The months of June and July 2019 witnessed four significant events which are a portent for the future of UK carrier aviation.
The thirty-seventh anniversary of the Argentine surrender marking the end of the Falklands War was commemorated on the 14th of June. Exactly two days later Royal Air Force F-35B Lightning aircraft operating from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus completed their first armed overwatch mission over Syria marking their operational debut in UK service.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Kelvin Curnow. Kelvin’s particular area of interest is naval aircraft and aircraft carriers. He is a keen writer and over the past fifteen years he has had a number of articles published in different journals.
Denoting a significant step towards initial operating capability, on the 17th of June HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH sailed from Portsmouth for a final round of sea trials before departing for the USA in Autumn for the next round of trials with the F-35B. The final and ominous event occurred on the 20th of July with the seizure of the British flagged tanker Stena Impero by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) in the Strait of Hormuz using fast inshore patrol craft.
The successful prosecution of the Falklands War lies in stark contrast to the ease with which the Iranians captured the British tanker and marks the steep decline in Britain’s maritime capabilities. Regeneration of the UK’s naval capability is marked by the construction of HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH and HMS PRINCE OF WALES (PoW) – collectively designated the QUEEN ELIZABETH CLASS (QEC).
BUILDING A CARRIER FORCE – CATOBAR OR STOVL?
In the light of lessons acquired from the Falklands conflict and both Gulf Wars it became apparent that vessels larger than the Invincible class light carriers would be needed to successfully prosecute any future conflict.
The decision to build two large aircraft carriers also took into account that future aircraft would be larger and heavier and would require a sizeable flight deck for their efficient operation. Before settling on the QEC design one of the alternatives considered was a 40,000 ton carrier configured for Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) operation. With respect to this proposal it is pertinent to consider the French Navy’s 42,500 ton FS CHARLES DE GAULLE (CdG).
Particularly telling are photographs of the CdG participating in Exercise Fanal 2019. These demonstrate both the strengths and weaknesses of the design. The carrier’s strengths are immediately obvious. Arrayed on the flight deck are thirty Dassault Rafale M fighters, two Northrop Grumman E-2C Airborne Early Warning And Control (AEW&C) aircraft, and two helicopters. Also evident are the 4 × 8 cell A-43 Sylver launchers for the MBDA Aster 15 surface-to-air missile (SAM). However, despite this apparent imposing impression of both offensive and defensive firepower limitations of the design are also evident. Carrying a mix of thirty-four aircraft and helicopters the flight deck is decidedly crowded, a fact which restricts the launch and recovery cycle and the refuelling and re-arming of aircraft.
Moreover, while the CdG is inherently advantaged given that it is a CATOBAR design, the carrier’s size means that it equipped with two 75m C13‑3 steam catapults, a shorter stroke version of the catapults installed on the substantially larger USN supercarriers. As aircraft weights inevitably rise, these catapults will prove inadequate and questions have already arisen concerning the suitability of the CdG for F-35C operations. Another factor weighing against a 40,000 ton CATOBAR design was the RN’s experience in the Falklands War.
Arguments have surrounded the outcome of the war had the CATOBAR equipped HMS ARK ROYAL been available. Larger than the CdG and carrying an equivalent air wing, on paper the capabilities provided by the ship far outstripped those of HMS HERMES and HMS INVINCIBLE. However, given the appalling weather conditions in the South Atlantic and the poor availability rate of the Phantoms and Buccaneers its impact on the outcome remains debatable. The experience of successfully operating Harrier aircraft, despite the weather and high sea states, demonstrated the flexibility of carriers configured for the operation of Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft. Additionally, HERMES was decidedly overcrowded carrying a mix of twenty-one Sea Harriers and Harriers plus helicopters, but remained fully operational principally because she was a STOVL carrier.
On the 25th of July 2007, the then Defence Secretary Des Browne, announced the order for two new carriers. This was preceded by a December 2006 statement that the UK’s intention was that it would acquire 138 F-35Bs designed for STOVL operation. In May 2010 the Cameron government announced that the Prince of Wales (PoW) would be converted to Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Landing (CATOBAR) configuration, a plan abandoned in May 2012 after it had been determined that the cost of the modification would be over £1BN.
