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Carrier Strike, the F-35 and the Integrated Review

This essay was first published in October 2021, in the second volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: Defence and Security in Focus.

When analysed within the context of wider public spending pressure and a global pandemic, the 2021 Integrated Review (IR) appeared relatively positive from a defence and security perspective. As with previous reviews, the financial settlement didn’t quite match the political ambition, but the general feeling was that ‘it could have been a whole lot worse!’. For proponents of Carrier Strike the positive intent in the IR was clear and aligned strongly with wider government ‘Global Britain’ policies. The unpleasant spectre of selling or mothballing one or both carriers that stalked previous reviews was banished with a firm commitment to buy ‘at least 48 F-35s by 2025’, providing much needed definition on timescales and numbers. However, the Government continued to perpetuate an ambiguity that has caused friction, indecision, and misalignment for decades. This has cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds, caused political embarrassment and delayed capability destined for the front line.

The simple question that needs answering is: For what specific purpose is the UK buying the F-35?– Dan Stembridge

To understand why the Government should be crystal clear on this question, let’s consider the Dickensian ghosts of Carrier Strike past, present and future.

The Ghost of Carrier Strike Past

The rationale for building two 65,000 tonne aircraft-carriers the largest ever deployed by the Royal Navy, in the face of austerity and defence-wide cuts was bitterly argued in the Ministry of Defence throughout the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 10). When viewed alongside the controversial decision to scrap HMS Ark Royal and fit the new carriers with catapults and arrestor gear (cats & traps), one could be forgiven for thinking that SDSR 10 was dominated by aircraft carriers. However, these actions were second order effects of decisions driven by the needs of ‘Combat Air.’ Scrapping HMS Ark Royal was a result of a decision to delete the Harrier in favour of land-based Tornado, while the late switch to cats & traps was due to a last-minute decision to favour the longer range of the F-35C over the Short Take-Off & Vertical Landing (STOVL) F35B. This decision was taken quickly with little understanding of the full implications, following a definitive statement from HM Treasury that there would be no opportunity to include land-based F-35A aircraft in the overall UK buy.

The time and cost of the late change in design of the carriers in 2010, only to reverse the decision in 2012, resulted in hundreds of millions of pounds of cost growth. Additionally, the switch in air system negated some ‘Level 1 Partner’ advantages secured by the £2Bn investment in F-35 System Design & Development. Millions of additional funding was spent integrating UK weapons to the newly selected F-35C and when the UK reverted 2 years later, they had lost their place in the F-35B queue adding even more delay!

SDSR10, and the last minute ‘carrier decision’, was inherently a ‘Combat Air decision’. Had the Government been clear from the outset that all UK F-35s were for the carrier, there would have been no opportunity for those not committed to Carrier Strike, to seek a mixed fleet that included the F-35A; an aircraft not capable of carrier operations. In turn, there would have been no reason for the Treasury to step in at the last minute, no late change of F-35 variant and no change in ship design; decisions that cost the UK taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds.

The Ghost of Carrier Strike Present

The current UK Carrier Strike Group deployment could give the impression that the problems of the past are exactly that; however, ambiguity over attribution remains and this causes friction, costs money and degrades combat effectiveness. – Dan Stembridge

UK and United State Marine Corps F-35B are embarked alongside each other in HMS Queen Elizabeth. While the Command and Control (C2) of these units has been agreed and proven through successful combat operations in the eastern Mediterranean, it remains highly contentious.

The embarked C2 for F-35B broadly mirrors NATO doctrine, whereby Operational Control (OPCON) of the aircraft and personnel is delegated to the Carrier Strike Group Commander. The negotiation of this with the US Government took days, whilst the negotiation of C2 for UK F-35 embarked in HMS Queen Elizabeth has taken years of bitter inter-service engagements and is still not fully resolved. The argument being that UK F-35B might be required for land-based operations in addition to Carrier Strike, and so control should not be ceded to the Strike Group Commander without an ability to take it back.

