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UK considers a return to cats and traps

According to a Jane’s newsletter, the UK is at least studying the idea of going to sea with a carrier more in line with its naval heritage than the little ones it has been living with for some decades:

UK launches carrier conversion studies. The UK’s Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA) – comprising BAE Systems, Babcock, Thales and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) – has commenced an incremental 18-month Conversion Development Phase (CDP) to explore options for the adaptation of at least one of its Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers to a ‘cats and traps’ configuration to enable the operation of the F-35C Carrier Variant (CV) of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Seed funding of about GBP5 million (USD8 million) is covering activity through to the end of October, with further contracts to be let in the near future to the ACA and the MoD-led Naval Design Partnering (NDP) team

For those unfamiliar with fleet carriers, the UK and many other nations have been building ships with decks that tilt upward so the airplane has more time to gain speed as it falls off the end of the carrier in full afterburner. This avoids the need for the complex catapult operations but has the downside that it cannot launch heavier aircraft, something which severely limits its force projection capabilities.

I should also note that the UK invented the carrier aircraft catapult, along with many other features we consider synonymous with US super-carriers.

28 comments to UK considers a return to cats and traps

  • Laird

    What does “cats and traps” mean?

  • Andrew Zalotocky

    Richard North of EU Referendum has long argued that the new carrier will be operating French Rafales as part of the EU’s European Rapid Reaction Force. I don’t know if he’s right but it’s certainly worth considering.

  • Andrew Zalotocky

    Laird, it means this stuff.

  • Laird

    Ah! Thanks, Andrew.

  • David Gillies

    Can Rafale be upgraded to drop JDAMs? Cos right know it’s stuck with AASMs GPS munitions or Paveways, but can’t yet do its own designation, which seems a bit daft for a carrier aircraft (you have the guy who’s dropping the bomb, and the guy pointing his laser at the target – two launches, two recoveries, fewer aircraft on board.) Plus, LGBs have problems with smoke/cloud, and they’re more expensive (Google says unit cost of an AASM is €200000+, way more than a JDAM.) And no way are they going to be blithely chucking Storm Shadows (what the French call SCALP EG) about, not at a million bucks per.

    Also, if we, as one of the major export customers for JSF were to pull out, wouldn’t the Americans be a bit cheesed-off? If we’re not going that route, maybe we should use the navalised version of Typhoon we’re apparently cooking up for the Indians.

  • bloke in spain

    It occurs that as soon as the expression aircraft carrier gets mentioned the double-barrelled morons who pass for admirals these days get in a masturbatory frenzy over multi-billion, state of the art bits of naval extravagance.
    WTF for? When did we last fight a fleet action against a serious enemy? 1940 something?
    What we actually need these days is a floating airfield. So why buy a MacLaren F1 to do the weekly shop?
    Just get hold of a very large cargo vessel. Container ship or oil tanker. Strip it out. Stick on a flight deck, a lift or two & somewhere to store & service aircraft in the hull. Park it a few hundred miles off the coast of whichever small nation you want to harass this week & away you go. All those expensive battle management radars etc you’ve already got in the frigates so you don’t need another lot.
    That’d let you bomb Libya in comfort or mount a disaster relief exercise or even conduct a blockade.
    OK, if the UK is going to go toe to toe with China solo it’ll have the survivability of a chocolate kettle but how would one very expensive fleet carrier that we can’t afford the aircraft for improve the situation? Better to have some decent planes & an air refuelling capability for the sort of missions we might actually have to perform.
    Come to think of it, that’s how aircraft carriers started out wasn’t it?

  • Scooby

    Interesting. Of course, in clicking the title, I thought this was going to be a discussion on rodent control.

  • Adam Maas

    That’s a little behind the times, the UK switched its F-35B buy to F-35C’s and announced that the HMS Queen Elizabeth would be built as a CATOBAR carrier at the end of November 2010 as part of the 2010 Defence Review. The only question at this point is whether or not the second QE class carrier would be finished as a CATOBAR carrier or not.

