UK reverses controversial F-35 switch

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The UK has reversed its controversial Joint Strike Fighter variant selection change of late 2010, and will go back to its original plan of acquiring the Lockheed Martin F-35 in its short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) guise.

Confirmed as part of a carrier strike capability announcement made on 10 May, the step will remove the need to perform costly modifications to the Royal Navy's two future Queen Elizabeth-class vessels in order to accommodate the larger F-35C. This had doubled to an estimated £2 billion ($3.2 billion) for one vessel, the Ministry of Defence says and was to cause a three-year delay until 2023.

 uk raf f-35, lockheed martin

© Lockheed Martin

Royal Air Force and Royal Navy pilots will fly the STOVL-variant F-35B

"This government will not blindly pursue projects and ignore cost growth and delays," says defence secretary Philip Hammond. STOVL carrier flight trials should start in 2018, leading to an initial operational capability in 2020. The UK will decide on how many F-35Bs to buy as part of its next SDSR review, which will report in 2015.

The previous surprise switch to the carrier variant F-35C formed part of the UK coalition government's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) of September 2010. Prime minister David Cameron at that time described the larger version as being "more capable, less expensive and longer-range" than the STOVL jet.

Rolls-Royce will be a major beneficiary of the new reversal decision, as it manufactures the LiftSystem propulsion equipment for the F-35B's Pratt & Whitney F135 engine. BAE Systems manufactures the type's aft fuselage section at its Samlesbury site in northwest England.

The decision also will continue the STOVL heritage of the UK Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, which has lapsed since their BAE Harrier GR7/9s were retired early, also as part of the SDSR process.

Lockheed plans to deliver the UK's first of three aircraft being acquired in support of US-led initial operational test and evaluation of the F-35 during a ceremony at Eglin AFB, Florida, shortly after the Farnborough air show. STOVL aircraft BK-1 made its first flight from the company's Fort Worth site in Texas during April.

A second B-model example is due to fly soon, with a third to follow in 2014.

The UK's expenditure to date on the F-35 programme stands at over £1.8 billion, according to a parliamentary response made by minister for defence equipment and support Peter Luff on 24 April. This includes more than £1.5 billion committed to the system development and demonstration phase and £330 million spent on production activities.