The UK Rethinks the F-35C Decision: Shaping a British led Expeditionary Strike Group
3/16/12 by Ed Timperlake
The UK is rethinking its carrier aircraft decision. In large part this is because of the cost necessary to build traps and cats on the Queen Elizabeth class carrier. In part it is because of the impact of Libya and Bold Alligator in reminding strategists and decision-makers of the flexibility provided for deck management and fleet operations of a V/STOL aircraft.
In this article, I am going to take a look at the logic of shifting from the C to the B and how it fits evolving technologies and operational dynamics. I would argue that both technologically and operationally moving back to the B makes great sense as the UK shapes its evolving military capabilities. And indeed a F-35B and F-35A combination provides a significant opportunity to bring the RAF and the Royal Navy on the same page with both contributing to a UK ESG construct and approach.
Remembering the Debt the U.S. Owes the UK in Naval Operations
When England went to war to stop Hitler, Sir Winston Churchill was immediately appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and the signal went out to the Royal Navy—“Winston is Back.”
This was the beginning of the greatest Sea war in the history of the world. The Royal Navy at first standing alone would learn invaluable lessons paid for in blood on how to fight and win. The costs were high; tragically ship design defects were uncovered in the crucible of combat.
For example, the loss of the Royal Navy Battle Cruiser Hood was a faulty design in armor because of vulnerability to plunging shells and also the Hood’s ammo locker igniting was a contributing fact. Then, during the pursuit of Bismarck the HMS Ark Royal, a British aircraft carrier, launched “Swordfish” bi-planes and with a single torpedo took out the Bismarck’s rudder and sealed it’s doom.
The shift from battleships to aircraft carriers was dramatic. The HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales fighting alone against Japanese planes without friendly air cover were both lost off Singapore right after the US Navy had its Battleship Fleet sunk pier side by a Japanese carrier air attack at Pearl Harbor.
World War II demonstrated that evolving and innovative tactics, training and technology were needed to fight battles from the Arctic into the southern hemisphere over the expanse of two oceans.
This global ocean war created a tactical and technology partnership between the US Navy and Royal Navy that continues strong to this day. After the war, with the advent of jet engines and the growth of aircraft carries into “super carriers,” the relationship was deepened.
The contribution of the Royal Navy is heard in every cockpit coming on board a USN carrier on every landing “Meat Ball — Line-up — Angel of Attack” is the scan pattern all USN/USMC Carrier Pilots. That mantra is taught from day one on a Naval Aviators quest to successfully Carrier Qual (CQ) in order to receive their Navy Wings of Gold and join a squadron ready for sea duty. This lifesaving mantra is built on several design gifts given to the US Navy by the Royal Navy.
Centering the “meat ball” puts the aircraft on a perfect glide slope for an “OK-3 wire” the code for a perfect trap. Calling -the “meat ball” to the LSO, along with fuel state, is possible because of the evolution of the fresnel lens which the British pioneered for their early jet carrier operations.
“Line-up.” adjusting for the centerline, is now targeted to align with an angled deck. That design added a huge margin of safety. The angle deck also greatly aided efficient operations during flight quarters effectively to cycle Carrier Air Group (CAG) aircraft into an effective unified airborne fighting force.
Finally, checking the ” Angle Of Attack” is an easy and fail safe indicator of having sufficient and safe airspeed to come aboard.
The British also designed the “hurricane bow” because a modern carrier must be sea worthy from the Arctic to the Equator with the ability to operate in all weather, day and night. Sea worthiness against a “cruel sea” is critical and the British got it right as Carrier Aviation transitioned from props to jets. Finally, thanks again to the Royal Navy for steam catapults to give added energy for a successful carrier take off of high performance jets.
It is fair to say that operating day or night, in all weather from ice to tropics, a modern aircraft carrier is one of the most complex engineering achievements of any society. It transports thousands of sailors across all oceans, escorted by support ships and aircraft — all with a mission to project power. 4.5 Acres of sovereign US airfield capable of 30+ knots going into harms way is a significant combat asset.
Shaping the Next Round of Naval Aviation and Operational Concepts
The entire raison-d’etre of a modern aircraft carrier is the composition of carrier air wing.