  • M. Thompsoin

    @bloke in spain:
    A commercial conversion would be most feasible for an actual shooting war, but the speed requirements for naval ships (around 55 km/h) against commercial (typical max speed around 30km/h), are a major factor. Carriers require a higher speed than especially due to having to maximize airflow over the flight deck for launch/recovery.

    Also, a Real Navy Ship is built to assume the Bad Guys have a very good chance of hitting you, or something will go wrong to require the crew to fix things underway, or fight a fire. The requirement to mount basic point defense weapons against the Bad Guy’s anti-ship missiles or suicide boats are also easier to build into a from the keel up design.

  • Subotai Bahadur

    With all due respect, are you Brits actually operating under the impression that the QUEEN ELIZABETH class ships are actually going to be completed and serve in the Royal Navy? It is not going to happen.

    Your fleet has shrunk, like the rest of your armed forces, due to budgetary pressures. With but 5 destroyers and 23 frigates, some of which are scheduled for scrapping, you don’t have enough to credibly escort the three amphibious assault ships you have now.

    The last cost figure I have seen for the catapult variant is £6.2 Billion. Plus the cost of the air group. A full air group of 36 F-35C’s, plus some for spares is going to be expensive. The base model F-35C costs $135.9 million apiece, or roughly $6.5 billion for say 48 total. That comes out to about £3,948,780,000. Bare bones. Grand total roughly £10 billion. Plus the cost of manning her, which over the ship’s life cycle is actually most of that cost.

    Looking at the gutting of your military so far to maintain the welfare state, especially how they are going about it; to be honest there is no way that one party or another in power is not going to cancel the whole program to save the money.

    Subotai Bahadur

  • lucklucky

    The new carrier was much bigger than Invincible Class before this decision. It doesn’t changes anything except adding catapults. Probably due the problems F-35 are getting.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    I’ve been expecting, for some time now, someone to develop a bigger version of a Zeppelin, or dirigible, and to have VTOLs or helicoptors as it’s aircraft. You wouldn’t even need guns- just bombs to drop. If you were high enough up, you needn’t even fear missiles!

  • APL

    Subotai Bahadur: “Looking at the gutting of your military so far to maintain the welfare state, .. ”

    It’s not the underfunding of the military that is the problem, it’s things like this article highlights; continuously changing specifications and generally a vacuous approach by politicians to what the military is for that is the problem.

  • RW

    | take a considerable interest in this subject since my father served on Victorious, one of the first generation of purpose-built carriers. Combined with the fitting of long-range fuel tanks on the Stringbags, this changed the whole game of projection of air power, given the state of the art of aviation at the time.

    One consequence of this was the obsolescence of the battleship. A high value asset extremely vulnerable to war planes and (a then recent development) submarines)? Goodbye to the dreadnoughts!

    But technology has moved on and I suggest that against a sophisticated enemy, or one with access to the latest weapons, aircraft carriers are themselves an obsolete concept. As others have pointed out, a carrier and its aircraft are an enormously high value asset. Even with a full defensive screen of smaller warships it is highly vulnerable to shipkiller missiles.

    The key point is the projection of power. Pre-WorldWar2 this was naval power. Then it became naval-based air power. Now, with modern warplanes and missiles, the naval element is not a pre-requisite and in fact is a way of putting all of one’s eggs in one basket – never a wise military strategy.

    So, sentiment aside, carriers have become what Clausewitz called an outdated military paradigm. Yes, they might still have some uses in some situations but in general the world is moving on. Planning a new generation of large-scale carrier is like the French building the Maginot line as a defence against air power.

    Readers with a particular interest in naval aviation history might like “War in a Stringbag” by (Charles?) Lamb. It must be long out of print but hey that’s what the Internet is for.

  • Andrew

    Should have been catapults from the start. Vertical takeoff planes (complex/expensive/limited) are needed on tiny toy carriers, they’re not on something the size of a supercarrier.

  • Subotai Bahadur

    RW at August 26, 2011 09:33 AM

    “The key point is the projection of power.”

    I agree with that, however I think that we differ on defining the nature of that power. In WW-II, the carrier task force was pretty much the strongest individual weapon that could be wielded. Its place at the top of the spectrum of force was replaced by nuclear weapons. That did not make what we now call carrier battle groups [CVBG] useless or obsolete. It changed their utility, in ways that that some could say was more useful.

