the RN was missing in the Falklands war, and the one change which would have made a big difference to every operation.

·         Suppression of Enemy Air Defences: otherwise called SEAD, this is a primary Day 1 task, and if a force is not capable of carrying it out then the country that deploys it does not possess an expeditionary capability.

·         ‘Land Strike’: strike aircraft flying from airbases

·         Fleet Air Defence: this is a layered thing like an onion[2], the aircraft from the carrier provide the outermost layer air defence – if an attack can be stopped at the ranges of this it represents by far the safest course of action.

·         Close Air Support (sometimes called Combat Air Support): it’s when aircraft act as artillery and provide direct fire in support of ground forces.

·         Amphibious Operations: ranging from special forces insertions/extractions, to raiding to invasions, these cover any operation whereby land forces are launched from the sea onto the enemy.

·         LHD/LHA: Amphibious Assault Vessel, Landing Helicopter Dock/Landing Helicopter Assault, the former like a Landing Platform Dock (LPD) has a dock from which landing craft can operate, the latter doesn’t which makes it faster and more able to operate in a light carrier role.

·         D+1: the first day of the conflict; when SEAD is at a premium, but after which if the mission is conducted properly the major air defence and military threats to aircraft will have been dealt with. 

Figure 1; The Queen Elizabeth Class STOL Carrier


So the problem becomes one of 4 options:

·         Option 1 – empty ships

·         Option 2 – buy the full 138 F-35Bs or even more…the Fleet Air Arm & RAF can both make cases for 6 squadrons, plus training & reserve squadrons, i.e. around 240 aircraft

·         Option 3 – buy UAVs that are capable of STOL/Ski-Ramp carrier operations

·         Option 4 – buy STOL aircraft.

Option 1 is not good, empty ships are inefficient, especially empty aircraft carriers - furthermore lack of airframes in terms of missions will inevitably lead to airframes being maxed out, to ill effect as this will increase wear and maintenance costs while still never being able to achieve all the missions required and certainly not all those desired.

 The idea of ships sailing empty is a penny pincher’s fix, who has no concept of reality, of the fact that it is not simple to put aircraft onto carriers; the eternal lesson of the Falklands war if just one is taken would be that whilst yes the RAF GR.3 Harriers were able to operate from a carrier like the Fleet Air Arm’s Sea Harriers; they had to operate from the bigger ship (Hermes) in order for them to be accommodated, there were lots of minor accidents/operational problems (mostly caused by not only a lack of familiarity with carrier operation but also with naval operations/practices), and even with allies prepared to allow them use airspace/bases they still had to be shipped out in order to reach the war.

That is the biggest problem with an aircraft carrier going round empty, when war happens, when operations are required of it – the aircraft will need to be got, in worst case scenario the carrier could have to come back to the UK to pick them up… but not only will it need to take delivery of aircraft but personnel; after all without aircraft aboard there is no reason to have the maintainers, the spare pilots, all the squadron & air group support personnel aboard without the aircraft being there.

The next problem is training, not just of the pilots (which often gets the reply Simulators; well yes, they are brilliant[3], but they are not the same as the real thing – and with each aircraft costing £127 million would any sensible person really think it wise the first time a pilot lands it on a multi-billion £ aircraft carrier, loaded with even more aircraft, in a war zone, whilst under the pressure of combat operations?), but also the other squadron personnel – the fitters, the weapons techs, the other support troops, they need to learn how to operate on the ship, where things are stored, how to carry out maintenance when the ‘hangar’ is moving & alive with a constant stream of other aircraft/personnel moving about their duties, and finally how to fight fires & conduct damage control: the RN does not have specialist fire-fighters on its ships, all personnel have to know how to use the equipment and how to make it safe, because time is critical when keeping operational/let alone afloat. That was actually one of the key reasons why in 1939 the Inskip report handed the Fleet Air Arm back to the Royal Navy because the RAF personnel were not trained in this job, and because they would spend the vast majority of their careers never having to use those skills as they would be on airfields in Britain where there are specialist fire-fighters so why go to the expense of training everyone else?

