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Options to augment the capabilities of the Queen Elizabeth carriers in future, including shipborne air-to-air refuelling, are currently being explored by the MoD.
Asked by James Heappey, MP for the Wells:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, if he will examine options in SDSR 2020 to enable HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales to extend the effective combat radius of the F-35B through the introduction of a shipborne air-to-air refuelling capability.”

Answered by Harriett Baldwin, Under Secretary of State for Defence Procurement:

“The Department will continue to explore a variety of options to augment the capabilities of the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers in future. Decisions on funding will be taken at the appropriate time within the Defence annual budget cycle.”

This wouldn’t be without precedent, for instance, in 2011 the MoD explored the shipborne air-to-air refuelling capabilities during the shortlived plan to operate F-35C from the Queen Elizabeth carriers.

At the time it was reported that the UK asked Lockheed Martin to assess the feasibility of using the F-35C in a buddy-buddy refuelling mode.

Peter Luff, then Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology said that “the most cost-effective means of providing an embarked air-to-air refuelling capability in support of the department’s future Carrier Strike capability” would emerge around March 2012. With the switch back to the F-35B, nothing more seems to have been discussed publicly.

We have reached out to contacts involved with the F-35 programme and the Queen Elizabeth carrier programme for further details.

57 COMMENTS

    • I think your missed by the point. The mission aircraft would be refuelled by aircraft tasked for buddy/buddy refuelling. In other words at least one F35B would act solely as a tanker escorting the mission aircraft enroute until refuel was required or more likely too intercepting a returning mission at the earliest possible time to refuel them and ensure recovery to the carrier.

      • Would it have to be a F35 operating as a tanker? I’d be interested to know if Ospreys could perform the role – I don’t know if they can lift the sort of weights that would be needed.

      • seems a very expensive option an F35 used as a tanker, whats wrong with tanker version of a drone that the US is proposing and developing, instead of selling HMS Ocean to Brazil
        use it as a light carrier equipped with Drones as a cost effective option, it would fit into a battle group providing drone tanker support to extend the range of offensive defensive aircraft etc

      • Also, I suspect that air-to-air refuelling might have a particularly beneficial impact for F-35B because I suspect the short ski-jump take off with heavy load expends a much high percentage of an F-35B fuel load on take off vs a catapult launched plane (the power that the cat is imparting has to come from somewhere and that somewhere is the F-35B’s onboard fuel). That means that just topping up to full from a loitering tanker 50km towards the target and the same 50km from the carrier on return would probably add appreciably more than 50km to the combat radius (distance from carrier would vary depending on circumstances of course).

  1. I understand that just topping up the fuel tanks after take off as that uses a significant portion of fuel (I excess of 25%)

  2. US is developing osprey to do this now. I suspect half the reason we will have US marine corp aircraft onboard is so we have access to their osprey. They should have used osprey for crows nest instead of merlin. They also need something to be able to resupply the ship and fly in personnel. The osprey can carry an f35 engine internally.

  3. According to Wikipedia, the Osprey can carry 12,000 pounds of fuel for re-fuelling, whereas an F-35B carries 13,300 pounds of internal fuel, so nearly a full load’s worth.

  4. Well said Andy C : Even the skipper of the QE has asked for Osprey make perfect sense to buy the Osprey to supply COD and as you said the Osprey can carry Engines not sure the Osprey AEW is ready yet. But once again UK Mod give us a Roll Royce and Morris parts it has been the same over and over again. So now we have very little F35 and now have to use one to refuel. Mod are starting to panick now no close in weapons for carrier should have bought SeaRam we jump from one nightmare to another

      • It would be great for sure! However, I have a sinking feeling that QE will put to sea with only 3 Phalanx and no SeaRam and/or containerised CAMM. The reason I believe this will be so is because there has been absolutely no ‘chatter’ whatsoever to this effect and without smoke, there is no fire. Harriet Baldwin even said the MoD is considering a Harpoon replacement – however unlikely that will be – but nothing, absolutely nothing on QE self-defence.

