Monday, September 7, 2015

Queen Elizabeth Class - All In Or Half-Hearted?

Beaking Defense website has an article about the UK 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.

Ministry of Defense officials are saying that the UK 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.

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 UK is going down the same path.

“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 UK looks seriously at the USN experience before fully committing to minimal manning. 

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.

“What’s more, Britain has prioritized warfighting over low-intensity operations, accepting a smaller fleet as the price of more capable vessels …”

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. It has long been the policy of the RN to flex aircraft numbers, from as few as 4 to as many as the mid 20's on the invincible
    When we've done that historically, its been in a climate of falling operational numbers, although we successfully deployed virtually every harrier we had to the Falklands War and they were new.

    Catapult Certification is a lot more difficult than STOS/VL certification, landing on a carrier at sea is harder than landing on a small runway, but not markedly so, without the catapults and arrestor wires, its a learning curve, but its not a new skill.

    Much as I'm loath to admit it, the B is probably the most realistic choice for the UK for that reason., either that or build Catapults and Arrestor wires at RAF bases.

    The main thrust of the UKs minimal manning has been through automation,
    Remote data logging replacing watch keeping, theres simply no need for crew members to sit on site monitoring pressure gauges and temperature readings, that information can all be collated and monitored from a single site, or even better, monitored by computer and flagged up when something goes wrong, why have a sailor testing the oil for contaminants every hour when you can have a machine testing it every 5 seconds.
    Mechanisation replacing manpower, why have sweaty barrel chested men milling around with wheeled carts and a hand written "shopping list", when you can have self piloting vehicles with sophisticated route planning software fulfilling electronically placed orders.

    "How will the carrier learn the deck “dance” of handling and placement of 30-40 aircraft under constantly changing conditions from only operating 12?"
    Even at 40 aircraft, the QEs would be cavernously empty, even the enormous Ford Class isnt *that* much bigger, its a good whack longer but only a little bit fatter.

    " because you want to be able to place two fully loaded carriers into high end combat at a moment’s notice?"

    Thats, unless something has changed, not the ideal, its to deploy one fully loaded carrier at a moments notice. To avoid the French problem of the carrier always being in refit whenever the shooting starts.

    In theory, the aircraft will be operated as "Joint Force Lightning", 48 aircraft, divided in to 3 squadrons or 12, with the remaining 12 cover the minor and major refits, hopefully 12 will be considered land based, and the remaining 24 will rotate between carrier based and land based, but remember a UK air squadron of 12 airframes would have 20 pilots (or should anyway), so we should have 20 Carrier certified and 20 recently certified if lapsed.

    1. Monitoring gages is one thing, but many, many equipment casualties are preceded by odd noises, fluid leaks, and other tell-tales that automated systems have not demonstrated the ability to detect. The commercial world gets by with minimum (or outright unmanned spaces) by running large diesels at relatively constant speeds, and generally do not doing the silly maneuvering that navies do.


    2. Trt: "Mechanisation replacing manpower, why have sweaty barrel chested men milling around with wheeled carts and a hand written "shopping list", when you can have self piloting vehicles with sophisticated route planning software fulfilling electronically placed orders."

      In comparison with the sweaty barrel-chested men, how well-suited are the self-piloting vehicles for performing damage control functions after the vessel has been struck by an anti-ship missile or a torpedo?

      In the age of automation, isn't keeping the ship afloat after it has been seriously damaged one of the primary remaining functions of a large human crew -- large in comparison with what an automated commercial vessel would be carrying?

    3. Like all military procurement, it's a tradeoff between capability and cost. Would the Burkes be more survivable with an extra 100 men for damage parties? Yes, but it's not worth it. Would a B-2 be more survivable with damage control specialists on board? Yes, but it's not worth compromising other aspects of the design. A B-2 would cost as much as a QEC these days, but we accept that if it takes a hit then it's probably a loss. And it's not all one-way, technology can help with damage control as well, IIRC the long-hull Perrys could operate with fewer crew because they had a full halon firefighting system installed.

