Beaking Defense website has an article about the
committing to operating two carriers with F-35B air
wings (1). That’s good news for the
Royal Navy and yet I see limitations and weaknesses being baked into the
concept as well some disturbing trends being played out just as they have in
the US Navy. UK
Ministry of Defense officials are saying that the
is committed to operating two carriers regardless of
the results of an ongoing defense review.
That strikes me as a bit optimistic but, not knowing the UK political situation, I’ll accept the statement at
face value. UK
One of the trends in the US Navy is minimal manning. The concept is that automation will allow reduced crews thereby saving on personnel costs. The flip side of that is that significant maintenance must be performed by shore side personnel. Thus, the manning isn’t really decreased but rather a portion of it is transferred from sea to shore. Again, the concept is that the shore contingent will be able to service multiple ships at an overall decrease in manning. That sounds good on paper but, thus far, the US Navy has not been able to make it work. LCS shore side personnel have had to be far more numerous than planned and there has been no significant reduction in manning and, quite probably, an increase depending on how one counts the personnel.
Worse than simple overall personnel numbers is the issue of actual maintenance. The US Navy has been dabbling in minimal manning for at least a couple of decades now and has amassed considerable practical experience with the concept. The clear finding has been that minimal manning has proven very detrimental to the material condition of the ships involved. Minor problems have been allowed to grow into major ones and ships have been early retired due to their poor condition – much of that condition directly attributable to the lack of manpower.
It now appears that the
is going down the same path. UK
“To save costs, the Queen Elizabeth class has a fewer sailors for its size than older ships, she [Penny Mordaunt, Minister of State for Armed Forces] said, but it requires ‘additional shore support’ to compensate.”
I hope that the
looks seriously at the USN experience before fully
committing to minimal manning. UK
Moving on, the Queen Elizabeth class will carry F-35B air wings.
“Each QE-class ship can accommodate 40 aircraft of various types, but not all of those are going to be fighters. … The maximum capacity for F-35s is reportedly 36 aircraft but during routine operations, each carrier might have only a dozen F-35Bs on board.”
The key part of the statement above is the suggestion that the carriers would operate with only a dozen F-35s during routine operations. If true, this would be a major mistake.
How can a navy learn to operate an air wing under maximum combat conditions if all their operational and training time is spent operating an air wing that is a third the size? There are just too many differences between a 30-40 aircraft wing operating at maximum capacity versus a 12 aircraft wing operating under leisurely peacetime conditions.
How will the carrier learn the deck “dance” of handling and placement of 30-40 aircraft under constantly changing conditions from only operating 12?
How will the carrier learn the art of juggling launches and recoveries under maximum sortie rates with only 12?
How will the carrier learn the task of munitions handling, refueling, and maintenance of 30-40 aircraft with only 12?
In short, a carrier does not seamlessly transition from 12 aircraft operated at a leisurely pace to 30-40 aircraft operating a maximum sortie rate without constant practice. The USN devotes months of training workups to its carriers and air wings prior to each deployment and that’s with operating a full air wing routinely. The art of maximum carrier operations is not something that can be picked up on the fly in a week.
This brings us back around to manning levels. The reduced manning of the QE class presumably is what’s required to operate the dozen F-35s. When the carrier surges to a maximum 30-40 aircraft it will need many additional personnel. Where will these extra personnel come from? How will they be trained if they aren’t routinely operating with the carriers? Learning on the fly on a carrier is a recipe for disaster.
Reduced operations is a bad idea all around. Remember the adage, fight like you train, train like you fight? Routinely operating 12 aircraft when you intend to fight with 30-40 violates a very wise adage.
Royal Navy, are you operating two carriers because you just like the idea of being able to say you have the carriers or are you operating two carriers because you want to be able to place two fully loaded carriers into high end combat at a moment’s notice?
Lastly, here’s an interesting comment about philosophy.
prioritized warfighting over low-intensity operations, accepting a smaller
fleet as the price of more capable vessels …” Britain
If true, that’s a very wise philosophy and one which, sadly, the USN is abandoning with its emphasis on the toothless LCS, JHSV, smaller air wings, submarine and fighter shortfalls, etc. Note, though, RN, the contradiction between the stated philosophy of emphasis on warfighting with the reduction in operations of the carriers from max size air wings (30-40 aircraft) to a dozen aircraft for routine operations. Are you really committed to warfighting or not? Will you be fully trained and ready, or not? You certainly won’t have a full air wing at a moment’s notice.
That’s an interesting question, too. How long will it take to get all those extra F-35s out to the ship? Are they all going to be parked on a tarmac ready to launch? Not likely. Will the extra pilots be sitting around fully trained (and carrier qualified!!) just waiting to launch? Will the extra maintenance crews be sitting around, ready? Will the extra spares and maintenance/testing equipment already be on the carrier or will they also have to be assembled and transported to the carrier?
Those who might suggest that the a dozen aircraft are just fine for routine operations and that the rest of the aircraft can be instantly surged are just not seeing reality. The F-35 is not a WWI powered kite that can be piloted by someone with a few hours training and maintained by any mechanic with a pipe wrench. Surging F-35s may take weeks or months and a carrier caught in a moment’s notice conflict will be severely limited in its capabilities.
It pains me to see the Royal Navy preparing to go down some of the same paths that the USN has already shown to be mistakes. I hope the RN very carefully thinks through their carrier operating plans.
(1)Breaking Defense, “UK Commits To 2 Carriers, Fully Crewed; F-35B Numbers TBD”, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.