Another F-35 Volte Face

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II, bu...

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you all about today announcement by the Defence Secretary in the House of Commons explaining the Government’s decision to backtrack and purchase the STOVL version of the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter, instead of the conventional carrier version. The original plan was, of course, to purchase the STOVL version – ie F-35B – as replacement for the Harriers, to operate from the new Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers.

The coalition has now performed two u-turns on the Joint Strike Fighter issue. First, soon after coming into office they abandoned the vertical take-off verson, in favour of  the higher performance variant. Now, having seen the costs for installing catapults and traps on the aircraft carriers spiral, they have decided to go back to the vertical take off variant.

One cannot help but feel that this constant to-ing and fro-ing has probably added a significant amount to the cost, for no discernible gain, and will almost certainly delay their introduction into service. And as anyone who has worked in retail will tell you, there is nothing more annoying than a customer who keeps changing their mind every five minutes. It’s bad enough if someone is buying a book or a loaf of bread, but 50+ fighter aircraft?

There are some upshots to the decision. It is possible that both aircraft carriers will come into service, and slightly earlier in 2018, compared to lengthy delays if they had to be converted to ‘cat and trap’. There have been some concerns that the B version has a less impressive performance than the C version. Compare the following specs:

  • Range – B version, 900 nautical miles; C Version, 1,400 nautical miles
  • combat radius – B version, 469 nautical miles; C Version, 615 nautical miles

The lack of range is apparently due to the B version having to accomodate extra plant for vertical landing, which eats into its fuel capacity. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but the differences do not seem too critical – isn’t the beauty of an aircraft carrier that you can move it 100 miles closer in if need be, and if safe to do so? Apparently the B version will be able to carry less weapons than the C version as well, however I am having trouble finding firm specifications for this. It should also be remembered that the B version will, in theory, be able to operate short-term or in an emergency from other ships that have landing spaces, or from rough airstrips on land – neither of which the F-35 C can do. By way of a contrast, the Sea Harrier had a combat radius of 540 nautical miles, but didn’t have such a high performance as the F-35 in other respects. I seem to recall that the SHAR was hardly bristling with armaments either.

The decision making regarding the Joint Strike Fighter project has been flawed from day one. Perhaps setting out to buy the STOVL versions was not the wisest decision in hindsight, but to decide to switch to the C version, and then back to the B version again in a year shows a serious case of indecision and narrow-mindedness. A decision that was supposed to save money in the long run, ended up costing us more money in the short term and not happening anyway. Let’s hope that this kind of defence procurement strategic direction never transgresses into decision making in war.

Still, I cannot help but feel that we would have been far better off purchasing some F-18′s off the shelf in the first place – both in terms of cost and capabilitity.

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21 Comments

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21 responses to “Another F-35 Volte Face

  1. I wonder if the cost issue is the only one, or if training and skills (and current capabilities this decade) come into it? Issues which, of course, were discussed at length on internet forums and no doubt behind closed doors in Whitehall?

    Perhaps this post describes my thoughts quite well: http://www.pprune.org/military-aircrew/478767-no-cats-flaps-back-f35b-39.html#post7182298

    Note the posts on the same page. One of them is from a serving RN fixed wing pilot.

    Potentially – there COULD be postives:
    1. RN guys flying F/A18s will make less sense than flying AV8Bs/Harriers of
    whatever description.
    2. This could mean getting the carrier capablity back before F35B comes along, as our pilots need to be flying – and Harrier can land on LUSTY/QE.

    But things really are up in the air right now…

  2. The issue of having to adapt to the more difficult operations of conventional carriers may be a factor here – particularly after a decade of having no RN fixed wing aviation aboard RN decks.

    Now potentially the future is far more feasible. Wait and see I guess!

