Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 4 (Down to Earth with a Bump)

In Part 3, I looked upon the F35B with an optimistic eye, reflecting on the potential it provides to the UK armed forces.

But, I don’t think anyone is under any illusions that as a programme it is far from rosy, significantly late and over budget which will inevitably lead to a combination of few aircraft, higher unit prices, specifications compromise, cost to back fill whilst we are waiting and a painful gestation that is still not over.

One aspect of the F35B Joint Strike Fighter programme that sets it apart from many others is the degree of transparency and scrutiny this enables.

In general, I think this is brilliant because although there some downsides, the upsides massively outweigh them.

It is a model the UK would do well to emulate.

This transparency does however, result in every last minor problem being amplified, taken out of context and reported on with a negative slant.

We should not forget that the F35 Lightning II is a complex and multinational development programme that is pushing outwards against existing boundaries, the point being that in development, we should expect problems to be discovered, major and minor alike.

On the whole, better to find issues now than when in service (concurrency critics, stand fast at the back for now)

One on hand we have people that think an actuator failing in less than its expected cycle count is grounds for cancelling the whole programme and on the other we have people that think an aircraft with very little weight growth margin and a failure to meet certain key performance parameters is just a few teething problems, move along, nothing to see here.

The reality I suspect, is somewhere in between.

This part of the series is going to look at current status, warts and all, and cost issues

A nice photo before I start

On June 14, 2012, F-35B Joint Strike Fighter test aircraft BF-2 completed the first test flight for the short takeoff and vertical landing variant with an asymmetric weapons load. BF-2 flew with an AIM-9X Sidewinder inert missile on the starboard pylon, a centerline 25 mm gun pod, and a GBU-32 and AIM-120 in the starboard internal weapon bay.
On June 14, 2012, F-35B Joint Strike Fighter test aircraft BF-2 completed the first test flight for the short takeoff and vertical landing variant with an asymmetric weapons load. BF-2 flew with an AIM-9X Sidewinder inert missile on the starboard pylon, a centerline 25 mm gun pod, and a GBU-32 and AIM-120 in the starboard internal weapon bay.

Programme Status

Following the ups and downs of the F-35 Lightning II could easily be a full time job, there seems to be a veritable army of detractors so seeing through the fog is difficult.

For a really good counter to the constant criticism I would recommend a couple of sources’

First is the Elements of Power blog written by SMSgt Mac


Second, the F16.net forum and specifically those posts from SpudmanWP and one or two others


Hang around these places for any length of time and you will see sensible, well argued and credible counters to some of the hyperventilated criticism one can find all too easily elsewhere.

I am not going to wade into the older development history, weight issues for example, but just have a look at issues from the last few months.

The most recent major development in the programme was the release of the Fiscal Year 2012 Annual Report from the office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation. DOT&E is similar to the UK’s National Audit Office (although much more detailed in its technical reporting) providing independent assessments to Congress and the DoD.

Read it full by clicking the image below (it’s under the DoD section)

It makes somewhat equally depressing and encouraging reading.

  • Expectations on kinematic performance have been lowered with reduced acceleration and turn rates.
  • Delamination and scorching of the horizontal control surfaces
  • Jitter and light leakage causing acuity problems for the helmet system
  • Structural cracks on the F-35B at 7,000 hours
  • The programme as a whole (to November 2012) had completed 34% of the test points despite it already being in production, or concurrency (more on that later)
  • Regression testing on fixes from previous issues impacted the flight test programme
  • Earlier coolant and fueldraulic protective systems that were removed as part of weight reduction activity results in a ‘25% increase in vulnerability’
  • Other previous weight reductions may result in the F35 not meeting operational requirements for vulnerability
  • Issues remaining with fuel tank inerting (this lead to the lurid headlines about lightning)
  • A new lift fan driveshaft design is in progress and will not cut in until LRIP-7 in 2015
  • Weight growth margins continue to be wafer thin

The worse part wasn’t the ‘flight sciences’ bits and pieces above but the mission systems and software. It is the knock on effects of later delivery of software that cause the most concern because it generates a bow wave of test points that can’t be completed due to software non availability.

Maintenance issues also seem to be numerous.

I would encourage you to read the sections of the report on this.

Were there any bright spots?

  • Flight testing estimates were exceeded for the year
  • Ballistic tests completed so far show good results

On the whole though, its 42 pages of more or less unremitting misery.

