F35 - Money well spent.


Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
Back in 2002 there were significant risks associated with what was still then JSF (JCA in UK-speak) and the STOVL version of the programme was not a guaranteed success: so, the carrier design kept the option of including the catapults - probably the US EMALS (electromagnetic launch system) - and arrester wires in case what's now F-35B, or indeed the whole F-35 programme, went mammaries-uppermost during development.

By about 2007, decisions needed to be made about how much "fit to receive" hardware should be included as the carriers were being put together and QNLZ in particular was going to need to either have the very serious cabling for EMALS (which uses a lot of electrons and needs big wires) installed, or whether she should be left with "space, weight and power" available but not all the supporting hardware that a catapult fit could just plug into. Since the cost of fitting the cabling would be pretty substantial, and F-35B by then was past its worst worries, the funding to fit that hardware wasn't stripped off other projects (the money wasn't attached to the carrier project and would have had to be found from wider Defence, at a point where we were frantically funding all manner of UORs for Afghanistan)

In 2010, during discussions about the Strategic Defence and Security Review, Cameron allegedly declared himself "bored" with the process. In an unminuted fifteen-minute meeting, he chose an option which involved binning Harrier, scrapping Illustrious and Ark Royal, converting POWL to CTOL, and probably selling or scrapping QNLZ. Most of the SDSR10 options had been thoroughly evaluated, compared, and passed by D Scrutiny as valid: this particular set of choices was diplomatically described as "lacking supporting evidence" by the scrutineer concerned. (Meaning, it was made up on the hoof). Nobody since has been willing to admit to any input to it.

As often happens with Senior Officers' Really Clever Ideas, the details that were "too boring" to look at turned out to be significant and problematic. Fitting catapults to POWL turned out to be less straightforward, given how advanced her build was, than had been handwaved. Meanwhile the cost and difficulty of maintaining enough CTOL-qualified pilots for the sort of surge capability the carriers were designed to achieve, turned out to be eyewatering, and various folk started a game of pass-the-parcel over whose budget they should land in: the Navy mulishly pointed out they'd costed for the pre-SDSR10 plans, hadn't seen any uplift and hadn't asked for this change, so couldn't fund it themselves; the RAF declared that learning to land on carriers wasn't in their job description or anything they should pay for, with an undertone of how the longer-range -C or -A versions made the carriers entirely unnecessary anyway; the only agreeements were that it would be painfully expensive and nobody had the money to pay for it.

As it started to look as if we'd end up with one 70,000-ton carrier with a usable air wing of half-a-dozen planes (cf. Russian experience with the Kuznetsov) and that helpful Treasury wonks were asking why we couldn't save a fortune by only flying second-hand F-18s rather than embarking expensive F-35s (so would hit 2020 with a tiny capability of 1990s aircraft), we decided the whole sorry saga had been a horrible mistake and went back to the original plan of F-35B flying STOVL.
This is a complete misconception. From the very start of the programme - the operational analyses conducted from the mid to late 90s - it was clear that delivering carrier strike meant delivering more (and more complex) sorties than the Invincible class. You have to remember that CVS was not designed to operate fixed-wing aircraft, but was able to do so by nature of having a through-deck. The capability those ships offered in the aircraft carrier role was largely token - without any intention to denigrate those who operated off the ship and squeezed the most out of it, you got what you could. But - if you are going to replace the capability, you replace it with real capability that meets a requirement, rather than making do.

The initial concept studies by MoD were based on aircraft numbers rather than real sorties and flypros and that is where the 1997 40000 tonner came from. Once you factored in package size, force protection requirements and - importantly - lean manning deck practices, you ended up with a significantly bigger ship. From memory, people were already at 60000+ te by 2000 or thereabouts. That was largely irrespective of whether the aircraft were STOVL or CTOL (as cat n'trap is properly known) - contrary to prior perceptions. So, at that point, you're already much bigger than the USMC ships, driven by deck parking arrangements among other things.

At that point, you have to consider where the various aircraft options were at the time. STOVL had always been the (probably unspoken) preferred option, although much of this was down to the incorrect assumption that a STOVL ship would be much smaller than a CTOL ship. True if you're buying a token capability, very much untrue when you get into sortie counts and package sizes. For clarity, no procurement case for a token capability would have passed the value for money test, so the "small ship" argument is moot at that point anyway. Nor would it have been cheap, but I digress.

There was still considerable uncertainty at this point (2002) as to whether the STOVL aircraft would meet UK requirements and there was a risk it might be canned, but the realisation that the ship would have to be big enough to handle CTOL aircraft meant that there was a mitigation route, which is where the "adaptable" design originated from. It didn't massively change the size or price (at that point) of the ship and offered lots of risk mitigation against the cancellation of the STOVL jet. The reason the adaptable design CTOL option became much expensive later was essentially because the MoD had never contracted to take the detail design for the CTOL option further. In essence, the ship was (and remains) capable of being converted to CTOL, but the point in the build it was at made it prohibitively expensive.

The reason why that detail was never progressed was partly because the STOVL design began to become more mature and overcome its problems and partly because the UK "Air" programmes had by this time started to contract in scope. Essentially, the overall force size of JCA was to shrink, which meant that being able to rapidly augment the baseline carrier wing became more important and a judgement was made that it was a lower training burden - and hence impact on JCA force structure - to do that with STOVL than with CTOL. Thus the presumption of STOVL strengthened and continued over the following few years, extending to the (much delayed by Gordon Brown) contract signature - at which point the design and build proceeded as a STOVL ship.