Being an all-electric ship the PoW would have been equipped with the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and the Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG).
These have had significant problems, described by the Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation in January 2019 as suffering from ‘poor or unknown reliability’. In hindsight, given that the F-35C will not be operational on all USN aircraft carriers until 2027 the UK’s decision to persist with the F-35B now appears sensible, particularly in light of the fact that both the RAF and United States Marine Corps (USMC) have undertaken combat operations with this variant. The latter flew one hundred missions against both the Taliban and ISIS, many of them kinetic.
THE AIR WING
The F-35 is a fifth generation low observable aircraft which operates as a ‘system of systems’ using its open architecture software, avionics, integrated electronic sensors, displays and communications systems to collect data and present it in a ‘fused’ form to the pilot.
The data can also be automatically shared via secured datalinks, the Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) and Link 16, with external platforms such as a Typhoon or Type 45 destroyer. The primary sensor, the Northrop-Grumman AN/APG-81 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar has a maximum tracking range of 250km (135nm) for an airborne target of one square metre Radar Cross Section (RCS) and a maximum detection range of 400km (216nm) with the radar in search mode. The radar can identify and track 23 targets in 9 seconds while engaging 19 of them in 2.4 seconds.
The radar operates together with the Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS), the AN/ASQ-239 Barracuda electronic warfare suite and the Northrop Grumman electro-optical AN/AAQ-37 Distributed Aperture System (DAS) to provide the aircraft with 360 degrees situational awareness (SA). The DAS has six sensors distributed over the aircraft which act as a missile warning system, report missile launch locations, detect and track approaching aircraft, and it also replaces traditional Night Vision Goggles (NVGs).
Demonstrating a unique capability, a DAS sensor mounted in a test platform detected a two-stage ballistic missile launch 1,300 kilometres away. The radar can operate in the electronic attack mode, the electronic warfare suite having proved capable of detecting and jamming radars, including the F-22’s extremely sophisticated AN/APG-77.
Demonstrating yet another unique capacity the aircraft can operate as non-traditional intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) platform. Its capabilities were demonstrated in early 2017 by an Israeli F-35I Adir which gathered new intelligence during a single flight that other reconnaissance and intelligence gathering systems would have taken weeks to gather. Together, therefore, the F-35B is more than the sum of all its parts and its capabilities outweigh anything found in any previous fighter.
With the small numbers of F-35s available these factors are critical.
The Leonardo HM2 Merlin is the other main offensive/defensive component of the carrier air wing (CVW). Learning from the lack of Airborne Early Warning (AEW) in the Falklands conflict, five Merlins will provide Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC).
The Crowsnest system consists of the Thales Searchwater 2000 Radar which has a range of 150nm (278km) and can track 400 targets simultaneously and the Cerberus mission system which can monitor 600 tracks simultaneously. These figures are an improvement over those of the Sea King ASaC7 but pale in relation to the 300+nm (556km) radar range of the Lockheed Martin AN/APY-9 radar fitted to the Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye.
However, the Merlin will be supplemented in its ASaC role by the F-35’s AN/APG-81 radar, which via secure data links will provide a comprehensive radar picture out to a greater range. In addition to the ASaC Merlins, an additional eight Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) HM2s will be part of the CVW. Merlins in RN service are not utilised to their full potential in comparison to those of the Italian Navy Aviation (Aviazione Navale) which in addition to the ASW role uses it in the Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) role.
With a radius of action of 450nm (834km), extendable by Helicopter In-Flight Refuelling (HIFR), and carrying two MBDA Marte ER 54+nm (100+km) range missiles, the Merlin would have a very effective means of attacking both ships and land targets at extended range.
This is an extremely useful capability given the potentially small numbers of F-35s available.
