It is becoming more clear now than ever that the UK can not afford two carriers, and even one may be a stretch under the current economic circumstances and total uncertainty surround the F-35 program.
The MoD’s spastic planning nature is entirely puzzling to me. Everything is an on-again, off-again ordeal, or there is enough money to procure a key asset but not enough to train to use it. It’s like they are selling their car to buy gas money! Its unrealistic, makes no sense and is harmful in many ways to the future effectiveness and morale of the armed services in general. On a personal level, its heart wrenching for an American to watch the UK’s proud armed services go through this haphazard slashing of key capabilities and dead-end planning anomalies. I just can’t imagine what this is like for our British friends who recognize the value and need of a strong and Royal Air Force, Navy, and Army to watch all of this unfold. It must be excruciatingly painful.
The reality is this: The British Navy cannot afford the F-35C. The cost of training aircrews to fly a catapult and barrier capable aircraft is totally prohibitive to start with. Something has to give, and that should come at the price of the F-35′s 5th generation stealth capability. Forget buying the C model JSF, instead purchase a proven, available, highly reliable and cost-effective aircraft: The F/A-18E/F International Export Configuration Super Hornet. This aircraft will be able to do 90% of what the F-35 can at half the price. The Royal Navy can get their feet wet (no pun intended) in the conventional carrier game again and then, after the F-35 is a proven system, look at purchasing a batch of them if need be.
I realize many of my British friends will hate this as they would like to see a navalized Typhoon or even the Rafale on the decks of their new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. The reality is the Super Hornet is much more versatile, and sorry to say, cost-effective, than either of the two alternative options listed here. The International Roadmap version of the Super Hornet will offer frontal aspect stealth and many of the avionics concepts found in the F-35. Simply put, when your defense ministry is throwing away low mileage platforms, and shedding capabilities on an unprecedented level, going with a low risk, maximum bang for the buck solution is not what is smart it’s WHAT IS NECESSARY! With a mismanaged F-35C program the UK could find itself with carriers but no aircraft to fly off of them or no money to train for all the mission sets the F-35 is set to take on. The answer is a simple dose of reality: Buy a Corvette instead of a Ferrari! It will still go fast and destroy things with ease for almost every conceivable unilateral UK mission in the future.
Lets talk about the simple economics of the situation. The Royal Navy was going to purchase 138 F-35Bs, lets figure that number is now 80 C models. At a cost of $120M per aircraft the bill would be roughly $9.6 Billion for the total unit procurement program. The International “4.75 Generation” Export Super Hornet would run half that, at $60M per copy, with a grand total unit procurement program cost of $4.8B. So with one totally reasonable change in platform selection the MoD would drastically lower its program risk and save almost FIVE BILLION DOLLARS. This money could be well spent on more personnel to man both carriers and more training hours for their pilots who will have to take on basically every mission in the menu of current fighter capabilities. Keep in mind this does not take into account lifetime operating cost savings/ which for the F-35 are projected to be almost double those of the Super Hornet. This is a huge factor as the MoD will have to come to terms with blowing $30-40k per flight hour with the F-35, and many of those hours will be needed to perfect fixed wing carrier operations and will translate in no way to missionized training.
The MoD’s tastes are simply to rich for their pocketbook, and instead of opting for a more modest but numerous mix of platforms that can work comfortably within their budgetary constraints, they want the very best with all the bells and whistles. Like a young playboy buying a big pleasure boat but not having the money to fill it up and use it, it’s simply an immature and losing mindset.
On a side note, the USN is facing a fighter gap and is decreasing it’s carrier fleet while the UK needs help getting aircrews CATBAR qualified and lowering operating costs. I am sure something can be worked out where the Royal Navy deploys with American CVW’s and eventually USN squadrons deploy on the Royal Navy’s carriers. This would also provide added strategic value, especially when it comes to contingency surge operations. If the Royal Navy purchased the Super Hornet this could happen in a fairly quick fashion. An arrangement like this would be especially beneficial if the UK simply cannot deploy a full deck of hardware on their carriers for a myriad of reasons, the USN could step in a make use of that incredibly valuable floating real estate! I know this has been murmured about before, but a UK Super Hornet buy would really make this attractive.
The whole idea of Super Hornet purchase instead of the F-35 and the possibility of crossdeck force integration as described above has been seen recently in a similar situation between the US and the UK. This was the decision to fully retire the Nimrod in favor of the US’s RC-135 Rivet Joint. Under this deal not only would the UK buy a handful of electronics intelligence focused RC-135s, but they would also operate with American crews and hardware. It’s a capability enhancement in many ways and in others it’s a bit of a loss in others, BUT its cost-effective and leverages fantastic economies of scale. This same mentality needs to be projected onto the Queen Elizabeth Carrier and F-35 question. In the end 85-90% of the capability usually costs less than half of the 100% solution, I hope our most valued allies from across the Atlantic begin to realize that the 100% solution seen in the F-35 is just 50% to expensive for their wallet and that the F/A-18 International Roadmap Super Hornet is the logical answer to their current naval aviation budgetary problems.