- Short Take-off/Vertical Landing (STOVL). The Strategic Defence Review noted the STOVL Joint Strike Fighter as a "strong contender"; the only other option is a further Sea Harrier development, but this is seen more as a baseline for evaluation. After nearly 20 years of operations from Invincible -class carriers, the British feel comfortable with STOVL. The main question is whether this Joint Strike Fighter variant produces the needed capability affordably.
- Conventional Take-off and Landing (CTOL). Options include the F/A-18E/F, the CTOL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, a "navalized" Eurofighter, and the Rafale. Britain lacks recent CTOL carrier experience, but if the STOVL Joint Strike Fighter were to be ruled out, the navalized Eurofighter—still to be developed from the basic aircraft—could be procured. France may press the case for the Rafale, and that could lead to cooperation and commonalities with the carrier's hull and systems.
- Short Take-off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR). Currently, the navalized Eurofighter and Joint Strike Fighter are possibilities, the key aspect being a good power-to-weight ratio. Less extensive aircraft modifications are needed for STOBAR than for CTOL operations.
If a STOVL aircraft is chosen, the carrier hull could be innovative. All-electric propulsion, powered by WR21 closed-- circuit gas turbines, sited high in the ship, could lead to short shafts, no intrusive funnel uptakes, and fewer people, and thus more space for aircraft support. The SO aircraft could be operated and supported from a smaller hull. Support, too, may be innovative and modular, with training and heavy support equipment moving between the parent air station and the ship.
At present, the Invincible -class carriers can operate and support both F/A-2 Sea Harriers of the Royal Navy and GR-7 Harriers of the Royal Air Force. These aircraft will be brought together this year in Joint Force 2000, which, in turn—if the Joint Strike Fighter is selected as the future carrier-borne aircraft—could inherit the STOVL Joint Strike Fighters of both services. With the modular support and training equipment available to be moved with the aircraft, these fighters would be able to operate from the new carriers and from ashore. The new carriers also will need to operate and support the Apache Longbow attack helicopters providing close air support, and the Merlin helicopter for littoral antisubmarine warfare and maritime reconnaissance. In addition, the carrier will operate a successor to the current airborne early warning Sea King.
Local area air defense would be provided primarily by the Principal Anti-Air Missile System in the Horizon frigates, expected to enter service during the next decade. Thus, no major air defense missile system will be needed on the carrier, again saving money and space. In addition, modern construction techniques should give the same availability from two hulls as is now gained from three. The final decision to build the ship should be taken in 2006.
A successful STOVL Joint Strike Fighter could be bought by Spain and Italy. The Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark also are interested in an unstated variant of the fighter. This begins to look like a sizable pool of aircraft in European forces able to operate from European carriers, although CTOL variants would not be able to operate from STOVL carriers. STOVL aircraft could operate from CTOL carriers, albeit probably with reduced effectiveness. A ski jump on a CTOL carrier that can be elevated for use and then retracted would give extra flexibility in operations.
If Britain were to opt for a CTOL aircraft and thus a CTOL carrier, the possibilities for cooperation with French industry in both ships and aircraft would be increased. Politically attractive as this would be, it would seriously restrict Britain's current objectives for successor carriers. For Britain, there are industrial attractions for the future carrier borne aircraft being either a Joint Strike Fighter or a navalized Eurofighter, rather than the Rafale. France could seek to establish a Franco-German Rafale air group to operate from the French carriers, but there is not yet persuasive evidence that this is an idea whose time has come.
The net of enhanced European defense cohesion was cast wide in 1998. So far, plenty of ideas and debate have floated upward. Closer cooperation between European NATO members can be expected, particularly between Britain and France, but whether it will stretch to influencing Britain's procurement decisions away from an expeditionary strategy is a very different matter. As for the carriers, the talking will go on.