Regenerating UK carrier airpower: The challenges and opportunities ahead
Contributor: Dr James Bosbotinis
Posted: 11/06/2014 12:00:00 AM EST
The process of regenerating UK carrier airpower has received two considerable boosts in the course of 2014. Firstly, the naming ceremony for HMS Queen Elizabeth constituted an important symbolic milestone in the development of the carrier programme and provided a tangible glimpse of the new aircraft carriers as complete ships. Secondly, the decision announced in September to commission Prince of Wales and operate both aircraft carriers has, for now at least, removed the uncertainty introduced in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) regarding the fate of the second carrier. This decision places the prospects for the regeneration of UK carrier airpower on a much more solid foundation by ensuring that at least one of the ships is available continuously and avoids the UK possessing only a part-time carrier capability with the associated implications for proficiency and credibility. Moreover, the decision to operate both aircraft carriers enables a shift in focus for analysis: that is, a move from considering what is to be acquired to how is the capability provided by the carriers going to be utilised?
In this regard, two issues are of particular significance: how is the concept of Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) to be implemented, and how will Joint Force Lightning (JFL) be delivered? Both constitute unorthodox approaches to carrier airpower. Joint Force Lightning marks a continuation of the joint (Royal Navy and Royal Air Force) approach to deliver an interoperable land and sea-based fast jet capability, first attempted with Joint Force Harrier. CEPP reflects the legacy of the intense pressures on the carrier programme during the SDSR. Those pressures resulted in the need to highlight the flexibility of the carriers, with a particular emphasis on the role of the ships in supporting amphibious and helicopter operations - both of which are central to the expanded CEPP approach.
This paper discusses the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead as the UK moves toward bringing the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers and F-35B combat aircraft into service. The new aircraft carriers and the F-35, individually and combined, will provide the UK with potent new levels of capability, in some respects, unmatched outside of the United States (especially with regard to a sea-based fifth generation air capability). Realising this potential is, however, no simple task, presenting a number of challenges but also offering opportunities for innovation in the delivery of expeditionary airpower.
Developing Credible Carrier Airpower
The development of credible carrier airpower involves substantially more than just the acquisition of the relevant ships and aircraft. It encompasses the generation of an integrated capability drawing together a range of assets and personnel, guided by an overarching conceptual/doctrinal framework within a stable policy context (political vacillation has contributed to significant cost increases and delays to the Queen Elizabeth-class programme). Moreover, the generation of credible carrier airpower requires sustained long-term investment, financially and temporally, in order to ensure that the various elements of the complete capability – the carrier itself, the embarked fixed and rotary-wing aircraft and all personnel (including those from other services) – are proficient in operating in the maritime environment in all weathers, by day and night. In this regard, Fleet Air Arm experience suggests that at least 18 months front-line service are required for a fixed-wing pilot to attain full day and night deck qualification.
In order to provide the context for the discussion of the regeneration of UK carrier airpower over the coming decade, it is useful to briefly outline the task ahead, commencing with the introduction to service of HMS Queen Elizabeth. As first-of-class and, alongside the Type 45 Daring-class destroyers (which incorporate many new systems), marking a step change in capability for the Royal Navy, HMS Queen Elizabeth will be subject to extensive sea trials, due to commence in 2017, before initial fixed-wing aviation operations start the following year. The gap between the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth and the F-35B is fortuitous, as it will enable the Royal Navy to work-up HMS Queen Elizabeth and become familiar with its new systems and operation. This process will be facilitated by the experience already garnered through bringing the Daring-class into service; the command system in the Queen Elizabeth-class, for example, has evolved from that used in the Type 45. It also avoids the added risk of seeking to simultaneously bring into service a complex new ship and a fifth generation air system.
