Professor Keith Hayward, RAeS Head of Research, provides expert comment and analysis on the UK Governments ’s decision to revert to the STOVL variant of the F-35 stealth fighter.

[caption id="attachment_6789" align="alignnone" width="312" caption="About turn! First flight of UK F-35B test aircraft. (Lockheed Martin)"][/caption] UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond’s statement today confirms the rumours of an embarrassing U-turn over the JSF type to be bought by the UK. Declared by Prime Minister Cameron as making good a mistake made by the previous government, the shift to a conventional F-35C was lauded as a means of increasing compatibility with allied naval air power, and increasing the overall capability available to Britain’s air forces. With a screeching of austerity driven brakes, the government has now baulked at the £2billion (and rising) cost converting a VSTOL carrier to "cats and traps".  As an early exemplar of military indecision, the Grand Old Duke of York marched 10,000 men up and down a hill. When first through Main Gate, the plan was to build two large carriers, but only capable of launching the VSTOL F-35B. A few years and a Strategic Defence and Security Review later, combined with the first dose of financial austerity, the UK decided to park the first ship in mothballs and shift to a conventional flight deck deploying the US Navy’s choice, the F-35C. The first decision ostensibly saved some money – albeit at the expense of buying a toothless ship (contracted and legally binding) available for training or sale. It also added to overall capability, the F-35C having greater range and payload; and conveniently enough, having the ability to interoperate with US as well as French carrier aircraft. The latter would be politically and operationally important if UK-France were to have something like continuous cover for expeditionary missions under a "European" flag.

So far so good: switching to a "cat and trap" mode immediately implied some expensive modifications, especially as the carrier design required the untried electro-magnetic catapult system. As the design is stuffed to the gunnels with sophisticated integrated kit and features a high level of automation to reduce the size of the crew, this was not a simple case of stripping out bunks and altering the configuration of storage space. 

There would also be a further stretch-out in deploying a modern carrier force, although delays in the F-35 programme might have brought some degree of convergence of in-service dates. However, as the UK National Audit Office (NAO) has noted, the untried catapult technology, combined with developing a UK fit of US technology, raised several new and potentially very expensive uncertainties. Rebuilding the core  knowledge and skills of a  'cats and traps cadre' , last seen in the 1970s would also not have been simple. 


Order, counter-order, disorder

So about turn and march the troops down the hill and revert to the original format, albeit with a smaller number of aircraft. New questions now arise: will Britain now seek to deploy both carriers? That’s certainly what the naval lobby is muttering and 'continuous carrier availability' was highlighted by Mr. Hammond in his speech today. It is self evident that if we don’t have two carriers, we will be without carrier air power for six months or so in any given year. But would the UK be able to afford to equip and operate two carriers, especially if the MoD is to commit to a Trident nuclear force replacement? What about interoperability? Clearly, the latter is now impossible with France, and limited to US Marine carriers, or perhaps Italian F-35Bs, if that is they survive an Italian defence review. All of this uncertainty implies a breech in weapons acquision’s golden rule – customers should not change their minds in mid-procurement. This is the largest single cause of programme delay and cost escalation. As ever, this is a bi-partisan mess. The present government will blame their predecessors for the original choice; sometime in the next decade, this regime will be castigated by its successor. British tax payers and the UK armed services will pay the ultimate cost.


In another part of the procurement wood

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic the Pentagon is facing further delays and cost increases in the F-35 programme, already the largest and single most expensive procurement in US history. However, according to the US General Accountability Office (GAO), since 2010 total cost estimates for development and procurement rose by about $15 billion. Order numbers have been reduced, risking a hike in unit costs as the programme loses economies of scale. The GAO reports that about half of current primary objectives have not yet been achieved, as developing three versions concurrently has caused problems. The VSTOL F-35B has shown some progress in solving its particular problems, but it still has some ground to make up. A fully integrated aircraft will not now be available for testing before 2015. The GAO goes on to consider uncertainties associated with the manufacturing phase, including managing the international supplier network. This is regarded as an especially "critical challenge". Lockheed Martin is putting a lot of effort into helping some of the less capable partners. But as Boeing found from its 787 experience, a complex overseas network might yet throw spanners into the machinery. The UK customer can expect to see an increase in unit costs, putting further pressure on its order. The programme has considerable industrial and military support; a large part of the US military aerospace base is tied up in this development (as is for that matter Britain’s). Cancellation is still unlikely, and as that would give the UK a mighty headache, let’s not go there – but historians, remember Skybolt). As we move into the next phase of the US electoral cycle, the balance of support for the F-35 may be less predictable, and deeper cuts in absolute costs may be required to satisfy austerity politics and tax cutting right wingers. This could have the effect of increasing unit costs still further. A little bit of good news: reverting to the F-35B will add to Rolls-Royce’s direct out-take from the programme, and provide the VSTOL variant with a bit more political top cover, pushing the Skybolt scenario a little bit further into left field.



A big commitment

Taken together, the carrier force and its equipment is one of the largest and mostly costly procurements taken on by the UK. Managing the time scales of ships and aircraft will imply a degree of good fortune as much as good judgement. Shifting back to the F-35B and committing the UK to just one aircraft option may save money, but it does leave the MoD rather exposed. In retrospect, developing a conventional carrier from the outset may have been better value for money, and a safer option. However, the F-35B is still a very advanced aeroplane, and while not as capable as its conventional cousins, it is a huge improvement on the generation it replaces offering greater operational flexibility. It also ensures that years of VSTOL experience are not thrown out of the window.  



Read Keith Hayward’s incisive commentary on the global aerospace secotor every month in Aerospace International.

Royal Aeronautical Society
10 May 2012