From Korea to Vietnam, to Desert Storm and today’s fight a US Aircraft Carrier, like “The Big E” (the USS Enterprise), has a an airwing of aircraft that always has had “generation parity” with any peer competitor flying from land bases. The air wing also had electronic warfare aircraft and flying command and control aircraft. The USN angle deck carrier and aircraft all came together to dominate any potential sea threat and also successfully carry the fight “feet dry” in current modern combat.
The British during the period of super carrier supremacy were pioneering the tactical employment of the AV-8 Harrier from decks that did not need “cats and traps” to operate. Although the V/STOL Harrier was limited, it was very ready and effective in an air-to-ground role and had some modest, but when absolutely needed, fleet saving capabilities in the Falkland Campaign, in the fighter air-to-air role.
But in a never-ending action-reaction cycle of technology improvements, a V/STOL aircraft has emerged which is a significant advance for naval aviation. The F-35 not only will be a successful air-to-ground fighter but also an air-to-air fighter and an EW fighter combined.
The F-35 is not a linear performance enhancement from F/A-18 4th Gen; it has a third performance axis — “Z” The “Z” axis is the pilot’s cockpit C4ISR-D “OODA” loop axis.
(For a presentation and discussion of the Z axis please see
The design characteristics blended together prior to F-35 have been constantly improving range, payload (improved by system/and weapons carried), maneuverability (measured by P Sub s), useful speed, and range (modified by V/STOL–a plus factor). The F-35 is also designed with inherent survivability factors-first redundancy and hardening and then stealth. Stealth is usually seen as the 5th Gen improvement. But reducing the F-35 to a linear x-y axis improvement or to stealth simply misses the point.
Traditionally, the two dimensional depiction is that the y-axis is time and the x-axis captures individual airplanes that tend to cluster in generation improvement.
Each aircraft clustered in a “generation” is a combination of improvements.
Essentially, the aeronautical design “art” of blending together ever improving and evolving technology eventually creates improvements in a linear fashion.
The F-35 is now going to take technology into a revolutionary three-dimensional situational awareness capability.
This capability establishes a new vector for TacAir aircraft design. This can be measured on a “Z” axis.
What makes this possible is the F-35B has both a fully up air-to-air and air-to-ground capability. In the AA mode it is supersonic and stealthy with the same “Z-axis” revolutionary C4ISR-D cockpit that Navy F-35Cs and AF –F-35As both have. Consequently, the F-35B can fit seamlessly into the Air Force/Navy Air Dominance mission.
Historically, air fleet command and control, now C5ISR, was external to 1,2,3, and 4th Generations TacAir. C &C goals were to enhance fleet wide combat performance for all Type/Model/Series (T/M/S) of TacAir.
This is the modern AWACS , Hawkeye and Aegis battle concept.
Now using a three-dimensional graph the “Z-axis” research takes airpower into a totally different domain. The shift is from externally provided C&C to C5ISR-D in the cockpit carried by the individual air platform.
This is the revolutionary step function that breaks the linear progression of previous Generations.
The “Z” axis is reflected in the emergence of the “C5ISR –D (for decision) cockpit”. This will be conjoined with a new helmet which can integrate with the cockpit. Currently there is still ongoing considerable research on getting the helmet correct-but this is the IR&D vector.
But wait it gets even better.
Since no platform fights alone: the entire F-35 Type/Model/Series connects the Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Allies in a cohesive unified fighting force. This is why a combination of an F-35A with the B can provide a possible vector of RAF and RN synergy and convergence in shaping a combined approach.
Additional assets that can really augment this US and Allied “joint” air force is the Aegis Ships with the SM-3 missile and SSGN with cruise missiles for fire support .
No longer should the F-35B be considered a boutique niche aircraft only essential for Marine combat con-ops. With vision and commitment on numbers it can become a tactical aircraft that sends a strategic signal.
The reason is simple, an F-35B can stand strip alert on any long runway, U.S. or Allied. From a strategic point of view think of Guam, South Korea or in the Middle East on all long runways. As a crisis situation develops, the F-35Bs can be remotely placed in secret hardened bunkers and revetments and thus become a significant deterrence asset that can instantly sortie into combat and return to gas and go again and again.
The F-35C, Navy version, is tied to large deck “cat and trap” angle decks, whereas the F-35B is a flexible tool able to deploy on many ships, working concurrently with helo and MV-22 flight ops and on many airfields, fixed, long, short, or not even todays operational airfields but just hard surface roads.
The F-35B reverses the relationship between pre-defined operational bases and the aircraft. The aircraft no longer constrains the definition of an airfield.
