The situation in Europe is bleaker, mainly because of the economic crisis there. Before the crisis, Spain and Italy operated STOVL carriers, both having built large ships recently. Near-bankruptcy forced the Spanish to discard their single-purpose STOVL carrier Príncipe de Asturias in February 2013, leaving them with the slower flat-deck amphibious ship Juan Carlos I. She has a ski-jump bow specially intended to launch STOVL aircraft. Two similar ships, Canberra and Adelaide, are being built for the Royal Australian Navy. In contrast to the Spanish, the Australians do not currently intend to operate STOVL aircraft from these ships – but they have retained the ski-jump. The Príncipe de Asturias is now being offered to other navies. Thailand has long operated a smaller version of the ship, but her STOVL aircraft have not been operational for more than a decade, and she has seen very little service.
They currently operate the AV-8B, which is aging, and the obvious replacement is the F-35B. Whether it materializes in Italian service will depend on how deeply the Italians have to cut their defense budget.
Italy, which is also in financial trouble, has the large, new Cavour and the older and smaller Giuseppe Garibaldi, both of which were designed to operate STOVL aircraft. They currently operate the AV-8B, which is aging, and the obvious replacement is the F-35B. Whether it materializes in Italian service will depend on how deeply the Italians have to cut their defense budget.
The United Kingdom is in a peculiar position. A few years ago, the British government decided to eliminate fixed-wing naval aviation entirely on a temporary basis, pending the completion of the two new carriers. The carriers were designed so that they could be completed in either STOVL or conventional (“traps and cats”) configuration. They were begun in STOVL configuration. At one point the government announced that it was withdrawing from the STOVL F-35B program in favor of procuring the F-35C conventional carrier variant, which made the first carrier (already well advanced) useless as completed. Later the government switched, arguing that conversion to conventional configuration was unaffordable and that by adopting STOVL it could get useful capability earlier. Some British analysts have pointed out that this is illogical. Internal British analysis, which has been published, makes it clear that the conventional F-35C carrier version not only grossly outperforms the STOVL version, but that it alone meets the criteria the government had chosen to make the STOVL/conventional decision.
The F-35 certainly offers more sophisticated avionics, but that is why it is so expensive, and it may be a case of something desirable but not essential.
There is, moreover, the delicate issue of the future of the STOVL F-35B and indeed of the F-35 program as a whole. The F-35 is now by far the most expensive defense program in history. It may be “too big to fail,” but it may also be the best single candidate for cancellation as a way of balancing U.S. books. Cancellation would not much affect the U.S. Navy. For example, Boeing is now advertising a modified F/A-18E/F, which it says is as stealthy as an F-35 and a lot less expensive. The F-35 certainly offers more sophisticated avionics, but that is why it is so expensive, and it may be a case of something desirable but not essential. The real lesson of the F-35 may turn out to be that manned aircraft themselves are too expensive.
Cancellation of the F-35 would certainly affect other navies. The British stopped developing the Harrier, presumably on the theory that it would enjoy only a limited market. Instead, Rolls-Royce competed for and won the contract for the lift engine of the STOVL F-35.3 There is currently no other STOVL fighter/attack airplane on offer in the world, the Russians having long ago abandoned Cold War work on their own supersonic STOVL fighter, the Yakovlev Yak-141.
Cancellation of the F-35 would certainly affect other navies.
A large carrier moving at high speed can launch a conventional high-powered airplane from a ski-jump, without benefit of catapults. That is what the Russians and the Chinese currently do, and the Indians will do after delivery of Vikramaditya. The airplane has to give up much of its payload, and the carrier uses arresting gear to recover its aircraft. At least in theory this possibility is a fallback for the Royal Navy, although it has never been mentioned officially. In order to operate reliably from a ski-jump, an airplane has to be re-stressed and its landing gear has to be modified, but several navies are currently demonstrating that this is an entirely practical proposition. From the British point of view, ski-jump takeoff would allow adaptation of some existing carrier aircraft, such as the F/A-18 or the Rafale, albeit at an even greater sacrifice of payload and radius of action than was accepted with the F-35 STOVL decision.
The Japanese flat-decked carriers would not be able to operate in this manner, because the ski-jump itself forces the airplane up into the air. Early drawings of their 24,000-ton carrier showed a ski-jump, and it may be revived after the ships are built. The Spanish and Australian ships do have ski-jumps, but not arrester gear. It is not so clear that they could launch aircraft effectively given their lower speed, about 19 knots.
It seems clear that the carrier as a forward source of air power – of air strikes – is likely to remain vital for the foreseeable future.
It seems clear that the carrier as a forward source of air power – of air strikes – is likely to remain vital for the foreseeable future. Whether manned aircraft will remain is a separate question, because the great virtue of the carrier is that its strike element is reusable. It is therefore possible that future carrier aircraft will be unmanned, delivering weapons on call to assigned coordinates on the ground. The Northrop-Grumman X-47B Pegasus has just demonstrated both carrier launch and carrier recovery (in tests in July 2013, it made two successful traps out of four attempts). It seems likely that it will be capable of autonomous air-to-air refueling, which means that a carrier can maintain a group of such aircraft in the air near a potential target for a protracted period, a new and valuable capability.
The new capability brings up another aspect of carrier operations. At least during the Cold War, the U.S. Navy prized its carriers as a way of destroying the prime Soviet anti- shipping weapon, which was not the submarine but rather the fleet of heavy missile- carrying bombers (Badgers and Backfires). The number of bombers was limited, and the U.S. objective was to lure them out and destroy them in a decisive battle, just as in the past admirals sought to destroy the enemy’s main fleet in decisive battle. The Soviets could not ignore the carriers, because the carriers could and would deliver nuclear air strikes on their territory. The carriers and their escorts had an excellent chance of destroying the Soviet naval bomber force in the air before it could strike. No surface force could do anything like that, and the Soviets could fly out of range of any land-based NATO fighters. It can be argued that a group of armed UAVs, orbiting within attack range, would also draw out enemy air forces, and that this lure might be very useful in a future war. It seems unlikely that either the offensive or the defensive role of carriers will soon become outdated. There is a reason the world’s navies are investing in them.
It seems unlikely that either the offensive or the defensive role of carriers will soon become outdated. There is a reason the world’s navies are investing in them.
1: The missile uses bomblets to cover an area of uncertainity defined by its ability to correct course on the way down. The laser probably works best firing upward, where it is least affected by absorption due to evaporation off the surface of the sea.
2: The Marines consider their aircraft integral with the assault force, hence they consider it essential that the amphibious group be able to operate them. That was why they adopted the AV-8B Harrier as their attack bomber; the F-35 is its replacement. It is considerably larger, and it imposes much greater loads on the ship, including thermal loads, but the trials show that an amphibious assault ship can be adapted to operate the new airplane. Whether the STOVL F-35 is affordable is a separate matter.
All opinions expressed are the author’s, and should not necessarily be attributed to the U.S. Navy or to any other organization with which he has worked.
This article was first published in Defense: Fall 2013 Edition.