  3. John Erickson

    I hate to throw in the “political” football here, but I can’t help but wonder if the UK government is being “influenced” by the US Marines. The F-35B has consistently been only slightly ahead of the chop for over a year, and there are a number of Congress folk who would love nothing better than to kill it once and for all. If the UK needs it, the case for continuing production would be far stronger.
    I know the range issues are due to the large lift fan behind the cockpit, which eats into fuel space. Not sure if the fan’s placement affects weapons fit- I haven’t see proof one way or the other.
    Me, personally, I’d recommend you folk get the B version. With all the political nonsense surrounding the future of your carriers, I think it’d be far safer to have a plane that could launch off a minimal deck space. But that’s just my two cents. (Which is worth what, about 1/1500th of a Pound? :D )

  4. I think there’s a lot more to this story than meets the (public) eye – have to wait and see I guess.

  5. x

    I fed up with blessed story now.

    A bit too easy to blame HMG for poor decisions made by the previous administration.

  6. x

    James please amend to,

    I am fed up with this blessed story now.

    So I don’t sound like the illiterate twit I am…….. :)

  7. Will the Government tell us what they will do now to adapt to the new circumstances?

  8. They still haven’t told us…..

    We have STOVL capable ships, STOVL trained pilots and carrier crews, have a STOVL future to prepare for, and STOVL aircraft do exist. The politicians could make this into a success.

    • Well, the STOVL aircraft exist – for now. Certain Senators still want to chop the F-35, and especially the B version, and with our Congress charging headlong toward sequestration (and resultant major defence cuts) with an almost kamikaze-like fervor, the F-35 is gonna be on thin ice all winter long (pardon the punny metaphor there). If Congress gets off its’ collective duff and finally gets some kind of spending plan passed, maybe then we can get y’all some F-35Bs.
      Unless, that is, a group of you old squids wanna come over here to the States, and we’ll see if we can’t hot-wire a few AV-8Bs for you to take back home…. ;)

  9. There must be a few spares ones… Perhaps just a couple to attach to Naval Flying Standards Flight (FW) to give UK based RN fixed wing jocks something to fly, and to give us something to embark aboard the carrier before F-35 comes along

  10. According to this article, there are only EIGHT Chockheads on exchange:

    http://www.dvidshub.net/news/102083/across-pond#.UR64NY5ML1x

    “After talking to them, I discovered that aside from the three British sailors on board Kearsarge, there are five more of them aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69).”

    Not many is it? Also, when they finish being on exchange they will presumably return to the UK, so how will they use/maintain the skills?

    All this talk of “big deck experience” is political wording. Really it simply means a deck with jets embarked.
    There is also the issue of what will UK based RN fixed wing jocks fly?

    The politicians could so easily take a few measures, which would hardly break the bank, to produce a sensible and logical plan that addresses the issues of giving UK based fixed wing WAFUs something to fly and giving the crews of HM Ships Illustrious and Queen Elizabeth the opportunity to practise recovering, handling, launching, and operating with STOVL aircraft.

  11. From the editoral of Janes Fighting Ships 2012-2013, edited by Commodore Stephen Saunders:

    Order; counter-order: disorder! The ink was hardly dry on the US/UK Statement of Intent on Carrier Cooperation and Maritime Power Projection, signed by Secretaries Panetta and Hammond on 5 January 2012, when the UK Government decided to revert to the original plan to procure the F-35B STOVL (Short Take Off/Vertical Landing) variant of the artin Lightning II rather than to persevere with the decision of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review to procure the F-35C instead. The bilateral carrier accord was signed on the basis that one of the Queen Elizabeth class would be equipped with catapults and arrestor gear to operate the F-35C, and that the Royal Navy would benefit from assistance and training from the US Navy to regenerate the necessary skills. Not only does the decision to reinstate the F-35B run contrary to the rationale that underpinned the switch to F-35C, the ability to inter-operate with American and French allies, it also places the UK Government in the uncomfortable situation of being restricted to one aircraft solution. There is no alternative STOVL aircraft and, although the F-35B programme survived recent US budget cuts, concerns about the aircraft, and in particular, rising costs continue to be aired. An alternative option for the UK, apparently not considered, would have been to stick with ‘cats and traps’ but to abandon the F-35 in favour of the F-18 Super Hornet, a less advanced but well proven aircraft. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy will be quietly pleased that as plans gather pace for troops in Afghanistan to revert to a supporting role, the requirement for a future carrier-strike capability endures. In addition, the option of operating both carriers, rather than one, remains on the table for review in the 2015 SDSR. For this reason, the F-35B decision is probably right, despite suspicions of poor analysis and an embarrassing volte-face.

