Explaining the UK’s F-35 variant switch: a Top 10 guide

The UK government has finally ‘fessed up to having got its plans spectacularly wrong on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter/Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier combo, which means that it now loves the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) B-model once more (Lockheed Martin image of aircraft BK-1 below).

f-35b 560.jpgI wrote about the announcement as the Ministry of Defence’s embargo was lifted this morning, but thought that The DEW Line’s friends might like to get the extra detail that I had to leave out. So in no particular order, here are my Top 10 questions about the decision:

1. Why has the MoD dropped the carrier variant F-35C? The cost of fitting “cats and traps” to the second CVF carrier (Prince of Wales) had doubled to £2 billion ($3.2 billion), and extensive work to also retrofit it to HMS Queen Elizabeth was estimated at another £3 billion.

2. Will the Royal Navy operate both carriers? A decision won’t be made until the next Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015, but it looks likely for now. Both will get ski-jump ramps to support the STOVL type, with the Queen Elizabeth to support embarked flight trails from 2018.

3. How much did the UK waste by planning to operate the F-35C? Officially “only” £40 million, as long-lead items for the cats and traps had not yet been ordered.

4. What about the F-35B’s smaller weapons load, shorter range and high price? The MoD says the STOVL aircraft will carry everything that the C would, and that the other factors should be balanced against having one carrier available 100% of the time.

5. Is this bad for interoperability with allies? No. Cooperation with France is more about ensuring that one of their carriers (France only has one) is available at any time, with “cross-decking” opportunities very rare. Flying the B will revive the UK’s links with the US Marine Corps, and, er, the Italian navy.

6. So is this the end of a navalised Typhoon, Rafale or Super Hornet alternative? Come on, folks, none of those were ever going to happen!

7. Isn’t the UK’s third IOT&E jet a C-model? Not so, apparently. While STOVL BK-1 flew in April and will be delivered in July, followed by BK-2, plans to change the third aircraft over to “CK-1″ were still only an option.

8. When will UK production aircraft enter use? At-sea trials are planned for 2018 on HMS Queen Elizabeth; the same year that the UK should declare land-based initial operational capability with the jet. IOC status on a carrier should come in 2020.

9. How many F-35Bs will the UK get? We don’t know; another one for the next defence review. But with a carrier to typically have only 12 aboard (40 is the highest number possible), plus land-based examples and training assets, it’ll be nowhere near the 130 or so mentioned previously.

10. Did the UK bother to tell Lockheed Martin about the change this time? Yes, which is an advance on what happened in September 2010.

Let me know if I’ve missed anything, and I’ll try to answer it. The obvious one of course is why they ever thought that going to the C was wise, but apparently it seemed like a good idea at the time!

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