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Editorial

  

The Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review becomes a River Pageant

and Carrier Strike ambitions end

4 June 2012
 

Coronation Fleet Review, 1953

Silver Jubilee Fleet Review, 1977.  Near the bottom of the picture,
the Royal Yacht
Britannia about the enter the review columns

Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant, 2012.  The Royal Barge is
prominent at the bottom right of the picture.

 

The Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is deservedly being celebrated around the world. 

In the UK, the highlight of an extended June “Jubilee” bank holiday weekend was a nautical event.  Under a tradition dating back at least 600 years, this should have been the sovereign reviewing the ships of her Royal Navy.  But instead we had the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant - 1,000 small boats from around the world sailing down the River Thames, accompanying The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh in their Royal Barge.  Popular although this rain drenched event was, it was also hardly spectacular.  Whilst watching it, it was impossible not to lament the lack of a Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review.  Back in 2005 I was still hoping that the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth would be the suitably named and impressive flagship of the Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review, when I discovered last year that no fleet review was planned, I was surprised and disappointed to say the least.  I was going to write on the reasons for this, but an article in the Daily Telegraph has pre-empted me.

As a supplement to that article, I list in the table below the size of the Royal Navy at key dates in Her Majesty’s reign (which started with her accession to the throne upon the death of her father King George VI on 6 February 1952, although her Coronation was not held until June the following year):

 

Accession, 1952

Silver Jubilee, 1977

Golden Jubilee, 2002

Diamond Jubilee, 2012

Battleships

1

0

0

0

Aircraft Carriers

10

1

3

0

Helicopter Carriers

0

2

1

2

Cruisers

14

2

0

0

Destroyers

49

12

11

6

Frigates

55

57

21

13

Submarines

39

31

16

11

Service Personnel

145,200

76,200

42,400

c. 34,000

 

Some time ago I predicted that the Royal Navy would be down to its last warship by 2020, and that prediction seems to be only slightly pessimistic given the traumatic decline in naval strength over the last few years.  Indeed, from a naval perspective it’s become impossible to think too badly of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) conducted by the current Conservative led coalition government. 

It’s predecessor, the 1998 Strategic  Defence Review (SDR), was a well thought out document which offered a coherent defence policy, and then set-out how the UK’s armed services would evolve in order to deliver the required military capabilities.  Unfortunately the events of 9/11 and the UK’s disastrous involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reduced the document to top shelf ‘dust gathering’ by 2004.

SDSR does make some reasonable statements about national security task and planning guidelines, and describes a ‘Future Force 2020’ that has some merit.  But there was then a total disconnect with the decisions announced in SDSR, which were justified solely by a desire to cut defence spending quickly and significantly.   

One of the very few decisions in SDSR that appeared to take a long-term view was the change from buying STOVL F-35B Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), to the more capable and longer range F-35C variant.  Whilst this would require at least one of the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers (termed CVF) to be fitted with catapults and arresting gear (‘cat & trap’), the benefits were substantial – not least interoperability with the aircraft carriers of our two closest allies – the USA and France.  However, on 10 May 2012, the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, reversed the decision, telling Parliament that “The most cost effective route to deliver Carrier Strike by 2020 is now to switch [back] to the STOVL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter.”

This announcement raises a series of questions and issues, for example:

  1. 1.             Just how much work was actually done to inform the SDSR decision as to the optimum JSF variant for the UK?

  2. 2.             Would Joint Force Harrier have still been disbanded and HMS Ark Royal [V] decommissioned if SDSR hadn’t announced a switch to the F-35C?  It certainly would have been even harder to justify these deeply misguided cuts.

