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Carrier Alternative Weekly

March 25, 2010

The Chilean navy Sa'ar 4-class fast-attack craft Angamos and Casma perform tactical maneuvering exercises with carrier USS Carl Vinson nearby in the Strait Of Magellan.

Short Term Savings, Long Term Problems

In its annual Defence Equipment Report, the British Parliament sounds a little miffed that they were mislead by the Ministry of Defence on the reasons for delaying its 5bn pound supercarriers, which brought on a major price increase:

The Written Ministerial Statement of 11 December 2008 which announced the delays stated that “We have concluded that there is scope for bringing more closely into line the introduction of the joint combat aircraft and the aircraft carrier. This is likely to mean delaying the in-service date of the new carriers by one to two years.”

 In oral evidence to us in December 2008, the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support appeared to suggest that in fact the key reason for the delay was the need to make short-term savings, stating that “…this was an opportunity … to re-profile our spending plans in a way which involved no defence costs, but simply made the delivery date of the carriers rather more rational”.

*****

Bailing on the F-35

Looks like my idea that the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet is the “The Once and Future Strike Fighter” might soon be reality. The following by Andrew Tilghman is from the print edition of the Navy Times:

“I think the Navy needs to walk away from the F-35C based on affordability concerns and continue with the Super Hornet,” said one congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is still being intensely debated on Capitol Hill.
   Navy support for the F-35C suffered in mid-March, when Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the service is open to buying more Super Hornets.  The Navy had planned to stop buying Super Hornets in 2013 with the intention of replenishing the fighter fleet with JSFs starting in 2014.

But the admiral’s will stand by a flawed and exquisite platform to the very end. Typical since they helped create the mess:

That came just a week after Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead told Congress on March 11 that the Navy’s F-35C will not be ready for operations until 2016, rather than the previous target date of late 2014.  Original plans for about 2,000 hours of flight testing may extend to about 3,000 flight hours.
   During the same week, cost estimates for the F-35 soared.  New calculations from the Government Accountability Office say the F-35s could cost roughly $112 million each, a large spike from the original estimates of about $50 million per plane in 2002.
   Nevertheless, Roughead continues to voice strong support for the F-35.

Winslow Wheeler stands out as the voice of reason here:

  “At some point, the Navy will have to bite the bullet and convert from the old ‘F/A-18s-are-too-old’ argument to the argument that the new F-35s are too expensive. I fully expect the Navy to bail out of the F-35 program.”

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The Perils of a “Top Down” Fleet

From the same print edition of the Navy Times, same article, here is an interesting conversation with defense analyst James Hasik, who News Wars has posted on before:

“Before, there was talk of a ‘gap’ that would eventually close over time. But that presumed that they were going to get enough F-35Cs. Now it looks like the Navy can’t fill its carrier decks given the budgets they can possibly foresee in the future,” Hasik said.
   If the Navy is unable to buy enough planes to fill out 10 full carrier air wings, then the Pentagon and Congress will begin to question the need for an 11-carrier fleet…
 
   A withering fighter fleet could undermine the Navy across all communities.
   “That will scare the crap out of the admiralty,” Hasik said. “If you don’t have all those carriers, then people say, ‘Well, why do you have all those guided-missile cruisers if you don’t have to guard as many carriers?’
   “This is not a frigate Navy.”

$10 billion Carriers without planes. Over 80 missiles escorts soon with nothing to escort. Makes you wonder where the Navy’s priorities lay. Certainly it isn’t in fiscal reality or with current threats. I have a one word answer to all its woes:

REFORM!

*****

Better Than Nothing. Sigh

That pretty much sums up Eric L Palmer’s post on the F/A-18 Super Hornet, and how it will likely be the Navy primary naval fighter bomber for yet another decade:

What else can we expect out of a large buy of Super Hornets if the Hill overrides a short-sighted and dysfunctional Navy leadership? Well, don’t count on the Super being very powerful against threats in the coming years that have high-end surface-to-air missiles and enemy aircraft. It is not up to that challenge.

With that understood, the aircraft can do a lot for U.S. defense posture in the coming years. It will be a capable bomb truck after high end threats have been subdued by other means. And while it would do badly near Chinese waters, the Navy doesn’t have to play that game because China won’t be able to protect interests outside of its immediate sphere of influence.

