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Electric mass-driver catapults to beat Royal Navy cuts?

New tech could save Blighty's carrier force

By Lewis Page, 17 Aug 2010

Hints are emerging that the Royal Navy's new aircraft carriers may be equipped with innovative electromagnetic catapults in order to operate cheaper aircraft as part of the ongoing, behind-closed-doors UK defence and security review/cuts process.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the Pukin Dogs of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 143 catapults from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). Credit: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Chad R. Erdmann

Soon it won't be steam but lightning coming out of the cat

In particular, reports have emerged in the defence trade press that significant, "unprecedented" numbers of RN (Royal Navy) Harrier pilots have been sent to the States to train in catapult takeoffs and tailhook arrested landings. A pilot or two going on exchange to the US Navy is normal, but it seems that the UK MoD may at the very least be seeking to keep options open.

Under current plans, HMSs Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales are to be built without catapults for launching aircraft, though space has been left in the designs for such machinery to be added if required. The idea was that the ships would be equipped mainly with F-35B supersonic stealth jumpjets, the aircraft which is to succeed the venerable and famous Harrier in the forces of the Western world. A jumpjet can make a takeoff from a "ski-jump" ramp and then land vertically having burned fuel and expended weapons, meaning that it needs no catapult launch or arrester wires for landing.

The F-35B is now at last in flight testing, but it has suffered from development delays and probable cost increases. As the world's first aircraft to combine vertical thrust, stealth and supersonic speed it was always going to be expensive; now it seems likely that it will be unaffordably expensive for a UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) whose spending plans have long been out of line with its budget, and which is now facing cuts of as much as 20 per cent.

Various schemes have been discussed, for instance the idea of having only enough F-35Bs for a single air group and using the second ship as a home for marines and helicopters rather than a strike/fighter force. It has even been hinted that the second carrier might be sold to India.

However there is another way to seriously cut the cost of the planes which will fly from the new ships: that is, to fit catapults and arrester wires. This would mean that the UK could buy somewhat cheaper tailhook-version F-35C stealth planes; or much, much cheaper F-18 Hornets. The Hornet is the main jet currently in service with the US Navy and is still in production.

Provision of Catapult Assisted Takeoff But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) would also solve the great un-discussed issue of the new carriers - the same snag which, ignored in the Falklands, led to the almost crippling losses of ships and men suffered in 1982 and very nearly to the loss of the campaign.

The Earth is still round: You still see further from high up

That issue is the provision of a carrier airborne-early-warning (AEW) radar aircraft. If a fleet has no such aircraft overhead, attacking planes can approach at low altitude, hidden below the horizon with respect to radars mounted in the ships. By the time they are detected, it will usually be too late for patrolling fighters to intercept them before they strike - and often too late to do anything effective at all.

An E-2C Hawkeye assigned to the Black Eagles of Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 113 launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). Credit: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joseph M. Buliavac

A few of these and the Falklands would have gone a lot better.

In the Falklands the Royal Navy had no AEW aircraft, and Sea Harrier fighters had to be in the right place by luck in order to repel Argentine airstrikes. They did sterling work, but far too many attacks got through to the ships; and losses were heavy as a result.

As a result, the navy now has AEW helicopters, which are better than nothing. But a helicopter can't fly as high as an aeroplane - hence the radar can't see as far - and it can't stay up as long either, or roam as far from its carrier. (This last is important, as the search radar acts as a massive radio beacon to the enemy - it's nice if the AEW platform can be well away from the ships.)

Under the current plans, the RN will probably have to carry on with radar copters, or perhaps in future a specially-fitted V-22 tiltrotor (an option unfortunately but perhaps accurately dubbed TOSS). This will be expensive, as it involves a small fleet of custom aircraft, and not really very capable.

But CATOBAR ships would allow the purchase of E-2 Hawkeye AEW carrier planes, as used by the USA, France, and also many other non-carrier nations (as an affordable alternative to massive land-based AWACS radarcraft, in their cases). There's a new version out (the E-2D) for the US Navy, or there's the much cheaper option of buying variously spec'd earlier E-2s as several countries have done in the last few years - perhaps a good idea for today's cash-strapped MoD.

Air groups of F-18s and E-2Cs would be billions cheaper than ones of F-35B hoverjets and TOSS tiltrotors, and in many respects actually better. They could be enhanced easily with pricier F-35Cs and E-3Ds down the road in future.

So what's the catch?

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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