The sortie rate of an F-35 aircraft is more than just rearm and “gas and go.” It is continuity of operations with each aircraft linking in and out as they turn and burn without losing situational awareness.
This can all be done in locations that can come as a complete tactical surprise –the F-35B sortie rate action reaction cycle has an add dimension of unique and unexpected basing thus getting inside an opponent’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) loop.
Operational Dynamics and the Impact of the New V/STOL Aircraft
As the British Ministry of Defense revisits their decision to switch back from an angle deck “cat and trap” aircraft carrier to the F-35B, some current real world data points are significant.
First, the Libyan TRAP mission showed the ready now nature of joint basing of the AV-8 and MV-22s on the USS Kearsage.
Colonel Mark Desens, Commander 26th MEU:
When we learned that a F-15 crew had ejected east of Benghazi, we immediately focused our efforts on getting ready to rescue them.
The mission was given to us for two reasons: one, first and foremost, was the uncertain environment. We didn’t know what was going on on the ground with the pilot. The second is we were the most ready and had the most responsive assets, most notably, the MV-22. Backed up by CH-53s and Harriers, we had very potent reaction force in case we needed to fight to get the crew out or reinforce the recovery or crash site. As an aside, a recovery asset launching from land base — the next closest locations being Sigonella or Souda Bay — would have been four or more hours.
There were USAF HH-60G rescue helicopters embarked on the Ponce to give a CSAR capability with improved reaction times. However, you’re comparing 270 knots versus 140. It would have taken at least 45 minutes longer for a helicopter to get there. U.S. forces may well have not been the first to reach that pilot without the MV-22. Given the situation, that was not acceptable. The other thing is that for a helo, a direct flight path (to save time) to the pilot would have gone through Benghazi, a potential threat area at the time. The Osprey could chart a very different path, avoiding any potential air defense threats.
Again the speed and range of the Osprey coupled with the ability to have Marines on the ground to secure the perimeter was the key.
Next, the Libyan operation was followed by the experience and lessons learned from Bold Alligator 2012.
The exercise has set in motion the beginning of an Expeditionary Strike Group revolution.
The 2nd ESG Commander articulated the significance of BA-12 very well.
SLD: What was the major purpose of the Bold Alligator 2012 exercise from your perspective?
Rear Admiral Scott Commander ESG-2:
Both the Commandant of the Marine Corps and Chief of Naval Operations realized that given the land centric warfare that we were engaged in over the past decade, we had to address atrophy — in terms of operational skills from the sea — for both elements of the Navy and Marine Corps team.
The ESG-MEB template is a solid foundation able to incorporate and be expanded by the F-35 technological revolution.
According to General Davis CG 2nd MAW :
Currently, we put up 16 Harriers off of the USS Kearsarge during the exercise. You have sensors on each plane with a range of 40-50 miles of scan capability, limited to using one sensor at a time. And you are not connected to the link (no Link-16). You function as a node and pass information back via voice or Rover (video down-link).
What I saw on the BAC1-11, I have exponentially greater ability to scan and “see” the battlespace with exponentially greater fidelity than ever before, locating and positively identifying everything from air to sea targets. I can look at the battlespace with the radar, the DAS, a host of other sensors and basically can bring all that information together into one data system, fuse that information — which makes it a flying sensor.
The V-22 changed things physically with regard to projecting power from a sea base. With the F-35 we will change things physically again, but on another level we will bring in another huge leap forward in capability from it sensors and its ability to see and share information – from our sea base.
I just witnessed tremendous potential on the BAC1-11 (the testbed aircraft on which F-35 combat systems are carried to shape new software development for the F-35) to bring in high fidelity data, not only to know what is out there but also to be able to able to target at a much higher degree of accuracy than I have ever been able to do before. I almost felt like I was in an E2D, able so see that much battle space. What was missing for me was there was not another BAC1-11 out there to tie into and to share the sensor data, as we will do with the operational F-35s.
But even as a single platform, it was exponentially better than anything that I have seen in any platform. And I fly both the F-18s and Harriers now.
SLD: When thinking of the potential of the ESG-MEB operating off of a distributed sea base, the F-35 appears to provide a key match to managing the distributed three dimensional air and surface space within which the ESG-MEB will operate.
General Davis: It does. The F-35 community of users – sea based and land based — will be able to create a pretty tight air grid over the top of the distributed battle space so we can share information very freely out there.