  5. They should follow the marine corp plans to use them to refuel straight after launch. This will allow for a greater weapons load at take off

  6. This was an obvious need a decade ago.

    The solution (Osprey) should be in place already.

    The Lightning can’t buddy-refuel.

    • One reason HMG is reluctant to purchase Osprey is the cost (est 44M each!) – but couldn’t we buy some second-hand or lease them??? We’re not talking about huge numbers as we would need relatively few for carrier operations and they could be cross-decked from QE to PoW when the carriers are rotated.

      • They cost a helluva lot more than £44m each…..

        Only one export order exists, for Japan… details here:
        http://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/japan-v-22b-block-c-osprey-aircraft

        That said, this enormous price is still better than spending the money on converting the Lightning to a tanker (an ability not native to its design).
        It would be double the crime wasting its precious flight hours being a taker anyway.

        The USN have said their Super Hornets spend 30% of their flight hours being tankers for their fellow jets….. a waste.

        There also needs to be a means of ferrying people and goods to the carriers.
        The Osprey has twice the range and nearly double the speed of a Merlin.

        The knew all this years ago.

  7. Using an F35 would be the least cost effective solution possible. V22 Osprey cost c. $72m
    F35B cost c $135m. What are they smoking at the MOD? I can’t imagine the capacity of the F35 being larger either which would make the comparison even worse. Also taking one or two front line fighters off the line to fulfil the role of tanker makes it even worse again. I just don’t get how there’s any rational thought gone into this at all.

  8. The Fleet Air Arm used the Scimitar and Buccaneer effectively in the buddy-buddy AAR role in the past. The way it works is something like this…. Two aircraft get airborne, one armed strike aircraft, the other loaded with extra fuel tanks and a refuelling pod… Then en route to the target, the tanker aircraft transfers its surplus fuel to the waeapon aircraft then returns back onboard. The strike aircraft has a full fuel load again, and hence has been given a longer range. You can then extend range further again (to an extent) by refuelling the tankers … It’s cheaper because you don’t have to buy and keep dedicated tanker aircraft, AAR becomes a capability for all the F35s onboard… Hence ‘buddy-buddy’

    • But we had some 200 buccaneers. They cost about £6m in the 1970s. Even adjusted for inflation that would be roughly £60. Nearly half the cost of the F35 but we’ll only have 24 of those, eventually. We’re far more resource constrained these days, which makes F35 too valuable in their strike role to sacrifice them for tanker duties. We need a COD capability anyway, which the V22 could do as well as refuelling. IMO.

  9. If you read the question carefully and then read the answer, considering that the answer is just a response to the question, the question on whether this has been considered is not answered. They just say they are always considering options, without specifying options to cover what need or what options.

  10. Osprey seems the way to go. The US are already developing a roll-on-roll-off refuelling rig, in fact I think I saw that it has already done some in-air testing but I might be wrong on that.

    If the AWACS “bag” could also be re-hosted on a roll-on-roll-off mechanism for V-22 then a core set of embarked Ospreys could provide both tanker and potentially far-better-than-Merlin AWACS. There would be the lack of cabin pressurisation issue to contend with for AWACS but if that could be solved (everyone on oxygen? pressurised small operators’ cabin only?) then getting the AWACS almost 10,000 feet higher than is possible with Merlin would be a huge benefit.

    And of course they could also be used for COD as well.

    • The MOD budget IS the foreign aid kitty!

      1/5th of the defence budget is spent on foreign aid.

      The UK doesn’t spend 2% of GDP on defence.

