Sunday, October 24, 2010

British Defense Cuts Spare New Carriers

The British Royal Navy will receive both of its new aircraft carriers despite a sweeping financial austerity plan that will inflict severe cuts on the overall British defense force structure. However, the carriers will spend the early part of their lives operating helicopters only and not receive their fixed-wing aircraft until 2019.

In addition, one of the aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will be placed in "extended readiness" as soon as the second ship, HMS Prince of Wales, is delivered. The two carriers will then alternate in service, with the Queen Elizabeth being refitted with catapults and wires during her first extended readiness period.

It had been widely rumored that one or both of the British aircraft carriers would be canceled due to their cost. This has proved to be impossible, since much of the funding for the two ships has already been spent on contracts with a wide variety of component and subsystem suppliers. Extra funding to complete both carriers amounts to approximately GBP1.5 billion, while cancellation charges from the primary building yard and the network of supporting suppliers would cost around GBP3.5 billion.

The Royal Navy will be hit by additional cuts. The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal is to be decommissioned immediately, along with the fleet of 44 Harrier aircraft. These VSTOL strike aircraft are the only ones capable of operating from ski-jump-equipped aircraft carriers, and their loss puts the Royal Navy out of the fixed-wing aviation community for at least a decade. The Navy's other carrier, HMS Illustrious, will continue to function as a helicopter platform stripped of jets before retiring in 2014. Also, the extremely troubled Nimrod MRA.4 fleet will be scrapped.

HMS Prince of Wales is to be modified with normal catapults and arrester wires that will enable her to operate conventional aircraft. The British plan is to pull out of the vertical takeoff F-35B program and order the conventional F-35C instead. The Navy is reported to believe that the F-35C is a faster, longer-ranged, and more capable aircraft than the B model, and its added capability will offset the smaller numbers being procured. Accordingly, an order for 138 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, which are mainly being built by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Tex., is also likely to be slashed.

The British prime minister has vowed to replace Britain's fleet of four Trident nuclear missile-carrying submarines, but is expected to confirm that the GBP20 billion ($30 billion) program will be delayed. It would mean the SSBN(R) Successor submarines would only come into service from 2027, and that the costs would be paid after Britain's debts are cleared. This has an upside in that it brings the program into close timetable alignment with the U.S. Navy's SSBN(X) program. The two submarines share a common weapon (Trident D-5) and will use a common missile compartment. However, the British submarines will only have eight missile tubes per boat, as opposed to 16 on the American boats.

Initial gate approval will be given to SSBN(R) this year, while main gate approval will follow in 2016. Suggestions that the revised submarine program will cost money have been refuted, since the decision will bring the SSBN(R) and SSBN(X) programs into close technical and timing coordination.

Additional ship decommissionings include five surface combatants. These are widely reported to be the remaining Type 42 destroyers that would soon be leaving the fleet anyway. They are generally regarded as being of no great loss since they are in poor material condition and are expensive to maintain, and their missile systems are obsolete. In at least two cases, the ship's primary weapon, the Sea Dart missile system, has been disabled and the ships are little more than glorified gunboats. For the future, the Royal Navy Type 26 frigate program is currently set at 12 ships, to give a surface combatant fleet of six Type 45 destroyers and 12 Type 26 frigates.

In introducing the cuts, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that U.S. and French fixed-wing aircraft would fly from the British carriers until the required F-35B aircraft are delivered. Since both the U.S. F/A-18 and the French Rafale require catapults and arrester wires for carrier operations, this can only apply to HMS Prince of Wales, which is now expected to be delivered in 2019. The only fixed-wing option left for HMS Queen Elizabeth when she commissions in 2014 is to operate U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs when they finally enter service.

The long gap in fixed-wing operations means that the necessary expertise in carrier operations will be lost; it will take years to reconstitute the ability to restore the Royal Navy's operational capability in this area. Some British sources suggest that it could be 2036 before HMS Prince of Wales and her British air group are fully operational - by which time at least half the ship's operational life will be gone.

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