Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sean Stackley - Bullish on Aircraft Carriers

Sean Stackley, former LPD-17 program manager with a highly questionable track record, and current Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition with a much better track record, has become very bullish on aircraft carriers - in the United Kingdom.

A recent Telegraph article tells the story.

Converting HMS Prince of Wales so that it can be used by the Joint Strike Fighter will require significantly less than the £2 billion quoted by officials, the assistant secretary of the US Navy, Sean J Stackley, insisted.

In a letter seen by The Daily Telegraph, he told Peter Luff, the defence procurement minister, that the necessary equipment would cost £458 million before installation. Defence experts estimate the installation cost at £400 million.
For the most part, I think Sean Stackley is exactly right on this. The article cites the reason for the letter being that the US wants "to ensure that the information the British Government is working from is accurate because currently that quite clearly is not the case." I think there is a lot of truth to that as well.

Lets get to the core part of the article then discuss...

Two British carriers are being built, but one will be mothballed following the SDSR. Reverting to jump jets for both of them would not help American military planners, who want to be able to base a squadron of their own jets on a British carrier.

Separate accommodation is being built on board HMS Prince of Wales with communications facilities that would be for “US Eyes Only”.

There are also said to be technological concerns over the jump jet version of the fighter and the Americans might be positioning themselves to ditch it altogether.

“This letter could be a warning shot saying if you Brits go back to jump jet carriers then there might be no planes to fly off it,” said a defence source.

Richard Scott, of Jane’s Defence Weekly, said: “The trouble the Government has is in getting reliable cost data but at least the costs the Americans are giving are quite reassuring.”

An MoD spokesman said: “Work is ongoing to finalise the 2012-13 budget and balance the equipment plan. This means reviewing all programmes, including elements of the carrier strike programme.”

I try to avoid Royal Navy discussions like the plague, because I am an unapologetic biased lover of all things related to the history of the Royal Navy, and think the British government as a collective group today might be the largest collection of strategic fools in any capital city on the planet except Pyongyang. Churchill, bless his soul, is long gone and there is no one in political leadership today that inspires confidence in even the possibility that strategic thinking is applied to defense issues discussed in London these days.

So here are my thoughts, and I suspect they will have nothing in common with whatever Mr. Cameron comes up with.

If the MoD is in fact going to build aircraft carriers, then the Royal Navy would be very smart to build both CVFs and put the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) on both CVFs, but at this point in time the MoD shouldn't commit to either version of the Joint Strike Fighter until that entire program is more mature. The decision to go with a conventional launching system on the CVF should be obvious - it is the only way the CVF will be relevant in the future should armed unmanned aviation platforms start operating off aircraft carriers anytime in the next 3 decades - which is very likely to occur.

But it is important to highlight that the strategic reasons for building the CVFs are the same strategic reasons to insure it has a conventional launch system like EMALS - in the 21st century the places the Royal Navy is most likely to fight are places where there will be very limited parking for land based aviation support for naval forces. From a purely strategic perspective, that suggests to me that all of the tactical and operational capabilities the Royal Navy fleet will need in order to fight effectively will have to come from the CVFs.

Those capabilities aren't going to be provided by the Joint Strike Fighter, rather will come from other types of aircraft that will absolutely require a conventional launch system like EMALS. A CVF task force with ~30 F-35Cs and helicopters is going to be eaten alive by a CVF task force with a mix of 30 F/A-18E/F/Gs + E-2s + helicopters every day of the week, and lets stop pretending now that ~30 F-35Bs will be supported by some AEW version of the MV-22, because there is a snowballs chance in hell that the Royal Navy would be able to afford both the F-35B and a completely new version of the MV-22 for AEW that doesn't exist today.

I know I am in a minority, but I am still very skeptical the US Navy will ever field the F-35C - so I obviously do not believe the Royal Navy should be committed to the platform. The damage the costs of the F-35C program is doing to naval aviation is bigger than anyone in Washington wishes to admit publicly - YET, but when the US Navy starts planning the early retirement of multiple aircraft carriers (potentially as soon as the FY14 budget cycle) I think people are going to wake up pretty quickly to how much damage F-35C is doing to naval aviation, and what the cost of a single strike fighter has been to naval aviation as a whole.

That goes double if a debate ever breaks out regarding the lack of relevance the future CVW has to the 21st century threat environment at sea - because anyone who thinks the CVN is better off with today's CVW with JSFs instead of F-18s is fooling themselves - ignoring the capabilities that aren't being fielded because the cost of the F-35C sucked all the $$ out of the naval aviation community. When considering this is the decade that naval aviation should be innovating the most due to the US Navy enjoying a substantial lead on competitors, I am convinced naval aviators will look back at 2011-2020 as the lost decade of their community.

And for the record, during the next US Presidential term (2013-2016) the safest bet any navalist can make is that the world will observe 2 brand new aircraft carriers being built in China, and I'm not counting Varyag. If you don't expect 5 aircraft carriers in use by China by 2025, then you are the 1936 IJN Admiral who casually dismissed Isoruku Yamamoto's concerns of American industrial capacity.

My point is simple - things are going to change a lot well before the first CVF is doing anything in sea water. The UK needs to either commit to 2 first class CVFs with conventional launch and recovery capabilities, or commit to zero and build a bigger fleet of surface combatants and submarines - but spending massive amounts of national treasure on two half assed aircraft carriers would be an epic strategic fail greater than the Maginot Line, and the equivalent of a self inflicted Pearl Harbor.

The UK should commit to strategic flexibility for naval forces of the future, which for the CVF would absolutely mean EMALS but doesn't necessarily mean the F-35C.

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