The core role of the Queen Elizabeth-class will be the delivery and support of joint expeditionary airpower, whether fixed-wing, rotary-wing or a combination of the two, drawing on Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Army Air Corps assets. The utilisation of the Queen Elizabeth-class as ‘joint defence assets’ places an even greater premium on the development of an effective ship-air interface in order to facilitate the deployment of Royal Air Force and Army assets into an unfamiliar operational environment. This is key to enabling a cross-domain capability, that is, the ability to operate effectively across the physical environments (air, land and sea). In this context, it refers specifically to the ability to operate proficiently from the maritime environment into the land (in support of air manoeuvre operations) or air environments, utilising carrier basing. Developing cross-domain interoperability is contingent on the existence of ‘domain experts’, that is, personnel with an in-depth understanding of both environments, able to bridge the language and experience barrier and ease the integration of the unit into an unfamiliar environment. In this case, the Fleet Air Arm would provide the domain expertise necessary to enable carrier-based fixed and rotary-wing operations. As will be discussed below, this is particularly relevant to Joint Force Lightning.
The development of a proficient ship-air interface is also critical to generating interoperability with key allies and fellow F-35B operators, in particular the United States, Spain and Italy. The US Marine Corps (USMC), which actively lobbied in support of the UK opting for the F-35B, has and continues to provide significant assistance to UK efforts to regenerate its carrier air capability, namely with regard to ensuring that Royal Navy and RAF aviators continue to fly the Harrier thereby gaining sea-based STOVL experience. The Deputy Commandant for Marine Corps Aviation, Lieutenant General Jon Davis, who served a three-year tour with No. 3 Squadron RAF flying the Harrier GR5/7 from 1988 to 1991, has been instrumental in this process as was the former Commandant of the USMC, General James Amos and the Assistant Commandant, General John Paxton.
A notable example of Royal Navy-USMC cooperation, and demonstration of interoperability was the July 2007 Exercise Bold Step. This exercise saw the embarkation of 14 USMC Harriers on-board HMS Illustrious for two and a half weeks. During the deployment, approximately 30 pilots were qualified for embarked operations, albeit only by day. The majority of the pilots did not have sufficient consolidated embarked day experience, nor was there sufficient time available, to progress to night flying. However, the embarked US Marine Corps squadron demonstrated a flexibility and enthusiasm for, and were culturally wedded to, the concept of supporting whichever capability or Command required it, and thus contributed to all roles of maritime and air warfare for which their radar-equipped AV-8Bs were suitable. Bold Step demonstrated that generating an interoperable capability whereby one nation’s aircraft could operate from another nation’s carrier was feasible, if approached in a safe manner and controlled by subject matter experts with decades of corporate experience. That is, Bold Step demonstrated that a sea-based equivalent to the close cooperation developed by NATO and other coalition forces operating from land bases such as Incirlik, Turkey, and Gioia del Colle, Italy, could be attained.
The experience of Bold Step emphasised that maintaining the capability to operate at sea also confers the ability to operate from a land base. The alternative, generating a sea-based capability from a land-based force, even one with a latent maritime expeditionary capability such as the US Marines, requires significantly longer. Many of the Marine pilots who embarked on Illustrious for Bold Step were operational from land but only achieved a very basic daytime capability from the carrier in the two-and-a-half week deployment, and would require months to obtain the necessary experience to progress to a safe level of proficiency in night flying. This is instructive with regard to planning for sea-based deployments of Joint Force Lightning. In order to attain an effective and credible carrier-based capability, a sufficient number of F-35Bs will have to be routinely embarked on HMS Queen Elizabeth or Prince of Wales for sustained periods to ensure that there is a cadre of pilots (and supporting personnel) who are proficient in carrier operations by day and night and critically, also possess the mind-set of sea-going aviators.
