PARIS — France regretted the prospect of reduced cooperation with the British fleet air arm following London’s selection of the F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter, and hoped collaboration would continue, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
“We’ve taken note of the United Kingdom’s decision to choose the F-35B vertical-takeoff fighter plane, to the detriment of the F-35C catapult takeoff plane,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said May 11.
“This decision may limit our cooperation in naval aviation, which we regret. We trust that this decision, which the British government says is based on budgetary constraints, will not call our cooperation in the naval aviation sector into question,” Valero said.
Naval aviation was one of many elements of collaboration, and close cooperation will continue between London and Paris, French officials said.
The French reaction came after an announcement the day before by British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond of a planned order of the F-35B over the conventional C model for the Royal Navy’s two new carriers, in an effort to avoid high costs and long delays.
Fitting the U.S.-made catapults and arrestor gear for one carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, would cost 2 billion pounds ($3.2 billion), double the amount needed to fit the ship out to accommodate the F-35B short-takeoff variant.
London had previously decided to ship the F-35C, opening up the prospects of cross-deck operations with the French Navy, which operates Rafale and Super Etendard fighters off the carrier Charles de Gaulle. The British F-35B can land on the French carrier, but the Royal Navy ships will lack the catapults and arrestors to operate the Rafales and Super Etendard.
In France, the British U-turn drew wide press coverage, headlining a missed chance for interoperability between the two fleet air arms.
The afternoon daily Le Monde gave full-page coverage to the F-35 fighter program, and quoted from point 9 of the 2010 Lancaster House defense cooperation treaty, which referred to the capability to deploy an integrated Anglo-French naval aviation attack force.
For the French Navy, a British carrier offering cross-deck operations held out the hope of flying a handful of Rafale fighters from the HMS Prince of Wales while the Charles de Gaulle went into dry dock for its periodic six-month overhaul.
And closer cooperation with a British carrier force would have balanced the close ties with the U.S. Navy, where French Navy pilots are sent for carrier training.
One of the questions hanging over cross-deck flights was whether the British Navy F-35C would have been too heavy to land on the Charles de Gaulle. Now, that question seems purely academic.