Just occasionally it's nice to get out of the shires, at least that's what I thought a few years ago when I ran away to sea. To a navy with three whole aircraft carriers, all of its very own - I left before they did as it turns out....
The Royal Navy has been in and out of the news ever since the Strategic Defence Review of 2010, one of the main points of which was the aircraft carrier debacle, which suggests that of the two carriers currently in build, the first will be mothballed pretty much at launch, while only the second will ever embark a fixed wing air-group. Cue Daily Mail self-writing headlines along the lines of "Aircraft Carriers Without Planes - Shock!!!"
The problem however is not with the carriers themselves; steel is cheap and air is free; so much as the planes. Britain is supposed to be buying the Joint Strike Fighter, which it is developing in conjunction with the USA. However, it is here that the procurement fun really starts.
Because the RN has been operating Harrier jump jets for 30 odd years we decided, against all logic, that that is what we should carry on doing, and committed to buying the jump jet variant of the JSF rather than the conventional variant (which would require catapult assistance for take-off, and arrestor wires on the deck for landing). The SDR changed that decision and committed the UK to the conventional variant - meaning that the carriers need to be redesigned. Then last week we learned that there have been problems with the design of the arrestor hook, meaning that the plane itself is going to have to be redesigned.
Defence procurement is a licence to print money in so many ways - you're dealing with cutting edge technology, long lead times, and defence manufacturers who know that they are the only people governments can go to, and thus have them over a barrel. Maybe it's time for a pragmatic rethink?
UKIP were first out of the traps last week with the suggestion that now was the time to pull out of the JSF programme and, as far as it goes, I'd be minded to agree with them. However, they then suggested that the answer to Britain's problem was to "navalise" the Eurofighter, citing a BAe feasibility study from early in the last decade. Their argument essentially runs along the lines that this would be good for British manufacturing. Fine, but the Eurofighter is just another in a long line of UK procurement disasters; late and over budget.
The plane would have to be completely redesigned, and the UKIP plan does nothing to address the old truism that whilst it is easy to make a very good land based plane from a naval design, it's much harder to go the other way and turn a normal jet into something suitable for carrier operations (apart from anything else the sea is a particularly unforgiving operating environment which demands different materials to be used in construction, hence naval jets are typically heavier than their land based brethren and will handle differently and carry a different payload).
If we are going to have carriers at all, then we need to ask what we are going to realistically use them for, and cut our cloth accordingly. If we're going to fight a major power, then we're probably going to do that as part of an alliance, and so do we really need the best planes in the world, when the sky is likely to be full of them? Quite apart from this, things are likely to have got pretty serious geo-politically, and we're probably getting into wars-of-national-survival territory.
If we're going it alone against a second rank power, then surely all that matters is that our planes are better, rather than that they are the best in the world? The best is after all the enemy of the good. I think it might be time to start thinking about buying off the shelf - especially if the rumours are true that we're unlikely to put a carrier to sea with more than 12 JSF on-board, when it has been built to hold more than 30.
For the price of JSF we can afford to buy something designed for the job, that's combat proven, in greater numbers, and better than anything we're likely to come up against from potential enemies - unless we're going to unlaterally declare war on a superpower. Therefore, the UK realistically has a choice, we either buy Rafale off the French for the most modern carrier jets, or F18s off the USA. Both would be fine for our realistic needs for a couple of decades until being superceded by UAVs, and either would be cheaper.
JSF is a nice to have, not the be all and end all. Given that we seem to lack a workable defence industrial strategy, I don't think a large number of defence jobs AND decent kit are achievable across the full spectrum of defence equipment needs. Perhaps it's time to retreat from some of them and recognise that the needs of our forces ought to come first, and we should aim to give them something that is good enough, rather than world beating.
I'm not sure I'm totally right, and willing to be convinced of the merits of any aircraft type, but I think the option ought to be on the table that the solution to our carrier needs already exists, and is flying from a navy very nearby - whether it's to our east or west.
Finally, for the nostalgists, a picture I took back in the days when we could embark a fixed wing carrier air group.....