The carrier strike equation: Do the UK’s plans add up?

Harry Lye 22 September 2020 (Last Updated September 22nd, 2020 17:08)

A recent National Audit Office report raises concerns about missing components in the Royal Navy’s plans for carrier strike. Harry Lye investigates the strategic decisions, partnerships and politics surrounding the programme to find out whether the UK’s carriers can achieve their full potential.

The carrier strike equation: Do the UK’s plans add up?
HMS Queen Elizabeth and the ships that will make up her carrier strike group during Exercise Westlant 19. Image: Crown Copyright / MOD.

For the better part of the last decade, questions have persisted around the UK’s plans to deploy two full carrier strike groups. Now both ships are in the water and with carrier strike set to declare initial operating capability in December, concerns over the programme’s viability have again been raised. 

The Royal Navy always understood, one senior military source told us, that if the carriers were not populated properly with crew and aircraft they would never achieve their true purpose. The UK MOD recognised this, and so spurred the approach of the carriers being regarded as a ‘defence asset’ rather than just warships belonging to the Royal Navy.

The idea of the aircraft carriers belonging to the whole of the armed forces was again brought up at this year’s virtual edition of the Farnborough International Air Show, where First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin and Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston both spoke of the aircraft carriers as a shared asset.

“It’s undoubtedly a concern that there just aren’t enough supply ships and we are relying on ageing helicopters, as well as concerns about F-35 fighter squadrons.”
Defence Select Committee chair and MP Tobias Ellwood

 

Given this approach of considering the carriers a shared defence asset, the number of aircraft for the carriers then becomes a decision for the British military as a whole, not just for the Royal Air Force to take.

Commenting on the carriers, Defence Select Committee chair and MP Tobias Ellwood told us: “The Defence Committee has time and time again seen that there is a real problem with the Ministry of Defence’s ability to procure, and the carrier strike force is a prime example of this. It’s undoubtedly a concern that there just aren’t enough supply ships and we are relying on ageing helicopters, as well as concerns about F-35 fighter squadrons.”

Ellwood said these issues showed the MOD needed to take carrier strike ‘seriously’ to achieve its full potential.

“With all these issues, one has to question the value of the carrier,” he added. “As it stands, it seems to be little more than an expensive toy that looks nice but is not much use in the real world. We need to see the MOD taking this more seriously and stepping up to the plate with adequate funding to enable the carrier force to operate at its potential.”

Power in numbers: why 48 F-35s are not enough

In its report, the National Audit Office (NAO) said: “The department [MOD] has not yet made funding available for enough [F-35] Lightning II jets to sustain carrier strike operations over its life. From 2015, it has intended to buy 138 Lightning II jets, which will sustain carrier strike operations to the 2060s. The department initially ordered 48 jets but has not yet committed to buying any more.”

When the Queen Elizabeth carrier programme was launched, then Prime Minister David Cameron was warned to ensure the ships had enough jets to populate them.

Since the UK embarked on its F-35 acquisition, the NAO said, the cost of the programme had increased by 15%, from £9.1bn to £10.5bn. This is largely due to additional costs for system upgrades, sustainment and the integration of UK weapons systems.

“A crucial factor in whether the UK’s two new aircraft carriers will operate at their full potential will be the number of F-35Bs that the UK buys. At present, the commitment is to 48 of them, which is not enough to sustain a full carrier strike capability with the option of using both carriers together.”
Nick Childs, senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security, IISS

 

The 48 F-35Bs the MOD has so far committed to would allow for four squadrons of F-35s – two per carrier. Two squadrons are seen as the minimum air component for a carrier strike group also carrying a rotary-wing component made up of Merlin helicopters.

“Clearly, a crucial factor in whether the UK’s two new aircraft carriers will operate at their full potential will be the number of F-35Bs that the UK buys,” International Institute for Strategic Studies senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security Nick Childs told us. “At present, the commitment is to 48 of them, which is not enough to sustain a full carrier strike capability with the option of using both carriers together.

“What that number might be is the subject of considerable debate and negotiation. Having said that, in the longer term the possibility of deploying uninhabited air vehicles aboard the carriers will increase options considerably if they are also included in future plans.”

