Sharkey Ward-C1This blog is proud to be allowed to publish a damning major Research Paper (unedited) by ‘STARKEY WARD’. British naval air ace and squadron commander in the Falklands War, he is accepted as Britain’s most experienced expert on naval aviation.

Here he challenges the delusion of the current British government and the MOD that it can defend this country’s vital interests in the Middle East and beyond:

Dear Secretary of State and Colleagues,

In your deliberations on how the UK can protect its energy and trade interests in the Middle East in the face of the ISIS threat, I trust that you will at last realise how poorly equipped our new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers will be to project Britain’s power and political influence.

The attached paper explains in layman’s language (hopefully) how your choice of fighter aircraft for the carriers, the F-35B STOVL, and its associated flight deck ramp will deny our new capital warships any capability to act as an effective and powerful strike carrier. Indeed, the proposed introduction of Ship Rolling Vertical Landings to replace the Vertical Landing capability will, to all intents and purposes, render the flight deck inoperable in high temperatures and/or heavy sea states. A second paper covering this extraordinarily poorly planned and untried deck landing procedure will be forwarded shortly.

I hope you will understand that a change in course is a vital necessity if you are to provide this Island Nation with the Defence and Security that is so necessary to its continued prosperity.

Kindest regards,

‘Sharkey Ward’.

​N D MacCartan-Ward DSC AFC Commander RN

UK ISIS Response – The Wrong Tools from the Wrong “Message”?

By Commander Sharkey Ward DSC AFC:  the only living British military aviator with extensive experience of both Conventional carrier and Harrier carrier deck landings and operations in all weathers by day and by night.

Executive Summary 

This paper suggests that, when taking advice on national security and defence matters, our political Masters have placed far too much faith in the “Messenger” and have not taken adequate steps to examine the validity and operational relevance of the “Message”.

The predominant “Messenger” that has had the ear of UK Government Ministers has been the Royal Air Force. 

The UK Government has therefore been advised on most warfare matters predominantly by a single Service that has little or no expertise/experience in Maritime warfare (including Carrier operations) or Land warfare.

As a result UK Governments have consistently approved massive investment in land-based combat aircraft and minimal investment in the Naval Service and the Strike Carrier option. This has led to the emasculation of the latter’s planned operational capability and of the Royal Navy’s global peacekeeping, power projection and deterrence capability.

Britain’s ability to intercede in crisis areas beyond Suez (such as Kurdistan/Iraq) and away from NATO bases has diminished in parallel with the gap in British strike carrier capability.

Our large land-based fighter aircraft fleets of Typhoon and Tornado can do little to support the Kurds in the fight against ISIS. Instead and once again, we have to rely upon the United States strike carrier to provide appropriate air power support.

The paper demonstrates that with a ramp-fitted deck and the F-35B STOVL embarked, the HMS Queen Elizabeth suffers from at least six severe operational constraints that will prevent her from emulating US strike carrier capability in the Middle East. Indeed the aircraft becomes almost unoperable from the deck in heavy seas or in hot weather.  She can therefore be categorised more as a large amphibious support vessel.  

Only reconfiguring the deck to ‘cat and trap’ will enable the embarkation of a fully effective  strike carrier air group – and this can be achieved at relatively low cost compared with continued support costs for the less than flexible Typhoon and Tornado programs.


The disintegration of peace and stability in the Middle East and in the Ukraine should serve as a severe reminder to our political Masters in Whitehall and to our Armed Forces’ representatives in the Ministry of Defence that they and their predecessors have failed to honestly and properly apply adequate, effective oversight to the development of Britain’s ability to project power on a global basis – particularly East of Suez and in the South Atlantic.

This has led to the near emasculation of the Royal Navy, to the appalling mismanagement of the Queen Elizabeth carrier project and to the unwarranted extension of the major gap in Britain’s strike carrier capability (that is so essential to the preservation of our national offshore interests).

Britain’s ability to intercede in crisis areas beyond Suez and away from NATO bases has diminished in parallel with the gap in British strike carrier capability.

Arguably, the key to the cause of this government ‘delinquency’ is that our political Masters have little or no military experience/expertise themselves and, when taking advice on national security and defence matters, have placed far too much faith in the “Messenger” and have not taken adequate steps to examine the validity and operational relevance of the “Message”.