It was only when the B programme had a bit of a wobble in 2009 that the decision was seriously questioned. The exact machinations leading to the SDSR10 switch to a single CTOL carrier remain a matter of conjecture. What is clear is that once the B programme came out of it's special measures the cost-benefit pendulum swung firmly back in favour of the B. I personally would have been happy to have seen the CTOL option progress, but only because it offered a potentially superior ASaC option and knowing that much more money would have needed to be found eventually, because a one-carrier force - as the French are finding - is a part-time capability. All the arguments about cross-decking deployed by some at the time were and are sprurious - and it would have required a larger JCA force dedicated to carrier strike, although by how much remains open to debate. Incidentally, to answer your point as to why the USMC have a "C" component and why the B does not operate from a USN CVN, it's because the B does not easily integrate into the deck management cycle of a CTOL ship. It needs space in places that a CTOL airwing needs to park its cabs, so would ruin deck ops for a CTOL ship. The C variant fits in nicely on a CVN deck - but of course cannot operate from the LHA/LHD so unable to provide the local air support that the USMC prizes. Horses for courses.

So, we have a big carrier because the requirement (in terms of strike package and sortie rate) needed a big carrier almost from the start. A "small" carrier could not meet the sortie rate and would not have been appreciably cheaper, so would fail the cost-benefit test. The F35B has already been to sea with the USMC and is now deployed at sea. The SRVL is to satisfy a particular UK requirement in a limited part of the operating envelope and while as yet unproven at full scale is as de-risked as it can possibly be at this stage. Even in the unlikely event that it should fail, that does not negate the ship aircraft combination which will be significantly in excess of anything outside the USN in capability. It will also allow the UK to contribute strategically to NATO and other alliances in a way that other nations cannot, which brings significant influence, which is ultimately what foreign and defence policy is all about.

Apologies for essay, but the how did we get here is not a simple story. However, it's not a tale of political or military incompetence either. It's what happens when a programme of this scale meets funding challenges, technical challenges and unforeseen world events.
Can the force size the QE class and the force size of F35 from which there is to draw generate the required sortie rate though?


Book Reviewer
Then go look at Betty Blue, because well just because really
A film where if you arrived 10 mins late you would have no idea what the fuss was about
Can the force size the QE class and the force size of F35 from which there is to draw generate the required sortie rate though?
Yes. Put 36 cabs on the ship and you're in business. Can you send both to sea with that CVW concurrently? Not on current plans. Can you do it with one.? Absolutely once the JCA force is fully stood up.
To defend the carrier
Defence of the carrier (or indeed any specific location or asset) is not necessarily an organic task; ISR and C2 coverage, threat, SAMs and land based assets will all be in the equation. However, if 30+ F-35Bs are embarked they should be able to maintain at least one DCA CAP with ease.



Book Reviewer
Including at least 1 x CAP?
With 30+ cabs on board, why would it be difficult to generate CAP if it was required?

(Discussion then becomes whether an airborne CAP is more, or less, useful than CROWSNEST and escorting warships cueing deck-launched alert aircraft - but that's what planning staff are for...)
How many a/c do you need to generate that one CAP 24/7 ? I’d imagine as an absolute min it’s in the region of 3

Do you need a 2nd CAP?

This obviously eats into the other non-CAP tasks that can be conducted


Book Reviewer
How many a/c do you need to generate that one CAP 24/7 ? I’d imagine as an absolute min it’s in the region of 3

Do you need a 2nd CAP?

This obviously eats into the other non-CAP tasks that can be conducted
Exactly so, which is why the planning process looks at the costs and benefits of an airborne CAP compared to differing levels of Deck Launched Alert.

<veering into areas that others may be able to correct or update - @Magic_Mushroom, @Archimedes ?>

Very rough rule of thumb is three aircraft required to keep one on station (probably rising over time). In a simple one-dimensional analysis airborne CAP is clearly better since it's further up threat, but reality and wider threat sectors may mean that you can engage more effectively (time, range, weapons and fuel available) with - say - four aircraft held at short notice on deck, than two on airborne CAP.

Cueing and warning, from CROWSNEST to AWACS to other J2 feeds, become important aids to economy of force here, as do questions like whether we've got tanker support (we may be in a Kosovo-type situation where friends and allies in the region will let us operate unarmed ISR, transport and tanker aircraft from their bases, but anything with weapons has to fly from "somewhere else"... such as an aircraft carrier. Or they may allow defensive armament but not strike sorties, so we can have land-based fighter cover over our force but any smiting has to come from carrier-based air. Or we may be short of space and time, and the threat level's low enough, that the Type 45 with the carrier is enough to handle the threat especially if CROWSNEST shows it what's happening over the horizon, rather than trying to cram a Fighter Engagement Zone and a Missile Engagement Zone into too little airspace... you get the picture, "it depends".)

You may even flex between them, with CAP deployed to cover specific threats or warnings, but DLA for the general case.

Again, there's no single simple answer, it all depends on the threat, the supporting forces available, the risk appetite, whether the AAWC managed to get a second sausage at breakfast... but having 30+ fast jets with organic AEW available and the difficulty of deciding how to best use them, is not a bad problem to have to deal with.
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A seven-cab NAS of SHAR on CVS used to be able to run a 2-ship 24/7 CAP for a couple of days or so - albeit without being able to do anything else and requiring a good stand down thereafter. It's actually an aircrew limit if the cabs are in good nick.

Single-ship CAP are a bad idea for a number of reasons.

Planning DCA and posture is an ever-changing feast depending on threat, position, other assets, overall air mgmt. etc etc, as jrw ably points out above.

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