STRIKE CARRIER FOR RAN?
The Australian Government has acknowledged that it is considering the acquisition of a number of F-35B Lightning II strike jets having already committed to buying seventy-two F-35As as a replacement for the RAAF’s Hornets.
It is a move that could see the new Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) vessels of the Canberra Class adopt a strike carrier guise. The F-35A is the conventional take-off and landing variant, but the F-35B is the same Short Take-off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) version that is to be flown by the US Marine Corps from its big deck assault ships and also the Royal Navy from its new carriers.
The acquisition of the F-35B in the early 2020s could, therefore, reinstate a maritime fixed-wing aviation capability that Australia relinquished when its last aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne, was decommissioned in 1982.
The potential F-35B purchase will be weighed up during the process of creating the country’s forthcoming Defence White Paper, which is due in the second quarter of 2015. The first of the two 27,800 tonnes LHDs, HMAS Canberra, is currently undergoing delivery trials; the second (to be named Adelaide) will be commissioned in 2016.
The Spanish Navy currently flies AV-8B Harrier IIs from its Juan Carlos I LHD, the design of ship from which the Canberra Class vessels have been developed. Although fixed-wing operations were not originally envisaged, the ski jump ramp of Juan Carlos I was retained in the design for both the RAN ships.
The Australian ships would need to have heat-resistant deck coating for extended F-35B operations, additional fuel and weapons stowage, and enhancements to the command and control facilities. The latter are currently focused on amphibious operations involving helicopters and landing craft.
The current configuration allows the Australian LHDs to operate a mix of MRH-90, Chinook, or Sea Hawk helicopters. The hangar deck can accommodate eight helicopters. Another ten can be carried aboard the vessels if needed. The Juan Carlos typically operates 10/12 AV-8B and 10/12 helicopters.
Australia’s 2013 Defence White Paper highlighted the importance of controlling the nation’s sea and air approaches, with a ‘credible force’. This should possess ‘effective capabilities for sea and air control and denial, strike and power projection’ outside the radius of Australia’s land-based fighter aircraft. Without fighter jets such a Joint Task Force (JTF) would be completely dependent on naval surface combatant area air-defence capabilities to counter air and missile threats.
Acquisition of the F-35B would provide a crucial layer of air defence and also offer options for the JTF Commander in terms of anti-ship and land-strike, in addition to a key reconnaissance capability.
CHILEAN SUBMARINE & FRIGATE IN COLLISION AT SEA
During an exercise off Valparaiso last month (July) the Scorpene Class diesel-electric submarine Carrera was in collision with the Type 23 frigate Almirante Condell.
Both Chilean Navy vessels suffered significant damage, the submarine coming off worse, although there were no fatalities. According to some unconfirmed reports the fin of the submarine was in contact with the stern of the frigate (the former HMS Marlborough, procured from the UK in 2005). Both vessels headed for port under their own power and a board of inquiry has since been established.
FRANCE PRESSES ON WITH RUSSIAN BUILD
Opposition to the delivery of two French-origin Mistral Class assault carriers to Russia continues following the downing of a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane by Kremlin-sponsored rebels in eastern Ukraine. The US and Ukraine both continue to voice strong opposition to the deal while the USA is also unhappy.
Cancellation would be problematic for France. The deal is worth US $1.6 billion and 1,000 jobs depend on the Mistral programme. The first, Vladivostok is due to be handed over to the Russians in October and the crew is already being trained in France.
Sevastopol is due for delivery in 2015. Should the deal be cancelled the French would be liable to repay the full amount already handed over by Russia. The Mistrals are a key component of Russia’s naval modernisation.
The transfer of technology element of the deal is also seen as crucial (with elements of the first two vessels built in Russia). It is possible two more Mistrals could be built entirely in Russia. President Francois Hollande of France has admitted that he is keeping a watching brief on the deal.
Whether or not ship two is cancelled will depend on how Russia conducts itself on the international stage. Two of the ships will be based in the Pacific and two in Arctic Russia.
Concerns are growing over how the US Navy will cope with a myriad missions currently handled by Perry Class frigates after the last of the type is decommissioned at the end of next year.
The 11 remaining Perrys are still heavily utilised and the new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is not likely to be able to fill the gap. Some sources have suggested it is possible auxiliary vessels, such as those belonging to Military Sealift Command and even Arleigh Burke Class destroyers or Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSV), may pick up the tasks.
The USN has acknowledged that the requirement for a multi-role vessel that can instantly handle different roles and also protect itself in high-threat zones means the Perry Class replacement will be a new frigate, rather than the LCS.
INDIAN ASW BOOST
The Indian defence ministry has issued a tender for 16 coastal Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) vessels to local shipyards under a US $2.25 billion programme.
It is the first under a ‘Buy and Make India’ policy of increasing the involvement of domestic companies in defence contracts.
Local defence companies are expected to team up with foreign contractors and, if successful, there will be a technology transfer to the Indian partner.
As well as shallow water ASW duties, the ships will also have to be capable of low intensity maritime operations and laying mines.
The resulting vessels will replace four Abhay/Pauk Class patrol boats constructed in Russia in the late 1980s and early 1990s.