  3. 3.             After detailed analysis, the final estimated cost of converting just one QE class aircraft carrier (the second ship, HMS Prince of Wales) to a cat & trap was apparently £2 billion – nearly doubling her construction cost to over £4.5 billion.  This seems incredible given that the ship is still at a very early stage of construction, and 2010 estimates of her conversion cost were in the region of £600 million.  There needs to be much more clarity as to how £2 billion price tag was arrived at.  For example, based on public domain information, two American made catapults plus arresting gear shouldn’t cost more than £400 million (e.g. in 2010 the US Navy agreed to pay the manufacturer $676.2 million for four catapults and arresting gear). 

  4. 4.             The first of class, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is at a more advanced stage of construction than Prince of Wales.  It would apparently cost £3 billion to convert her to a cat and trap configuration – an astonishing figure given that original design was always intended to be able to accommodate a conversion to cat and trap.  Why has the “adaptable CVF design” proven to be so inadaptable, what went wrong?

  5. 5.             In 2005 and 2006 the French developed a cat & trap of variant of the Queen Elizabeth class design for their navy.  Although not eventually ordered, detailed design work was undertaken and the expected construction cost was €2.5 billion in March 2007 – perhaps £2.5 billion allowing for inflation.  Why is there such a vast gap between French and UK cost estimates for a similar ship?

  6. 6.             How much money has this sorry saga really wasted?  [£200 million seems to be more likely than the £60 million stated by the Defence Secretary.]

The U-turn on the JSF variant is yet another example of the lamentable quality of UK defence decision making.  However, there was probably never much chance that the Ministry of Defence would be able to fund the regeneration of a true strike carrier capability, e.g. roughly equivalent to HMS Ark Royal [IV], HMS Eagle and their air groups in the early 1970’s.  The likely outcome of one aircraft carrier with one operational squadron of 12 F-35C’s from 2023 was hardly going to change the world balance of military power in the UK’s favour, or even match naval developments being made by India and China.

Trying to be positive, the F-35B decision does open up the realistic possibility of fixed wing aircraft operating from two RN aircraft carriers from 2020 - it seems unlikely that much additional funding will be required to have an operational STOVL carrier 100% of the time, compared to a conventional 'cat & trap' carrier 60% of the time.  Even if it's an extra £100 million per annum (largely related to additional personnel), that seems to represent very good value, and is dwarfed by the £6+ billion plus that the two carriers will have cost to build in the first place.

If we now move on from apparently unaffordable ‘carrier strike’ ambitions, a Queen Elizabeth class carrier with (for example) a Royal Marine Commando Group, five F-35B’s and a dozen helicopters of various type (including Surveillance and Control) would add a lot to a Response Force Task Group with an Albion class LPD as flagship.  It’s possible to think of many scenario’s where this type of capability would be useful, from Sierra Leone in 1999 to Libya in 2011.  But you don’t need a ship displacing 65,000 tonnes for this, 35-40,000 tonnes would probably be enough -  and a few £billion saved!

The first of the three UK F-35B's ordered in 2009 and 2010 flew on 13 April 2012.  No more orders are expected until after the 2015 Defence Review.

Regarding the JSF buy, it's become clear that budgets are very unlikely to stretch beyond a buy of 50 JSF's (compared to the 138 that manufacturer Lockheed Martin often quotes as the planned UK buy) and the RN seems to have ultimately been more favour of the switch back to the STOVL F-35B variant than the RAF.  The advantages in terms of potentially having two carriers, the reduced operating costs, and leveraging decades of Harrier experience were too great for the RN to ignore.  Contrarily, the RAF had the 'long-legged' F-35C pencilled in as a replacement for the Tornado.  It's far from clear how the RAF would now use a small number of  land based F-35B's - its STOVL capabilities are no longer valued by the service and it would probably prefer more Eurofighter Typhoon's instead.

There is an emerging possibility that the planned 2015 Defence Review will decide that F-35B will be a purely RN buy, with perhaps 30 aircraft purchased to equip two small (six aircraft?) operational squadrons plus a training and conversion unit (eight aircraft?).  Oddly this is very similar to when the Sea Harrier was purchased in the 1970's.

 

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 © 2004-13 Richard Beedall unless otherwise indicated.