Impact of the F-35B Decision: Time Now to Have Two Ships, Not One

The UK Government's decision to opt for the F-35 B, vertical landing Joint Strike Fighter means that aircraft carriers will not be fitted with 'cats-and-traps' and will lose the strategic flexibility originally envisaged. To some degree, that loss can be offset by bringing two aircraft carriers into service.

By Dr Lee Willett, Senior Research Fellow, Maritime Studies

11.05.12: The UK Government's decision to revert to the F-35 B (or Short Take Off and Vertical Landing [STOVL] variant of the F35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter), raises as many questions as it answers. The UK policy on the aircraft choice can only be so firm, given persistent questions relating to the technological development of each of the JSF variants. A concern for the UK should be the loss of both the range and weapons-carrying capacity of the Carrier Variant (CV) aircraft and of the flexibility of the 'cats and traps' launch and arrester gear - flexibility which would have enabled the UK to consider additional manned and unmanned aircraft options in due course. Yet this concern can be offset to a degree if the UK now considers other ways to maximise the flexibility of its carrier capability - such as bringing both ships into operational service.

While much of the debate has focused upon the aircraft choice, one consequence of the October 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) decision to opt for 'cats and traps' was that - based on current budgets - the UK could only afford to bring one operational carrier into service. The second ship, not configured for 'cats and traps', would be mothballed. The Government has now stated that 'cats and traps' cost growth will add £1 billion to the cost of one ship. Thus, the decision to switch back to STOVL seems to be based mostly on cost growth in the platform, rather than in any potential cost growth in either of the aircraft variants. While the political future of the STOVL variant cannot yet be completely guaranteed as questions about the aircraft's development and cost remain, the UK's commitment to STOVL and the aircraft's importance to the future of the United States Marine Corps (USMC) has reinforced confidence in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) that significant effort will be made in the US in particular to ensure that the STOVL programme does not fail.

The Case for Two Carriers

Now that the UK's two carriers will be configured for the same method of aircraft operation, this offers the possibility to enhance operational flexibility by bringing both ships into service. At present, the Government's position remains unchanged: only one operational ship is planned. However, the two-ship option is something the Government has been considering for a while. In August 2011, the Minister for International Security Strategy Gerald Howarth MP said that this question was one the UK hoped to 'look at' in the 2015 SDSR.[1] The latest announcement suggests that the option is back on the table. The Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond indicated that this is an issue which could be considered in 2015.[2]

Whatever the aircraft launch configuration, the two-ship option has always been fundamental to the flexibility of the carrier concept. Even if both carriers will now be configured to carry the same aircraft, having only one carrier in service will mean that - due to planned and unplanned maintenance and repairs - there will be times when the UK will have no carrier capability available. Even with a purchase of a limited number of aircraft - enough for one ship only - having two ships available would allow those aircraft to be employed more of the time.

How Two Ships Enhance Flexibility

While losing 'cats and traps' may preclude interoperability with French and American strike carriers, options remain to cross-deck aircraft with the USMC and the Italian Navy, both of which operate STOVL aircraft. However, rather than through sharing ships and aircraft, interoperability is now being perceived by the MoD in terms of how to co-operate on maintenance and operational cycles to ensure that one of the major carrier nations always has a ship available to deliver deployed aviation in support of international requirements. However, the UK can only maximise the Royal Navy's contribution to support its own national strategic policy requirements for forward presence and crisis response by having two ships available to give 'continuous at-sea capability'. Because the UK could not afford to fit both carriers with 'cats and traps' at this time, continuing with CV would have precluded this option. One might argue too that the loss of flexibility provided by 'cats and traps' and of the greater capability provided by the CV aircraft can now be outweighed by bringing two carriers into service, thus maximising opportunities to deploy a highly agile aircraft like STOVL continuously.

According to the Defence Secretary, a reversion to STOVL means that the UK's plan to deliver a Carrier Strike Capability remains on schedule for around 2020, when the first of class HMS Queen Elizabeth enters into operational service. However, having two ships with the same fit means the UK also can now take a more considered decision as to whether and when to bring the second ship, HMS Prince of Wales, into service. While bringing two ships into service may increase cost and must be assessed in the context of the balance of investment across all elements of the planned Future Force 2020, this extra cost should be considered in terms of the strategic value generated by the availability of continuous at-sea carrier capability.

Back to the Drawing Board in the Future?

In the longer term, the loss of 'cats and traps' raises the question of what the principal capability for both ships will be once the Joint Strike Fighter comes out of service 30-35 years from now, when the carriers have perhaps 20 more years of service life. If the technology focus will have shifted more towards unmanned vehicles by that point, it should be noted that the existing carrier-based unmanned vehicles are all 'cats and traps'-launched. While it is difficult to judge where ship and aircraft design technologies will be in 35 years, the time taken to deliver complex defence programmes (as indeed demonstrated by the carrier story) suggests that the UK will need to be considering options well before this date.

This also raises the question of whether major, costly reconfiguration of the ships will be required at some point in their service life. However, that decision - and its costs - will now be tackled in another chapter of this long and still-twisting story. If forward presence and flexibility in crisis response remain central to UK defence strategy, then the two-ship question is the next one to be answered in today's carrier chapter.


The views expressed here are the author's alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.




[1] Gerald Howarth (Minister for International Security Strategy), in 'Navy May Get Two Carriers After All', The Daily Telegraph, 23 August 2011, p.12.

[2] See Ministry of Defence (MoD). MoD Announces Change of Joint Strike Fighter Jet. , 10 May 2012.


Lee Willett

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