Finally there is the fact that buying ships of the size and status of the Queen Elizabeth class, justifiable though they are (the biggest reason for size growth in aircraft carriers, is size of the aircraft they carry: the F-35 is over double the weight of the Sea Harrier) by Britain’s global strategic commitments & interests; sending them round the world half empty would be the diplomatic equivalent of buying a really expensive house and only putting in a bed & two chairs and then inviting all the world to come and see –all the world will not only think that you are terribly shallow, but also are little more than puffed up peacock, all feathers and image with no substance to back it.

Figure 2; The F-35 Variants

Option 2 is the very best option, but it’s also the most expensive, and therefore the least likely to happen – there are many arguments still going on the F-35, whether B or C should be bought; the final piece of Queen Elizabeth is about to be put in place – she is a VSTOL carrier; yes but the greater flexibility of the CATOBAR option does present a very attractive picture of enhanced capabilities, but the VSTOL aircraft design could lead to commonality of operation between the Carriers and any LHA/LHDs, with aircraft being shared between all the vessels. Now that would mean the RN would have multiple ‘aviation ships’, yes they’d be primarily orientated on carrier or amphibious duties, but because all the aircraft could operate from all of them – then all of the aviation vessels would have the ability to be used for amphibious or carrier duties[4].

The subsequent options are based on the idea of a division of roles, the F-35s would take Strike, Suppression of Enemy Air Defences and Fleet Air Defence – these require the stealth, the high speed, the advanced avionics are all designed for these ‘high-end’ missions. However, if squadrons are 16 strong, then that’s enough for most situations Britain might find itself in on its own (if it’s not then another aviation ship with another squadron will have to be despatched), so the other fixed wing squadron can focus on Combat Air Support & Auxiliary missions – a very taxing, time consuming and critical mission for any naval aircraft. This would also mean the Fleet Air Arm for F-35Bs would be 16 for each carrier and another 16 to be divided between the amphibious ships…i.e. just 3 squadrons or 48 aircraft would be needed for the naval side. Of course further to this at least another 3 squadrons of the Auxiliary Combat Aircraft would also be required.

Option 3 is an attractive option too many modern eyes, the only trouble is the only carrier strike aircraft currently even near an operational capability is the X-47 and that is a CATOBAR design not a STOL. However, considering the RN’s recent decision to enter the ranks of UAV operators (choosing a design that’s been in service for 8 years with the USN[5] rather than going for something like the Hummingbird which could have done the same but not require a pneumatic catapult to operate – although it would have probably taken up more space[6]), so a UAV for carrier operations is not unforeseeable… but it would have to be developed and as the only real user of such an aircraft at the current time would be the RN, it would probably be expensive, and more than likely complex to implement.

Figure 3; The X-47B taxies on the deck of the USS Harry S Truman

The other option in UAVs would be to make use of one of the available Rotary Wing systems: these would have of course the advantage of being completely interchangeable with any other ship that has a helideck, allowing for the realisation of an exceedingly flexible force. However, as a primary combat support aircraft they have yet to come of age – although the reports of some startling things have emerged as to their possible use in current conflicts.

The fact is though the real problem with UAVs for Britain is the satellite time, we are ‘unique’ in having a public/private partnership for our military communication satellite; and as anyone with a modern mobile phone knows there is nothing more expensive than going over the monthly data allowance. A system already had to be developed whereby the signal was ‘piggy backed’ from one drone to another to try and save costs.  

Option 4 takes its inspiration from British Naval Aviation history – the Swordfish, it was not the best aircraft of its age, it was not the technologically most advanced aircraft of its age… but it was available, it was capable and it was a good fit, it was in fact an excellent fit for what the Royal Navy needed of the Fleet Air Arm at the time. With the same idea there are multiple viable options available, STOL aircraft range from the Texan II & Super Tocano to the BAE Hawk/T-45 Goshawk. They offer a wide range of options, but crucially all are available off the shelf, ready to go and some are even already in use with the British Forces meaning there are pools of experience to draw from. However this also means there are some topics for strong discussion.