Right up to date we have the grounding of the F-35B fleet following an aborted take-off caused by a failure of a Rolls Royce supplied ‘fueldraulic’ nozzle that caused a fuel leak in the area near the bearing swivel module. The aircraft had just come out of maintenance so current investigations will focus on that in addition to all the usual engineering analysis. The last thing one needs is leaking fuel near the hot parts although the same could be said of aerospace hydraulic liquid.

But hold on a cotton picking minute

This is an aircraft in development, and aircraft programme that sits under an umbrella of unprecedented scrutiny and is blessed with a vast array of engineering talent.

Aviation Week ran a good article in response to the bad news;

The article notes that the JSF programme office has already ‘taken action’ on six of the DOT&E recommendations although the definition of ‘taken action’ remains a bit vague.

It also described how some of the issues raised in the report are well underway to resolution, that weight growth margin in the F-35B had actually increased and it tried to take some of the heat out of the situation.

Did it succeed?

No, I don’t think so.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter remains a programme that despite suffering from a tsunami of doom and gloom, recent and accelerating progress on many fronts and the simple fact that is still being developed still looks like it has several large mountains to climb.

It is fair enough to have confidence in the developers and I think most of us would believe that it will get there in the end, but will it be on time and within an ‘affordable in quantity’ envelope.

My answer to that question is I haven’t got a clue.

Which, brings me on to costs and quantities

Numbers and Costs

When I sit down and write these long posts I like to indulge in a spot of blogging nostalgia, looking back at what I have written on the subject in the dark recesses of TD towers, sometimes it is completely wrong, often it is barking, more so ill-informed and naïve but occasionally an old post seems remarkably prescient.

One of the very first TD posts from me was a question about the JCA/JSF/F35 cost.

In March 2009 I asked;

Does anyone know how much they will cost?

An extract below;

Despite what many think, the final price will dictate the in service numbers, not operational requirements. As costs escalate as they inevitably will it is likely that we will be operating with as as few as 50 airframes or some other low number, far from the 150 first mooted or as 138 currently stated

The rest of the article, reading back now, seems a bit doom laden and I think I was in my ‘Cancel the Whole Lot’ period

But, the main point was the final cost of the JCA, JSF or Lightning II will not be known, at least for the UK, until decisions are made through the gated acquisition process.

Various Main Gate and Decision Points will seek clarity on final costs taking into account the cost of any modification to any low rate initial production aircraft we end up buying.

Whilst we can scratch at every last piece of contract award or MoD business plan to try and gain some insight, extrapolate forward and pretend to have uncovered some great revelation it would all be wasted effort.

Despite the numerous hints, rumours and acres of print, the simple fact is the number of JCA will be determined at the Main Gate 4 decision point.

The National Audit Office Major Projects Report 2011 was quite clear.

The number of units to be procured on Joint Combat Aircraft has not yet been determined

The 2012 report confirmed continued participation in the development programme and purchase long lead items for the fourth UK aircraft in LRIP 7.

It also confirmed that the first 3 aircraft costs were fixed but subsequent ones are not, hence final numbers of UK F35-B’s will be determined by costs, I know this is obvious but it is worth saying.

The System Development Demonstration phase has a fixed cost defined by the US/UK memorandum of understanding so no matter how much the development costs of the F35 rise, the UK’s share will remain. There will of course be other costs that are not covered by this agreement, Ship Borne Rolling Landing for example was deleted after the swap with a projected saving of £31m, this will, one assumes, have to be re-costed. Reading the NAO report highlights all manner of cost profile changes, including deletion of the internal Brimstone carriage requirement to save £41m. This continual change is no doubt happening right now.

The current duty rumour is about 50 aircraft, down from the initial ‘about 150’ at the start of the project. The number of 48 was mentioned by Phillip Hammond whilst in the USA taking delivery of the UK’s first F35B in July and confirmed by the MoD

Am I alone in being wary of what politicians say on the subject?

Yes Phil Hammond said about 12 being the normal compliment and it being operated by the RAF and FAA the simple fact is things change and no future government can be bound by its successor.

It would of course be great to have a gazillion F35’s but the simple reality of UK defence economics means one always has to rob Peter to pay Paul, increases in capability in one area always means a decrease in another.

This means we come to a trade-off, x number of JCA versus y numbers of Type 26, for example. Now that might be somewhat of a simplistic view of things but the MoD has a finite budget and a new found fiscal discipline.

Are there other priorities to fund from the creaking defence budget, of course there are.

