A Better Option for Britain’s Security

First published: 5th May 2011 | Dr. Alexander Clarke

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This paper examines the alternative way ahead for the procurement of a multi-role fast jet fighter for embarkation in the new Queen Elizabeth class carrier.



1. Executive Summary

2. Introduction

3. Conversion of the Carriers

4. Procuring the Aircraft

5. How many will Britain need?

6. Anything Else?

7. Basing & Supply

8. The Future

9. Training the Personnel

9.1. Aircrew

9.2. Fitters

10. Capability of the F18/CV Combination

11. Conclusions and Recommendations


Executive Summary

This paper examines the alternative way ahead for the procurement of a multirole fast jet fighter for embarkation in the new Queen Elizabeth class carrier.

Britain is buying 2 large and capable carriers, ships the size and quality of which it will have real need for in the coming years, yet because the F-35 is to expensive it has been announced that Britain shall have a fighter gap. The question is why should there be such a gap? Why is it necessary when there are other options than the F-35?

This paper examines those options, with a particular emphasis on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the E/A-18G Super Growler, selected for this emphasis because they are very capable and cost about a third of the estimated price of the F-35 and half the initial cost of the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Further to this, the report explains why the procurement of such aircraft is not only an easy thing to do, but the better option for Britain and its security in the current world climate.



The options as presented are black and white, yes or no, should Britain have the capability provided by aircraft carriers, or shouldn’t she? As she is continuing with the vessels proposed, Britain will need an air group to make them useful; in such circumstances the only option is procurement of the F-35…or is it? No it’s not the only option. This is the problem with defence, little if anything if properly examined is a yes or no answer, and certainly nothing is black and white – shades of grey are both the normal circumstance and the unusual circumstance.

It should not therefore be a surprise that the F-35 is both the only option and one of many options; the deciding factor on which shade of grey it inhabits is the shape of the carrier’s deck. Should the Queen Elizabeth’s be built as Vertical & Short Take Off & Landing (VSTOL) carriers as is planned, then they are limited to either Harriers, for which thanks to decision to retire the Sea Harrier FA2 early only Ground Attack versions are available, or the F-35B the most expensive and arguably the least capable of the three variants of the F-35.

In fact Britain would not just be limited in fighter-bomber aircraft, but also in Airborne Early Warning (AEW). With a VSTOL configured carrier the UK would be limited to a remake of the current helicopter system which whilst being valuable and irreplaceable in its current service, is also venerable and not as capable as its fixed wing counterparts such as the E-2D Hawkeye.

Britain though is not limited to VSTOL, with the advent of Electro Magnetic Catapults (EMC), and the already high levels of power generation incorporated into the Queen Elizabeth classes there is though another option; CATOBAR, or Catapult Assisted Take off & Barrier Assisted Recovery. This is the system which was originally developed in the 1920s and 30s by the Royal Navy, and used to this day by America, by France. By using this configuration Britain would be able to draw its air group from readily available and vastly more diverse types of aircraft as well as more aircraft which are simply more capable; the fixed wing AEW aircraft the E-2 Hawkeye being just one example of a system which would provide a crucial improvement in capabilities.

Of course the F-35 would still be an option, just instead of having to buy the B variant which is still experiencing teething troubles and cost spikes, Britain could buy the cheaper, faster, longer ranged, C or Carrier variant. The same type that our Allies the Americans will be using on their carriers. The whole point though of CATOBAR is that Britain would no longer be limited to the F-35 so what other contenders are there?

Well there are principally 2:

• the French Rafale M, an aircraft which has had no foreign orders and comes only in a single seat form which costs about $93million per model.

• the F/A-18 Super Hornet, this costs $60million or £37.8million (according to 2009 costing), is operated by both America and Australia and will be for the next 25 years + giving Britain commonality with two major allies, it comes in three forms the E – single seat multi-role fighter, the ‘F’ two seat version allowing optimisation for long range air defence and air superiority operations and the E/A-18G – an advanced electronic warfare version of the F, sometimes called the Super Growler, thus allowing a full spectrum capability from one set of parts.

On cost and capability therefore the Super Hornet would appear to be the best option. The advantage of the two seat version is a major advantage to this aircraft, as the advantages of a team are as true in an aircraft cabin as foxhole, with 2 seat aircraft having a higher estimated survivability on long range missions. However, even though its initial costs are less than even Tranche 1 of the Eurofighter Typhoon’s official initial costs ($73million) as that program itself shows it isn’t the initial costs which break the bank; so before recommending the Super Hornet those costs must be examined.


Conversion of the Carriers

First, it would not need to delay the current program at all. It must be remembered that these new carriers were designed to allow the fitting of catapults and arrestor gear if needed. Therefore, CATOBAR configuration could be implemented at Rosyth by the insertion of the EMC and arrestor gear which are able to be bought as commercially available of the shelf equipment. Any extra cost would be more than offset by the not having to fabricate the complex shape of the bow launch ramp needed for VSTOL configuration and of course the savings in air group procurement. Furthermore EMCs come with another long term benefit; significantly reduced aircraft fatigue, due to its smooth acceleration action, this means aircraft last longer and need less expensive air frame maintenance over their operational lives.