DEFENDING THE QUEEN ELIZABETH CLASS
Given experience in the Falklands War, when an inordinate amount of resources were committed to preventing a successful attack on HERMES and INVINCIBLE by Exocet missiles fired from Super Étendards the lack of weapons for self-defence mounted on the QEC is, in my personal view, a grievous oversight. They carry three Phalanx Close-In Weapons Systems (CIWS), a totally inadequate defensive capability particularly given the development of supersonic, hypersonic and ballistic missiles.
The addition of the ‘Sea Ceptor’ would provide a self-defence capability against ‘leakers’ which penetrate the air defence umbrella provided by the goalkeeper destroyers and frigates.
The Sea Ceptor has inherent qualities: it is already in RN service; it requires no dedicated tracking radar only cueing from the Artisan radar with which the QEC is already equipped; and, it is cold-launched by a compressed air-driven piston before the rocket motor ignites minimising the effect from smoke and toxic fumes.
The RN has recently (July 2016) successfully trialled the similar Thales Martlet Lightweight Multi-role Missile (LMM) fired from a five missile mounting attached to a DS30M Mark 2 remotely operated 30mm cannon turret fitted to HMS SUTHERLAND.
The QEC have four of these mountings. Fitted with both HVM and LMM, the latter available with both laser and infra-red guidance, would provide the carriers with a high degree of anti-air and anti-surface capability, especially if they are to be operated in the confines of the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Sea where threats are posed by drones and fast inshore attack craft operated by the IRCG.
Another defensive layer could be provided via electronic attack. The effectiveness of an electronic warfare and directed energy weapon was demonstrated when on 18 July 2019 the USMC’s Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS) mounted on the USS BOXER brought down an Iranian drone.
THE QEC AT WAR
Consecutive UK governments have overseen the drastic reduction in the number of warships available to the Royal Navy largely based on an assumption that the UK’s armed forces could rely on its NATO allies should a serious conflict break out. In such circumstances it could be assumed that an Royal Navy carrier would be operating as part of a larger allied taskforce.
As an indication of such operations, on the QE’s first operational deployment to the Pacific she will carry a mix of British and US F-35s and be accompanied by a Dutch air warfare destroyer.
However, it cannot be assumed that the UK will have the support of the US in any future conflict given the current trend of that nation’s non-interventionist policies, or policies which prioritise US interests over those of its allies. Reflecting this stance and speaking in respect to the seizure of the Stena Impero, the US Secretary of State said on 22 July 2019 that ‘The responsibility in the first instance falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships’.
An instance where the UK’s armed forces were required to operate with minimal support from the US was the NATO led 23 March – 31 October 2011 intervention in Libya in which the principal responsibility for airstrikes fell to France and the UK.
This was an intervention for which the RN was ill prepared, largely due to the Cameron government’s short-sighted 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) decision to withdraw the Harrier GR9/9As from service, thus depriving the navy of any carrier strike capability.
The only strike capability available to the UK came by way of five British Army Apache AH1 helicopters operating off HMS OCEAN. The Apaches flew 22 missions for a total of 49 combat sorties. In contrast the Italian Navy Aviation (Aviazione Navale) deployed eight AV-8B Harrier IIs on the light carrier ITS GIUSSEPE GARIBALDI.
These carried out armed reconnaissance sorties using LITENING targeting pods while armed with AIM-120 AMRAAMs and AIM-9 Sidewinders and dropped 160 precision-guided bombs during 418 sorties and 1,221 flight hours. The other carrier deployed was the CdG.
It operated with an air wing which included ten Rafale and six Super Étendard Modernisé (SEM) fighters and gives an insight into what capability could have been provided had one QEC carrier been available. By August 4 2011, of the 6745 sorties flown by NATO aircraft France had flown 2225, over half of them coming from CdG. The CdG’s air wing conducted a total of 1,350 missions comprising 840 strike, 390 Rafale reconnaissance, 120 Hawkeye AEW&C and 240 buddy refuelling sorties.
These figures are important to understanding the QEC carriers’ capacity to contribute to an air campaign because both the British and French carriers are designed to generate the same number of sorties per day.