He sees no chance for the F-35C, but yours truly is still optimistic concerning the V/STOL version of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B. Heck, we spent all this money we might as well get something out of the F-111 of this generation. Still a mediocre fighter true, but one with Veestol!

*****

Fearing Success

Here is ELP once again, this time on the F-35B and why the carrier admirals should worry:

With serious problems already here for the U.S. federal budget, the U.S. Navy flying club with their clubhouses of large deck carriers better hope for a not-so-successful F-35B program.
If the F-35B is successful—where the definition of “successful” will be majority of flights that have an equal number of take-offs and landings—the U.S. Navy will have small STOVL carriers forced down its throat. The Defense budget will be cut. The Navy will discover it can no longer afford big deck carriers. With that, we will see smaller air wings, each with only one squadron of 12 F-35Bs on deck.
So with 10 small carriers (120 F-35Bs) and then add in the training and test squadrons, you can see that the expensive F-35B even while riding the procurement death spiral wave, solves a whole bunch of problems for a Navy that will have to learn to operate with a lot less money.

I hope he’s right, but the admirals have managed to weather the force multiplying and astounding success of the Harrier for decades, even as their vaunted decks shrink under their own immense weights and costs. Even the Brits seem to have forgotten the hard-won lessons.

*****

Checking out Admiral Gorshkov

Britain and America’s carrier purchasing woes pale in comparison to India’s deal with Russia for the former V/STOL carrier Admiral Ghorshkov (Vikramaditya). The plan was for a major conversion of the former Kiev cruiser/carrier hybrid into a full-fledged through deck vessel that could support fixed wing fighters, all for the bargain price of $1.5 billion US. Sounds good except the post-Soviet shipyards just wasn’t up to the task. Here is the Hindu News with “A peep into Vikramaditya“:

Now that a final price tag of $2.33 billion has been fixed on aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (Admiral Gorshkov) going against the proverbial caution, perhaps it is time to look the ‘gift’ horse in the mouth.
While arriving at the figure, the Indian Navy asserts that there has been no compromise, including on the much-required sea trials that will be conducted for 20-24 months before the aircraft carrier is handed over by December 2012…

It took an three additional and 13 supplementary contracts for the final price to be fixed ahead of the rescheduled delivery of the 45,000-tonne Vikramaditya, bringing the curtains down on the negotiations over the price, which was increased from $1.5 billion to $2.2 billion, with the final demand touching $2.9 billion.

Why do we feel this isn’t the last we’ve heard of Vikramaditya, concerning technical woes and cost overruns?

*****

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Jacob permalink
    April 6, 2010 1:00 am

    “The navalized F-22 is one idea. I wonder though if we laid that out as an option and compared it to an old idea…the F-15 Sea Eagle…and a hypothetical one, what I’d call the F-18 Mega Hornet (a bit larger, featuring better range and engines), how quickly could any of the options be brought to bear and at what kind of price? Which (if any) would theoretically add the capability most needed by carriers?”

    If we need a Sea Eagle or Mega Hornet, why did we just shred up our F-14’s in the past few years? If I’m not mistaken, the three primary platforms our Hornets are going up against will be the Fulcrum, Flanker, and S-300….and from what I’ve been hearing it sounds almost like our adversaries are fielding superior hardware on one-sixth our military budget? Where is our tax money going into?

  2. Heretic permalink
    March 26, 2010 11:09 am

    The stealth coatings on an F-22 are “delicate” enough already when meticulously maintained in a nice dry hangar on land. I seriously doubt that salt water/spray would improve the maintainability of stealth on a navalized F-22 any.

  3. B.Smitty permalink
    March 26, 2010 9:40 am

    Here are two links of interest regarding navalising the F-22 and restarting the production line.

    The first is done by APA, so caveat emptor, YMMV, FWIW.

    The second is a RAND publication that attempts to quantify the costs of a shutdown and restart of F-22 production (among other things).

  4. Joe permalink
    March 26, 2010 9:08 am

    As resistant as the navy has been to buy foreign ships (ex: corvettes) when pushing determinedly ahead with their own lamentably crappy ship designs, I doubt they’d cry “uncle” and allow foreign aircraft to become a segment of our force structure.