    Like it or not, any hostile force that suddenly finds a CVBG in the area has to reboot their calculations of the correlation of forces sharply. And the change is not to the benefit of the hostile force. Their freedom of action is curtailed by the mere threat implied by the presence. If they decide to proceed in the absence of a means of neutralizing the CVBG, it means that in almost all cases they will have lost control of the battlespace.

    Nuclear weapons are at the top of the spectrum of force. But they are not the only strategic weapons. A CVBG is itself regarded as a strategic weapon. Nuclear powers who deploy CVBG’s are projecting not only the conventional power it carries, but also by implication it is backed by the nuclear arsenal of the power. It is considered unthinkable that the destruction of an aircraft carrier would not bring a strategic response.

    They thusly get around the all or nothing aspect of the threat of use of nuclear weapons, give far wider options to the National Command Authority to choose to engage or not, and at what level, and extend the reach of deterrence at levels below those of similarly armed strategic competitors. Synergy.

    The building of the Maginot line was a strategic disaster for France, in no small part because a) it absorbed most of their military budget that could have been better used elsewhere, and b) it limited, not expanded, their ability to react to events.

    Major naval powers are not putting their entire military/naval budgets into CVBG’s the way that they did with battleships. Nuclear submarines, including strategic missile submarines, amphibious assault ships, and other vessels make up a properly balanced fleet.

    There is an argument as to the number of CVBG’s needed. The US just in the last month cut down to 9. Given the number of places that the US has to be ready to engage in, I personally think that 12-14 CVBG’s is the right number. Note that this is quite a comedown from the 140+ aircraft carriers of all types we had at the close of WW-II. But we still need them.

    From the outside, it looks like the Royal Navy is going to give up on the capabilities implicit in the possession of a CVBG, in conjunction with their nuclear deterrent. To do so is to make the strategic assumption that you never again will face a situation where you need to establish a local battlespace superiority. I have my doubts. You were barely able to do so in the Falklands using your now discarded mini-carriers. In the Libyan “kinetic action” your forces were stretched to the max in an area which most would consider to be a local area of interest for your country.

    Your country has to make its own decisions. I hope they work out well for you, for I fear that in the near future neither of us will have the capability to come to the others aid in time of need.

    Subotai Bahadur

  • lucklucky

    “The building of the Maginot line was a strategic disaster for France, in no small part because a) it absorbed most of their military budget that could have been better used elsewhere, and b) it limited, not expanded, their ability to react to events.”

    Maginot Line accomplished it’s objectives. The Germans didn’t invaded through it.

    a) false it didn’t absorbed most of the budget. Far from it. Besides the French Army was bigger than the German Army in several types of weapons like tanks for example.

    b) only insofar if we consider that it blocked the French thinking in mobile warfare.

  • John K

    Some muddled thinking here I fear.

    At present, the plan seems to be to complete Queen Elizabeth without catapults, and use her as a helicopter carrier, whilst Prince of Wales will be built with catapults, at which pint Queen Elizabeth may have catapults fitted. No final decisions have been made, but both carriers will be built, the contract would cost more the break than to proceed with, and it was written that way because the ship building industry would only proceed with that level of certainty.

    Until such point as the aircraft, manned or unmanned, is of no value in warfare, any navy wishing to operate globally will need carriers. The RAF is only able to operate in Libya because Italy is willing to let it use Sicilian bases. If this was not the case, the RAF would be out of the game. As it is, even the flight to Libya from Sicily needs in flight refuelling. Land based air power is, by its very nature, inflexible and dependent on basing rights. Only naval air power gives the flexibility a country like Britain needs. The RAF know this, and hate the fact, which is why they have historically done everything they can to eliminate British carrier air power. It’s a demarcation dispute, as any trade unionist would recognise.

  • guy herbert

    “Only naval air power gives the flexibility a country like Britain needs.”

