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