      You pays your money and takes your choice.

  2. I wonder if this is the direction that the US will take with future carriers. The reason why I ask is because the F-35 has proven costlier and frankly, crappier than anticipated.

    So too has the Ford Class really. Judging by the issues with the catapult and other problems, the entire class may prove a serious lemon or need huge retrofitting to work as planned.

    1. The USN has a big emotional commitment to CTOL, rather than V/STOL, and to the "carrier dance" of a fully populated deck operating CTOL. There'll be a really big fight before they change that.

      "are you operating two carriers because you just like the idea of being able to say you have the carriers"

      That's certainly what the PR side of the MoD, plus the less-knowledgeable Conservative MPs (which is quite a lot of them) would like. In reality, one or the other of the ships will be in refit more than half the time (about 30% each, total 60%).

    2. Not sure V/STOL is even a good idea to be honest. That's another problem too.

      For VTOL you need to sacrifice wing loading, survivability, payload, and quite a few other things just to get that VTOL lift.

    3. Survivability, how so?

      Payload is reduced, but munitions are smaller.
      Range is reduced and there is little way around that.

      However maintenance is reduced on both carrier and aircraft and deck operations are vastly simplified and require less men.

      So it has its pros and cons. VTOL has come along way and now the differences are marginal and the only real effect is on the range which rightly or wrongly the UK sees as acceptable in exchange for lower manning.

  3. Dam you TrT you beat me to it ;)

    Nice article CNO, although the source material :S

    You missed the quote where the politician in question stated that we are buying expensive warships like the Type 26, QEC and Type 45 “to remain relevant to the US”.

    She is out back right now getting a kicking.

    Although this might be partly true, being British we should never, never say it.
    On a side note the “standard” TAG (Tailored air group) will involve squadrons of ASuW, ASW, Assault helicopters, Apache WAH-64 attack helicopters and AEW.

    This is designed to be a standard response force to Omni situations. They will swap on and off regally going back to their RN, RAF and Army Air Corp jobs in the interim. The support crews like wise. As TrT mention with’ Joint Lighting Force’, this has been a major restructure to create ’Joint Helicopter Command’. It’s a whole new paradigm, not just simply lending a few helicopters and RAF F35’s to the carriers.

    Its designed to offer something flexible that can when needed offer something akin to a Nimitz but at other times bring all flavours of pain in one neat little package.

    It had been cleared that we would have 1 carrier available at all times. I think this statement is supposed to indicate we will now be operating both at once.

    Given QEC’s estimated 250-300 days per year operational availability ( supposedly across its lifetime ) this should represent a significant input to UK-US standing world wide obligations.

    1. Dumb Question:

      "The key part of the statement above is the suggestion that the carriers would operate with only a dozen F-35s during routine operations."

      It sounds like the RN wants to flex the QE between 'phib/LHA and CVA/CVS?

    2. Yes, that's basically it, It is built with some classic Anphib criteria, landing vessels in the sponsons on davits, and extra wide gang ways. Extensive extra hotel capabilities. + Stealth features for green water survivability.

      But the idea is its one or the other, neither and everything in between. And most interestingly configured and trained on across our forces to change very very quickly. Rotating off to forward basing for RAF F35B and Apache Ground attack and ideas like that.

      Ill be honest I don't think the entire plan is in the public domain yet.


    3. "Its designed to offer something flexible that can when needed offer something akin to a Nimitz ..."

      Ben, I don't know enough about the RN carrier ops so I can only offer this thought. The USN has been practicing full air wing ops for many decades and still requires lengthy workups to get it right before each deployment. The Soviets tried to master carrier ops and never quite got it although they were trending in that direction. The Chinese are taking their first baby steps towards full carrier ops.

      If it was as easy as just stepping aboard when needed that would be great but unless the RN has found a way that no one else has ever been able to, you simply can't surge a fully functioning air wing.

