The UK Government has just reversed a decision on which type of F-35 fighter aircraft it wants for its new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers which are currently under construction. Fearful of any costly development hitches over new technology electromagnetic catapults/traps, the government has decided to go back to the STOVL “jump jet” F-35B version rather than having the longer range US Navy-style F-35C tail-hook/arrestor hook landing type.
The decision has its dangers, not least because the costly-to-develop vertically landing F-35B might still be cancelled as it so nearly was in 2011. In that event, the Royal Navy would be in the unhappy position of having aircraft carriers with no aircraft to fly off them, especially given that the UK’s Ministry of Defence has already sold its remaining Harrier GR7 and GR9 strike bombers to the Americans.
Is bringing the Sea Harrier out of retirement feasible in an emergency?
Of course, the Royal Navy could try and dig its prematurely retired Sea Harriers out of their museums and engineering training establishments (the final FA-2 version of the Sea Harrier fighter was highly rated for its Blue Vixen radar/AMRAAM missile fit). However, Ascend’s analysis is that only about 10 to 12 of these could be restored to flying condition and that any such recovery could take several months. Even this discounts all the ground and aircrew training that would be needed for such an emergency squadron resuscitation.
Whether the F-35B proves to be the right choice of carrier jet fighter or not, some critics are wondering if the United Kingdom needs aircraft carriers at all. In recent newspaper and television interviews, Sir John Nott, who was the UK Defence Secretary at the time of the Falklands War in 1982, said he still did not think that the Royal Navy needed aircraft carriers. His conclusion remains erroneous and even a little ungrateful, especially given that it was the same Sea Harrier-toting aircraft carriers that he had previously tried to scrap or sell off, which allowed the Falklands War to be won.
Carriers are very useful but they are vulnerable
While Sir John Nott and his fellow carrier critics are probably wrong about their utility, it has to be accepted that due to their size and military value, aircraft carriers do make very vulnerable and attractive targets. Just as the one-time king of the seven seas, the battleship, was soon rendered impotent by the advent of carrier-borne dive-bombers and the threat of torpedos launched from aircraft and submarines, so the inheritor of the battleship’s crown, the aircraft carrier, may soon find its own reign usurped by the arrival of a new weapon class: diving anti-ship missiles.
After Exocet’s lethality was demonstrated in the Falklands War, a lot of effort was put into developing missile and gun defences against Exocet-class sea-skimming anti-ship missiles and, most recently, against their satellite-targeted supersonic successors (e.g. india’s Brahmos missile). However, now a very different kind of anti-ship missile is threating naval ships. These are ballistic missiles which have been especially designed to make high velocity diving attacks “from the Gods”.
China and Iran are developing diving anti-ship missiles
An example of this new missile type is China’s DF-21D which has been specifically designed to target US Navy aircraft carriers and deny them an operational position in close proximity to China’s territory (or a disputed territory like Taiwan). These missiles are thought to be remotely targeted, using data-relayed target observations from China’s Yaogan/Jianbing radar and optical reconnaissance satellites, and from airborne reconnaissance aircraft, before finally employing a sophisticated optical seeker for the terminal guidance of their final diving strikes.
It is not just China that has worked on this type of anti-ship missile technology with aim of making an “area denial” to carriers. Iran has boasted about its own shorter range ballistic diving missile system called Khalije Fars and has even had its official FARS news agency post images and footage of one of its successful missile tests – albeit that it hits an admittedly stationary target ship.
Nevertheless, while the technology is still relatively young, these ballistic diving missiles, once perfected, could mark the retirement of the carrier as a serious offensice weapons platform. The US and Royal Navies have one hope for their carrier operations: that is that anti-ballistic missile systems carried by their carriers’ escort vessels, such as the US Navy’s Standard Missile SM-3 and Royal Navy’s Aster 30 (Sea Viper), will be able to intercept such hostile missiles during their hypersonic approaches and supersonic terminal dives. But they will have to do so without failure if their carriers are to survive.
The answer: Spread the risk and put F-35B jets on lots of ships
As the Battle of Midway showed during World War II, just a single strike on an aircraft carrier can be enough to change the odds in a sea battle, and with it the tide of a war.
This factor plays to the STOVL advantages of the F-35B which can also be operated from smaller helicopter-class carriers and might even be flown off vessels that are not designed to be carriers at all. For the more ships you have acting as “aircraft carriers”, the less is the chance that you will “lose all your eggs in one basket” – if you think that your “basket” might be hit by a missile that is.