The “Message” Not the “Messenger”

Over the last few decades, the predominant “Messenger” that has had the ear of UK Government Ministers has been the Royal Air Force.

The UK Government and Civil Service have therefore been advised on most warfare matters predominantly by a single Service and its associated Academics that has little or no expertise/experience in Maritime warfare (including Carrier operations) or Land warfare.

Governments have demonstrated blind faith in this single-Service “Messenger” without any logical critique of the “Message” being conveyed. 

As a result, UK governments have consistently approved massive investment in land-based combat aircraft and minimal investment in carrier-capable combat aircraft. Figure 1, below, demonstrates this huge and regrettable imbalance.

ure 1.


£350 billion   Non-carrier capable aircraft

£15 billion     Carrier capable aircraft

£10 billion     New QE carrier programme 

(Figures approximate)

Kurdistan/Iraq and ISIS

The horrific events across Syria and northern Iraq that have been generated by the emergence of the terrorist organisation ISIS are a significant threat to the stability of the whole Middle East and to Britain’s gas supplies from the Gulf upon which our economy depends on a day-to-day basis.

What then can our large land based air force (100 odd Typhoon fighter aircraft, our £1 billion per unit Voyager aircraft and 100 odd obsolete Tornado aircraft) do to assist in stemming the tide of expansion of ISIS?

Tornados in Cyprus

Britain’s military airfield in Cyprus, Akrotiri, costs the UK taxpayer well in excess of £200 million per annum to administer and sustain. This is equivalent to the annual running cost of three Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers (which, of course could be deployed at will to any part of the globe – unlike the airfield, Akrotiri).  Further, the airfield is vulnerable to missile and/or air attack from Syria whose coastline lies in close proximity.

Directly between Cyprus and the city of Irbil in Kurdistan (550 nm) lies Syria and the ISIS-controlled region of Syria and northern Iraq.

The Syrian Civil War is ongoing and President Assad has the strong material support of Russia in his war against the rebels. Russian supplied surface-to-air missiles may or may not include the now infamous SA11/SA17 that shot down the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine.

Common sense would therefore appear to dictate that Tornados accompanied by essential air to air refuelling tankers costing £1 billion apiece (Voyager) would be routed around Syria and ISIS controlled territory.

Routing through Turkey would be the shortest alternative (670 nm) – but would President Erdoan permit the use of Turkish airspace for such missions?

Routing south of Syria (800 nm) would give minimal time on task overhead Irbil but could hardly be described as a cost-effective way of providing ‘additional surveillance’ over Kurdistan[1]. Figure 2, below, gives suggested routes and distances.

Cyprus Map

It should of course go without saying that any planned missions from Cyprus to the Irbil theatre of action should be supported by clear Search and Rescue (SAR) plans for the timely recovery of downed aircrew during the mission. (The age and poor airworthiness/reliability of the Tornado fleet is added reason for ensuring that SAR precautions are properly taken.)

But without flexible strike carrier support the UK does not have the necessary resources to guarantee such timely SAR. Unless full SAR support can be guaranteed by the United States, any such missions should not be countenanced.

Where is the Typhoon?

Ministers and the taxpayer should now be questioning why the much more modern RAF Typhoon squadrons are not being mobilised for combat missions over northern Iraq rather than the obsolete Tornado.

After all, significant sums of money have been spent to transform the Typhoon into a viable air to ground combat aircraft. Has this money been well spent? Or has the “Messenger” been misleading Ministers yet again concerning real RAF operational capability? 

Perhaps the Public Accounts Committee should investigate this inconsistency?

In contrast to the futility of Tornados in Cyprus, US Strike Carriers are once again demonstrating the utility and flexibility of Maritime-based air power projection. Without these capital warships, the Western bloc would be powerless to intervene in and resolve these Middle East crises.

It follows that properly equipped strike carriers are what Britain needs to protect its global interests and, as suggested in Figure 1 above, such a way ahead would be far more economical and cost-effective than any further investment in land-based combat air power.

How much damage has the “Messenger” inflicted upon our new Strike Carrier/Power Projection capability?

