Britain flip-flopped between versions of the Lockheed Martin's Joint Strike Fighter after learning the cost of converting one of the Royal Navy's partly built aircraft carriers to include catapults and arrestor gear rose from an estimated £800 million (US $1.24 billion) in 2010 when the initial switch in aircraft type was ordered to about £2 billion. ()
LONDON — Flawed assumptions and immature data were behind a 150 percent rise in the estimated cost of Britain switching its planned carrier strike aircraft force from the STOVL F-35B to the conventional takeoff F-35C, says a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) here.
Britain flip-flopped back to the STOVL version of the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter May 2012 after it emerged that the cost of converting one of the Royal Navy’s partly built aircraft carriers to include catapults and arrestor gear rose from an estimated £800 million (US $1.24 billion) in 2010 when the initial switch in aircraft type was ordered to about £2 billion.
The report, published May 10 by the government spending watchdog, cataloged a series of faulty assumptions about the change to the F-35C made at the time of the 2010 strategic defense and security review. Information on overall affordability, the cost of conversion, timescales and the degree to which French and US jets could cross-deck with the British were all inaccurate, says the report.
“Every element of the conversion cost increased significantly” between 2010 and 2012, according to the report.
Under the plan to operate the C variant, the government intended to equip one of the two carriers now under construction with a US-supplied electromagnetic aircraft launch systems (EMALS) and mothball or sell off the second warship.
The NAO said part of the blame for the failure to understand the issues properly was a decision by the administration “not to involve commercial and industrial partners in the process.”
One analyst here said the assumptions were in part the result of a rushed government strategic defense and security review that mandated the change in JSF type without testing the quality of the data.
The report did praise the MoD for acting quickly once it realized the assumptions and data were questionable.
“It was a big strategic decision taken with poor information. Once it became clear how bad a decision it was the government deserves credit for acting swiftly even if it was politically embarrassing. Having [Philip] Hammond as defense secretary made it easier as his predecessor [Liam Fox] had been more wedded to the carrier variant,” said one executive who asked not to be named.
The rapid decision to abort the F-35C plan once the government realized the problem enabled the British to save hundreds of millions of pounds in long-lead items and other costs that were about to fall due.
The Ministry of Defence estimates the STOVL option without the proposed EMALS fitted to the carrier will be £1.2 billion cheaper over 10 years than the F-35C variant.
That figure halves to £600 million over 30 years due to higher procurement and support costs associated with the STOVL aircraft.
The British estimate support of the STOVL aircraft will cost 20 percent more than the carrier variant.
Initially, the UK is buying 48 F-35Bs to equip a joint Royal Navy/Royal Air Force fleet.
An order for the first squadron of F-35s is expected later this year to add to operational test and evaluation aircraft already being flown by the UK .
The cost of the two 65,000-ton carriers had risen 55 percent to £5.24 billion between 2005 and 2012. That figure is set to rise further when the final costings on the program are agreed by the MoD and the BAE Systems–led alliance building Britain’s biggest ever warships.
Margaret Hodge, the chair of the influential Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, said, “This latest U-turn came about because the decisions taken in the SDSR were based on the same wildly over-optimistic assumptions and poor understanding of costs and risks that have characterized this program from the start. What the MoD needs to do now is stop backtracking on decisions and hemorrhaging money, and finally get a grip on this ongoing fiasco.”
The report, “Carrier Strike: the 2012 reversion decision,” said an important factor in the U-turn was the realization that the F-35C carrier variant could not be delivered until 2023, three years later than thought due to conversion issues with the carrier.
To save money, Britain is already taking an aircraft carrier capability holiday until the first of the two Queen Elizabeth-class warships are scheduled to be operational in 2020, but Gen. Sir David Richards, the chief of the Defence Staff, deemed the additional delay unacceptable.
But reverting to the STOVL version of JSF means Britain is also now going to take another holiday, this time on deep and persistent offensive capability (DPOC) .
The carrier variant of F-35, with its longer range and greater payload, would have filled the role now taken by Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s in a way the STOVL aircraft can’t.
The MoD accepts it will have a capability gap, leaving its allies to provide the required assets.
“Accepting a gap in DPOC is a key factor in the potential long-term cost advantage of the STOVL option,” said the NAO.
The report said the MoD had changed its mind three times in two years on DPOC and needed to “introduce a degree of consistency in its decision-making not previously apparent.”
The reduced cost of building and operating STOVL carriers compared with a cats and traps-equipped warship led Defence Secretary Philip Hammond last year to raise the possibility of having both carriers available to give the Royal Navy a continuous deployable capability.
The first carrier is scheduled to start operational training in 2017, have the first JSF flying from its deck the following year and be operational in 2020. The second carrier is due for completion in 2019.
The report questioned whether a 2020 operational date for the carrier was feasible following an MoD decision to delay the Crowsnest Merlin helicopter-based early warning radar system operational until 2022.
Crowsnest is a vital airborne detection system set to be based on the RN carriers. Its predecessor, the Sea King Mk7, is going out of service in 2026, leaving the British with another capability gap.
Lockheed Martin UK secured an assessment phase contract for the program recently. The aim is to deliver the first Crowsnest in 2020 but the NAO says unless the MoD brings forward funding or finds a credible alternative that does not compromise capability, some carrier operational tasks could only be undertaken with additional risks until the helicopter obtains full capability.
The NAO warned that although carrier build work is progressing well the project had the highest risk phases of construction and integration still to come.
Analysts and executives here said delivering the carrier, the F-35 and Crowsnest on schedule and within the limits an austerity-struck British budget can afford will pose a major challenge to the industry and government alike.
In a statement, Hammond defended the MoD’s decision to slow down introduction of Crowsnest.
“The Department does not consider that the phased introduction of Crowsnest undermines the delivery of carrier-strike capability. Crowsnest will enter service at the same time as HMS Queen Elizabeth and will be fully operational by 2022. Until then, its maritime surveillance capabilities will be augmented by other platforms and systems,” he said.