A statement on the planning round for the financial year 2012-13 has been delayed by a debate in government over whether it should revert to purchasing the F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. (Lockheed Martin)
Britain’s military chiefs have unanimously backed a plan to switch back to the short take-off, vertical-landing (STOVL) version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to equip its aircraft carriers, a report in The Times newspaper said April 16.
The newspaper quotes unnamed officials as saying the “overwhelming case” from military chiefs for a change from the catapult-launched F-35C to the F-35B STOVL version could land on Prime Minister David Cameron’s desk this week.
A plan to revert to the B version has been under consideration for weeks in the face of mounting concern over the cost of converting the two 65,000-ton aircraft carriers now being built by a BAE Systems-led alliance to launch and recover the C version.
Some estimates put the figure at as much as 1.8 billion pounds ($2.85 billion).
Work on converting the first of the aircraft carriers now being built at yards across the U.K. to launch and recover F-35Cs has already begun and British pilots are already being seconded to U.S. Navy carriers to hone their flying skills.
In opting for the STOVL variant, U.K. would be reverting to an earlier decision. The U.K. carriers were to carry the STOVL variant until Britain’s Conservative-led coalition government decided in its 2010 strategic defense and security review to drop the STOVL aircraft selected by the previous Labour Administration in favor of the C model. Cameron and others claimed the F-35C was more cost-effective and capable.
The review also said the catapult-launched version would be better able to cooperate with U.S. and French carriers and aircraft — an important factor as for budget reasons Britain decided it couldn’t afford to operate both carriers and would either have to sell or put in extended readiness the second vessel.
Now Cameron and the government looks like it might have to do a U-turn at a difficult time politically following a series of policy gaffes in other areas.
The government has already been heavily criticized since its security review decision to ax the BAE AV-8B Harrier and decommission its last fast-jet capable carrier, leaving at least a 10-year capability gap before the availability of the new F-35-equipped carrier.
Continuing debate over which of the jets Britain should purchase for its Royal Navy/Royal Air Force strike jets was behind Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond’s postponement of an announcement detailing the Ministry of Defence’s spending plans for the 2012/13 financial year — known as Planning Round 12.
Balancing the books at the previously heavily overspent MoD is expected to result in the axing or delay of a number of programs.
In a statement April 16 the MoD said it was “currently finalising the 2012-13 budget and balancing the Equipment Plan. As part of this process we are reviewing all programs, including elements of the carrier strike program, to validate costs and ensure risks are properly managed. The defence secretary will announce the outcome of this process to Parliament in due course.”
The Times story coincided with an announcement from F-35 contractor Lockheed Martin that the first of three jets acquired by the British for training and evaluation work has made its maiden flight.
The aircraft is a STOVL variant — one of three purchased by the previous Labour Government. The deal was rearranged at the last minute to switch one of the aircraft to the C variant after the Conservative-led coalition opted to switch to the conventional take-off variant.