    4. I totally take your point. And its success will have to be determined. I can only quote the sparse information.
      All British F35 squadrons. RAF and RN will spend serious time on the carriers. Including their support teams. It will be an integral part of their job. We did this to some extent with Harrier. But now this is a 100% requirement. The RAF must reach a naval standard, as (with forward basing) the Fleet Air Arm must operate from land.
      Sit back and watch the fireworks CNO, either its genius, or ……

    5. Something to remember: inter-service rivalry is not nearly as strong in the British services as in the American. The different service cultures still regard each other as a bit weird, but they aren't nearly as alienated from each other as their American versions.

    6. >I don't know enough about the RN carrier ops

      Quite. It's a massive difference to a military that is big enough to "afford" dedicated carrier squadrons whose work-up cycle is completely tied to a particular ship. If you're the US, then allocating 12 planes to a carrier in peacetime would mean there's no more beyond that until a resting squadron can be worked up, and there's no way a USAF squadron or Army helicopters would be coopted.

      The British model is more akin to having 100 aircraft from all services working up as normal for "land" deployment, but knowing there's a possibility they might go to sea, and the brass pick and mix from that 100. So the first 12 F-35 and some ASW Merlins know they are 100% likely to go to sea, the next 12 F-35 have a 50% chance, the following F-35 a 5% chance. But at the same time any given RAF Chinook or Army Apache knows that there's a (say 5%) chance they will be diverted from land duties to flying off a carrier. We fought the Falklands and Sierra Leone with light blue Harriers, we fought Libya with Army Apaches. Does it give 100% of the performance of a dedicated air wing? No, but it gives more flexibility, and it certain gives a good capability at much greater value for money.

      Even the US is starting to go down this route, with the first baby steps of trialling Apaches at sea, but as has been mentioned, the US is a lot less "purple" than the UK.

  4. On the note of the Strategic defence review, due out in the next few month. The UK economy has been improving significantly. Defence played an unusually high profile in the recent general election and commitments were made. Rumour’s seem to indicate the review will be good and favour the navy. Although I doubt “Good” will represent all it should be. More F35B’s I think are likely.

  5. UK 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.

    It's happened before - things like Eurofighter were "blocked out" of the 1998 review as we were already too far in to pull out, and it affected a lot of people in the UK and international partners who didn't need a theoretical possibility of cancellation hanging over them. The second one is going to be built, so the only difference is the annual running costs of PoW of around $100m/year. You'll have to bear in mind the significance of the "two carrier" phrase, compared to 2010 when it looked like PoW would be mothballed or sold. It's still possible that we will "operate two carriers" in the same way that we "operate two Albions", one is in semi-mothballed state until the other one needs a refit, but the expectation is that they will both be fully manned. Our politicans were watching when the de Gaulle had to go home half way through Libya 2011, so the aim is not some token willy-waving "2 full carriers" at a time, but to generate a single "permanent" carrier presence at a target. One ready to go now, one that can be worked up in 6 months time. So the RN's 220-day harmony regulations allow for 3 weeks steaming each way and then 6 months on station.

  6. It now appears that the UK is going down the same path.

    More like the USN is following the UK when it comes to reducing manning - compare the 190 on a Type 45 to 300+ on a Burke. Through force of necessity, the RN has been doing it for a long time, and seems to work it better than some other navies (not saying there's not problems, not by a long shot, but qv the major failure within weeks of Largs Bay being maintained by Australians after years of being OK in the RFA). Part of it is having fewer crew but training them better - qv these quotes from US sailors that went through a cut-down version of RN pre-deployment assessment : " “I've been through other exercises, inspections, and deployment and this was by far the hardest," said Sonar Technician 3rd Class Victor Williams. "It was even more intense than INSURV."

    Ensign Cullen agreed: "I went through INSURV and Joint Warrior last year – and this was definitely more intense."

