British Carrier Remains Controversial

 - July 18, 2014, 8:51 AM
The Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier was floated out of its construction dock at Rosyth in Scotland on July 16. (Photo: BAE Systems)

Britain’s new aircraft carrier is now afloat, but the total forecast cost of £6.1 billion ($10.4 billion) still threatens to sink other defense projects in the UK. To this cost must be added the forecast near £2.5 billion ($4.28 billion) being contributed by the UK to development and initial test and evaluation of the F-35s that will fly from her decks, plus perhaps another £5 billion ($8.56 billion) for their production. However, the Royal Navy and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) are taking their cue from H.M. Queen Elizabeth herself, who, in naming the 65,000-tonne warship in a July 4 ceremony, said “it will be a source of inspiration and pride for all.”

In the two years since AIN last reported on the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, the cost has risen a further £754 million, but the government has reached a cost-sharing agreement with the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA) that is building them. The ACA comprises BAE Systems, Babcock Marine, Thales and the MoD. That agreement also conceded a further five-month delay to the date when the Queen Elizabeth can set sail for operational training, to December 2017. The final assembly dock at Rosyth, near Edinburgh, soon to be vacated by the Queen Elizabeth, will immediately be filled with sections of the second carrier, The Prince of Wales. But whether it will enter service, or be sold or stored, depends on next year’s strategic defense review, and the new post-election British government.

In his speech at the naming ceremony, the head of the Royal Navy appeared to pre-empt that decision by stating that he “expected to see a British carrier continuously ready.” In a flag-waving speech that verged on hyperbole, Admiral Sir George Zambellas declared that the Queen Elizabeth “has risen as a steel-clad phoenix…she has presence, she dwarfs all…a deep expression of our nationhood, of a nation on the rise.” The trouble is, after the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, an increasing proportion of the British public are skeptical of the UK defense establishment’s continued promotion of expeditionary capability, which finds its greatest expression in the “carrier-enabled power projection” of the QE-class. Public opinion has shifted significantly since the carrier project was started in 2007-08.

Perhaps in recognition of this, the ACA is striving to make the carriers as flexible as possible. They can be reconfigured from the strike role, with 12 F-35Bs embarked, to a ship that can carry 44 helicopters and deploy 1,000 soldiers in amphibious or littoral maneuver operations. Moreover, “there is enough storage space to make a real difference in humanitarian operations,” Zambellas said.

Rear Admiral Russ Harding, the Navy’s senior airman, says that the QE-class “compresses a 2,000-acre airfield onto a four acre space that is moving in six axes. Therefore operations have to be intuitive, and they require intensive training.” But the UK withdrew its last (and much smaller) aircraft carrier in 2010, thus posing the danger of “skills fade.” Courtesy of the U.S. Navy British sailors have been deployed in small numbers on CV- and LHD-class warships, and pilots to F/A-18 squadrons, to keep them current on carrier operations. The French have also helped out, by offering slots on their warships, and in their carrier fighter squadrons. Meanwhile, there’s always simulation. BAE Systems provided a briefing at the Farnborough airshow this week on the simulator that it has developed, to determine exactly how the F-35 will operate from the carrier.

In his briefing at the UK’s DSEi event last year, Harding made reference to the unusual QE-class flight deck design, with ship operation conducted from a forward “island,” and flight operations from an “aft” island. Harding admitted that this was “a compromise…but I’m not as worried as some about the separation,” he said. Some have noted that the twin islands are more survivable, if the ship should be attacked. Harding further noted that the flight deck design is very flexible. For instance, there’s a ski ramp to launch the F-35s, but also an angled deck from which UAVs or UCAVs might be launched in the future.

The first British F-35B squadron—the famous No 617 “Dambusters”—will form in the U.S. at Beaufort MCAS in 2016 and work up there. It will move to RAF Marham in April 2018 and embark on the Queen Elizabeth shortly thereafter. But it will be another two years before the jets will be operational on the ship. They will be ready for land-based operations by late 2018, however. Compared to the RAF’s Tornado strike aircraft that they will replace, the F-35s will offer stealth and vastly improved sensors and sensor fusion. Whether the F-35 is a true multirole aircraft with superior air-to-air maneuverability and capability remains a matter of considerable debate.

What is beyond question is that the B version has struggled with weight issues, sacrifices range and payload for STOVL capability and costs more to acquire and operate. For this reason, the MoD is studying a mixed fleet of F-35As and F-35Bs, a senior RAF officer told AIN, on condition of anonymity. It seems that the mandarins in the ministry don’t want to admit this, after the previous flip-flop that saw the UK switch from the F-35B to the conventional carrier-landing F-35C version in 2010, and back again in 2012. The combat radius of an F-35B on a hi-hi-hi mission is only 450 nm, versus 590 nm for the F-35C.

Of course, the British have made an essential contribution to the development of the F-35B. The shaft-driven lift fan (SDLF) is Rolls-Royce technology, and Harrier jump-jet operational heritage has informed much of the planning for the F-35B’s entry into service on both sides of the Atlantic. The UK had representatives in the program office from the outset; sent a test pilot and 10 engineers to NAS Patuxent River in 2004, and formed a small test and evaluation unit at Edwards AFB in 2006. Britain bought four F-35s from early production batches for operational test and evaluation.

The British contribution continues with development for the F-35B of the shipboard rolling vertical landing (SRVL) technique that was successfully employed by the Harrier. This increases the permissible landing weight: vertically landing F-35Bs will not be able to “bring back” to the carrier, a full (unexpended) external weapons load, especially in high temperature or low pressure conditions. SRVL boosts the landing weight by 4,000 pounds. BAE Systems F-35 test pilot Pete Wilson told AIN last week that SRVL flight trials will take place on the QEII in 2018. In the meantime, “robust” simulation of the technique has been achieved. But there is still some risk attached “since the F-35B is designed to stop and land, rather than vice versa,” he said. The U.S. Marine Corps might adopt the technique for landing F-35Bs onboard the U.S. Navy’s large aircraft carriers. (The assault ships that will routinely carry USMC F-35Bs are too small for SRVL).

Speaking more generally about landing the F-35B, Wilson noted how easy it is, compared with the Harriers that he previously flew. They had separate levers to control the throttle and the nozzle angle. “Pilots sometimes grabbed the wrong lever. In the F-35B, we’ve designed out such cognitive failures,” Wilson explained. “The F-35B holds zero groundspeed, height and lateral [roll] angle very precisely. The pilot makes only a single-axis input. There’s nothing to do!” he added.

But even if the F-35B had shown up at the Farnborough Air Show this week, spectators would not have seen it land or take off vertically. The downward-directed thrust is too great and too hot for ordinary concrete, let alone tarmac. Special landing pads made from what Wilson calls “ueber-concrete” are being constructed at F-35B airbases. Alternatively, heavy-duty AM2 metal matting can be used; the Marine Corps insists that this is transportable enough for it to retain the forward operating base concept of operations that it has employed with the AV-8B Harrier. Carrier landings and takeoffs by the F-35B are from metal decks that have been specially coated.