Alexander Pannett 12.30 pm
On Thursday the UK government reversed plans to buy the conventional version of the F-35 fighter plane and instead opted for the vertical take-off and landing version.
A plane is needed for the prohibitively expensive carrier programme and in the 2010 Defence Review the Coalition had originally reversed the Labour government’s selection of the STOVL F-35-B, opting instead for the F35-C.
It has now back-tracked on this as Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, has claimed that the costs of building the catapult system needed to launch the F-35-C version have risen to £2 billion. Moving back to the F-35-B STOVL version would therefore save this money at a time when the MOD is facing a budgetary black hole of £38 billion.
The decision has been met with severe criticism, in that it removes deep strike capability from the carriers, which was the main reason for spending the billions needed to construct the largest ships in the Royal Navy’s history.
The lack of deep-strike aircraft and catapult systems will make it much harder to use the carriers in conjunction with the deep-strike US carriers or allow French fighters to use the carriers, undermining the major pillar of the new Anglo-French Lancaster House defence treaty.
Most importantly, the F35-B STOVL version is more expensive to buy and maintain than its F35-C variant. It faces its own budgetary concerns and the previous US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, had threatened to cancel the entire F35-B programme. If this were to happen, the cost implications for the British government do not bear thinking about.
What is clear, is that a more expensive F35-B will mean less planes that the government can afford. The MOD has claimed that the money saved on the catapult system will mean that both carriers can be used rather than one being sold or mothballed as was envisaged in the 2010 SDSR. However, as the real cost of the programme will be the price of the planes at £150 million per F35-B so far, the saving of £2 billion on the catapults will at most pay for 12 aircraft. Not the 40 or so needed to operate an additional carrier.
Despite the above concerns, the major benefit of the decision to switch to the F35-B is that it will bring forward the date for an operational carrier to 2020, at least three years earlier than planned. Considering the recent bellicosity from Argentina, actions in Libya and tensions in Syria and the South China Sea, this crucial capability cannot come soon enough. There is no point waiting for the perfect weapon if the perfect time to use it has passed.
The loss of capability and operability with allies should be balanced against our short-term strategic requirements. In this regard the decision to select the F35-B has been a correct one. The catapult system itself may have led to further delays and costs and further setbacks may have ended the UK’s purchase of the F35 entirely having severe consequences for British aerospace industry which is a lead partner in the programme.
It is also highly likely that future deep strike capability will rely on drones armed with cruise missiles as these pose no risks of human costs. This is already happening in Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan. In which case the need for vast expenditure to ensure human pilots carry out deep strikes rather than cheaper drones may seem a very myopic measure. Whereas, for the foreseeable future, human pilots will remain far better than drones for ensuring air supremacy and protecting the Royal Navy’s surface combatants. Which is why the F35-B is still vital for this role.
The MOD is infamous for its cost overruns and delays, which means that any decision that brings an operational carrier into service sooner rather than later should be applauded. For that reason, this latest government U-turn was a wise one.
Unfortunately, that is not to say that the next one will be.