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USMC F-35B’s To Operate on Royal Navy QE Class Carriers? By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

cvfI am once again grateful to ‘Defense News’ for highlighting comments apparently made by Captain Jerry Kyd, the highly respected commander of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, during a visit made to Rosyth that “he’d like to see US Marine Corps (USMC) Lockheed Martin F-35B aircraft and Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey multi-mission tiltrotor aircraft embark on the vessel once it becomes fully operational”.

If so, such remarks can I believe be taken as tacit confirmation now of what many of us had anticipated and believed for some considerable time would be necessary – that as the UK would fail to have sufficient air power capability ready to operate on the two new aircraft carriers after 2018 and that if ‘carrier power’ was to become a credible force then it would require, at least initially, support in the form of USMC F-35 ‘B’ and maybe, V-22 Osprey aircraft operating from one or both of our two new in-build aircraft carriers.

HMS Queen Elizabeth, which along with her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales, I had the great pleasure of crawling over at Rosyth back in February (copies of UK Defence 244 that followed my visit back then are available on request) bring a truly fantastic and much needed maritime capability and air capability addition to UK defence capability. We are, as they say, filling a gap or big void left by past inept political decisions that had left the Royal Navy and the UK as a whole without any form of carrier strike capability for several years now and that seemingly, begin to recognise that with the increasing level of threats and geo-political concerns we need to spend far more on defence.

Built by the Carrier Alliance (a joint venture between BAE Systems, Babcock International, Thales and the MOD) and with fitting out of the first vessel and final construction on the second now taking place at the Rosyth Naval Dockyard in Scotland, the first of the two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to sail from Rosyth to her new home port base of Portsmouth in little more than six months’ time to begin an extended round of sea trials and build up for initial operating capability. The arrival at Portsmouth which I believe will see schoolchildren in the area being given a half days holiday so that they are able to watch the event, will lead up to her commissioning into the Royal Navy fleet in 2017 and initial  operating capability being established in 2020.

The largest and most powerful warships ever to have been constructed for the Royal Navy and as the first of class, HMS Queen Elizabeth will be utilised by all three sectors of the UK Armed Forces. The vessel provides eight acres of sovereign territory that can be deployed around the world. Both ships have been designed to be versatile enough to be used for operations ranging from supporting war efforts to providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief. She is intended to carry a small fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35 (Lightning 11) Joint Strike Fighter ‘B’ STOVL (Short-Take-Off-Vertical-Landing) variant aircraft operated jointly by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy along with a mix of rotary capability.

v22For some time concern has been being expressed that the amount of air power capability planned to be extended to the two new carriers is insufficient for the mission requirement and also that the UK has been dragging its feet in placing further orders for F-35 ‘B’ variant STOVL aircraft from Lockheed Martin. Thus the Defense News article that reports that during a press briefing held at Scotland’s Rosyth shipyard Captain Kyd told his audience that the United States Marine Corps (USMC) have already ‘looked at the in-build UK aircraft carriers very closely and that they appear to like what they find. “Whether” he is reported to have said that this may mean that “they embark [on the ship] during 2018 I don’t know – it’s probably a bit too early [to say] but certainly [he expected] it would be soon after”.

jsfNews of such intentions, if these are what are likely to occur, should be greeted with great relief and if what Captain Kydd has said proves to be right a number of concerns that have been commonly expressed will have been removed. While none of this removes the fear that, despite a movement in the right direction seen in SDSR 2015 that will see defence expenditure increasing, Britain remains dangerously short of air power and maritime capability along with trained engineers, the ability to train, shortage of manpower across the military and that is particularly noticeable in relations to engineers and technicians and that nothing has yet been done to answer the problems in respect of retention, we should count ourselves as being very fortunate if the USMC is preparing to base some of its own F-35 ‘B’ STOVL aircraft on HMS Queen Elizabeth at some future point.

 Aside from the initial test and training aircraft that will remain in the US, Britain has, presumably because of funding reasons, been slow in confirming orders for the F-35 ‘B’ STOVL aircraft that it will require. While the MOD did in SDSR 2015 last year reaffirm its earlier commitment to eventually acquire 138 F-35 Lightning 11 aircraft and that 24 of the F-35 ‘B’ STOVL variants would be available to the two aircraft carriers by 2023, it has at no point confirmed whether the intention beyond that is to acquire more ‘B’ variants of the aircraft within the planned total of 138 that are to be acquired over the ‘lifetime of the programme’.

I have had the pleasure of meeting Captain Kydd on several occasions over the past two years and the timing of his obviously ‘cleared’ remarks in Rosyth make the issue even more interesting.

While the Government announced two months ago that it had awarded a contract worth £184 billion to acquire ASRAAM air to air advanced heat seeking missiles from MBDA for the planned fleet of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35 aircraft the MOD has, as far as I am aware, only ordered eight of the fifth generation F-35’B’ variants so far. While the UK will be the first of the international partner countries in the F-35 programme (the UK has a 15% workshare in the programme with companies such as BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, GKN Aerospace and many others being major beneficiaries of a programme that I estimate has already returned more than £6 billion to British industry) to reach initial operating capability with the F-35 in service I do express concern here that the MOD is expected to order only a further 10 aircraft over the next couple of years, these expected to be further examples of the ‘B’ STOVL variant. On that basis the growing concern that the MOD is dragging its feet is surely justified.

Moreover, as mentioned above, while the Government confirmed in SDSR 2015 that a total of 138 F-35 aircraft would be acquired through the programme lifetime (this could well be in excess of 30 years) it is becoming increasingly clear that a sizable proportion of the F-35 aircraft that the MOD will acquire will not be of the STOVL variant but more likely the F-35 A conventional take-off and landing variant for the Royal Air Force. While buying the ‘A’ conventional ‘A’ variant would make considerable sense in that it allows a better mix of capability allowing for instance the Royal Air Force to maximise combat air power together with the interoperability of the excellent Typhoon fast jet fleet and the F-35 B capability operated by the RAF and Royal Navy on the two carriers, the silence and the lack of announcement of formal strategy and intention in this regard is very worrying.

There is some good news though. Despite various issues that have needed to be addressed, the F-35 programme development and build is progressing very well. And here in the UK we appear to have got our ducks in a proper row with regard to complex weapons. On that score, along with ASRAAM, the UK F-35 aircraft will see a variety of complex weapons integrated on the fleet including the Raytheon Systems Paveway 1V tactical penetrator warhead (a development variant of the 500 lb-class Paveway 1V dual-mode (GPS/INS and laser precision guided bomb), MBDA Meteor BVR air-to-air missile together with the same company’s Selective Precision Effects at Range (SPEAR Capability 3) missile development, suffice to say that even allowing for the MOD decision not to fit the Storm Shadow air launched cruise missile, the UK’s eventual fleet of F-35 Lightning 11 aircraft will be very well equipped in respect of complex weapons.

Other good news too is that infrastructure development work at RAF Marham which will be the ground base for the UK’s F-35 aircraft is progressing well (I will come back to this issue in late November) and similarly, infrastructure work and dredging at Portsmouth Navy Dockyard which will be the home port for both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales is also progressing well.

CHW (London- 13th October 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

hwheeldon@wheeldonstrategic.com

Tel: 07710-779785

 

 

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