07/09/2012 James Bosbotinis - defenceiq.com
The May 2012 announcement by the Secretary of State for Defence that the variant of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (or Joint Combat Aircraft in UK parlance) to be acquired for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force was again being changed marks the third iteration in a decade-long process.
The decision to revert to the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant instead of the F-35C carrier variant, justified on the basis of the supposed cost of configuring the Queen Elizabeth-class (QEC) for catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery operations (CATOBAR), has significant long-term implications for UK airpower.
The F-35B constitutes a substantially less capable asset than the F-35C, in particular with regard to range, persistence and internal payload, has a higher unit acquisition cost and greater through life costs and does not meet the UK’s deep persistent offensive capability (DPOC) requirement. This will require either the acceptance of a significant capability gap or the acquisition of another aircraft, that is, most likely the F-35A, to address the DPOC requirement. Moreover, the F-35B is projected to have an out of service date of 2042, whereas the QEC are expected to remain in service until 2070; follow-on systems (such as sixth generation optionally manned/unmanned maritime combat air systems) are projected to be configured for CATOBAR operations. The selection of the F-35B is thus neither cost effective nor the optimum long-term solution to UK airpower requirements.
This paper examines the implications of the F-35 variant decision for UK airpower, with a particular focus on the difference in capability between the F-35B and C, the DPOC requirement and the potential acquisition of the F-35A to fulfil it, and the loss of the strategic flexibility provided by CATOBAR. The paper will argue that the decision to acquire the F-35B is not cost effective and will leave the UK with a sub-optimal airpower capability.
Less capability at greater cost
The difference in capability between the F-35B and F-35C is significant. Due to the STOVL requirement, the F-35B has a shaft-driven lift fan integrated with its engine thus restricting the aircraft’s internal fuel capacity to 13,500 lbs; in contrast, the internal fuel load of the F-35C is 19,145 lbs. The difference in internal fuel is highlighted by the range and combat persistence of the respective aircraft; the F-35B has a mission radius of approximately 463 nautical miles and a time over target of fifteen minutes; for the F-35C, the figures are 613 nautical miles and thirty-six minutes respectively. These figures are based on a standard low observable configuration and internal payload of two 500 lb. bombs and two advanced medium range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAM) for the F-35B and two 2000 lb. bombs and two AMRAAM for the F-35C. The preceding figures highlight a second key difference in capability; the reduced internal payload of the F-35B, which again is due to the aircraft’s STOVL configuration. The F-35A and C are both capable of accommodating 2000 lb. class munitions in their internal bays, whereas the F-35B has smaller weapons bays which are limited to 1000 lb. class munitions. In UK service, the F-35B will carry the Paveway IV 500 lb. precision guided bomb, thus creating a capability gap with regard to the prosecution of targets requiring 2000 lb. class penetrating weapons (for example, bridges and aircraft bunkers). This capability gap could be overcome via the carriage of weapons externally, for example, the Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile, albeit at the cost of the F-35’s low observability.
The difference in capability between the F-35B and C is compounded by the former’s greater cost – both in terms of unit acquisition and through life. The F-35B will have a unit cost of approximately $138 million compared to $117 million for the F-35C; according to figures in the latest US Department of Defense Selected Acquisition Report, the F-35B engine alone is projected to cost $27.7 million compared to $10.9 million for that of the F-35C. Projected through life costs for the F-35B in UK Service are estimated to be £1 billion higher than for the F-35C. If, as will be discussed below, it is necessary to also acquire the F-35A, the through life costs of operating a mixed F-35A/B fleet will be £2 billion above that of operating a single F-35C fleet. In addition, due to the superior capability of the F-35C vis-à-vis the F-35B, fewer of the former would need to be acquired thus generating additional savings. In this regard, the Telegraph in April 2012 cited a classified Ministry of Defence document which suggested that 97 F-35Cs could provide the same capability that would otherwise require 136 F-35Bs. The implications in cost terms are stark; 97 F-35Cs would cost approximately £6.8 billion, whereas 136 F-35Bs would cost approximately £11.26 billion: a difference of £4.46 billion.
The cost of converting the QEC for CATOBAR operations – the justification for reverting to the F-35B - although stated to be in the region of £2 billion for HMS Prince of Wales and substantially more for HMS Queen Elizabeth (whilst noting that each ship is projected to cost approximately £2.5 billion) is also subject to much debate. In March 2012, the Telegraph reported that the Assistant Secretary of the US Navy, Sean J. Stackley had written to Peter Luff, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, informing him that the CATOBAR conversion would only cost half what the Ministry of Defence were projecting. The possibility that tensions within the Ministry of Defence regarding Carrier Strike, impinged on the CATOBAR conversion cost analysis, resulting in flawed risk assumptions (for example, pertaining to the installation of the electromagnetic aircraft launch system) and thus inflated cost projections, cannot be ruled out. Taken together with the above F-35 cost data, the debate regarding the CATOBAR conversion cost and the reduced capability of the F-35B, the argument that the decision to revert to the STOVL solution for Carrier Strike constitutes the most cost effective option for the UK appears to be fundamentally flawed.
