UK May Borrow F-18s For Carriers; F-35Bs May Be Scrapped

Britain's Conservative government, faced with enormous deficits, may launch its Queen Elizabeth class carriers without airplanes to put on them as it considers early retirement for its Harrier jump jets. The two 65,000 ton carriers are built into the UK's defense budget, but new airplanes are not. Scrapping the Harriers early, combined with delays to the Joint Strike Fighter short takeoff version, could leave the UK temporarily dependent on the U.S. for F/A-18s and V-22s. That raises the prospect of one country deploying carriers and then relying on another country to supply the airplanes to fly from them.

Britain’s Conservative government, faced with enormous deficits, may launch its Queen Elizabeth class carriers without airplanes to put on them as it considers early retirement for its Harrier jump jets.

The two 65,000 ton carriers are built into the UK’s defense budget, but new airplanes are not. Scrapping the Harriers early, combined with delays to the Joint Strike Fighter short takeoff version, could leave the UK temporarily dependent on the U.S. for F/A-18s and V-22s. That raises the prospect of one country deploying carriers and then relying on another country to supply the airplanes to fly from them.

Although the U.S. and some NATO allies have engaged in exercises flying each others planes from each others carriers such heavy reliance on another country raised eyebrows among analysts the idea was reported in British newspapers.

“My first thought after reading the article was that [British Defense Minister Liam] Fox was floating a trail balloon, perhaps hoping the British public might object to the British Empire losing its independent ability to project power on its own.  I recognize the UK will seldom deploy without others, including the US.  However, it did just that during the Falkland campaign and likely does so periodically to show the UK flag globally.  In either case a brand new carrier will lose much of its shine if deployed without a complement of capable combat aircraft,” Frank Cevasco, one of Washington’s top international defense consultants and a former senior Pentagon official responsible for international weapons cooperation, said in an email.

“Desperate times require desperate measures,” Cevasco wrote, noting that “only the UK voters and their leaders can decide where the red line is.”

The London Daily Mail quoted a senior military source saying that the “U.S. Marines have the aircraft. Their aircraft would fly from the British carriers. Or we could borrow some from them.” To show just how sharp the debate must be within the British government and its Ministry of Defense, the Daily Telegraph has reported that Britain will scrap the F-35B and go with the JSF carrier version, known as the F-35C

The Queen Elizabeth carriers, the biggest warships ever built by the U.K., are designed to handle traditional carrier aircraft such as Super Hornets and the carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) or STOVL aircraft such as the Harrier and JSF. While the primary design stresses STOVL, the carriers are designed to be retrofitted with arresting cables, according to U.S. defense industry sources. That would enable the F/A-18 E/Fs and their predecessors to take off and land on the British ships.

Also, the ships are designed to be fitted with steam catapults and the UK has also continued work on electro-magnetic catapults.

An industry source said Super Hornet and their predecessor models should have no trouble taking off from the British ships as the ships are “extremely capable and are extremely big.” A Super Hornet should be able to “take off with a very significant combat load over deck with a zero wind load,” the source said. And the F/A/-18’s high energy nose gear mean it “is also ideally suited for ramp launches because they can absorb” the enormous energy required for a ramp launch.

The British plan to use the STOVL F-35 as the main weapon on the carriers so it would seem reasonable to conclude that any plans to use F-/A-18s instead of the F-35s would pose a threat to Lockheed Martin’s long-planned sale of 138 F-35Bs.

However, the industry source dismissed the threat to the F-35Bs, saying that any sharing of Super Hornets with the U.K. would be strictly a “capability gap-filler,” and not a replacement for the more advanced, fifth generation fighter.

If Britain hopes to supplement the Super Hornets with MV-22 Ospreys, that would be much more difficult, the industry source said. The Marines are relying on MV-22s in Afghanistan and as key aircraft for their Marine Expeditionary Units. The U.S. would be “hard-pressed” to lend some of those planes, according to the source.

Arms export restrictions should not be a problem for sharing any of the aircraft, the industry source said, especially for what he described as perhaps America’s staunchest ally.