These 48 jets are expected to be acquired by 2025, two years after the expected date to declare full operating capability for carrier strike, and a year before carrier-enabled power projection is expected to be at its full operating capacity.

“The Royal Navy has to understand that F-35 is central to the entire joint force for warfighting at scale due to the proliferation of advanced air defence systems, and the idea of operating two full wings of F-35B, which would require almost the entire 138 order and all of them being dedicated to carrier strike tasks, is a fantasy without massively increased defence spending.”
Justin Bronk, research fellow, RUSI

 

Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) research fellow and editor of RUSI Defence Systems Justin Bronk told us that the odds of the UK procuring enough aircraft to operate two full air wings – assuming an air wing contains 36 jets – was low.

“Only 48 F-35Bs are currently funded in the equipment plan, and completing deliveries of the first 48 by 2024 will consume approximately £9bn of the £17.1bn allocated to combat air up to 2029,” Bronk said. “Of those 48, seven or eight will be in the US at MCAS Beaufort at any given time for training and refit purposes, leaving a UK-based fleet of 40. 

“As a rule of thumb, between one third and one quarter of a fast jet fleet can be sustainably deployed, which should give you a fair idea of limits on UK carrier-deployable numbers on a sustained basis. Remember also that the RAF and the army rely on the F-35 at the centre of their future warfighting doctrine and plans, meaning that there will be a strong demand signal for the UK’s only penetrating strike and ISTAR asset for missions other than carrier strike.”

A British F-35B takes off from HMS Queen Elizabeth. Image: Crown Copyright / MOD

Responding to the NAO report’s comments on the number of jets available for the carriers, a MOD spokesperson said: “Decisions on future F-35 numbers and aircraft variant will ensure the right capability for our Armed Forces along with value for money. The upcoming integrated review will allow the UK to determine the best variant for future F-35 purchases.”

Bronk added: “The question is how many of the 138 F-35s theoretically still planned will the UK actually be able to afford and what capabilities will it sacrifice to afford them? If there is only headroom for a few more batches to take the numbers to around 60 or 72 by the end of the 2020s, then an all F-35B order is fairly assured. However, if there is an intention to purchase significantly more, then I think the idea of purchasing predominantly the more capable, less expensive and longer-ranged F-35A makes sense for defence as a whole. 

“The Royal Navy has to understand that F-35 is central to the entire joint force for warfighting at scale due to the proliferation of advanced air defence systems, and the idea of operating two full wings of F-35B, which would require almost the entire 138 order and all of them being dedicated to carrier strike tasks, is a fantasy without massively increased defence spending.”

Beyond the numbers: range, protection and cooperation

Since choosing the F-35B, questions have been asked about its effectiveness as a carrier strike aircraft, in part due to its limited range. However, as the US has shown, this can be extended through tanking and some countries around the world are looking to develop their own F-35B carrying vessels.

The range of the F-35B has also led to some concern that carriers would have to operate too far from shore to be effective due to anti-ship weapons. However, carrier protection through a variety of techniques, including layered defence in a multinational context, has always been part of the concept, and is used by many carrier operating nations.

“Aircraft carriers, like all weapons systems, have their vulnerabilities, but they are certainly not the sitting ducks that some suggest,” Childs said. “On the contrary, they have lots of assets, like their ability to move at speed and the escorts that they will have, that will make them extremely well protected. 

“Obviously there are issues about the number of escorts that the Royal Navy deploys. However, against peer or near-peer opponents, the UK would be operating with allies, including allied aircraft carrier groups, and that would greatly increase both their strike potential and their protection.”

From a UK perspective, a vessel such as HMS Queen Elizabeth would operate as part of a group containing at least one Type 45 destroyer, one Type 23 anti-submarine warfare frigate (due to be replaced by the Type 26), an Astute-class attack submarine, a fleet solid support ship and a fleet tanker.

British and USMC F-35s during an exercise. Image: Crown Copyright / MOD

The relationship between the British military and the US Marine Corps (USMC) is another factor in the calculation when it comes to populating the carriers with fighter jets. Cooperation between the two forces not only lightens the burden of populating the UK carriers, but also strengthens the strategic transatlantic relationship between the UK and US.