What was initially described by the British Government as an “up to 10 year gap in British strike carrier capability” has now expanded to approximately 15 years – during which time Britain must rely heavily upon the United States for guarding our interests in the Middle East and further afield. The ownership of 200 land-based fighter aircraft situated in the UK will not provide adequate deterrence[2] to those that would harm us.

Carrier Delays – The Loss of Catapults and Arrestor Gear

The delays and changes in configuration of the Queen Elizabeth strike carrier project can be directly attributed to unwarranted and ill-advised interference by the “Messenger” (the Royal Air Force and by an RAF Chief of the Defence Staff, now Lord Stirrup). Senior RAF officers have dominated the Ministry of Defence Committees and twice denied the Naval Staff its strongly preferred choice of Joint Strike Fighter.

HMS Queen ElizabethThe F-35B STOVL aircraft was forced on the Royal Navy against the latter’s wishes (in spite of claims to the contrary by Prime Minister Cameron) and this resulted in the major/detrimental change in carrier deck configuration from ‘cat and trap’ to a simple ‘ramp-fitted deck’.

Carrier costs wrongly overemphasised

The bizarre/unacceptable operational consequences of this decision have not yet been properly understood by Ministers or by the British taxpayer. 

Instead, much ‘improper’ emphasis has been placed upon the increased cost of our two new aircraft carriers. Again, the “Messenger” has provided such emphasis in order to hide the real “Message” that is so well portrayed in Figure 1 above.  The Typhoon programme is costed to be at least £58 billion which is enough money to buy at least 10 Queen Elizabeth class carriers, including air groups.

The UK is certainly not getting value for money with the Typhoon especially considering that it has little if any utility or capability for sustained Maritime/Littoral operations East of Suez.

Will HMS Queen Elizabeth be able to match U.S. Navy strike carrier operations?

Although somewhat smaller than the US Nimitz class carrier, the Queen Elizabeth has the capacity for embarking an air group of at least 50 combat aircraft.

Unfortunately, the decision to configure the flight deck of the Queen Elizabeth with a ramp and without catapults and arrestor gear places severe constraints on the type of air group that can be embarked and on the operational effectiveness of that air group.

These constraints, the main ones of which are itemised below, are the direct result of Ministers taking the word of the “Messenger” (RAF) and ignoring the authentic “Message” that was and continues to be put forward by highly experienced Naval Carrier Operators.

The idea that the Royal Navy should “make do” with what has already been decided amounts to an abrogation of responsibility and a clear lack of understanding of the operational and fiscal penalties associated with the current chosen way ahead.

Without a positive change back to ‘cat and trap’ and possibly away from the ill-fated F-35 programme as a whole, our new carriers will not be able to match U.S. Navy strike carrier operations and may be no more capable than any large amphibious support vessel.

Constraints resulting from a Ramp Fitted Deck and the F-35B STOVL

The following list of severe constraints is likely to be expanded in parallel with the continued development of the F-35B STOVL aircraft.  A fully-fledged strike carrier requires a well-proven mix of aircraft capabilities that is essential to the safe conduct of flying operations on board as well as to the effective conduct of combat operations over the sea or in support of ground forces.

No Catapult and Arrestor Gear

The lack of ‘cat and trap’ prevents the aircraft carrier from operating any air vehicle whether manned or unmanned that requires a catapult to get airborne and/or arrestor gear for landing on board.

There are certain types of air vehicle that are essential for the safe operation of air group aircraft and/or for ensuring that the warship does indeed have a full independent carrier strike capability. The majority of these cannot operate from the Queen Elizabeth ramp-fitted flight deck.

It appears certain that the associated safety concerns and operational concerns (listed below) were neither understood nor addressed by the “Messenger” or by Ministers when the decision was made to fit the flight deck with a ramp.

Further, it appears that the “Messenger” did not inform Ministers adequately concerning the lack of engine power in the F-35B STOVL aircraft that is now preventing this aircraft from enjoying the versatility and flexibility of Vertical Landings on board when configured for combat operations and in warm climates.

