Whilst the Lockheed Martin F35B STVOL Joint Strike Fighter is the preferred option to fulfil the Joint Combat Aircraft requirements for the RAF and FAA, replacing the Harrier, the door has long been left open for an alternative.
But what alternative?
There isn’t really an alternative to the STVOL F35B, unless one considers a redesign of the Harrier a worthwhile venture, it is the only game in town if one wants the flexibility of short take off and vertical landing.
F35B would also allow the RAF and FAA to share training and logistics, recognising that flying off the CVF will not always be the mode of operation and expeditionary planning generally calls for the initial flying to be done with CVF with follow on operations moving the aircraft to land bases that can support more sustained operations. Sortie generation rates also favour the F35B and a recent runway closure at Kandahar in Afghanistan meant that the only aircraft that was able to provide CAS were Joint Force Harrier aircraft.
Although the F35B was always going to cost more than the conventional carrier take off and landing version this was amply offset by the cost of installing catapults and traps, the cost of maintaining them and more significantly, the cost of maintaining carrier landing skills.
These are extremely perishable skills and need an enormous amount of training to maintain safety.
If we want to extract maximum benefit from the significant investment in the fast jet fleet, STVOL is the most sensible option.
The worst outcome in terms of cost would be a separate RN and RAF jet fleet using 2 variants of the F35, CTOL for the RN and STVOL for the RAF. Add on the aspirations of the RAF for a Tornado GR4 replacement that might be fulfilled by another F35 variant and the capital and through life operating costs start spiralling upwards.
Rumours abut interest in F18′s, Sea Typhoon and Sea Grippen continue to float around and of course the other option of sharing a carrier force with the French and therefore Rafale is also regularly hinted at.
Lack of ratification of the ITAR treaty, with the US clearly reneging on an agreement on technology transfer to allow the UK full sovereignty over its F35′s, continues to cast a long shadow over the programme. The Defence Select Committee covered this in a 2005 report
We fully support MoD’s position that the ability to maintain and upgrade the JSF independently is vital. We would consider it unacceptable for the UK to get substantially into the JSF programme and then find out that it was not going to get all the technology and information transfer it required to ensure ‘sovereign capability’. This needs to be sorted out before further contracts are signed and we expect MoD to set a deadline by which the assurances need to be obtained. If the UK does not receive assurances that it will get all it requires to ensure sovereign capability, we would question whether the UK should continue to participate in the JSF programme
We all know the MoD is absolutely strapped for cash, every option to save money is being looked at so read into this announcement what you will.
Converteam have made excellent progress with the EMCAT system and although only scaled for small UAV’s the intention was clear, at the end of the programme, this month, a number of challenges had been solved.
The F35B’s continued problems and uncertainty over costs mean that a Plan B makes a lot of sense.
£650k might seem like something the MoD loses down the back of a sofa but this was a significant investment and talking of its success sends a message to all concerned with the F35 and those wanting us to share CVF with the French
The door is still open.