    The navalized F-22 is one idea. I wonder though if we laid that out as an option and compared it to an old idea…the F-15 Sea Eagle…and a hypothetical one, what I’d call the F-18 Mega Hornet (a bit larger, featuring better range and engines), how quickly could any of the options be brought to bear and at what kind of price? Which (if any) would theoretically add the capability most needed by carriers?

  5. William permalink
    March 26, 2010 7:31 am

    “There comes a point where re-starting F-22 becomes the cheaper option. Wonder what Lockmart would tell the USAF if asked to quote a price on a multi-year contract for say 200 additional F-22s?”

    Chris,

    This is something I’ve said before and the F22 is a much more capable aircraft in terms of stealth and agility.

  6. Chris Stefan permalink
    March 25, 2010 7:50 pm

    William,
    There comes a point where re-starting F-22 becomes the cheaper option. Wonder what Lockmart would tell the USAF if asked to quote a price on a multi-year contract for say 200 additional F-22s?

    That doesn’t really help the Navy, but it is likely the F-18 is good enough for any conflict where the carriers in-theater aren’t going to get sunk on day 1.

    At a certain point a navalized F-22 might make sense. That would likely cost as much as funding the F/A-XX though and take almost as long to enter service.

  7. B.Smitty permalink
    March 25, 2010 4:26 pm

    Heretic said, “Your move … ^_-

    Heh… Ok. ;)

    Heretic said, “That FLIES … unlike the planes produced for a certain fighter program managed by LockMart.

    Hmm, I recall seeing numerous videos of pre-production F-35s flying too. Were they all staged?

    At this point, I’d say the LockMart plane is much further along in flight testing than the Gripen Demonstrator. ;)

    Heretic said, “ except that the R&D for doing that with Sea Gripen is actually funded and underway already

    Is Sea Gripen R&D underway, or is there just a feasibility study underway? I have a feeling it’s the later.

    Heretic said, “By which logic, we should never buildnor buy anything else, ever again, in perpetuity. It’s also the same reason to reject the F-35C … which “doesn’t exist” now and is totally unproven in USN service.

    Does Gripen NG offer a meaningful upgrade to any USAF aircraft in terms of performance, payload, weapons capability, stealthy, survivability, integration, and so on? It may offer marginal improvements in some areas and be inferior in others. To me, that’s not a slam-dunk argument for change.

    The one feature that would be nice for the Navy is its small spot factor.

    In theory, the F-35 does offer meaningful upgrades over existing aircraft, primarily in terms of stealth and range (though it also promises more advanced avionics). In addition, the F-35B offers deck-melting, concrete-blasting, supersonic, semi-stealthy STOVL.

    (re Super Hornet upgrades) Heretic said, “If the money were there for that … it would have been done a LONG time ago (ie. before the Super was accepted by the USN). It’s not, and it won’t … and pretending otherwise is not going to help anyone.

    Why do you say that? Money has always been tight. At the time, they rightfully decided it was better to move to production than fix this flaw and jeopardize the entire program with delays and cost overruns.

    The money is currently going towards the F-35B/C. If it was cancelled, presumably, there would be funds available for Super Hornet upgrades.

    The EPE engine is in development. The Navy already plans to use the down-rated EDE version.

    I don’t know if straightening out the pylons is feasible (or cost-effective). I seem to recall someone saying the munition separation issues turned out to not be as bad as originally thought, so they may not have needed the canted pylons anyway. But who knows.

    Heretic said, “The Gripen family of aircraft are inherently expeditionary and designed to be maintained by conscripts from dispersed sites with a light logistical footprint

    And the Swedes have a long history of expeditionary operations to back this claim up?

    I do concede that Gripen has the potential to be a better expeditionary fighter aircraft than the F-teens.

  8. Heretic permalink
    March 25, 2010 3:40 pm

    re: B.Smitty

    Gripen NG is just a demonstrator.

    That FLIES … unlike the planes produced for a certain fighter program managed by LockMart.

    Super Hornet exists now and is proven in USN service.

    By which logic, we should never buildnor buy anything else, ever again, in perpetuity. It’s also the same reason to reject the F-35C … which “doesn’t exist” now and is totally unproven in USN service. Please note that following this line of thought to its logical catch-22 conclusion means that the only aircraft that the USN should (ever) buy are the aircraft that the USN has bought.