A beneficial consequence of the conversion to a CATOBAR configuration would be a larger and completely flat deck: this would allow for more helicopter spots to be operated if the ships were to be involved in evacuation, humanitarian relief or in their secondary military role of helicopter assault vessel for the Amphibious Task Group.
A further benefit would be that whilst CATOBAR aircraft cannot make use of the facilities on a VSTOL configured carrier, a CATOBAR configured carrier can accept VSTOL aircraft from any operating nation. Therefore in VSTOL form the Queen Elizabeth’s are not really suitable to operate with Britain’s allies strike carriers, those belonging to the USN and French Navies which are of course CATOBAR, however if the Queen Elizabeth’s were CATOBAR a high level of interoperability could be achieved.


Procuring the Aircraft

Changing the strike fighter choice to a lease or buy of the F/A-18 Super Hornets immediately for the Royal Navy will mean there are savings as it will be buying it a mature, combat proven, 4.5 generation aircraft (the same generation as the Typhoon but without the delays in its introduction).

A benefit of the maturity and the quality of this design is that the fly-away cost of each subsequent aircraft lot has been executed at a lower unit price than the preceding lot, a fact that will provide the U.S. with $600 million in taxpayer savings over the next four years.[1]

In simple terms it means that most likely Britain, and the Royal Navy, would have to pay less than $60million or £37million per aircraft; it is significant possibility that this aircraft could be procured for half the price of Tranche 1 Eurofighter Typhoons. An interesting fact when considering that these aircraft can carry multiple bomb types and other surface attack weapons as well as a full complement of air to air weaponry, comes in 3 versions one of which is a highly capable electronic warfare variant and the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar[2] the Super Hornet is equipped with already outperforms the current Typhoon, and every other fast jet in U.K. service. Furthermore, discussions on an improved Super Hornet Block III commenced in 2008; the development is focusing on providing extra range and expanding the existing stealth capabilities of the aircraft, which will add value, capability and flexibility to any British use of the aircraft.

To continue with the examination of the F/A-18 Super Hornet, whilst like the Typhoon it continues to be developed, discussions on a Super Hornet Block III were commenced in 2008; development is focusing on providing extra range and expanding the existing stealth capabilities of the aircraft.


How many would Britain need?

To generate a full air group for one carrier and partial air group for the other, should that be required would need the following aircraft:

• 1 Frontline Fighter/Bomber Squadron: 18 x F/A-18E Super Hornet
• 1 Frontline Strike Fighter/Suppression Squadron: 12 x F/A-18F Super Hornet, 6 x E/A-18G Super Growler
• 1Training and Replacement Squadron: 18 x F/A-18E/F Super Hornets & E/A-18G Super Growler + maintenance 6 x F/A-18E/F & E/A-18G

This is a total 60 aircraft, or £2.27billion at the 2010 price (as its getting lower every year by 2012/13 when the order will be made it will probably be less than £2billion), to generate 36 aircraft for the ‘Strike/Combat’ orientated carrier and 12 for the ‘Assault’ orientated carrier should both be available and be used at the same time. Considering the size and the cost of this force therefore, sufficient F/A-18E/F Super Hornets & E/A-18G Super Growlers could be bought, or if necessary – leased, for the Royal Navy to form a Carrier Air Group (CAG) which could be deployed on Queen Elizabeth or Prince of Wales whichever is available at the time.


Anything Else?

In addition this, should the government decide to mirror a USN carrier air wing within the capacity of Queen Elizabeth, the Fleet Air Arm CAG could, and should, also include:

• 1 Support (Training and Operations) Squadron: E2D Hawkeye x 4 Airborne Early Warning (AEW) and Forward Air Control (FAC) – ($80million, or £50million, per unit), C2 Greyhound x 4 Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) – ($39million, or £24million, per unit).

Whilst this would increase the total purchase cost from £2.27billion to £2.57billion it would provide Britain with a far cheaper and just as, if not more, capable, than the postponed plans for procurement of F-35B.


Basing and Supply

Basing facilities would not be a problem as by necessity the Royal Navy has facilities at RNAS Yeovilton and RNAS Culdrose – this itself entails another benefit as they are best for access to SW airspace fleet training areas, carrier operating areas and French opposition training.

Because it is designed for carriers, the F-18 Super Hornet is highly maintainable. For example, it is possible to change an engine in 1 hour. And because the USN deploy worldwide, and the aircraft has been purchased by a number of nations, it enjoys excellent global logistics support.

Specifically for Britain, the company that builds the F18, Boeing, provides worldwide spares support for the USN fleet, and supports Swiss, Finnish and Spanish F18s (albeit older models than are being proposed in this document) in Europe. This well established and proven support network would be easy for the U.K. to join, just as Australia already has done to support its Super Hornets.