The DPOC Requirement
Since the demise of the Royal Air Force’s Future Offensive Air System (FOAS) programme (the intended replacement for the Tornado GR 4) in 2005, the JCA has been expected to fulfil the post-FOAS requirement. This requirement, the deep and persistent offensive capability (DPOC), cannot be met by the F-35B. The decision to acquire the F-35B will either require the acceptance of a capability gap or the acquisition of a second F-35 variant, most likely the F-35A. The acquisition of a mixed JCA fleet has been considered previously and has also been considered as part of the 2012 variant debate. This would involve significant extra cost because of the need to integrate UK weapons into the F-35A, the additional cost of maintaining a mixed fleet and ensuring the compatibility of the aircraft with Royal Air Force air-to-air refuelling (AAR) assets. The latter would involve either the configuring of UK AAR aircraft – the new Voyager A330-200 – for boom AAR operations (Airbus Military has developed an Aerial Boom Refuelling System for the A-330-200) or adapting the F-35A for hose and drogue refuelling. Lockheed Martin reports that provision has been made for the fitting of the necessary equipment for hose and drogue refuelling within the airframe, albeit at additional cost.
The DPOC requirement is of central importance to the future of UK airpower. The Tornado is due out of service by the end of this decade whilst the Typhoon does not meet the DPOC requirement and needs investment to attain a full multi-role capability. The limited range, persistence and internal payload of the F-35B, especially with regard to the lack of an internal 2000 lb. penetrating munition capability, will not provide the level of strike capability that is required, in particular for initial operations against an adversary’s strategic targets defended by a still-intact integrated air defence system. The reach of the F-35B can be extended via external carriage of the Storm Shadow cruise missile. This would enable the F-35B to engage targets at ranges of up to approximately 713 nautical miles (based on an F-35B radius of 463 nautical miles and a potential Storm Shadow range of up to 250 nautical miles) with the stand-off range of Storm Shadow keeping the launching aircraft outside of the range of air defence systems (excepting perhaps the Russian-made 40N6-equipped S-400 or Chinese-made HQ-19). However, the F-35B/Storm Shadow combination would only be effective in the context of not having to penetrate deep into an adversary’s airspace due to the F-35B’s low observability being compromised via the external carriage of ordnance. In contrast, the F-35C may potentially be capable of engaging targets at ranges similar to or exceeding that of the F-35B/Storm Shadow combination whilst only carrying internal ordnance. The National Audit Office in its 2011 report on Carrier Strike gave the combat radius of the F-35C as 650 nautical miles whilst other sources have stated this figure to be in excess of 700 nautical miles. Most notably, a 2002 conference paper prepared by a member of the JSF Program Office gave the F-35C’s radius as 799 nautical miles (the same source attributes the F-35A with a 703 nautical mile radius and the F-35B a radius of 496 nautical miles).
The strategic implications of the F-35B’s limited range and internal payload are significant. The limited range of the aircraft will increase the requirement for AAR support for both sea and land-based operations; this is especially significant for early operations in a crisis or conflict where the provision of land-based support assets may be restricted or not yet available or vulnerable to attack. With regard to Carrier Strike, the core rationale for carrier airpower is the provision of independent airpower – a dependence on land-based support assets impinges on this critical aspect. The relative value of a British contribution to a coalition’s combat airpower will also diminish due to the selection of the F-35B. This is because other likely coalition partners, for example, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Norway and The Netherlands will be operating the F-35A which can engage a broader range of targets at greater range than the F-35B. In addition, the loss of interoperability with the US Navy will compound the relative decline in the importance and utility of British combat airpower in a coalition setting. In this regard, it is important to note that in order to enhance integration with the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps will acquire the F-35C in addition to the F-35B. This marks a significant departure from previous plans to transition to an all-STOVL force with the F-35B replacing STOVL AV-8Bs and conventional F/A-18C/Ds and EA-6Bs.
As the US reorients its force structure and doctrine toward the Asia-Pacific and Air Sea Battle, the UK, in order to maintain its desired position vis-à-vis the US, should seek to ensure that its force developments are relevant. The shift from the F-35C to B and away from a CATOBAR configuration for the QEC runs counter to this.
Moreover, unless the UK opts for a mixed JCA fleet, that is, acquires the F-35A with the additional cost of running such a fleet, the UK’s land-based airpower capability will also be sub-optimal. This again highlights the flawed nature of the decision to shift from acquiring the F-35C to the F-35B. The F-35C is the most capable version of the F-35, could fulfil the UK’s DPOC requirement from both land and sea, and would ensure that the UK possesses a robust and credible offensive air capability.