    Though it’s a bit of a dog in the air, straightening out the pylons and upgrading to the EPE engines should make a more useful kinematic performer.

    If the money were there for that … it would have been done a LONG time ago (ie. before the Super was accepted by the USN). It’s not, and it won’t … and pretending otherwise is not going to help anyone.

    Operating costs may be lower for the Gripen series, but the up-front development needed to turn Gripen Demonstrator into Sea Gripen is not trivial.

    Last I heard, it’s going to be somewhere in the ballpark of what you’d be paying for “straightening out the pylons and upgrading to the EPE engines should make a more useful kinematic performer” … except that the R&D for doing that with Sea Gripen is actually funded and underway already … unlike a similar effort for the F/A-18EFG.

    And what you end up with is an A-4 sized aircraft with less gas, fewer pylons, smaller electronics, and no institutional knowledge in the U.S. military.

    Wikipedia entry JAS 39 Gripen linking to the section on the NG developments and Sea Gripen:

    A two-seat “New Technology Demonstrator” has been built,[14] and was presented on 23 April 2008. It has increased fuel capacity, a more powerful powerplant, increased payload capacity, upgraded avionics and other improvements. The new aircraft is also referred to as the “Gripen Demo”.[15][16]

    The new Gripen NG (Next Generation) will have many new parts and will be powered by the General Electric F414G, a development of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet’s engine. The engine will produce 20% more thrust at 98 kN (22,000 lbf), enabling a supercruise speed of Mach 1.1 with air-to-air missiles.[17]

    Compared to the Gripen D, the Gripen NG’s max takeoff weight has increased from 14,000 to 16,000 kg (30,900–35,300 lb) with an increase in empty weight of 200 kg (440 lb). Due to relocated main landing gear, the internal fuel capacity has increased by 40%, which will increase ferry range to 4,070 km (2,200 nmi). The new undercarriage configuration also allows for the addition of two heavy stores pylons to the fuselage. Its PS-05/A radar adds a new AESA antenna for flight testing beginning in mid-2009.[17]

    Gripen Demo’s maiden flight was conducted on 27 May 2008. The test flight lasted about 30 minutes and reached a maximum altitude of about 6,400 meters (21,000 ft).[18] On 21 January 2009, the Gripen Demo flew at Mach 1.2 without reheat to test its supercruise capability.[19][20]

    Saab performed study work on a aircraft carrier based version in the 1990s. In 2009, Saab launched the Sea Gripen project in response to India’s request for information for a aircraft carrier aircraft. Brazil also has a potential carrier aircraft need.[21][22] Sweden awarded Saab a four-year contract in 2010 to improve the Gripen’s radar and other equipment, and lower its operating costs.[23]

    JAS 39 Gripen B/D Performance
    * Maximum speed:
    o At altitude: Mach 2 (2,470 km/h, 1,372 mph)
    * Combat radius: 800 km (500 mi, 432 nmi)
    * Ferry range: 3,200 km (2,000 mi) with drop tanks
    * Service ceiling: 15,240 m (50,000 ft)
    * Wing loading: 336 kg/m² (68.8 lb/ft²)
    * Thrust/weight: 0.97

    F/A-18F Performance
    * Maximum speed: Mach 1.8+[12] (1,190 mph, 1,900 km/h) at 40,000 ft (12,190 m)
    * Range: 1,275 nmi (2,346 km) clean plus two AIM-9s[12]
    * Combat radius: 390 nmi (449 mi, 722 km) for interdiction mission[82]
    * Ferry range: 1,800 nmi (2,070 mi, 3,330 km)
    * Service ceiling: 50,000+ ft (15,000+ m)
    * Wing loading: 92.8 lb/ft² (453 kg/m²)
    * Thrust/weight: 0.93

    PS-05/A Radar (Gripen) compared to AN/APG-79 Radar (Super Hornet). Interesting note … the PS-05/A is based on work done for the Sea Harrier’s Blue Vixen radar which also inspired the Eurofighter’s CAPTOR radar. The Mk-5 AESA version of the PS-05/A is scheduled to be available in 2012.

    I think it’s fair to say that at this point, your only remaining point in your favor is that there’s no institutional knowledge of the Gripen in the US Military … which is also a strike against the F-35ABC if you really want to get down to it.