Additionally, despite the usual derisory note adopted by commentators with respect to reality that the QEC class will have a normal complement of twelve F-35Bs, the impressive figures achieved by the CdG’s air wing demonstrates that the number of aircraft on board is not the only determinant to the CVW’s effectiveness. Both the RN and MN place an emphasis on the number of sorties generated rather than the number of aircraft in the CVW.
The GdG’s planes flew 3,600 hours in theatre with an average flight time of 2 hours and 20 mins. In contrast, aircraft flying from Gioia del Colle flew 90 minutes before reaching Libya’s coast, while the RAF’s initial strikes flown from RAF Marham involved an eight hour 3,000mi (4,800km) round trip relying on four air-to-air refuelling brackets. The ability of carrier-borne aircraft to generate a greater proportion of missions and a superior Time Over Target (TOT) was thus demonstrated again.
The folly of disbanding the UK’s Harrier force demonstrated that the lessons of the Falklands War had been forgotten. In contrast to the Libyan operation where a ‘carrier strike’ capability managed to generate only 22 Apache missions in 1982 the RN’s Sea Harrier’s (SHAR) were able to generate an exceptional mission rate, a critical factor given the few aircraft available. A total of 1,435 combat sorties were flown during the 45 days of air combat operations beginning 1 May 1982. Having an availability rate of over 90% each SHAR flew an average of 1.41 sorties per day.
During the Falklands conflict the SHARs attained air superiority shooting down twenty Argentine aircraft for no loss (a kill-loss ratio only bettered by the F-15 Eagle). The RN was ill equipped for the Falklands conflict yet was required to unilaterally engage in the only Air-Sea war fought since World War II. The task force possessed only twenty SHARs at the start of the conflict, augmented later by a further eight SHARs and fourteen RAF Harrier GR3s. This number of aircraft proved insufficient to provide total air superiority.
While of a magnitude greater in capability than the first-generation Harriers thirty-six F-35s is an inadequate number to undertake all the missions required if either the QE or PoW was committed to a peer or near peer conflict. This reality is exacerbated by the UK’s slow F-35 buy-rate which will see only forty-eight available by 2025, barely enough to equip one CVW.
If thirty-six F-35s were available, the CARRIER would rely on generating a maximum 110 sortie rate per day or up to 420 sorties over five days to compensate for the low numbers. These ambitious figures could only come by way of repeating the 95% availability rate achieved by the six Lightnings deployed to Cyprus over the six week period from 21 May 2019.
Given current tensions in the Persian Gulf it is worthwhile assessing any role a QEC carrier could have, particularly given that commentators have criticised the RN for concentrating on procuring high end assets rather than destroyers and frigates. Operation Corporate to retake the Falklands would not have been possible without carrier airpower, conversely an aircraft carrier is not a suitable vessel for escorting tankers through the Straits of Hormuz. However, the carrier can provide a presence and capabilities not available via the deployed escort ships. The CSG can provide armed overwatch of British ships sailing in the Gulf. In the absence of a large number of escorts the Merlins could rappel Royal Marines on to ships should they come under threat. Support from F-35s would be an overwhelming deterrence to any threat to British flagged vessels.
No other asset can react as effectively and proportionately to any asymmetric threat from IRCG fast patrol craft through to ballistic missiles. Given their proliferation in the Gulf region, the F-35’s DAS ability to detect ballistic missiles designed to take out a carrier would be crucial in providing data linked information to Type 45 destroyers equipped with Aster 30 Block 1NT and Block 2BMD anti-ballistic missile missiles.
The Royal Navy has learnt the costly lessons of the Falklands conflict, but unfortunately has not applied them all. The F-35B Lightning is a fighter far beyond the capabilities offered by the SHAR. With more available aircraft equipped with Meteor AAMs sustained combat air patrols (CAPs) and even total air dominance are possibilities not available in the Falklands War. Moreover, the QEC carriers will have Merlin ASAC helicopters on board, a capability missing in 1982.
However, despite these achievements in re-generating big carrier aviation some capabilities are decidedly lacking, particularly in the area of insufficient defensive weapons.
This needs to be addressed by examining whether the carriers are equipped with an adequate number of self-defence weapons systems.