LONDON — The British government has confirmed it will revert to the F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter to equip aircraft carriers being built for the Royal Navy.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announced in Parliament that the plan to purchase the F-35C carrier variant had been axed due to what he said was unacceptable cost growth and delays in the plan to convert a carrier to handle the conventional takeoff variant.
Hammond said the estimates for converting one carrier had doubled from the original figure of 1 billion pounds ($1.6 billion) to 2 billion pounds.
A senior defense source laid part of the blame for that cost growth at the door of the U.S. government.
The source said U.S. insistence that the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch Systems (EMALS) be purchased through a government-to-government foreign military sales (FMS) deal rather than directly from manufacturer General Atomics, as the British preferred, accounted for around “150 million pounds, about 7 percent,” of the increase in conversion costs.
“The U.S. wanted FMS while we had assumed purchase from the manufacturer … it was their strongly preferred option,” said the source. Senior defense sources said the Ministry of Defence had spent about 40 million pounds conducting design work to convert a carrier to operate the U.S.-developed electromagnetic system to launch the F-35C from the deck of the carrier.
The MoD said it will face some exit costs from the conversion work that are still being negotiated, plus the cost of installing takeoff ramps on the two aircraft carriers. Combined, the estimated total figure of the F-35C conversion is up to 100 million pounds.
The STOVL aircraft, to be used by the U.S. Marine Corps, is now off probation at the Pentagon, as risks have lessened and the U.K. now has greater confidence in the program, he said.
Without the switch back to STOVL, other defense capabilities would have had to be cut to accommodate MoD budget constraints, said the source.
Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, said the move smacked of short-term financial expediency.
“The return to the B-model appears financially driven, with the U.K. willing to trade the better range and payload performance of the F-35C to avoid the increasing cost of modifying a carrier with cats and traps. The shift, only 24 months after it selected the F-35C in one of the key choices of its Strategic Defence and Security Review, raises questions as to how the SDSR decision was reached in the first place, and how quickly some of the assumptions have proved to be ‘wrong’. The ability to introduce the second carrier into service is obviously welcome, though at present this is only an ambition and will be dependent on SDSR 2015, and the broader economic environment,” he said.
The previous Labour government originally opted to purchase the STOVL version to fly off two 65,000-ton carriers being built for the Royal Navy, but that decision was overturned in favor of the F-35C by the Conservative-led coalition government in a rapidly constructed strategic defense review in late 2010, just months after it entered office.
At the time, Prime Minister David Cameron cited greater interoperability with U.S. and French aircraft carriers and a cheaper aircraft with longer range and greater capability as the reason for the change.
The MoD said in a statement it was still committed to interoperability, but the “emphasis now is much less on being able to fly our aircraft off U.S or French aircraft carriers and vice versa, but more on ensuring that our carrier strike capability can integrate with allies forces in joint or coalition operations.”
The MoD said the key issue with France was to ensure that “between us we always have one operational, for example, providing cover for each other during refit periods.”
The British are now trying to downplay the superiority of the C variant.
A second senior defense source said the change back to the STOVL aircraft would not impact the weapons load the British plan to carry on the aircraft and many of the missions conducted by the STOVL aircraft would require inflight refueling anyway.
The government also said in 2010 it would forgo having the ability for a continuous presence at sea, and on cost grounds would convert only one carrier to use the catapults and arrestor gear required to launch the Joint Strike Fighters, mothballing or selling off the second warship.
Under that scheme, the Royal Navy, which will operate the jets jointly with the Royal Air Force, would have had a carrier at sea for no more than two-thirds of the time.
Now, with no cats and traps conversion costs, it is holding out the prospect of having a continuous presence with the second carrier able to provide capability while the first vessel is in maintenance.
The MoD admits there is no decision on budgeting for the crew or support for a second carrier and said no decision will be taken until the next Strategic Defence and Security Review planned for 2015.
The first defense source said the design changes required for the conversion had turned out to be more invasive and complicated than expected, with 290 major modifications required to compartments on the warship rather than the 80 compartments originally expected to be affected.
Hammond said that sticking with the F-35C would have delayed getting the carrier strike force into service of at least three years, to 2023.
An MoD spokeswoman said the delay was sparked by a number of issues, including complexity of EMALS and the extent the warship needed to be reconfigured to accept the system.
Under the new plan, the first of class Queen Elizabeth will start sea trials in 2017, with the first F-35B test flights timed for 2018 and an initial operating capability two years later.
That was more or less the plan for the F-35C-equipped carrier except under the scheme hatched by then Defence Secretary Liam Fox and his government colleagues, Queen Elizabeth would have been mothballed or sold off with the second carrier, the Prince of Wales, converted with catapult and arrestor wires to operate the F-35C from around 2020.
The defense source said the plan was to continue the schedule for building the Prince of Wales ahead of going for sea trials in 2020.
Defending the 2010 decision, Hammond, who was not defense secretary at the time, said that the move to the F-35C had been right at the time of the defense review but “the facts have changed and therefore so must our approach.”
The defense source said the decision to switch to the F-35C was reasonable at the time and refused to acknowledge the government should have done more detailed calculations before making the decision, not after.
Jim Murphy, Labour’s shadow defense secretary, condemned the government’s move, saying the carrier policy was in disarray.
“The government’s chaotic carrier policy totally undermines their credibility on defense. This is a personal humiliation for David Cameron,” he said.
“This is a strategically vital element of the equipment program on which our security and thousands of jobs depend, and yet ministers have treated it with hubristic incompetence, wasting hundreds of millions of pounds at a time of painful defense cuts.
“We need a plan to restore Britain’s power and prestige at sea, which was so damaged by the discredited defense review, and there are crucial questions on cost and capability ministers must answer,” said Labour’s shadow defense minister.