Figure 4; Some Goshawks waiting to commence training.

Hawk vs Prop – the BAE Systems Hawk/T-45 Goshawk is the fastest option, although it would probably have to have undercarriage modifications, they already have a CATOBAR variant and it’s a land STOL aircraft so could certainly be a candidate. The facts though are that whilst it costs ~£20million, can carry Sidewiders and ASRAAM for A-to-A and some bombs; it gets too much into the profile of the F-35B to be ever seen as anything other than the ‘cheap option’. In comparison the propeller options have greater endurance, certainly in the case of Super Tocano (n production) and the OV-10X Bronco have already got a wider range of weapons available for fitting (including Air-to-Air missiles) and the RN would benefit from buying into a larger operating group; furthermore the propeller aircraft have other things which they could do (that will be discussed later) that would stop them being seen as just the ‘cheap option’. However before moving on it should be noted that an all British light fighter aircraft would not be bad for British industry, would undoubtedly be taken to whole heartedly by poorer allies who would either have had to make do without or bought older aircraft/cheaper Russian Options; therefore opening the possibility of defence exports and income for the nation to further diversify Britain’s economic base – a strategic necessity in the wake of the banking crisis (which would have not been so damaging if Britain had not been so economically focused on it).

Close Air Support would of course be the primary mission for this aircraft, and the key attributes for such a role if we take them from the best current aircraft at it the A-10 Thunderbolt II (aka Warthog) are pilot visibility, long endurance, large load of weapons and good countermeasure systems. The largest limiting factor though on any aircraft chosen will be carrier operations, for this the OV-10X Bronco, thanks to it’s family history already has a proven track record as a navalised aircraft. The trouble for the OV-10X Bronco, is like the Texan II combat variant, it’s possibly going to be built… the only option actually in production is the Brazilian originating Super Tocano[7] (although the Hawk is in production, as has been said to fill the role, a new variant would have to be built, although it has a production line ready, willing and able) costing about $14million pre-carrier modifications. The Super Tocano can carry 3,300lb worth of weapons on 5 hardpoints as well as having two internal machine guns – making it a flexible and capable system for supporting ground forces. Close Air Support will not only include dropping bombs and firing missiles at land targets, air-to-air weapons have been discussed so often because counter helicopter/counter other Close Air Support aircraft capabilities could be just as important to ground forces considering the current dearth of mobile air defence systems capable of attacking enemy ground positions.

Figure 5; an OV-10 Bronco about to take of from an American Carrier

The same aircraft with the loiter time for Close Air Support could also be used as part of a maritime patrol operation, i.e. policing the seas for pirates, smugglers or terrorists – again using the F-35B for such missions would in reality be expensive overkill; but would be a perfect opportunity for the Auxiliary Combat Aircraft to be put to good use. Furthermore, there is also the option of this aircraft taking on some of the ASW, after all a sonar-buoy dispensing pod, a MAD pod and a torpedo or two would be within the weight/crew capabilities of the Super Tocano – and in either littoral or deep sea operations it never hurts to have an extended range ASW aircraft. It’s not the same as LRMP aircraft but it would help to fill the capability gap of that decision for a while, but also in the future provide for operations where land based aircraft cannot reach but the RN can/need to be sent.

Figure 6; The Super Tocano and some of the weapons it carries

A mention’s been made to ‘navalised’ earlier, and whilst this primarily means things like folding wings to ease storage in the confined space of an aircraft carrier’s hanger, modifying engines to deal with salt water and strengthening the aircraft structure; it also means looking into whether, for example the Super Tocano is limited to the AG-65 Maverick or if it can carry the Sea Skua (or even that weapons replacement the Future Air-to-Surface Guided Weapon[8])…there is no aircraft analysed which would not require some degree of modification to make it suitable, but whereas for some aircraft little modification is required, others will require considerably more work.  

