A possible UK decision to reverse a variant switch on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would not cause a problem for Lockheed Martin, according to one of the company's senior programme officials.

Speculation has mounted over recent weeks that the UK government could backtrack on its decision to shift its interest in the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B to the C-model carrier variant. The move was included as part of its Strategic Defence and Security Review of late 2010, but has prompted concerns over the costs involved with modifying the Royal Navy's future Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers with the required launch catapults and arrestor gear.

While deferring any comment on the likelihood of a reversal of the decision to the company's UK customer, Lockheed vice-president F-35 programme integration and business development Stephen O'Bryan says: "We have the [production] capacity if the UK went B. We are agnostic on the platform and our supply chain could handle a switch back."

In a statement, the UK Ministry of Defence says it is currently finalising its budget for 2012-13 and balancing its equipment plan. "As part of this process we are reviewing all programmes, including elements of the carrier strike programme, to validate costs and ensure risks are properly managed," it says.

Defence secretary Philip Hammond will announce the outcome of this process before Parliament's Easter recess starts on 27 March, but the MoD says the government remains committed to fielding a new carrier strike capability as part of its "Future Force 2020" plans.

 CVF Prince of Wales - Aircraft Carrier Alliance

© Aircraft Carrier Alliance

UK plans currently envisage introducing the carrier variant F-35C

Lockheed had originally expected to produce 14 F-35Bs this year, but this rate now stands at three following the US Department of Defense's decision to slow the variant's introduction. The STOVL aircraft had been placed on probation under the threat of cancellation, but this was lifted by US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta early this year following its strong performance during testing conducted in 2011.

Two F-35Bs are scheduled to be delivered in May 2012 to support the UK's involvement in US military-led initial operational test and evaluation of the JSF. Aircraft BK-1 and BK-2 will be flown to Eglin AFB in Florida to support this work. Under current plans, the pair will be followed in 2014 by an F-35C dubbed CK-1.

Meanwhile, O'Bryan says Lockheed has performed a preliminary design review to address an issue with the F-35C's arrestor hook design, after concerns were raised over its performance during previous trials. An improved system with a redesigned hook point and "hold-on damper" will undergo testing at the US Navy's Patuxent River site in Maryland later this year. The F-35C "will go to the boat in 2014, as scheduled", he adds.

Source: Flight International