Nick Harvey MP writes on Carrier strike capability

Earlier this month the Defence Secretary announced that the MoD’s budget was in balance, for the first time in a generation. A number of tough but necessary decisions meant that the £38bn black hole inherited from the last Labour government had finally been eliminated – a major part of which was the decision to deliver Carrier Strike capability using a different type of Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) jet because of unacceptable cost growth and project delays. In particular, the Government has decided to change the type of jet which will fly off the Navy’s two new aircraft carriers – from the Carrier Variant (CV) JSF to the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant.

As we set out in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, Carrier Strike will be a key capability our Armed Forces must maintain, but the equipment plan we inherited was deeply unsustainable. At the time of the SDSR, the idea was that one of the two new carriers would be converted with catapults and arrester gear (‘cats and traps’) so it could operate the carrier variant of the JSF. A decision on the future use or disposal of the second carrier would be taken at the next SDSR in 2015. This was then followed by a detailed programme of work to look at the costs, risks and technical feasibility of this proposal.

It rapidly became clear that a number of the underlying facts on which the SDSR’s decision was based were changing. Firstly, it emerged that the Carrier Strike capability using ‘cats and traps’ would not be delivered until 2023 at the earliest – three years later than the original envisaged date of around 2020. Partly as a result of the delayed timetable, the estimated cost of fitting this equipment to the HMS Prince of Wales carrier had more than doubled within the past 17 months, rising from £950 million to £2 billion. Additionally, at the time of the last SDSR, consideration of the STOVL variant was ruled out on account of the fact that there was judged to be a very significant technical risk around it. However in the last year there have been vast improvements to the ‘risk profile’ of the aircraft, and US Marine Corps flight trials have now taken place.

The Government came under heavy criticism and accusations of a u-turn from the Labour benches over this very complex and difficult decision – even though it has been endorsed by our military chiefs and our principal allies, the US and France. But when facts change, the only responsible thing to do is re-examine previous decisions. We simply cannot blindly pursue projects and ignore the facts of cost growth and delays.

We will not bury our heads in the sand and plough on regardless. That’s what Labour did: ordering ships without the money to pay for them while harbouring an unaffordable fantasy equipment plan and a £38bn black hole in the MoD’s finances. As well as our financial responsibilities, we have a responsibility to provide an appropriate and sustainable military capacity, and fitting ‘cats and traps’ using the Carrier Variant jet no longer represented the best way to do so.

* Sir Nick Harvey was the Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon from 1992 until 2015 and Minister of State for the Armed Forces from 2010 to 2012

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  • Michael Butlin 30th May '12 - 3:42pm

    The original decision to go big ship solution was wrong for 2 reasons 1. Harrier jump jet provides a more flexible solution sea and land use with huge investment in runway 2. Cat take can provide a weapons platform that can meet any 1st level force but has not been a need in over 25 years An extra point there is nothing like seeing a jump jet rise up from a wood

  • I am with you tommy,
    The ministers and MOD have had their leg lifted by the shipbuilders. The extra cost of cats and traps could have been easily covered by the potential savings through buying cheaper EXISTING aircraft like the F18.

    The STOVL. Variant of the F35 B. will cost best part of $200m eachby the time they have finished development.
    At least twenty of them per boat and spares. Do the math.

    Lewis Page nailed the issue on the Today program when this extravagance was announced.

  • David Evans 31st May '12 - 8:09am

    Another defense contract with costs spiralling out of control. Will there ever be a Defense minister, of any party, who has the ability to avoid these mistakes?

  • A tough call, but what range will the STOVL variant have and how does this compare with the carrier variant? And will military aircraft in 20 year’s time be pilotless?

  • Gareth Jones 1st Jun '12 - 11:26am

    I originally posted this in the thread for the counter argument but it also applies here so….
    1) Individual STOVL aircraft like the F-35B may cost more than a conventional Carrier aircraft (F-35C) but with the purchase and maintenance of the catapults and arrestor wires, the landing systems, plus the extra crew (including pay, training, and benefits such as pensions) it is quite possible for the “Cats and Traps” option to cost more money.
    2) The range of the F-35B is significantly more than the Sea-Harrier and the major benefit of STOVL aircraft is their flexibility in basing and landing options, meaning they can operate closer to the area of action or land to refuel after the mission. The Forward Operating Base at San Carlos greatly increased air cover and Close Air Support for the troops in the Falklands. Also it will be a lot easier for RAF STOVL aircraft to join the Carrier for “Surge” operations.
    3) Weapons are increasingly smaller and more precise to avoid unnecessary collateral damage. Total bomb load is not as important as it used to be but I believe the F-35B’s is more than the Sea Harrier’s.
    4) The STOVL version of the F-35, the “B”, had problems but is back on track. The F-35C now has a major problem with the tail hook needed to catch the arresting wires and may retire a major redesign.
    5) We were very unlikely to have these support aircraft; the US is struggling to have a balanced air wing on their carriers. One advantage of STOVL over CATOBAR aircraft is the ability to land quickly and vertically – CATOBAR aircraft require a refuelling aircraft present when landing in case they run out of fuel due to missing the wires and having to try again. It has often been said “it’s better to stop and land than to land and try to stop”.
    6) Both the Hornet (even the Super variant) and the Rafale will be obsolete quicker than both F-35 variants and will require a new aircraft purchase sooner and will cost more money in the long run. It is also very difficult to compare aircraft prices as national deals tend to involve other factors such as support, maintenance, certain discounts, etc, and with part of the F-35B being built in the UK (lift-fan) then the Government can get some money back in tax, etc.
    The biggest advantage of the STOVL version will be the possibility of using both carriers as aircraft carriers, the Cats and traps only being confirmed for one of the planned carriers. A STOVL aircraft can operate from the deks of conventional carriers, STOVL carriers such as operated by Italy and Spain, as well as assault ships, so the range for interoperable options is much better.

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