Finally there is the role of air-to-air refuelling, there is no reason why the hard points on the Auxiliary Combat Aircraft could not be loaded with ‘buddy’ stores to enable it to refuel the F-35Bs or other aircraft operating. However, the advantage of a propeller aircraft acting as a tanker over a jet is that it could more than likely fly slow enough to refuel a helicopter should such a system be invested in for Merlins and Lynx in the future; whilst being able to fly fast enough and high enough to refuel a jet aircraft.

Key Points:

·         Advantages of Option 4

o   It maximises capability by providing for full carrier groups at the right price

o   It represents minimal cost (depending upon option selected)

o   It provides versatility by allowing the air group to be orientated and not overstretched

·         Disadvantages of Option 4

o   It means something will actually have to be done rather than muddling through

o   It will cause uproar with those who believe only the very best is what should be procured, rather than what might be best fit.

Points of Interest:

·         Swordfish TSR is the basis for this idea in many ways, it was best fit, not best aircraft available; to clarify this, yes the RN could have got a better aircraft, and probably should have got one with at least an enclosed cockpit & more powerful engine, but the Swordfish did fit the brief issues under the Air Ministry’s advice, and it proved a stalwart of the Fleet Air Arm throughout the second world war, outlasting its successor the Albacore, in what could principally have been called Auxiliary Combat roles – those which were unlikely to encounter enemy fighters. Furthermore, the Swordfish’s role of Torpedo Spotter Reconnaissance – could be translated as ‘utility tool’, not the exciting electric drill or power saw, but rather the good old screw driver or hack saw of 1930s naval aviation.

Figure 7; A Fairey Swordfish dropping a torpedo

·         Hawk is an interesting prospect for this role, the idea of producing an indigenous aircraft has to be attractive to the government, and especially with so many countries currently looking to field a light strike/F-16 replacement it could secure a lot of jobs in the future. The F-22 is the F-15 replacement, and no matter how it’s spun the F-35 is more an F/A-18 level aircraft than the F-16, so there is a gap in the market for Britain to fill should it go that route.


This is a classic situation of looking for the Best Fit not necessarily the Best Aircraft -  the best aircraft that’s in production for a STOL carrier is the F-35B, it is not though the best fit for what Britain needs, on its own. It is a necessary aircraft with the required capabilities, which has been chosen for the Queen Elizabeth’s and has the potential to be a great aircraft if even half of the promises that have been made about it come true. However, Britain needs the Royal Navy to be sailing full aircraft carriers round the world not empty ones, and they cannot be full of helicopters and hot air. This means an aircraft has to be selected to fill those spaces, and it needs to be aircraft to fill a necessary role, that’s justifiable not only to the public, to the government, but also to the Treasury.

Therefore an Auxiliary Combat Aircraft, which can provide support to ground forces - act as artillery, reconnaissance platform, anti-helicopter/anti-UAV air defence (allowing the F-35Bs to concentrate on major air threats, enemy air defences and long range strike missions) and which also has the ability to fill the roles of maritime patrol, ASW, anti-ship, Air-to-Air refuelling and more than likely some limited personnel transfers is a system which can be justified.

Figure 8; A Super Tocano flying over the ocean

This must especially be true when considering the cost, for example the Super Tocano is $14million, even if the modifications (such as upping the power of the engine to help with take off from the carrier & navalising the aircraft) added on 50% to the price it would still be less than £14million per aircraft[9] – compared to the Eurofighter’s £125million+[10], and the F-35Bs £127million[11], meaning a squadron of 16 Super Tocano (factoring a massive worst case scenario increase in price, which in reality would not be likely) would cost as much to buy as roughly 1.8 Eurofighters or F-35Bs[12]. In simple terms the entire naval buy of 72 aircraft (3 combat squadrons, a support/training/UK squadron and some spare airframes) would cost less than half a squadron of either Eurofighters or F-35Bs.