This prompts the question: what is a sufficient number of embarked aircraft? The UK currently has a stated requirement for 48 F-35Bs, sufficient to equip four squadrons. Following the SDSR, there was a debate within the Ministry of Defence concerning the size and duration of F-35 embarkations on the Queen Elizabeth-class. The Royal Navy advocated routine squadron-strength deployments (numbering 12 aircraft) for extended periods; in contrast, the Royal Air Force advocated smaller detachments of four to six aircraft for short durations. An argument in support of shorter embarked periods centres on the evolving technological context, for example, the impact of simulation, thereby changing the requirement for working-up at sea, and that the most challenging aspect of air operations is in-the-air integration; that is, operating the aircraft proficiently and within a complex battlespace. The main area for focus, rather than being the aircrew, should be the on-deck maintainers and command and control.Under original Joint Force Harrier planning, out of three squadrons, one was intended to be at high-readiness and principally carrier-based; the second would be embarked half the time; and the third squadron was to be mainly shore-based. It also warrants mention in this regard that policy-makers could not expect in a crisis to order an extra 24 aircraft (to make use of the Queen Elizabeth-class capacity to operate 36 fixed-wing aircraft) out to the carrier and assume that those aircraft could be employed effectively in short order unless their pilots – and the support personnel on the ship – are well-versed in carrier operations and this is only achieved through regular and sustained embarkation.
Joint Force Lightning
A key driver in the creation of Joint Force 2000, the original title given to Joint Force Harrier, was the realisation by the RAF that, in order to acquire a fifth generation aircraft, it would have to agree with the Royal Navy on a force that could deploy from land and sea. This was due to, effectively, the UK being capable of only affording one fleet of such aircraft: Joint Force Lightning is intended to provide an interoperable joint force of fifth generation strike fighters equally capable of operating from land or sea. Joint Force Harrier (JFH) was intended to provide the prototype of this capability, however, the experience of that Force was less than satisfactory, mainly due to problems in integrating Royal Navy and RAF personnel on-board carriers, reluctance on the part of the RAF toward embarked operations and the focus on land-based operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although JFH was intended to be a joint force and produce interoperable land and sea-based squadrons, embarked RAF activity was infrequent and small-scale. The most notable joint deployment being the 2005 Marstrike 05 exercise that saw the deployment of eight RAF Harrier GR7s from IV Squadron deploy aboard HMS Invincible, alongside seven Sea Harrier FA2s of 801 Naval Air Squadron. Following the retirement in 2006 of the Royal Navy’s Sea Harrier FA2, embarked activity dropped significantly (in part due to the demands of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan), impacting the training and number of night-qualified pilots as well as flight deck safety, efficiency and the carriers’ war-fighting potential. Further, between 2003 and 2007, the Fleet Air Arm lost influence within JFH. At the time of the Sea Harrier retirement, 50 per cent of pilots were night capable: at the time of the withdrawal of the Harrier GR9, only four to five per cent of pilots were night-capable and they were mostly former Sea Harrier pilots. This reduction in capability can be attributed to the decline in embarked activity, as illustrated by Exercise Hajjar Osprey (March/April 2008), where only four Harriers were embarked on Illustrious for a period of approximately three weeks. Moreover, a lack of embarked activity would have a detrimental effect not only on the operational capability of the pilots but also on the wider ship-air interface with a concomitant effect on military credibility and political utility.
The experience of JFH may prompt concern that Joint Force Lightning will be similarly constrained. However, the prospects for Joint Force Lightning are positive; the RAF has accepted split ownership of the F-35 force and the creation of an expeditionary training unit at RAF Leeming (a recommendation emanating from experience in Operation Ellamy) has resulted in the RAF and Royal Navy (along with the Army) working together in a genuine tri-service context. Moreover, in contrast to the JFH period, where the Harrier was one of three fast jets in British service alongside the Tornado and Typhoon, and a target of rationalisation initiatives, the F-35 will be the ‘flagship’ fast jet in service and thus a core asset for both the Royal Navy and RAF. This should perhaps ensure that Joint Force Lightning is seen to succeed. It also warrants highlighting that Joint Force Lightning offers significant opportunities. This is especially with regard to the potential for the Fleet Air Arm to act as a bridge between the Royal Navy and RAF, and facilitate cross-pollination, including through exchange tours, via exposure to and immersion in the respective service cultures. This would address a lesson emanating from JFH experience where friction between the respective Royal Navy and RAF cultures was problematic on occasions. It would also serve as a valuable conduit for the development of a cross-domain capability that can facilitate a more flexible and agile military posture. This would include the potential utilisation of sea-basing by appropriately trained and equipped (that is, platforms capable of operating in the maritime environment) Army Air Corps and RAF assets, for example, in order to stage into a theatre or to support Special Forces. Moreover, such an approach would be consistent with the aims of Carrier Enabled Power Projection and highlight the broader utility of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers beyond their primary role of carrier strike.