    And that was the cut-down version of what the RN does...

    Money is part of it, but aside from money the biggest single challenge facing the RN at the moment is putting engineers to sea and not losing them to other industries. Part of it is the big shift to having babies much later in life, so now engineers will train up, hit 30 - and then want to settle down with babies. So there's a push from families, and a pull from offshore industries like North Sea oil and offshore windfarms, who can pay better and offer 180 days away. So if the RN can shift maintenance from 220 days away from families to a steady 9-5 job in Portsmouth, that really helps them retain skilled engineers. Expect the SDSR to devote quite a bit of attention to this kind of stuff, there's going to be more on improving terms of service than sexy new procurements.

    The key part of the statement above is the suggestion that the carriers would operate with only a dozen F-35s during routine operations.

    No - the key one is "Each QE-class ship can accommodate 40 aircraft of various types, but not all of those are going to be fighters". You can't judge British carriers in terms of a US CVN - they do get used like that, at other times they're more like an LHA, and we fought a war flying "land" planes off carriers over thirty years ago, and more recently off Sierra Leone. You can't think of the stovepipes that the US has, with separate tracks for carrier and land air, and as has been mentioned STOVL makes it a lot easier to carrier qualify. That's not to say it has always gone smoothly, but it's less of a learning curve and the differences were as much to do with hardware as meatware. The Invincibles always flexed their air group to circumstance, at least now both shades of blue will be flying the same fast jet. There will be more than 12 aircraft routinely embarked, they just won't all be fixed-wing - the Merlins are a massive part of the picture too. And these days even the USN tends not to carry a full deck load.

    You mention the deck "dance" - another way of looking at it is that the USN uses a lot of manpower as car park attendants, micromanaging the deck. The reason for the QEC's ungainly shape is to cut down on manpower by providing more parking space - it also helps sortie generation if you're not constantly respotting. The target is for 36 F-35 to generate 72 sorties/day, compare in Desert Storm when 70-80 aircraft on CV-66,67 and 71 managed 86, 83 and 106 sorties per day over 30-40 days - 1.18, 1.07 and 1.36 per plane per day.

  7. All carriers are not the same. As others have commented, these are not the same as traditional carriers, so comparing them is not really relevant.

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  9. I fail to see why the Royal Navy would prefer F-35Bs over Navalized Eurofighters or the Sea Gripen. The latter CT version has several parts made in the UK.
    Both can take off from the QE with minimal modification & have superior capability over the F-35. Including a longer range.
    Along with being cheaper which would allow larger Air Wings. You not going to be able intercept Mach 2+ fighters with a STVOL design.

    1. Not this again. Sea Typhoon doesn't exist, and would cost a couple of billion to create, on a base model that arguably costs more than F-35. Plus it's not "minimal modification", BAE would charge £2bn to convert one carrier in 2012, Google "Carrier Strike: The 2012 reversion decision" from the NAO for the financial details. Also, EMALS was looking an even worse basket to put eggs in than F-35B, it's still not looking great. And we have a great industrial deal on F-35, taxes on 15% of workshare means we get 50-odd for free in effect.

      They don't have superior capability to F-35 in the vital area of electronics, but that's not something that's amenable to playing Top Trumps. You're not going to catch Mach 2+ planes with Gripen or Tiffy either, and while range is always good (not that Gripen has much), it's less relevant for the UK which won't be fighting in the Pacific. Meanwhile the greater availability of STOVL is valuable for some of our activities like in the South Atlantic, STOVL planes can aim for the pivot point of a seesawing carrier, CATOBAR planes are restricted by motion at the tips of the seesaw.

    2. Sensor fusion is something that most 4.5 Gen fighters had long before the F-35 existed.It still can't track more then four other plane. Not good if you have a Russian Fighter with IRST track stealth aircraft and can club slower fighters like baby Seals.The only real defense against that is an EA aircraft

      Seesaw landing over a CATABOR is a discredited myth that fanboys use to justify an inferior plane.
      The Eurofighter can keep up with an F-22s. Which is the the closest thing to what near pear competitors have. But the fanboys tend to ignore that. Also it's faster then official specs.