    I am unconvinced that Britain needs global force projection. Almost all the scattered colonies have been disposed of. Apart from re-taking the Falkland Islands (themselves acquired as a strategic and political support for a world-bestriding imperial navy, not the other way around), and helping with the evacuation of said former colonies, British carriers have done nothing in the way of force-projection since the Korean War. The Royal Navy’s key contribution to the Cold War was ASW in the northern approaches. Which comes just as easily under local defence as global strategy.

    What’s wrong with Britain having a defence policy based on self-defence?

  • Laird

    Agreed, Guy. And the US, too.

  • Surellin

    Re: the suggestion that cheap cargo craft be retrofitted as carriers: it seems to be a workable plane, “chocolate teakettle” or not. A lot of escort carrers in WWII were such. Try this – use it with UAVs instead of manned craft. They’re lighter, smaller and require a heck of a lot less ship in terms of crew space, etc. I still like the idea of British fleets carriers, though.

    Btw, readers of this thread might be interested in a newish book I read over the weekend called Shattered Sword. It’s a new and very detailed look at the Battle of Midway, largely from the Japanese POV and from Japanese sources.

  • John K


    Fair enough, if you wish Britain to retreat from any sort of global role, then there is no need for a carrier force. Be aware, however, that trouble sometimes comes to you, even if you would rather it didn’t.


    Sorry, but the idea of flying modern aircraft from a converted cargo ship is a bit futile. It won’t have the speed needed for a fleet role, it won’t have the protection for the magazine, it would really be such a waste of time I scarcely know where to start.

    Britain is well able to afford the two carriers being built, the question is whether the government wants to. If it prefers to be a “foreign aid superpower”, if it prefers to piss away billions each year on the EU, and hundreds of billions on a failed wlefare state, then maybe we can’t afford them, but not because we don’t have the money, only because we would rather waste it.

  • John K

    British carriers have done nothing in the way of force-projection since the Korean War.


    I can’t let that one pass. You seem to have forgotten Suez (a political, not military defeat), the thwarting of an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1961, curbing Indonesia diring the Emergency, and stopping a Guatemalan invasion of Belize, not to mention Phony Tony’s use of carriers in Sierra Leone and Kosovo. And do not forget the deterrant effect of carrier air power, the wars that were never fought because the other side knew they would lose. It was no coincidence that the Argentines never invaded the Falklands while Britain had conventional fleet carriers. If carriers avert even one war, they have more than paid for themselves.

  • This is a very interesting discussion, especially those aspects around the long-term techno-strategic aspects introduced by Subotai Bahadur.

    I suspect that, in the same way as with 74 ships-of-the-line and their developments, there is a strong issue of force projection by major players in geopolitics against middle- and lower-ranking players. Only world opinion provides protection against such gunship diplomacy.

    As for the bigger game, maybe next-up will be submarine aircraft carriers, together with submarine aircraft (UAV, at least initially).

    Best regards

  • John K


    The submarine aircraft carrier exists. The use of cruise missiles from submarines is now an established part of naval warfare. Using cruise missiles eliminates the problem of how you land them back on the sub!

  • On John K’s point:

    Concerning delivery of explosives, missiles come quite expensive for large-scale delivery compared to dropping large (somewhat guided) bombs. Also, you can get a lot more on a current aircraft carrier (104,000 ton displacement for Nimitz class) than a current big submarine (18,500 ton displacement for Ohio class).

    Next, in major non-nuclear war (was Vietnam really the last one – well maybe the Iran-Iraq 8-year war counts a bit, but not much sea there), lots and lots of everything does actually matter, as does the attrition rate (particularly economically, but also politically).

    Finally for now, there are many more uses for military aircraft than just carrying bombs; eg intelligence gathering and ground attack.

    Best regards

  • John K


    All true, but cruise missiles are very useful for the early stages of a conflict, to degrade an enemy’s defences. The current Libyan campaign is a classic example. It is also a classic example of the utility of the carrier air power which our imbecilic coalition government discarded literally weeks before.

  • Jon

    How the hell does fitting two giant elastic bands one to give a plane extra take off speed and another to slow it down when landing cost £2billion, I am guess in WW2 when the system was used before VTOL it was done with a fiver and held together with chewing gum.