The two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers being built for the Royal Navy were originally to be equipped with F-35B model which can operate in VTOL mode (like the Harriers used on HMS Ark Royal up to her retirement). This was deemed to be too expensive, so the British government ordered the carriers to be retro-fitted with catapults and conventional landing equipment so the RN could use the (relatively) cheaper F-35C.
The plan has now been revised back to the original:
The Ministry of Defence is to abandon plans to buy the preferred fighter for the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers, in an embarrassing U-turn for David Cameron.
The prime minister personally endorsed the decision to equip the over-budget carriers with “cats and traps” so they could catapult and recover a version of the F-35 joint strike fighter (JSF) from their decks.
But the cost of converting the carriers has already reached £2bn, and the JSF model Downing Street wanted has been beset by delays and technical problems.
The aircraft will now not be ready until 2023 at the earliest, forcing the government to revert to Labour’s original plans to buy the less capable jump jet model.
Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, is due to make an announcement in the Commons on Thursday explaining the about-face, which was approved by the National Security Council on Tuesday.
It should be no surprise at all that Lewis Page is ready to call this decision idiotic (and he’s almost certainly right):
It’s well known that the F-35B will cost a lot more to buy and more to run than the F-35C catapult version: and it’s also well known that the main cost of aircraft carriers is not the ships but the planes. So, right out of the gate, we can see that this is a foolish decision.
In fact it’s a lot worse than it seems, as the contest in real life was not between the F-35B and the F-35C: it was between the F-35B and — for the immediate future — one or another cheap, powerful, modern carrier jet already in service. This would most most likely have been the F-18 Hornet as used by the US Navy and many other air forces around the globe, but possibly the French Rafale instead of or alongside Hornets.
In fact the UK will not be able to afford either the F-35B or the F-35C in any large numbers any time soon. Both planes are, after all, brand new supersonic stealth aircraft — only the second make of supersonic stealth aircraft ever built, in fact, and the first ever which can land on ships. They are brand new, bleeding edge kit and will cost accordingly. Both planes are still in flight test at the moment, in fact, and the F-35 programme as a whole has suffered serious cost and time overruns. This has led to delays to US orders, which have in turn pushed up costs for other early purchasers. Production is still at a low rate only.
Thus, if the Royal Navy had managed to get its hands on a catapult carrier, it would have been compelled (very happily!) to buy or lease an interim carrier jet to tide it over until a reasonable number of F-35Cs could be bought for a reasonable price — probably at some point in the 2020s. There would be no need for a full force of F-35Cs any sooner than the 2030s, by which point they would be affordable and there might be a real need for their stealth and other advanced capabilities.