      "The RAF has been very tight lipped about the Typhoon's true capabilities including deliberate stating the wrong values to confuse and distort the truth on what it can really do if it has to. People weren't very sure about its 'sprint' speed until a year and a bit ago when they responded to a hostile intercept off the coast of England (turned out to be a false alarm caused by a civilian helicopter pilot giving the wrong code in his malfunction mayday) and broke the sound barrier over England's towns in their haste to get there. The times of passing over individual towns were recorded and some flight boffs did the maths and found it has gone WAY faster than the MoD had ever claimed it could."

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  10. "The Eurofighter can keep up with an F-22s. Which is the the closest thing to what near pear competitors have. But the fanboys tend to ignore that. Also it's faster then official specs."

    To be honest, I tend to take alot of these things with a grain of salt. I've read plenty of opinions that make anything the Chinese/Russians make as the crem de la creme; and our stuff is over complicated crap.

    I've also read the US fighter folks who think the F-22 and yes, even the F-35 are like wonder woman's invisible jet; except the F-22 can maneuver better.

    The European block has its own 'fanboys'.

    It all starts reading like a comparison of comic book characters.

    In the end, everyone has issues. I think the F-35 will be fine for the most part. They'll figure it out. Will it be perfect? No. Is it being shoehorned into a role it wasn't intended with the cancellation of the F-22? Partially. At this point my biggest worry isn't 'Will it work?' assuming it makes it to production, its 'Can we afford not only the initial buy, but the large maintanance cost as well'? Ditto the F-22. From what I've read its a fine jet that has Ferrari like maintanance requirements.

    Will the F-35 get 'clubbed like a baby seal'? I kinda doubt it. Will it take losses? I'm sure of it in any near peer war. That's what war is. Would it take losses vs. the SU-35? Sure. From what I've read it will also have greater numbers.

    On the other side, the Russian military has always had monsterous machines on paper. I'm old enough to remember when the MiG's were advertised as unbeatable ("The Foxbat can go Mach 3!!!!! Have you seen their missile?!?!?!") and their tanks were seen as brilliant mixtures of firepower and protection. In reality while the Russians have talented engineers and designers, they often have large logistical and manufacturing problems.

    That didn't matter so much when you were cranking out so many T-34's and parts that you could strap and extra transmission on the back of the tank for when the first one failed. It matters alot more when you are talking about a production run of 12 PAK's, and all of them have engine issues. I have as much faith that the Flanker variants will be able to all fly and sweep the sky clear as I do that the F-35 will be able to do so.

    The Chinese are largely a cipher. But I'm also skeptical of their wonder weapons. Will they work? Likely. But like us they'll find shortcomings they never imagined that they'll have to work around.

    One of the things that has been nice to read in this thread is just the way that the RN handles meeting different needs. I'm sure anyone in the RN would love a supercarrier with truckloads of rafales or navalized typhoons. But their budget won't support it. And with the F-35 and ski ramps, while they may not get Nimitz type carriers they have a really flexible option. I'm intrigued by the idea. Maybe its not perfect, maybe it won't work, but it at least seems well thought out.

  11. The authors word of warning is look how the US navy operate their machines, but forgetts that the US equipment, both ship and planes are very different, so no doubt RN standard operating practice's will differ considerably. If the UK had a nuclear powered catapult, then maybe some wisdom could be found in those words. However the carriers have been designed from the offset to be very different, and those design differences are clearly to reduce manning.

    The training issue is an important one, but crews are already training in simulators and can practice full scale operations. Through a mix of simulations, drills and real practice the sailors will be fully capable of operating the ships at full capacity. It not the old days any more and synthetic training is happening everywhere and will only continue to grow is percentage of training hour's.


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