The Implications of a STOVL QEC
The most significant implication of the shift from a CATOBAR to STOVL configuration for the QEC is the loss of strategic flexibility and long-term growth potential afforded by CATOBAR. This goes beyond the F-35 variant debate and encompasses issues such as embarked intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, the resilience of Carrier Strike in the event of the F-35 programme being delayed or failing and the long-term viability of Carrier Strike.
The latter is far more uncertain following the shift to STOVL. This is because the F-35B has a projected out of service date of circa 2042, whereas the QEC are intended to remain in service until around 2070; unless the ships are then refitted for CATOBAR operations, Carrier Strike capability would be lost by default.
The UK has also foreclosed potential future cooperation with the US in the development of next generation systems such as the F/A-XX (the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler replacement), unmanned air systems such as the X-47B and unmanned carrier launched airborne surveillance and strike system and follow-on sixth generation systems.
In operational terms, the ship-air interface in a STOVL environment is no less complex than for CATOBAR operations. STOVL operations require more deck space than CATOBAR to enable the short take-off run and due to deficiencies in the F-35B’s performance, in particular the aircraft’s vertical landing bring back capability (the weight of payload permitted for a vertical recovery), ship-borne rolling vertical landings (SRVL) will be required (alternatively, any munitions being carried could be dumped prior to landing – an expensive approach considering the cost of precision guided munitions). A SRVL recovery will require as much deck space as a traditional CATOBAR recovery and can be expected to become routine due to F-35B performance shortfalls, through life technical risk and increasingly expensive weapons. The requirement for sustained investment in embarked training at sea for both aircrew and support personnel and the regular, sustained embarkation of the air group to ensure basic operational proficiency remains for STOVL as it would for CATOBAR operations.
The F-35B’s performance limitations will also impinge on the effectiveness and credibility of UK Carrier Strike. The British government has not revised its policy regarding the size of the QEC air group, which will remain centred on just twelve F-35s. Based on the figures given in the aforementioned Telegraph article, 40% more F-35Bs are required to deliver the same effect as a force of F-35Cs. In essence, to deliver the same effect as twelve F-35Cs, the QEC should embark sixteen or seventeen F-35Bs. Therefore, the currently envisaged number of F-35s will need to be increased in order to provide the required capability. In addition, as discussed above, the F-35B has a reduced reach and punch compared to the F-35C, in particular with regard to the prosecution of hardened targets. The shift therefore from the F-35C to the F-35B will substantially reduce the capability of UK Carrier Strike and have a concomitant impact on its credibility in terms of constituting a force for influence and deterrence.
The decision to switch from the F-35C to the F-35B, and with it from a CATOBAR to STOVL configuration for the QEC, holds significant implications for the future of UK airpower. The limited range, persistence and internal payload of the F-35B reduce its military utility, in particular with regard to the prosecution of hardened high value targets and its increased dependence on AAR support, thus impinging on the capability and credibility of British airpower and its relative value to coalition operations.
Moreover, the variant switch does not constitute a more affordable option for the UK. The F-35B has a higher unit acquisition cost, greater through life costs and does not fulfil the UK’s DPOC requirement which will either necessitate acceptance of a serious capability gap or investment in other systems (such as the F-35A at considerably greater through life cost of a mixed fleet) to address the requirement.
In addition, the configuring of the QEC for STOVL operations generates uncertainty with regard to the long-term viability of UK Carrier Strike beyond the service life of the F-35B, and is however likely to necessitate fitting CATOBAR equipment in the long-term. The shift to a STOVL configuration for the QEC also imposes a substantial limitation on the long-term growth potential for UK Carrier Strike. This is especially with regard to possible UK involvement in US programmes developing future maritime aviation capabilities, in particular those relating to unmanned air systems which would offer substantial improvements in persistence, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strike capabilities (especially satisfying DPOC requirements) compared to current systems and that offered by the F-35. This also applies at the level of UK airpower. Any future combat air system (manned or unmanned) the UK seeks to acquire will either have to be STOVL (to ensure compatibility with the QEC) or restricted to land basing, thus removing the potential for the UK to minimise the number of fast jet types it operates. The acquisition of the F-35C would enable the UK to acquire future air systems, designed for CATOBAR, which do not suffer the performance limitations imposed by STOVL, and are equally capable of operations from land or sea. This would at least ensure commonality (the development of and requirements for an interoperable force are beyond the scope of this paper) between Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force types and contribute to maximising the flexibility of UK airpower.
Simply, the contention that the F-35B constitutes the most cost effective option for the UK and the ‘right decision for the long-term’ does not stand up to scrutiny. The decision to acquire the F-35B requires greater expenditure at a time when the defence budget and wider economy is under significant pressure. The decision will deliver a sub-optimal capability and will reduce the flexibility, long-term growth potential and, ultimately, the strategic credibility of UK airpower.