Carrier Enabled Power Projection
The shift from Carrier Strike to Carrier Enabled Power Projection in 2010 was reflective of enduring tensions in the Ministry of Defence over the Queen Elizabeth-class programme. By the time of the SDSR in 2010, the carrier programme enjoyed little support in the Ministry of Defence outside the Royal Navy and was under intense pressure financially. Further, despite its significant contribution, the role of US carrier airpower in supporting operations in Afghanistan was ignored. This context necessitated a shift in emphasis during the SDSR from highlighting the Carrier Strike role to emphasising the wider roles and flexibility of the Queen Elizabeth-class, in particular with regard to operating helicopters and providing support to amphibious operations.
Carrier Enabled Power Projection seeks to deliver a broader, more flexible spectrum of capability than a traditional carrier-operating concept. That is, in addition to being capable of delivering a carrier strike capability with up to 36 F-35s, CEPP calls for the Queen Elizabeth-class to also be capable of delivering options such as an all-helicopter air-group (potentially up to around 40 helicopters), or a mixed air-group comprising both fixed-wing aircraft and multiple rotary-wing types (up to 12 Merlin, a small number of Chinook and up to eight Apache helicopters alongside 12 F-35s). It warrants emphasising that the flexibility of the Queen Elizabeth-class is derived from the size of the vessels and the expansive flight deck such size confers: the size of the carriers was originally determined by the required weight of offensive airpower, calculated to be 36 fast jets undertaking two sorties per day for five consecutive days, to provide a medium-scale air capability. In essence, CEPP seeks to provide a capability more akin to that of an LHD, such as the US Wasp-class, rather than a conventional aircraft carrier.
CEPP constitutes a new and unprecedented approach to carrier airpower and in this respect, entails some additional risk. This is especially with regard to the intention to provide a hybrid carrier strike/littoral manoeuvre capability via a mixed air-group, and the integration of Army and Royal Air Force assets into embarked operations. Operating a ‘mixed deck’, that is, a combination of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, imposes operational and safety limitations that result in inefficiencies not associated with a deck dedicated solely to fixed-wing operations. The successful integration of Army and Royal Air Force assets into embarked operations places an even greater emphasis on having a worked-up and proficient ship-air interface encompassing deep maritime experience and expertise. This is in order to facilitate the smooth integration of visiting units into the maritime domain and enable joint maritime-based operations. This is highlighted with reference to JFH experience. In 2008/9, in the context of a Royal Navy-RAF dispute concerning the future of the Harrier force, Major General (now Lieutenant General Sir) Paul Newton, then head of the MoD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, was tasked to produce a report examining the size of JFH, its ethos and manning. The RAF contended that no Royal Navy input was necessary; the Royal Navy disagreed on two points: first, that there was no precedent anywhere for naval air operations that were not supervised by those with deep maritime knowledge; and second, that the RAF had consistently shown a determination to avoid going to sea. The Newton Report reemphasised the need for a sizeable portion of Joint Force Harrier to be naval, identified nearly 200 posts on the in-service Invincible-class that required naval experience and concluded that only the Royal Navy could produce the manpower to operate the Queen Elizabeth-class.