UK F-35B’s are not currently held at readiness to deliver any land-based operations and there are no plans to do so. However, Air Command (which controls the F-35 budget) continues to make capability and force generation decisions based on this being a possibility. In the absence of clarity, this is not an unreasonable assumption, but the implications are far reaching; it requires additional deployable support solutions that cost tens of millions of pounds, it effects where weapons are stockpiled, and it influences the prioritisation of capability development. A recent example is the 2020 decision by Air Command to defer an embarked trial with F-35B to prioritise spending elsewhere in Combat Air. This resulted in a cancelled trial that was to be the culmination of 10 years and £50M investment to clear UK F-35B’s to return to the ship with heavier payloads in difficult weather conditions. This cancellation reduced the effectiveness of future Carrier Strike operations. Furthermore, it highlighted significant misalignment, as the decision was made without consultation with the RN which had already spent time and money preparing for the trial.

The crux of the problem for the RN, is that it is accountable to Defence for the delivery of the UK’s Carrier Strike capability. However, it only controls the capability development, fiscal prioritisation, and force generation of the Carrier. – Dan Stembridge

The Strike element is controlled by another service with its own tasks and priorities.

From the RAF’s perspective, it is responsible for the delivery of the UK’s Combat Air capability, and the F-35B is the UK’s only 5th Gen strike-fighter. In the absence of definitive clarity, it continues to develop, prioritise and force generate for deployments from the land.

Ghost of Carrier Strike Future

The focus of debate prior to the IR was how many F-35s were needed for Carrier Strike, and by what date? While the statement of ‘at least 48 F-35s by 2025’ gave just enough clarity in the short-term, the larger question of total buy was deferred to the next review. The calculation regarding F-35B numbers for Carrier Strike is relatively simple and depends on 3 basic factors:

- Mass: How many UK F-35B are required to routinely embark for operational deployments?

- Duration: How long are they routinely deployed for?

- Periodicity: How long between routine operational deployments?

Ask five different people and you’ll get a dozen different answers! However, the generally accepted wisdom is that a routine operational deployment of 4-6 months every 12-18 months with 24 F-35B’s embarked (surging to 36 if required) is probably about right.

Whilst the military utility of these numbers could be questioned, as with most carrier programmes worldwide, it is political ambition that will likely drive the requirement. – Dan Stembridge

Sustainment of this mass, duration and periodicity will require a total buy of 70-80 F-35Bs. However, this number is only sufficient if the whole force is attributed to Carrier Strike. This does not mean they cannot be used from the land, but the capability development, force generation and readiness must be aligned to Carrier Strike. If UK F-35s are to be held at readiness for land-based operations in addition to Carrier Strike, taking on roles already allocated to RAF Typhoon aircraft; either the number of F-35s required will spiral upwards, or the ambitions for Carrier Strike will never be met.

Clarity – Commitment - Accountability

So, does the IR represent a good outcome for Carrier Strike? It will depend on whether ‘at least 48 F-35s’ will be committed to Carrier Strike. If ambiguity remains, deployments will be conducted with even less aircraft than were routinely embarked with the Harrier before 2010. Moreover, air system development and logistics support will not be optimised to Carrier Strike and the C2 will remain a contentious distraction.

Only by stating exactly what the F-35 is attributed to, will the Government get an accurate understanding of the total fleet size required and force the MoD to commit to an aligned and cost-effective capability development and force generation path. – Dan Stembridge

When clarity has been delivered, the Government can legitimately ensure commitment from the MoD; only once this has been achieved is it reasonable to hold them to account. In short, politicians should stop asking how many, until they’ve been clear about exactly what they’re for!


Dan Stembridge is a former Royal Navy fighter-pilot who has commanded the UK’s Carrier Air Wing, advised ministers on Combat Air and Carrier Strike and led the Portfolio Management Office for Carrier Enabled Power Projection. He now runs his own strategy development company, chairs the Royal Aeronautical Society Air & Space Power Group and recently provided independent advice to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on F-35 and carriers.


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