I have said it before and I will say it again – What a fantastic sight it was yesterday to see both new Royal Navy aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, lined up together at Portsmouth Naval Dockyard for the very first time. Words such as ‘humbled’ and ‘proud’ are just not enough to describe this truly wonderful achievement by UK industry but here and now allow me to congratulate the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, made up of BAE Systems, Babcock International, Thales and the Ministry of Defence for what they have achieved in building two fantastic new aircraft carriers but also the part that the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have and are playing in rebuilding of UK carrier strike capability.
The Royal Navy now has, or very soon will have, two aircraft carriers and suffice to say that although much more work needs to be done in bring the second carrier up to force, the UK is now well on the way to achieving full ‘Carrier Strike’ capability in a couple of years’ time.
Since the first of the two new carriers was commissioned, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy have worked extremely hard ploughing through what can only be described as a complicated but very necessary training effort, particularly that which has taken place on board HMS Queen Elizabeth and at RAF Marham over the past 18 months.
Performance excellence of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning 11 Joint Strike Fighter ‘B’ (STOVL) variant aircraft abounds and it is hugely pleasing that the aircraft has not only achieved all objectives that have been set but that it has exceeded expectations.
None of this success would have been possible without the massive infrastructure investment that the MOD has put in at Portsmouth Royal Navy Dockyard over the past few years and that has included a significant dredging programme and building of new berths plus also the massive infrastructure development programme that was put in place at the RAF Marham base in Norfolk.
At RAF Marham on many visits that I have done over the past three years it has been particularly pleasing to have observed the vast amount of training, engineering and maintenance facilities investment including new state of the art buildings and hangars and importantly, in the people and training of those required to support and maintain the aircraft in service. Bottom line is that the UK is edging ever closer to ever to standing up full ‘carrier strike’ capability in less than two years.
While it is true that there are many sceptics of Britain’s decision to rebuild ‘carrier strike’ capability and also that the two carriers that we now have had, back in 1998, been envisaged as being in the 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes category for the role of providing intervention capability and power projection, we also need to be aware that one of the reasons the ships grew in size to the current 65,000 tonnage was that the role intention also grew to include deep strike capability.
I for one have always and will remain very supportive of what the UK has done in terms of rebuilding carrier strike capability and whilst I would have preferred that we had also acquired a larger number of intended Type 26 and Type 31 frigate capability to support the carriers and also speeded up the plan to acquire the 138 F-35 aircraft that we have committed to buy, I take satisfaction that US Marine Corp F-35 B aircraft will most likely also operate from the ships as well. The take from that is that ‘carrier strike’ is not just UK capability but allied capability as well.
People, including politicians and former service chiefs, should not be excluded from the role that each has played in the development and rebuilding of UK carrier strike capability. It has taken a leap of faith for some and there are those that stood in the way of the joint Royal Air Force/Royal Navy – Joint Force concept.
But in hindsight, what was decided in respect of concept and the project operating as ‘Joint Force’ capability was absolutely right in my view and I live in hope that in the years ahead doubters will also come around to a similar view. Be in no doubt though that as we observe the seemingly slow but sure process of rebuilding UK carrier strike capability it is extremely pleasing to see the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force working absolutely as one.
In order to get to where we have today in respect of rebuilding ‘Carrier Strike’ capability there have been many, usually politically induced, hostages to fortune and hoops to climb through. The decision by the ‘Coalition Government’ born out of SDSR 2010 to put ‘cats and traps’ and move ways from buying the F-35 B STOVL variant to the F-35 ‘C’ carrier variant was undoubtedly one. Thankfully, the decision to revert back to the F-35 ‘B’ variant and abandon plans to fit ‘cats and traps’ which I had some personal involvement in for UKG during 2012, was one.
Before concluding, a further word about the superb Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning ll ‘Joint Strike Fighter aircraft of which UK industry, through our being the only Level 1 partner in the project, are responsible for a 15% workshare of each and every one of the 3,000+ F-35 aircraft that Lockheed martin expect will be built by 2030.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the world’s largest defence programme. Led by the USA with participation from the UK as the only Tier One partner, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Denmark and Norway, apart from being a key partner and responsible for manufacturing 13% to 15% workshare of each aircraft, BAE Systems, teamed with Northrop Grumman, is responsible for a large part of the integration and life-cycle sustainment of the aircraft.
The F-35 project is estimated to be worth £1 billion to UK industry alone and will eventually support in excess of 25,000 jobs across 500 different companies within the UK supply chain. Led by BAE Systems and including Rolls-Royce, QinetiQ, Cobham, Meggitt, Ultra Electronics, Martin Baker, Leonardo, GE Aviation and UTC Actuation amongst the over 100 UK based companies that could be mentioned. BAE Systems is also heavily involved in the F-35 Life Cycle maintenance and sustainment programmes not just in the UK for the RAF and Royal Navy but also internationally including in Australia. This work can only but grow in the years ahead.
CHW (London – 5th December 2019)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785