The Future

The CATOBAR configuration also offers further benefits down the line, as when Britain’s economy has recovered, the government may wish to consider the purchase of a suitable UCAV to enhance the carrier air groups, such as the X-47 which is already in development and testing deployment.

• 2 Bombing Squadron: 18 x UCAV

• 1 Training and Replacement Squadron: 12 x UCAV


Training the Personnel

The F/A-18 would not provide any problems for Royal Navy training; after all the Royal Navy currently has strike fighter pilots flying with the USN on the F/A-18E/F under a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) agreement, and will have a full squadrons worth of pilots in place continuously for the next couple of years to a decade. They serve on USN squadrons, flying combat missions in Afghanistan, all the while learning the skills of a CATOBAR carrier pilot.



The FMS was negotiated due to the lack of capacity allocated in training RN pilots with the RAF, and is now delivering an excellent value for money solution. The last statement needs clarifying, so here are the facts for Royal Navy pilots to undergo full USN flight training on F18 Super Hornet costs £1.2mil vs £3.7 million to train with the RAF on the Harrier GR9; this figure becomes even extraordinary, when considering the pilots going to train with the USN are trained for multi-role (Air to Air and Air to Ground) where as with the RAF they only get trained for single-role (Air to Ground) operations. Therefore, to train a Royal Navy pilot, or observer, in everything they need to know for operations with the USN costs a 1/3 of the amount it does for the RAF to train pilots to only do between a third to half of the tasks needed to do their job. The imbalance in cost and capability gets worse when it is put alongside the fact that for the Royal Navy’s already very experienced naval pilots and observers. It usually only costs £800k to train under the American system rather than the £3.7million, which means converting the Royal Navy’s existing pilots to F18 Super Hornets costs less than a 1/4 or 25% of keeping them flying on the less capable Harrier GR9.

There is already a sufficient number of British pilots undergoing or about to undergo operational training or on combat operations with the USN to allow the Royal Navy to form the core of a future air group and provide the personnel with the experience of conducting the complex type of air operations which take place from a large CATOBAR carrier whilst involved in combat.

As a consequence of the existing FMS program most of the core personal training costs already have been paid, and without much further negotiation this avenue could absorb more naval pilots and observers to gain the critical experience and aircrew numbers prior to aircraft delivery in the 2013/2014 fiscal year.


Fitters (Deck Hands)

As far as the fitters are concerned the existing Queen Elizabeth Class Introduction Royal Navy Long Lead Skills Programme could cater for all other supporting personnel training. An increasing of the ongoing, in a program not dissimilar to that being conducted with the pilots/observers, placement of personnel with the USN in productive billets, would allow them to gain skills in deck handling of aircraft all the way through to fighter control: renewed focus on this initiative will provide the necessary skills.


Capability of the F18/CV Combination

In terms of capability the F/A-18 Super Hornets are more than adequate for the next 20+ years, they are good serviceable aircraft. Although not at the highest point of stealth technology, they are more capable than most threats ‘out there’, and with good missiles, proper support and traditionally high quality Royal Navy training they will represent a fearsome capability. The Super Growler provides a fully integrated electronic warfare capability (not the traditional bolt-on – and at least as good as the Nimrod ELINT capability) and this would in itself yield a massive amount of tactical flexibility to the strategic weapons system that is an aircraft carrier, but also to the wider maritime and amphibious task force.

Testimony to this is the fact the F/A-18 has served in Afghanistan from USN Aircraft Carriers since the beginning; and if fact since then this single type of aircraft has continuously provided a minimum of 35% of the air cover for coalition troops; more than the next 2 most in service types combined. It will remain in USN service until at least 2035, and in service with other nations till probably a decade later.


Conclusions & Recommendations

Some readers may ask why the Rafael M was dropped so early in this report, the reason it was is because the F/A-18 comes in 2 seat and electronic warfare variants – a huge advantage in naval aviation, and also because of the existing training program that exists between the Royal Navy and the USN. The assumption of this work is that the money to procure the F-35 will not be forthcoming, and with costs rising but already estimated at £100million per unit for the initial batches the moment Britain went into recession that became unlikely.

The thing is though, that it is not necessarily bad, and Britain is not necessarily getting second best by buying the F/A-18; it’s back to the shades of grey. Whilst the F-35 will be stealthier than the F/A-18, if Britain really needs a stealthy deep-strike capability it can buy the X-47 UCAV which is cheaper and stealthier than the F-35…but if what Britain wants is a practical, capable, and a value for money naval aviation/carrier strike program, soon, However, if what Britain wants is a practical, capable, and a value for money naval aviation/carrier strike program, then the F/A-18 is just as good, in fact better as Britain would buying an aircraft with all the kinks worked out, with 1,000,000s of hours of flying to its name, and with years development, testing and combat to its credit.

The recommendation therefore is simple, if its decided Britain cannot afford to buy F-35s, and it can certainly not afford to buy empty aircraft carriers; then pick the better option, configure the Queen Elizabeth’s as CATOBAR carriers before their decks are even constructed and buy 60 F/A-18E/Fs Super Hornets & E/A-18G Super Growlers to operate from them.

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