In terms of weapons carriage, whilst an F-35B can carry up to 15,000lbs of weapons (internal & external bombs & missiles[13] – although of course it’s ‘stealth’ is reduced when carrying external)  and the Eurofighter Typhoon can carry 16,500lbs of weapons (external only bombs & missiles)[14]… 16 Super Tocano’s between them would carry (16x 3,300lb[15])  52,800lb, but more importantly could pretty much guarantee (as much as ever can be guaranteed in conflict) to keep 4 aircraft over the combat area and 4 more ready to go at all time, in comparison even 2 f-35B’s (in cost terms the equivalent to over 19 Super Tocanos) in their most un-stealthy configuration  carrying 30,000lbs of weapons, could not provide coverage constantly between them (and would have not capacity to provide an alert) – the rule of thumb is 1 in 3 to keep an aircraft airborne as that takes care of the flight time and maintenance(the same as ships), for alert it  goes up to 1 in 4. Yes, it would only be 14,400lb worth of ordinance on call at a commander’s disposal rather than the 15,000lbs of a single F-35B, but that’s not that much less and it could handle 4 different objectives at the same time (and would not possibly be called away to deal with an urgent air defence mission – except in the case of helicopters), and the 16 Super Tocano’s could more importantly maintain those 4/4 aircraft for 24hrs a day constantly which 2 just F-35Bs wouldn’t be able to[16]. This is again not saying the F-35B is a bad aircraft or is not excellent for the missions that it’s needed for (as has been said repeatedly in these notes), but for the CAS, for maritime patrol and for a range of auxiliary combat roles it makes sense.

Whilst it cannot be said that the Super Tocano or any aircraft chosen for this role could replace the F-35B in all its roles (hence it is being called in these notes the Auxiliary Combat Aircraft), the ACA would complement it greatly; they would be a force enabler for the F-35B that allows it to concentrate of the missions for which it is best fit. That is the key point, and whilst it has been said repeatedly it is worth hammering home, this is not about procuring Best Aircraft, but like the Swordfish this is about making do with what can be, and procuring a good aircraft which is the Best Fit aircraft for the role, the Best Fit aircraft for the mission parameters identified by this discussion, the best fit aircraft to build the best fit carrier air group to be able to carry out the missions the British government will ask of it.

Further Reading:

·         Close Air Support

·         Super Tocano:

·         BAE Hawk / T-45 Goshawk

·         OV-10 Bronco

·         Texan II

·         X-47

·         F-35

·         Future RN

o – recommend reading/downloading the PDF’s on Black Swans… interesting stuff

·         Maritime Surveillance

[1] A reduction from the 36 constantly being stated, but this seems sensible in light of the disparity between aims & willingness, and most importantly it provides space for extra helicopter airframes – which considering the importance the roles they are doing ASW & AEW and the utility of special forces/small raiding units is greatly enhanced by Troop Transport helicopters and the specialist crews provided by the Junglies.
[2] Read this post on theorists to learn more:
[7] The USAF has selected the Super Tocano  for its Light Air Support program, and the aircraft is being built in the USA… there is no reason a similar deal could not be reached for Britain’s procurement.
[9] Carrying on from the costs/operability is the fact that replacing these aircraft after battle damage or training accidents will be far less expensive than replacing an F-35B; in the Close Air Support role aircraft are at the most risk, and this risk has most recently been not from sophisticated threats (as these are taken care of by the SEAD aircraft on D+1), but RPGs, machine guns and anything else the enemy has to fire often gets fired up in the air. Whilst it is only right for our forces that commanders seek to do everything they can to minimise losses, losses are going to be taken, and whilst it’s true that the OV-10 Bronco was withdrawn because of fears of losses, the proof of combat experience has been that these aircraft are capable of operating very successfully in the CAS environment, and more importantly are affordable to operate in this environment.
[10] As of 2011: no one seems to have updated for Tranche 3 though.
[12] A more likely outcome would be about £9million per aircraft, making the ratio 1.2 Eurofighter, 1.1 for F-35B.
[16] This especially true when its remembered that extra fuel is carried at the expense of weapons, that once an aircraft uses its weapons it has to fly back to base and another has to be sent out; that after each flight certain checks have to be made. Then pilot fatigue has to be factored in as well.