  11. David 100% agree. Stop spending £13 billion a year on foreign aid and resolve some of the capability gaps we have.
    A small osprey force for the fleet air arm makes huge sense. Each carrier would only need say 6 aircraft on deployment and can easily carrier the osprey+ 24 F35bs, and a force of merlins.
    the f35b costing £100 million each means we need to retain them for air defence and strike missions. A £70 million osprey seems like good value to me. We do not need the osprey yet for awacs as we will have crowsnest which will be highly capable. Osprey has a niche for air to air refuelling. Passenger transportation, vip transportation and special forces deployment.
    just wish HMG would get serious about the state of the uk armed forces and plug some capability gaps. Norwegian anti ship missile to replace harpoon £300-350 million would give enough missiles to arm all type 23, type 45s and possibly the river class.
    Containerised sea ceptor and sea RAM in addition to phalanx for QE carriers £200 million in total. Much needed to enhance layered defence for carriers so they can adequately defend themselves when we do not have enough frigates and destroyers.
    type 41 vl system for type 45s+ sort out propulsion issues. £500 million.
    List goes on… All could be easily affordable just need to cut foreign aid and go to 3% gdp to defence ratio.
    that would send a powerful message to other NATO states and the EU that we mean business and the EU need to tread carefully with brexit not to try alienating us or treating uk badly for exercising its democratic rights.
    No way do we owe EU £50 billion.
    if they try to slap that bill on us we should issue them a bill for £2.5-3 trillion for our commitments and expenditure defending the EU and nato since 1945. Then do not even get me started on the free loans we gave EU countries after WW2 for reconstruction and aid. £1.5 trillion in todays money. By my reckoning they owe us big time!!!! We could use some of that money to support NHS, social care, infrastructure, plugging defence capability gaps. £4-5 trillion would be very useful at this time thank you EU

  12. We need to get rid of Harriett Baldwin and Michael Fallon and find someone that knows what they are doing. The Uk defence forces are in complete chaos we waste so much money on crap coming out of BAE Systems. We have been stuck with F35B due to no other aircraft being able to land on the carrier we should have gone with Cats and traps but we didnt. The F35 is looking like a good aircraft if they need more room to get the Osprey on board they could have dropped the Apache Helos. They should not be on board in the first place they should be on Ocean. Reading all the above comments there seems to be more sense from all the posts then any of the politician

  13. V-22 would be great but it is just to expensive. Minimum requirment would be for a squadron of 6 active airframes (1 flight of 3 per carrier) and a small OCU, say another 3 airframes. Add the cost of running the squadron properly with plenty of spares and training and it quickly gets out of control. We are probably looking at little change from a billion pounds.

    • @David S

      I think your figures are valid and so do pose a problem, however the carriers are capability regeneration and the Govt know this – they have had their cost saving out of reducing the carrier and escort forces during a time of austerity and now need to commit to the re-introduction of those capabilities. I think we will have to rationalise somewhere though and that probably means the chinook force will have to be replaced by the V22 force.

      If we can trade in our whole chinook force (including the new ones in storage) for 64 V22 that would be a possible long term solution (unlikely I know), that could help make this more sustainable and affordable. It is out of the box thinking but that’s where we are, The US wants to do business with us and wants us to have interopability with them, so may be accommodating. Otherwise I agree at £1bn its too much.

  14. Absolutely David, I agree it’s an expensive aircraft – even more than I had originally understood it to be and it will require it own logistics train, spares etc., as you say. However, I think the benefits outweigh the costs; any chance Uncle Sam would do us a deal on some ‘gently used’ airframes??

    Anyway, whilst I agree with Colin above, as long as Fallon is place this conversation and 50p would buy you a cup of coffee as it will never happen. We’ve got all we’re getting I’m afraid….

  15. A novel/stupid idea would be to but back a few old barriers and use them for refuelling only. They are obsolete from a fighter perspective but I wonder they could do refuelling.

  16. Seems to me Osprey and buddy to buddy are two different capabilities, with the F-35B having a payload equal or more than the full internal fuel load, it means an F-35B could effectively have twice the operating range, or a lot longer time on target, at normal operational flight speed – or even flat out. One F-35B buddy for the outward leg, one to meet for the inward leg. Or even the same one refuelled itself by Osprey launched at the same time.

    So to get a pair of F-35Bs over target takes a pair of buddies and a couple of Ospreys (or another pair of buddies), to provide a long range or high speed short notice mission capability.

  17. I think we can do a poor mans version of this and add the RORO rig to a Merlin, at least this gives us some capability to extend range and a merlin is significantly cheaper than a V22. Not ideal but maybe worth considering.

    No doubt the V22 is the best solution, but the UK will need to ditch another platform to make this happen and we have invested heavily in all our current helicopter platforms, so it just doesn’t look viable to me without us removing one of wildcat/chinook/merlin from service and looking at the specs it really is a Merlin replacement.