Without this Vertical Landing capability the F-35B STOVL loses any possible advantage it might have had over the F-35C (cat and trap version of the aircraft) or other carrier deck landing aircraft.  Indeed the aircraft becomes almost unoperable from the deck in heavy seas or in hot weather.


The F-35B STOVL will no longer Vertical Land (VL).

Throughout its long development process, the STOVL version of the F-35 has increased markedly in weight but without any parallel increase in engine power. This now means that the aircraft cannot land vertically on board with an operational weapons payload (e.g. BVR air to air missiles) in a warm climate[3].

  1. The UK Ministry of Defence has decided to try to overcome this major deficiency in specified performance by proposing that the standard recovery procedure for the aircraft will be the unproven Ship Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL). 
  2. Instead of hovering like a helicopter over its landing point, the SRVL requires the aircraft to maintain enough forward speed during its landing to provide extra wing lift to counter the deficiency in the aircraft’s engine lifting power. 
  3. It is understood that a special landing sight costing in excess of £100 million is being developed to assist the STOVL pilot during this new type of recovery – which is similar to a conventional landing but without arrestor gear.

The initial implications of this enforced SRVL mode of operation are as follows:

1. This is not a true Vertical Landing; thereby losing nearly all the famous versatility and flexibility of the Sea Harrier VSTOL aircraft.

2. The aircraft carrier will have to steam into wind to create additional wind over the deck for the SRVL; giving the STOVL aircraft no more flexibility or versatility than ‘cat and trap’ conventional landing aircraft.

3. Once on deck, the aircraft will have to use its wheel brakes to arrest its forward motion. Whereas an arrestor wire provides a landing aircraft with considerable directional stability and a failsafe, predictable landing distance in all weathers, the same cannot be said for the SRVL procedure.

In very wet bad weather with serious ship movement in all axes (yaw, roll, pitch and heave), the STOVL aircraft will have very little directional control and much reduced braking efficiency – a recipe for a catastrophic crash on deck or loss of the aircraft overboard.

SRVL does therefore represent an unacceptable Extreme Flight Safety Hazard in its own right: a Hazard to life and limb and equipment that the “Messenger”, it’s sponsored Academics and Ministers do not understand because they lack all weather fixed wing deck landing experience and/or expertise. (A separate paper on this most serious SRVL issue will be issued shortly – NDMW/F35B/SRVL dated 30 August 2014.)


No embarked air-to-air refuelling capability (AAR)

1. Fighter aircraft embarked in strike carriers need to have embarked “buddy-buddy” AAR available for the effective execution of their prime roles and to eliminate/mitigate Flight Safety Hazards that would be otherwise prejudicial to flight operations from and to the deck.  Embarked AAR provides:

2. Extension of strike range capability – allowing the carrier to operate at greater/safer distances offshore.

3. Increased endurance on task for Air Defence, Surveillance and Close Air Support missions.

4. An essential safety net for aircraft recovering on-board by night and in foul weather – directly preventing the unnecessary loss of expensive aircraft.


No Embarked Fixed Wing Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft

1. Without dedicated AEW aircraft such as the Hawkeye “mini AWACS”, the carrier/battle group is unable to detect threat weapon platforms below the radar horizon; whether aircraft, missiles or surface combatants.

AEW aircraft are vital for ensuring the safety and survival of the carrier weapon system when opposed by a sophisticated modern threat. Fixed wing AEW aircraft cannot be operated from a ramp-fitted deck.

2. Rotary wing/helicopter AEW aircraft are less capable and less versatile. Limited in height and speed, they provide less threat area coverage and are slow to respond to any urgent changes in threat direction.


No Carrier on-board delivery (COD) aircraft 

1. Like all sophisticated weapons platforms, aircraft carriers often need to be resupplied with personnel and/or urgent spare parts for either the ship or its aircraft. When far out to sea away from home base, such resupply needs to be conducted by specialist fixed wing aircraft that require the cat and trap facility.


No CTOL Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) aircraft

1. Specialist UAVs with very long range and endurance will soon be available for operation from aircraft carriers. These are similar in size and weight to manned fighter aircraft and will certainly require arrestor gear for recovery on board. The design being proven by the U.S. Navy also relies on catapult launch.

