Analysis The British press is full of reports today that the Royal Navy has agreed to "give up" one of its planned two aircraft carriers - or, more accurately, to give up one of the planned air-groups of F-35 stealth fighters which are intended to fly from them.
The revelations stem from a story in the Times, which claims that a firm plan has been agreed under which Britain would buy just 50 F-35 jets. Rough plans thus far had called for a buy of more than a hundred of the F-35 B version, which is a short-takeoff/vertical-landing (STOVL) jumpjet. The F-35Bs would replace the current force of Harriers run by the Royal Navy and the RAF, which can operate from shore bases or from a cheap carrier lacking catapults and arrester wires.
Under the plan as laid out in the Times, the Ministry of Defence would still buy the two planned new carriers, to be dubbed HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales. However the Prince of Wales would not be operated as a strike carrier with a force of jets; instead she would be a "commando carrier", a floating forward-mounting airbase full of marines, helicopters and drones. This would mean no need to replace HMS Ocean, the navy's current helicopters'n'marines ship - which would, according to the Thunderer, cost £600m in the 20-teens. (That seems pretty steep as Ocean herself only cost £150m in the mid '90s).
The Times quotes an unnamed senior naval officer as saying:
We always knew that the real cost of the carrier project is the JSF fleet to go on them. It would cost us at least £12 billion if we bought all the aircraft we originally asked for. We are waking up to the fact that all those planes are unaffordable. More than half of the £5 billion contracts to build the two new carriers have been contracted, so it is too late to get out of building the ships. This way at least we are covered when Ocean goes out of service.
It has long been known that the RAF doesn't want to replace its own Harrier force - it would rather spend that money upgrading as many of its Eurofighter Typhoons as it can. The horrifyingly expensive Typhoon was designed as a pure air-to-air fighter, and at the moment it mostly still is - though a few RAF ones have been given an "austere" bombing capability.
The RAF would like to rebuild and re-equip as many of its largely irrelevant Typhoons as possible, giving them such things as trendy electronically-scanned radars and air-launched cruise missiles of various sorts. This would, perhaps, enable the Typhoon force to tackle tough enemy air-defence networks of the sort possessed by nations such as Iran and Russia. As the Eurofighter offers no stealth, such attacks would be unsubtle - missile batteries and radars would have to be bombed out of the way before any actual targets could be attacked - but such a battle, now that carpet bombing is out of fashion and nuclear warheads go by rocket, is what airforce people live for and dream of. And indeed, the Times' source apparently says that the RAF would move to an all-Typhoon jet force under the new plan.
The Royal Navy has long felt that it would be unable to buy two carrier groups' worth of jumpjets from its own resources. If the RAF won't buy any, there would be little point in having one carrier always good to go: a total force of 50 planes would be unable to keep a strike group operational continuously. Hence the "commando carrier" scheme. It all makes sense.