“We are indebted to the vision of the USMC for their early commitment to the F-35B, which is in full operational use, and to their partnership with the UK MOD,”
Former First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas

 

“We are indebted to the vision of the USMC for their early commitment to the F-35B, which is in full operational use, and to their partnership with the UK MOD,” former First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas told us. “The USMC have shown how to do it. And, in my experience of USMC decision-making, they rarely make a mistake.”

On its maiden operational deployment next year – which is widely anticipated to see the ship deploying to the Far East – HMS Queen Elizabeth will carry F-35Bs from the US Marine Corps as well as British aircraft in operational partnership.

The only guaranteed runway

One major reason why the UK is betting on carriers is the need for guaranteed jet access with a flexible, mobile runway anywhere in the world. 

While the RAF is understood to have long preferred the idea of acquiring the F-35A variant, the lack of guaranteed access to runways to forward deploy it would limit the potential power projection provided by the aircraft. Aircraft carriers present a big target, but advances in drone technology mean that airstrips are just as – if not more – vulnerable to attacks. 

Although not a military site, the drone incident at Gatwick airport in 2019 showed how easy it is for a targeted drone manoeuvre to shut down an entire airport. In another less high-tech example, in 2010 after the eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, the only UK aircraft that could fly were those taking off from aircraft carriers that had sailed clear of the ash cloud.

While the perimeter of an airfield can be secured, modern precision mortars are accurate to within two metres, and drones can easily breach such perimeters and cause disruption. This means all fixed, land-based airfields are immensely vulnerable and can easily be shut down for days, while floating runways onboard an aircraft carrier can be navigated out of harm’s way.

Then there is the perhaps even greater issue of reach. While the RAF has a permanent joint operating base at Akrotiri in Cyprus, Ascension Island station in the Atlantic Ocean, and a naval support facility on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, they are too far from the Far East or the South Atlantic to deploy aircraft should they be needed there. This means the UK is limited in forward deploying its jets to in a conflict scenario – unless they are based on a carrier.

In the Strategic Defence Review of 1996, the Foreign Office was asked to declare which nations around the world would be likely to offer ‘host nation’ support to forward-deployed jets. Given the uncertain strategic and political considerations such a decision would be based on, the Foreign Office declined, which illustrates just how problematic assured access can be.

One of the few places the UK could reliably forward deploy F-35s in the Far East would be Singapore, which itself has opted to buy the F-35B variant and could deploy aircraft with allies in the region.

Merlin helicopters will make up the rotary-wing component of the carrier strike group. Image: Crown Copyright / MOD

Will carrier strike reach its full potential?

Ultimately for the carrier strike equation to add up, a balance needs to be struck. To achieve its full potential, carrier strike needs to be properly populated and strategic partnerships with NATO and the US Marine Corps need to be maintained.

This needs to be done while accepting that the ships are vulnerable, but protection can be provided, and the ability to deploy them anywhere in the world provides vital range that can’t be achieved with land-based airfields alone. 

However, we won’t know whether carrier strike can achieve its full potential until the fate of some of its supporting elements is decided. 

“The MOD also needs to get a firmer grip on the future costs of carrier strike. By failing to understand their full extent, it risks adding to the financial strain on a defence budget that is already unaffordable.”
Gareth Davies, head of the National Audit Office

 

“The MOD has made good progress with the big-ticket items needed to deliver Strike, such as the carriers, the first squadron of jets and the new infrastructure,” NAO head Gareth Davies explained. “But it must pay much greater attention to the supporting capabilities needed to make full use of carrier strike. 

“The MOD also needs to get a firmer grip on the future costs of carrier strike. By failing to understand their full extent, it risks adding to the financial strain on a defence budget that is already unaffordable.”

In response, an MOD spokesperson said: “carrier strike is a complex challenge, which relies on a mix of capabilities and platforms. We remain committed to investing in this capability, which demonstrates the UK’s global role. Despite the disruptions of Covid-19, the carrier strike group is on track for its first operational deployment.”

This article originally appeared in the September issue of Global Defence Technology.