    This suggestion is based upon total cost of ownership and the fact we cannot add another logistics tail to our inventory on our budget I am afraid.

  18. I’m coming round more to the idea of a buddy-buddy. The F-35B can already take extra fuel pods, and these would exist in inventory anyway. Once the capability is developed which would be a one-off cost, it’s done and dusted, a small relatively inexpensive addition to inventory, and very little extra in logistics and maintenance.

    The question is – how often is this capability needed? If it’s a lot then it might be worth the likes of Ospreys, but if it’s only a little, buddy-buddy is not taking fighters off the line permanently, just for the fairly rare missions themselves, when instead of being armed and dangerous they’re fitted with fuel pods and the refueller – just for that mission. Then they’re back to normal use. Just some training and some exercises to keep the capability, so a relatively cheap program to increase capability at need.

    • I forgot to add – the refuelling buddies could even, presumably, carry a couple of meteors to use to escort the actual mission F-35B to target and engage over the horizon if needed, leaving the mission F-35B fully fuelled and armed.

      • To throw another idea into the mix, the Israelis are very seriously looking into conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) for their F-35s. If that happens, and if the technology is suitable for, or could be adapted to, F-35B(*) it might open up a whole load of possibilities. If CFTs maintain stealth then a simple F-35B unassisted sortie with internal weapons only gets extended range. Even if not stealthy then an F-35B buddy might be able to take extra fuel in both CFTs and drop tanks for a serious extra fuel load. No idea whether it could still get off the carrier with full drop tanks and CFTs (and no weapons load of course) but it does open up a whole other set of options to explore.

        Typing out the above is really making me think that we should look at joint funding the development of CFTs with the Israelis.

        (*) Israel is using F-35A. The F-35B front fuselage is a bit fatter due to the lift fan so there might be fit, aerodynamic and/or stealth issues re F-35B use.

  19. Save the Royal Navy have an excellent article on helicopters that states a 59% reduction between 2009-19. This is even worse when you look at the fact we will still have Puma’s at this point and the Merlin fleet have been re-purposed.

    I think there is an argument for the UK to bring in a fleet of Ospreys (I will blow the budget and say 64) that can replace the Puma force, move us forward capability wise and add more volume to a much overworked force.

    Having looked at the specs they are similar in size but have greater lift and reach than the Marlins, but cost a fortune, so we will need to really be strategic about this and if we do go for them then we need a force that give us scale (min 36).

    I also think the buddy system has legs and would rather have more jets if I am honest

  20. The other alternative would be to use a Chinook tanker. With long range fuel tanks fitted the Chinook has a range of 1200 miles. More importantly though with max range fuel tanks fitted it can still haul 8 tons of load so easily capable of taking a full fuel load with a air to air refuelling probe for f35b. Not sure though if a Chinook could fly fast enough to refuel an f35b without the f35b having to hover?

  21. Well done David Cameron! All these headaches because we wanted to penny pinch and not convert the carriers to Cats & Traps. It has worked out to be a false economy and at the expense the carriers are more vulnerable and will have less capability and higher running costs long term.

  22. I believe I have seen some Osprey-like UAVs of late. Perhaps there is a more cost-effective newcomer in the picture other than Osprey. Something which could be more suited to the role. Either way, it seems obvious to me that some kind of tilt-rotor aircraft is best suited, and Osprey is currently the only tried and tested aircraft which can tick that box.

  23. Having just watched the Osprey refueling two F 18 in the states.. I dont care what it costs Uk needs that Aircraft on are carriers. I dont care if May has to kiss Donald Trump back side or sweet talk him in loaning the aircraft to the UK . This aircraft is the one we need COD / Medevac / AEW it is the perfect aircraft for Uk Carrier
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfkDfDhJ_JA

  24. Of course CAMM is better for CIWS but we have Phalanx and T45 so HMG will be able to say the QE won’t be undefended which is why it won’t get CAMM. Don’t forget there will be a small handful of RMs in a Pacific Rib on hand as well.