    Also, given the existing investment by the USAF in the F-16, I doubt any real savings from going to a single type would come about for a LONG time (if ever). Might as well just let the services continue to buy upgraded versions of what they have today, IMHO.

    The Gripen family of aircraft are inherently expeditionary and designed to be maintained by conscripts from dispersed sites with a light logistical footprint … unlike the Teen Series of planes produced by the US (let alone anything with a number over 20 in their designation).

    Your move … ^_-

  9. B.Smitty permalink
    March 25, 2010 1:57 pm

    Heretic,

    Though I am intrigued by the Gripen NG and Sea Gripen proposals, if we really want to go down to a common USAF/USN/USMC type, then it should be the Super Hornet. Gripen NG is just a demonstrator. Sea Gripen is just a concept.

    Super Hornet exists now and is proven in USN service. Though it’s a bit of a dog in the air, straightening out the pylons and upgrading to the EPE engines should make a more useful kinematic performer. Plus it has the right electronics, a more pylons, and carries more gas.

    Operating costs may be lower for the Gripen series, but the up-front development needed to turn Gripen Demonstrator into Sea Gripen is not trivial. And what you end up with is an A-4 sized aircraft with less gas, fewer pylons, smaller electronics, and no institutional knowledge in the U.S. military.

    Also, given the existing investment by the USAF in the F-16, I doubt any real savings from going to a single type would come about for a LONG time (if ever). Might as well just let the services continue to buy upgraded versions of what they have today, IMHO.

  10. Heretic permalink
    March 25, 2010 12:14 pm

    I said it on ELP’s blog in the comments, and I’ll say it again here …

    It’s a real shame that there’s no political will in Washington to broker a deal with the Swedes and Saab for a license build of Gripen NG and Sea Gripen. Would solve *SO* many problems!

    The USAF and ANG would use the Gripen NG while the USN and USMC would use the Sea Gripen. Just the logistics streamlining alone would present a tremendous savings over the life cycles of the buys. And because any recapitalization for the ANG would comprise more aircraft than the entire Swedish Air Force could ever buy … Washington ought to be able to drive a *really good deal* on industrial offsets which the Swedes and Saab have apparently been more than willing to grant to anyone who wants to fly their planes (see: Brazil, Norway, India, Denmark, et al.).

    In fact, the sheer quantity of planes to be built and bought ought to bring the unit price DOWN somewhat, once a firm order and industrial plan is settled upon. Mass production and all that.

    —–

    Btw Mike, I’m still laughing myself silly over the fact that you were citing *ME* (of all people) as an “authority” in your post on The Immortal Harrier. My only regret is that I never had time to chime in on the comments for it before it fell off the front page of the blog. :(

    —–

    I sincerely doubt that the F-35B is going to be an unqualified success. It’s turning out to be just as much of a boondoggle as the EFV and the MV-22 have. The logistical support for the 35B is going to be so ridiculously high as to pretty much put paid to any pretense of “austere” basing. The 35B may “work” in the technical/technological sense, in that it goes up and down without crashing … but I’m thinking it won’t work in an economic “mud mover” sense of being able to go up and down without bankrupting the service that uses it.

    Too much gold … not enough lead.

  11. Chuck Hill permalink
    March 25, 2010 12:00 pm

    Re the Indian Carrier, Next time the Russians offer something for free, hold on to your wallet.

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 25, 2010 8:14 am

    William, I am thinking the same price, especially for the “B” model. So much for a low cost fighter! The LCS of the skies.

    Mike, I think 8 or 9 large carriers are a’plenty considering their capabilities, and 6 or 7 wouldn’t be too few.

  13. March 25, 2010 7:34 am

    Although the official requirement was for 11 carriers (with great lobbying for nuclear industry………………………………………). Will become clear that in any foresable futur, the real need was under 10 (likely 8/9)…

  14. William permalink
    March 25, 2010 6:54 am

    To be honest I won’t be very surprised if the F35 [insert version here] ends up a lot nearer to the $200 million mark than the $100 million mark when all is said and done. Particularly when cost overruns, delays, reduced aircraft orders are factored in.

    Which will make further buys of the $50 million super hornet seem even more attractive.

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