    • Holy cow, a real, honest-to-God person! I thought only we Spambots hung out here…. ;)
      The F-35 is far from safe, and the most ironic part, is that it’s threatened both by our government deadlock over a budget (thus either not increasing, or cutting funding) and by a budget agreement (which could reduce funding due to the F-35′s lateness and over-budget status). And while the F-35 isn’t exactly a lightweight, the F-18 Super Hornet is an awfully big beast to build a carrier around.
      Pity Douglas got bought up by Boeing. We could use some A-4 type thinking for carrier aircraft. Or do we need to forward to the RN the old plans for the Convair Sea Dart? ;)

  12. Should read “Lockheed Martin Lightning II”.

    Mea Culpa!

  13. Where is James?

    Anyway, the issue of preparing for the future is still unresolved.

    http://www.pprune.org/military-aircrew/431997-decision-axe-harrier-bonkers.html#post6022717

    As I am sure has been said elsewhere, the aircraft and pilots just represent the front end of the carrier strike capability. The idiocy of the SDSR decision, which the PM is about to compound in the FR/UK Defence deal (FT Today), is that we risk losing the capability to operate jets off carriers. All of the expertise on the current CVSs will have gone (we are getting rid of the CVSs), the aircrew will have gone (either PVRd, redundant or moved to other aircraft types, the command experience will have gone (as will the met, ATC, FC, deck handlers, planners etc, etc).

    http://www.pprune.org/military-aircrew/431997-decision-axe-harrier-bonkers-2.html#post6024550

    But what is missing in 2020 is the crews on the ships with any experience of aviation – from the CO downwards….I am sure the MAA will have something to say about that, indeed I wonder whether they are doing anything about it at the moment?

    http://www.pprune.org/military-aircrew/431997-decision-axe-harrier-bonkers-4.html#post6029196

    I’d put a fair bit of money that the guys who’ve done exchange tours have not done time in CATCC, Wings / Little F (Air & mini-boss in USN), handlers office or the squadron engineering and logs posts.

    While they may be adept at doing the mission plan, launch, mission, recovery thing, they are unlikely to have a great understanding of how to spot a deck, arrange aircraft for servicing vice maintenance, weapons prep and bombing up and how all the various departments both in the squadrons and on the ship work to deliver the sortie rate. People thinking just about aircrew and (to some degree) chockheads are missing the point – it’s the corporate experience of how to put it all together that is about to be lost. Nor can that be maintained at HMS Siskin – that just gives the basics of handling, not the fine art of pulling it all together.

    As SDSR says “we need a plan to regenerate the necessary skills”- all I can say is it had better be a f8cking good one, cunning eneough to do more than brush your teeth with!

    http://www.pprune.org/military-aircrew/517553-sharky-watch-live-6.html#post7909736

    The bigger issue is getting everyone else to be ready for a large, busy flight deck. At least there is a team of people looking into this issue and both deckcrew, aircrew and engineers are being appropriately positioned to give them some exposure to this dangerous environment prior to QEC.

    http://www.pprune.org/military-aircrew/517553-sharky-watch-live-6.html#post7910075

    All we need to see is a signed document from CAS saying that he will embark his jets as soon as the CO indicates his ship is ready in all respects to conduct aviation.

    The second sentence will indicate that he will disembark them only when the Air Management Organisation is fully up to speed, the Air Group is fulfilling ATO tasking, the Air Weapon supply team have produced weapons to surge capacity and these have been loaded on jets and dropped, the Yellow Coats can marshal, chain and chock a fourship in all weathers, whilst another fourship is taxying for take off. The jets will remain embarked until every Fighter Controller in the fleet has worked a fourship through Red Crown procedures and the JFACCHQ have established resilient comms for a week or two and Flyco have exercised being b#ggered about from dawn to dusk. Repeat all for night ops. When all this is crimped the TG in its entirety will take part in a COMAO based exercise of Neptune Warrior type scope and we’ll call it good.

    The third sentence will indicate that the jets will be back as soon as any of the above notice any degree of skill fade and the process will start again.

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