The Latest Gossip on the CVF
Picture Copyright UK MoD
The latest round of press rumors on the future of the Royal Navy’s CVF aircraft carrier program has picked up some interesting commentary in the blogosphere. Will the CVF be switched to a CATOBAR configuration and the STOVL F-35B order switched to a conventional naval fighter? (At least the story of possibly sharing a second carrier between the UK and France has since been dismissed.)
Although ordered as a STOVL carrier, the size of the CVF design means it could easily operate in a CATOBAR configuration if refitted with the appropriate equipment (electro-magnetic catapults and arrestor gear). Indeed, the ships were designed to accommodate a future CATOBAR conversion down the road if needed, presumably as part of a replacement study of the STOVL F-35B in twenty years time or so.
Why the CVF was designed as a STOVL carrier at all still debatable. I have read arguments relating to sortie rates and interoperability, etc. However, there were some good user comments posted in Bill Sweetman’s blog post that caught my eye by f4mphantom2 and Bill himself about how the influence of the RN and RAF’s STOVL heritage in shaping the CVF, a theory which I think holds a lot of water. What was to become the F-35B was born from the requirements of the ASTOVL program, shaped around STOVL carriers of the RN and USN (for the USMC). The RN hasn’t operated conventional jets since the late 1970’s. STOVL operations are the culture and viewed as the only realistic option in a future of low defence budgets and reduce commitments. It was only gradually that people started to observe that the RN could feasibly go back to conventional jet fighter operations with the new CVFs – spurred on by two big changes.
Firstly, the 1998 Strategic Defence Review called for a focus on expeditionary warfare and power projection (not a task the Invincible-class was really design for), with large combat air wings to fulfill air superiority and ground attack operations. This called for large ships. Only two would be ordered, so therefore one would have to be capable of supporting all the missions by itself (assuming another would be in refit, or otherwise unavailable).
Secondly, the F-35B is not all that was promised a decade ago. A great leap from the Harrier of course, but over-priced and behind schedule. STOVL economics made sense a decade ago, when the little Harrier was king and provided a cost effective solution to providing multi-role (ish) capability from a small carrier. Now days the RN could get its hands on CATOBAR naval fighters that are available for far less money than the STOVL F-35B (such as the Super Hornet), or CATOBAR naval fighters that have better capabilities available for the same price (such as the F-35C). The Rafale M and possible Sea Gripen provide further options.
In the current climate of service pitted against service for funds, I think this would be a good deal for both the RN and RAF. Why does the RAF want a STOVL fighter anyways? To make sure it can get in on any action when an RN carrier is the only base, and that it won’t take a back seat when the next world crisis erupts. By going with the CATOBAR option on the CVF, the RAF can make the same switch to F-35Cs or whatever, and still maintain its ability to deploy with the fleet. And for land-based ops, the conventional jet fighters offer way more bang for the buck with longer range and larger payloads. And I believe that the continued inter-operability of RAF and RN air wings, based on a common aircraft, will actually help secure the existence of the Fleet Air Arm and naval fast jet aviation since it can benefit from the economies of scale with its larger brother, something that was not as easy in the days of the Sea Harrier.
In terms of defending the UK work share in the JSF program, a switch from the F-35B to the F-35C should help maintain the same overall commitment and good faith with the US DoD and the other major contractors in the program. The question is can the F-35C be brought to service largely as planned, or will it too suffer like the F-35B has.
The impending defence review gives the new UK government an opportunity that didn’t really existed for the previous one since 1998 - the ability stand back and take another look at the big picture. The situation has changed. STOVL is no longer the great value for money option that it once was. Now is the time to redirect the CVF and its air wing towards the more sensible option.