To me, the key is to have these airplanes networked overtop, where they’re able to see deep into the enemy battle space, or the objective area, but also sharing that information. I want not just the airplanes to share their information, but the ships as well to be able basically pass that information back and forth freely.
To me that is the next big step we need to take. We need to take the information, which these planes are bringing to us and sharing them with the ships and other combat elements in the operation.
With regard to the evolution of the ESG-MEB with the introduction of the F-35B, you can disaggregate your forces because you can bring them under an umbrella that has the kind of protection currently only available with the Prowlers or the Growlers off of the large deck carrier. Now I will have my own organic capability that I can protect these assets. Now I can spread out, like that tsunami that Colonel Boniface talked about. I can actually move my forces out and I can protect them. They can be separated from the ESG, or from the land based assets in our expeditionary Forward operating bases our MWSSs (Marine Wing Support Squadrons) build and sustain.
The emerging Expeditionary Support Group (ESG) allows for the creation of scalable agile forces against the entire spectrum of threats.
(For a discussion of scalability see our Pacific strategy
The other key Commander in the ESG-MEB combination is the MEB Commander. And here the Commander provided insights into the scalable force trajectory.
BG Owens USMC Commander, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Battalion:
One of the things that was different in this exercise from many previous amphibious exercise large scale is we executed in what we called a medium threat, anti-access, area denial, A2AD environment. The threat focus is primarily on the area denial piece, which is closer in, but which is more realistic for the timeframe of the exercise.
The threat we faced at sea started with submarines, missile patrol boats, fast-attack craft, fast inshore attack craft, and some asymmetric threats with commandeered fishing boats, low slow-flyers, and some tactical air. But of greater concern was coastal defense cruise missiles, initially fixed sites, as well as mobile, and then ultimately, just a threat of additional mobile sites.
And then, the most ubiquitous threat that we’re going to face is mines. In the exercise, we faced a very robust mine capability. We had a wide range of capabilities on the Navy side to help deal with those threats, but we also integrated the MEB in that, particularly our air. These assets were used both in targeting threats to the amphibious taskforce ashore, as well as providing defense of the amphibious taskforce primarily with our aviation asset. But we also involved some of our ground combat elements when they were aboard the ship.
That continued even after we went ashore. And this is something that we really haven’t practiced; this full integration, of the Marine capability in the overall ability to both to project force, and to protect those naval assets that are projecting that force.
SLD: I would think a major challenge from the command side is to organize your assets flexibly to deal with the diversity and range of threats within a compressed time period.
The BIG E and surface combatants were engaged in Bold Alligator because no platform fights alone. It is a a time of transition from 4th Gen legacy to 5th Gen F-35 capability that does not need an angle deck and cats and traps.
After Bold Alligator the USS Enterprise left Virginia for its last voyage.
In the interview with Col. Weisz, 2nd ESG Deputy Commander, the role of the Enterprise in Bold Alligator was highlighted because no platform fights alone:
Another interesting aspect of the exercise was the integration of the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) into BA 12; this was an important training and educational element for all involved in the exercise, particularly for the ESG-2 and 2d MEB staffs.
The ENTERPRISE Carrier Strike Group provided VADM Buss, the Commander of the Combined Force Maritime Component Command, with both aviation and surface capabilities that significantly contributed to the littoral fight.
Often forgotten is the robust capabilities that the Cruiser-Destroyer (CruDes) assets possess who are also part of the Carrier Strike Group; these CruDes capabilities are truly significant and are much needed in the littoral operating area, especially when you are conducting ops in a medium threat anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) type environment as we did.
At the same time, it is just incredible how much strike, ISR, EW and C2 capabilities that the entire CSG can bring to bear in a fight. Having a CSG by your side as you begin your amphibious assault is very comforting to the Amphibious Task Force and Landing Force Commanders.
We just need to conduct more of these types of integrated training opportunities in the future. It is the way we are going in the future; it’s the way ahead.
The F-35C for the Royal Navy is the niche aircraft; the F-35B is not.
The F-35B will allow the Brits to get full value out of their carriers and put them center bull into the ESG revolution.
They will not only be on the same page with the USMC and the USN-USMC enabled team, but they will be able to shape collaborative con-ops with allies across the board.
A mix and match capacity with ships, helos and planes led by the F-35B enabled carriers will be forged in combat and in multi-national operations.
(For various book length publications developing several of the themes in this article see the following