    And of course Osprey is a better for COD and AAR and AEW. But if F35 AAR is a capability then HMG will be able to say we have AAR, and with Merlin we have COD and AEW so it’s all covered even though Osprey is much much better. The RAF will also say that Voyager can do 12,000 km so can do AAR from land and they will go on to say for the same reason that we don’t need carriers at all and that we could have had an extra 50 shiny new Typhoons for the cost of the QE.

  25. Everyone is always talking about taking money from Foreign aid to bolster the defence budget. I agree that FA receives too much money and that some should be re-allocated to Defence but the question is how much and would it be wasted on projects that run late and over-budget or are just cancelled just as they are coming to fruition? With the UK leaving the EU, soft power (I can hear the snorts of derision) is going to be even more vital and British foreign aid, for all of its faults, is and will be a vital adjunct to Britain’s efforts as we attempt to succeed in overseas markets. I think people need to think more carefully before taking the easy option of ransacking the FA budget just to cover up the fact that the country is effectively broke and manifestly cannot afford well-equipped and resourced armed forces in every area.

    • FA is a complicated issue with many misperceptions on what we do, how we do it and the powerful emotions it evokes.

      I am sorry to disagree Will, but I do not believe we see the soft power we say we do where it matters. I am (almost) certain nowhere we spend FA will we see meaningful trade reciprocation.

      IMHO we are going to need far more real hard power over the next few years, both because the world has become a more dangerous place and no matter what the EU says, security will play a part in negotiating our future relationship.

      Accordingly, here are some new ways to look at FAs for people to cogitate. For the record I believe in FA, but…

      1) FA has doubled from £6bpa to £13bpa in the last ten years
      2) In all ten years the entire FA budget has been borrowed (if one choses to look at it that way). So we’ve not even earned the money we’re giving away.
      3) For eight of those ten years public sector workers have either had wages frozen or laterly limited to 1% payrises
      4) The Defence budget in 2017 is less in actual numbers than in 2007 net alone when adjusted for inflation.
      5) Only 16% of the sum actually goes in humanitarian assistance (what might traditionally of been called FA)
      6) Only America spends more on FA than UK and we spend far more as a % of GDP than America

      Without wishing for the FA budget to be abolished, I think this combination of factors is simply unsustainable financially and politically.

      I also don’t believe past MoD incompetence re procurement should be used as an excuse to deny Defence necessary funds (especially when so much of that responsibility really lies at the doors of numbers 10 & 11 Downing Street). However, MoD should be publically accountable for appropriate use of any additional funds so as not to repeat these errors.

  26. Well said will. We have a great reputation abroad for our level of FA. It brings far more benefits than some of our most recents forays in other countries ( Sierra Leone and Kosovo being the few exceptions )

  27. Ian
    very well constructed and water tight arguments.
    I think going to world-wide average for developed nations of 0.4-0.5% of gdp (US, German and French FA figures) would be fair and logical.
    I know other public services are in need of funds but i would put the entire £6-7 billion a year saved off the FA budget into defence and sort out the mess left behind by successive cuts and badly thought out SDSRs.
    NHS, Social care, education can all be correctly funded. we just need as a nation to pay more tax. We are a nation of high personal income and household expenditure but low tax.
    If we want public services that are viable long-term we have to pay more tax. Just look at what is happening in Spain, Greece, Italy where they have huge amounts of tax avoidance, low governmental income but their citizens expect and demanded world class public services. It drove those countries to the abyss and they are all still teetering on the brink of ruin.
    In coming election i would vote for any government that said they were going to put up income tax by 5p (income tax being the fairest tax of all)
    1p extra to defence
    1p extra to nhs
    1p extra to social care
    1p extra to education
    1p extra for directly funded infra structure.
    If we did that in 10-15 years our country really would be somewhere to be proud of.

  28. Might actually add put income tax up by 6p and in addition to my previous comments i would say the extra 1p in the pound should go to paying off our national debt (will take 75-80 years at that rate depending upon gdp, tax revenues and economic growth)
    however we have to start paying off this debt as we are indebting our children and their children and their children’s children with no plan to pay off this debt.

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