Tag Archives: joint strike fighter

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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RAF pilot flies Joint Strike Fighter for the first time

A British pilot has flown the F-35 Lightning – known in the UK as the Joint Strike Fighter – for the first time. Squadron Leader Steve Long of the RAF flew at 20,000 feet over Naval Air Station Patuxent River, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA. Squadron Leader Long has been based with VX-23 US Navy Air Test and Evaluation Squadron since May 2008. It is encouraging that a British Officer has been working on the project, so the Ministry of Defence should not be buying blind.

Squadron Leader Long said:

“Flying the JSF was exactly like the simulators that I’ve been flying for over 18 months now, which gives you a lot of confidence in all the modelling and simulation work that has been done in all the other areas of flying. This aircraft gives the RAF and Navy a quantum leap in airborne capability. A pilot in this aircraft will have an unprecedented level of situational awareness about what’s going on in the airspace and on the battlefield or ocean below because of its highly advanced sensors. This aircraft will plug into coalition battlefield networks and be able to pass that picture on to all other players.”

The Joint Strike Fighter is due to take over front-line duties from the Harrier, both in the RAF and on the Royal Navy’s Aircraft Carriers in its navalised version. It promises to be a very important aircraft, not only with the capabilities that it will offer, but also in that it will be at forefront of RAF-Navy interoperability. In replacing the Harrier it will also play a key role in close air support, something that is proving instrumental in Afghanistan.

There are fears however that with looming defence cuts the UK will face real difficulties in purchasing the JSF. Not having an aircraft to replace the Harrier or to fly off of the new Aircraft Carriers would leave us at a severe disadvantage. The RAF has plenty of Typhoons for Air Defence, but it also needs ground attack craft too. Typhoons can act as multi-role platforms but that is essentially a compromise and hardly ideal, they have been largely multi-roled as an afterthought.

I’m no expert on the high performance of fast jets, and my opinion probably counts for very little. But… Will the JSF prove to be more important to UK Defence than the Tyhoon? I have a feeling that it will be. My impression is that the JSF will be able to act in air defence better than the Typhoon can in ground attack. There are historical parallels – look at how the Harrier performed far beyond anyones expectations in 1982, against technically superior aircraft.

The JSF is likely to have a tough time in the upcoming Defence Review, however.

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