TO ‘B’ OR Not To ‘B’ – OF CATS, TRAPS and F-35 ‘C’ JOINT STRIKE FIGHTER!
By Howard Wheeldon FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd
29 Mar 12. Why is it I wonder that we in the UK are so good at mucking up things that we have gone to so much trouble to create?
With confirmation of the PR12 ‘settlement’ now likely off the agenda until post local elections due in early May the government has seemingly bought itself more time to settle vexing questions that remain in CV carrier programme. Prime amongst these is whether to switch back to procuring the ‘B’ STOVL version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter thus scrapping the need to retrofit an untried system of ‘cats and traps’ to one or both of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers now under construction for the Royal Navy or to remain with the revised SDSR policy decision to eventually acquire the ‘C’ (Carrier) version of the aircraft. My view is that the government will correctly revert back to the original well thought out decision of acquiring the ‘B’ STOVL version of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It will do so in my view primarily because it can at a stroke remove significant potential risk of retrofitting the as yet untested catapult arrester system known as EMALS (Electro Magnetic Aircraft Launch System) and that could in my view push the burden of potential additional cost risk on the program up by as much as £3bn.
The latest quandary with regard to future ‘Carrier Strike’ capability and now being faced by the Prime Minister, Cabinet Office and Secretary of State for Defence was created through decisions that emerged in the 2010 SDSR with regard to retrofitting a ‘cats and traps’ system onto one of the two currently in-build carriers and that as a result would allow a change of ultimate air power procurement requirement from the ‘B’ STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) to ‘C’ (Carrier) version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Rather than eventually equipping one or both of the new UK aircraft carriers with the ‘C’ STOVL version the Government decided in SDSR 2010 that one of the two carriers would now be retrofitted with the EMALS system and that rather than acquiring the STOVL version of the plane the eventual purchase from Lockheed Martin would be in the form of the more traditional F-35 ‘C’ carrier version.
The UK will soon take delivery of the first of three JSF aircraft ordered as part of the UK test development programme. My understanding is that two of these aircraft will be of the ‘B’ STOVL variant and one of the ‘C’ Carrier variant. RAF and Royal Navy personnel have I believe already flown versions of the JSF in the US so delivery of test aircraft for the UK will not change anything. As with most debates on defence procurement and capability several schools of thought as to reasons behind why the government made large scale changes relating to future UK ‘carrier strike’ capability have emerged. My own is that this was done solely on the basis of perceived cost saving as opposed to sensible defence capability and strategy.
With the die seemingly cast the process of examining how an as yet unproven US based EMALS system (there being no remaining UK manufacturers of either the traditional steam or EMALS system of ‘cats and traps’) might be retrofitted (original design of the CV carrier programme having been signed off four years earlier) to one of the two Queen Elizabeth class carriers began. For the past thirty four years the UK air power capability with regard to carrier strike capability had been based on two generations of Harrier VSTOL (Vertical Short Take Off Landing) aircraft and Helicopters. The concept of through deck carrier landing would be completely new to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force as Britain had been without true through-deck carrier landing capability since the decommissioning of the former HMS Ark Royal IV back in 1978. Whilst a change of air power capability caused by the SDSR decision would change timing and seemingly