2. Such UAVs will provide a very cost-effective Deep Strike capability and Long-Range Surveillance capability – but not from a ramp-fitted flight deck.


The Carriers Will Have No Dedicated Defence Suppression Capability

1. All United States Navy strike carriers embark specialist, highly sophisticated Defence Suppression Aircraft. The A/E-18 Super Growler is now the aircraft of choice and demonstrated its prowess/effectiveness so impressively in Libya.

U.S. Navy strike aircraft (including future F-35 assets) will not be tasked against any modern air defence infrastructure without the support of the Super Growler. This prevents attrition of own forces and loss of life.

2. This vital Defence Suppression capability cannot be part of the air group in a ramp-fitted carrier.  The “Messenger” failed to bring this important issue to the notice of the Secretary of State and his Cabinet colleagues.

Responding to the Kurdistan/Iraq Crisis and ISIS

In the light of the severe operational constraints itemised above (resulting from a ramp-fitted deck and the F-35B STOVL choice of aircraft for the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers), it should be evident to Ministers and to the British taxpayer that the capability now invested in our new capital warship falls far short of expectations.

Ministers have been dreadfully misled and misinformed by the “Messenger” and so the current status quo is that HMS Queen Elizabeth fitted with a ramp but no ‘cat and trap’ cannot in any way be described as a fully capable strike carrier. Like our land-based air force, it could not come near to emulating the operations in Kurdistan now being carried out by the U.S. Navy strike carrier in the Arabian Gulf.

A Surfeit of Weapon Systems on Land – But Not at Sea

Further, U.S. Navy strike carriers are escorted by fully armed and fully equipped missile destroyers such as the Aegis class. Their magazines are full of surface-to-air missiles and other ordnance – in other words they are ready for combat.

This is not so with the British Daring class destroyer that might escort our new carriers. It does not even have all of its planned weapon systems fitted – “for but not with” is the absurd MoD description for this delinquent state of affairs.

Of course the Daring’s magazines are also virtually empty of any ordnance. In terms that the British layman taxpayer can understand, in their present state our Darings could have difficulty shooting down a flock of pigeons; never mind enemy air-to-surface and surface to surface missiles.

And yet Britain’s home-based, non-carrier capable fighter force of Typhoon and Tornado aircraft have a full inventory of air ordnance available to them that they will probably never use.

For example, they have more than 800 Storm Shadow short range cruise missiles that cannot interdict moving targets on land or sea, are unreliable and ineffective and yet cost the taxpayer more than $1 million per unit.

Again, this extraordinary and dangerous imbalance in investment is a direct result of Ministers listening to the “Messenger” rather than taking a critical view of the “Message”.

Way Ahead

If one puts the cost of the carrier programme into proper perspective by balancing it against the arguably nugatory and much larger expenditure on the obsolete Tornado and the far less versatile Typhoon aircraft programs, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Ministers should now ignore the “Messenger”.

At the first opportunity (probably with the construction of the HMS Prince of Wales), reconfigure these capital warships with catapults and arrestor gear (which is directly in line with what the Naval Staff has wanted from the beginning).

The 2015 Defence Review would be a good opportunity to change the current way ahead and provide Britain with a true and cost-effective carrier strike capability.

Masters have placed far too much faith in the “Messenger” and have not taken adequate steps to examine the validity and operational relevance of the “Message”. The predominant “Messenger” that has had the ear of UK Government Ministers has been the Royal Air Force.



[1] Additional to the much more sophisticated resources of the US Navy and its strike carriers.

[2] When Iran threatened to close the Hormuz Strait, that Islamic state showed no fear of land-based air attack from the USA. However as soon as a U.S. Navy strike carrier was dispatched to Arabian Gulf waters, Iran immediately changed its tune and suggested diplomatic negotiation rather than military confrontation. That international episode clearly demonstrates the utility and power of well-equipped strike aircraft carriers.

[3] The standard operational weapons payload for the F-35B STOVL will always include a minimum of two AIM-120 AMRAAM or Meteor air to air missiles for self-defence. These weapons costing approximately £1 million per unit are kept in limited numbers on board the carrier and they cannot therefore be thrown away whenever the aircraft needs to conduct a Vertical Landing.