The adoption of CEPP can perhaps be viewed in one of two ways. It could be perceived as an attempt to package an overall reduction in capability (namely, a much-reduced fixed-wing capability and the combining of previously separate carrier strike and littoral manoeuvre roles) in a positive light. Alternatively, it could be viewed as an opportunity to develop a broader, more flexible package of capability and maximise the return from the significant investment in building the Queen Elizabeth-class. In this respect, the intention to develop a hybrid carrier strike/littoral manoeuvre capability could be seen as a means to build a force package akin to the Aviation Combat Element of a USMC Marine Air-Ground Task Force. However, to what extent will it be possible for the Royal Navy, with the support of the Army and Royal Air Force, to deliver the three distinct roles (carrier strike, littoral manoeuvre, and hybrid carrier strike/littoral manoeuvre) proficiently? In this respect, the decision to operate both Queen Elizabeth-class carriers will ensure that a ship is always available for operational use and for training and carrier qualification.
The importance of training and sustained periods of embarkation has been emphasised throughout this article; it also warrants highlighting that the training requirement extends to the integration of the ship and its air-group into wider task group operations. A carrier does not operate in isolation: it is one component of a task group that will include escort vessels (for example, a Daring-class destroyer and frigates), auxiliary ships, potentially a nuclear-powered submarine and allied assets. Moreover, the carrier task group may be operating in a wider coalition context and thus have to be integrated into, for example, the planning of the Joint Force Air Component Commander. The integration of the carrier and its embarked air assets – whether principally fixed-wing, all rotary-wing or a mix thereof – into a task group and subsequently into national and coalition operations will require extensive and sustained working-up to ensure operational proficiency, in particular in areas such as command and control. This will be especially with regard to cases where the carrier is operating across roles, undertaking, for example, concurrently carrier strike and littoral manoeuvre where command and control arrangements and expertise differs.
The purpose of this article has been to highlight the challenges and opportunities ahead as the UK works to regenerate its carrier airpower. In particular, the preceding analysis has sought to emphasise that, in order to generate a credible sea-based aviation capability, a sustained investment in extensive and intensive at-sea training is required to ensure that the ship, deck crew and air-group are worked-up and proficient at operating in and from the maritime domain and alongside national and coalition assets. It also warrants highlighting that British and international experiences points to the need for the air-group to be regularly embarked and in sufficient numbers to develop operational proficiency. Moreover, as the experience of Bold Step demonstrates, even a force with a latent maritime expeditionary capability, in this case, the USMC, would require a significant period of working-up at sea in order to attain a safe level of proficiency in night flying. In contrast, a force that was first and foremost sea-going and suitably proficient in operations by day and night would also be inherently capable of operating from land. This is significant and directly relevant to planning for Joint Force Lightning, which if it is to deliver an interoperable land and sea-based capability, must include a significant component that is principally carrier-based and equipped with the cultural mind-set of sea-going aviators.
The requirement for a core of deep maritime knowledge is also central to the effective implementation of the Carrier Enabled Power Projection approach. As discussed, CEPP seeks to provide a broader, more flexible package of capabilities than a traditional aircraft carrier capability. However, the integration of, for example, Army Air Corps Apache attack helicopters, into embarked operations will be contingent on the existence of a worked-up and proficient ship-air interface. This is not unprecedented: RAF Harrier GR3s of No. 1 Squadron were incorporated into the air-group of HMS Hermes during the Falklands campaign and made an important contribution to operations to retake the islands (albeit noting that the Harriers only operated by day). This was due to the presence of ‘domain experts’ who were able to facilitate the smooth integration of the RAF Harriers into an unfamiliar operating environment. In this regard, CEPP could potentially facilitate the development of a cross-domain capability for UK expeditionary airpower by providing a framework in which Royal Navy, Army and RAF aviators can operate closely, with the Fleet Air Arm providing a bridge between the respective services (as discussed above with regard to Joint Force Lightning). By providing the necessary domain expertise, the Fleet Air Arm can in conjunction with the Army and RAF enable a more agile approach to expeditionary air operations, thus permitting the use of carrier-basing for Army and RAF assets, thereby enhancing the flexibility and agility of UK airpower. Moreover, this would fulfil the original rationale for the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, that is, joint defence assets capable of operating a wide range of air systems and exploiting the tactical, operational and strategic benefits of carrier airpower.