Electric mass-driver catapults to beat Royal Navy cuts?

New tech could save Blighty's carrier force

Why not have powerful carrier airgroups? Well, it could make the RAF look a bit feeble

The catch is that CATOBAR would make the carriers more expensive, and they are being paid for now - whereas the planes are to be bought mostly in a few years' time. Short-term savings almost always trump any consideration of overall cost in the MoD and Treasury.

CATOBAR isn't a totally simple thing to provide in the Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, either, as they are to be gas-turbine powered and will have no steam to work ordinary catapults. The US Navy is committed to electromagnetic cats in its next carrier, but there remain fears that this technology will not work - though small-scale studies here in the UK have produced positive results, and it has recently been confirmed that work is ongoing.

Electric catapults would be an ideal option for the new Brit carriers, as they are to have electric transmissions like most new warships and thus should be able to find the necessary power without trouble.

In many ways a switch to CATOBAR is a no-brainer for the Royal Navy: it has risks, but all other paths would seem to mean the loss of at least one air group and/or ship, meaning that there would often be no carrier available in a crisis. And an aircraft carrier is, for most kinds of crisis, much more useful than anything else the navy might send. Frigates and destroyers, for instance, are largely limited to holding cocktail parties once they arrive on scene.

But, thus far, institutional inertia has ruled. There are other factors too: the RAF now controls the joint navy/airforce Harrier formation which is to be replaced by the new carrier planes, and the men in light blue are positively against the UK acquiring anything which might make their much-desired Eurofighter and beloved Tornado deep-bomber force look bad.

F-35s, either B or C type, might easily embarrass the RAF's favoured planes with their stealth capabilities. Even F-18s would tend to show the Eurofighter and in some circumstances the Tornado in a bad light as strike planes. In particular, it might very well make more sense in terms of bang for buck to buy F-18 "Growler" electronic-warfare/defence-suppression planes to join an existing fleet than it would to expensively enhance the Eurofighter (designed as a pure air-defence platform) to the point where it could tussle with well-equipped enemy air defences as the RAF would like.

Then there's some resistance to CATOBAR even in the Fleet Air Arm, whose Harriers have historically been able to cope with heavy seas and the resultant pitching decks better than French CATOBAR jets have. That said, the new UK carriers are to be big enough to cope with quite bad weather without lurching about too much, and new auto-landing tech is also set to make arrested landings - long seen as one of the most difficult of aviation feats - a great deal easier or even hands-off.

Parts of British industry would welcome the idea - the shipyards, and UK electric-catapult experts Converteam. But the aerospace sector, which usually wields more political clout, would be upset. Rolls-Royce would lose some sales of its vertical-lift fan and nozzle kits for F-35Bs (though the main customer, the US Marines, would still be there). In the event of the F-18 option being taken up, BAE Systems plc would probably find that lost F-35 work would outweigh the gains in its shipyards.

In theory this shouldn't matter in a defence and security review, but the UK arms biz is about the only body outside the government which ever gets listened to behind closed MoD doors (in particular those of ministerial offices both there and in Downing Street). So while the public has been robbed of any vote in the Review - by the disgraceful cross-party pact in which it was agreed that no policy would be set by anyone until after the election - the arms biz has not.

So there's a severe bureaucratic struggle ahead for the RN should it want to try and get the CATOBAR/cheap-airgroup plan through the current defence review, and even some in dark blue uniform would be against the idea. But overall it would offer a big saving of cash and a much more powerful navy, so it's a plan that taxpayers (voters, after all) should probably be in favour of. The reported training-up (subscriber link) of RN CATOBAR pilots is a small hopeful sign.

The defence review is still all to play for, as the current furious battle of bureaucratic leak and ministerial speech indicates. The eventual result in the autumn will be an interesting one. ®

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