It’s official, Britain is going back on its choice to buy F-35C carrier variant Joint Strike Fighters and will buy the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing version of the jet, you know, the model the Brits originally intended to fly. News emerged yesterday that confirming months of rumors that the United Kingdom wanted to go back to buying the B-model after it was revealed that equipping the Royal Navy’s two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers with General Atomics-built electromagnetic catapults and arresting gear would be a lot more expensive than originally thought; as in, it jumped from $1.6 billion to $3.2 billion.
Here’s part of UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond’s May 10 announcement on the descision:
As the programme has matured, and more detailed analysis has been carried out by suppliers, it has become clear that the conversion to ‘cats and traps’ will cost about double what was originally estimated – and would not be delivered until 2023 at the earliest.
That is unacceptable.
The cost growth distorts the equipment budget crowding out other important investment in the Armed Forces.
And the delay extends the time period when our Armed Forces lack a carrier-strike capability.
The most cost effective route to deliver Carrier Strike by 2020 is now to switch to the STOVL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter.
We will complete the build of both carriers with ski-jumps, in the STOVL configuration – giving us the ability to provide continuous carrier availability throughout the life of the ships.
Although the range of the STOVL variant is lower, it is a 5th generation stealth aircraft – with a range significantly greater than the Harrier — and represents a step change in the UK’s combat air capability.
The STOVL variant has been significantly de-risked since the SDSR, and flight trials from American ships have taken place, with a US Marine Corps initial operating capability date of 2014 declared.
On the basis of the latest information, we can plan to start flight trials with STOVL JSF off the HMS Queen Elizabeth from 2018.
Keep in mind that the under construction Queen Elizabeths were originally designed to accomodate STOVL F-35Bs by launching them into the air using a ski jump ramp on the bow — the way the Brits did for decades with their Invincible class Harrier carriers. The switch to the C-model meant that the flight deck and spaces below it had to be redesigned to accommodate the multibillion dollar catapult and arresting gear systems. However, the B-model has less range than the carrier variant and by limiting its new carriers to STOVL jets and helos Britain may be giving up the opportunity to operate a new crop of long-range, stealthy, carrier-launched UAV strike fighters that many see as the future of naval aviation. Oh, and what about all that planned interoperability with France’s catapult-equipped aircraft carriers?