In general, I would prefer a less fast jet focussed view of air power with a greater priority given ISTAR and Air Transport. At one point the MoD had plans for 232 Typhoon, 150 Joint Combat Aircraft and a replacement for Tornado but with an air transport fleet comprising ONLY 25 A400M’s.

A rather shockingly skewed allocation of resource

Things have changed in the last few years, the move to Combat ISTAR for example, but even so, in a world of priorities there are other things to consider.

So if the expectation of around 50 are proven right that would seem a reasonable force, more than capable of operating within the constraint of UK defence planning assumptions and not likely to cause undue distortion to other priorities.

Perhaps 20 or 30 more to provide a sustainment quantity but not many more

Many people see the bare numbers, lusting after as many as possible almost for the fanboi sake of it, assuming that more is always better but blanking out the impacts on other capabilities as unimportant. The defence planning assumptions are deceptively simple but lead to all manner of complex calculations behind the scene but fundamentally, we have to accept the very low likelihood of operating alone and even if we did, we should be realistic about at what scale.

Accepting that there is a degree of uncertainty and unpredictability about the future, the likelihood of the UK having to go it alone against a competent first or second world force ‘at scale’ is low. With a future that sees European nations having to shoulder a greater burden of NATO collective defence as the US focuses elsewhere the counter is evidently for more.

Again, it would be hey ho pip and dandy to have a couple of hundred F35’s but the UK armed forces have many competing demands of the defence pound so 50 to 80 seems about right to me.

A final cost issue is that of industrial participation, the F35 supply will be supported by over 130 UK companies, each of them collecting VAT and paying Corporation Tax, to the tune of about a billion pounds per year.

This will secure 25,000 jobs, every one of them paying income tax.

It’s not just BAE either; a smaller example is Survivetec who provide all the integrated single seat life rafts for every single F35.

Our £2b investment as a Tier I partner looks to me like the deal of the century.

Most people will not see the connection between one and the other but it is still real nonetheless.

The F35B will be the most expensive variant of a very expensive programme, no doubt

So what

If the UK is to retain its technological superiority over potential enemies and fit within the operating umbrella of NATO it needs to stay with the state of the art.

Increasing costs may well mean that we sacrifice numerical overmatch but this is where we have to drag ourselves right back to reality grounded in defence planning assumptions and the simple fact that for the vast majority of operations the UK will be operating in a coalition, probably a coalition of other F35 operators.

The F35B will be expensive but I don’t think significantly more so than other modern aircraft but as I said above, the UK should not let the F35 dominate the defence equipment plan.


The reality seems to be that the JSF programme has experienced significant cost and time issues but is now back on track and catching up.

Equally, it seems it has a long way to go

Will it meet every single expectation, probably not, at least not in a short timescale

Will it be as cheap and cheerful as originally intended, unlikely

But if anyone is surprised then they have obviously never read any history about complex engineering programmes.

All that said, for many reasons it remains the only sensible choice for the UK.

It is the costs that will drive unit quantity, not sortie rate, how many missiles it carries, operational requirements tend to be moderated by how many we can afford.

The latest indication of around 50 sounds reasonable to me, maybe push that up to 60 or 70 in a later batch but I think in the absence of a significant uplift in defence spending there are other priorities for the UK.

The next post will look at operating models and how the UK can maximise its investment in the F-35B.


Other posts in this series

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 1 (Introduction)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 2 (Dredging Up the Past)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 3 (The Promise)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 4 (Down to Earth with a Bump)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 5 (By Sea By Land)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 6 (Summary)









About The Author

Think Defence hopes to start sensible conversations about UK defence issues, no agenda or no campaign but there might be one or two posts on containers, bridges and mexeflotes!

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Jeremy M H
January 28, 2013 3:12 am

I tend to agree with your overall assessment. The F-35 is a program moving forward with the fits and starts you would expect to see in such a complicated undertaking.

The part I don’t agree with is your overall take on what the force structure of the RAF should be. I honestly think that, presuming the F-35 enters squadron service before a huge pile of money is spent on Typhoon updates, the decision will eventually be to soldier on with the Typhoon largely as is and replace them over time with F-35A’s.

Tom C
January 28, 2013 5:47 am

Great article! It has however got me thinking..a dangerous thing..

“Our £2b investment as a Tier I partner looks to me like the deal of the century.”

I agree. But to maintain all the benefits from being so closely involved in cutting edge programmes like this for the long term surely we MUST buy a reasonable number of aircraft? 50 or so is very likely not to cut it, and it has been made clear (I thought?) by Mr Spreadsheet that this was only an initial order for the time being.

Maybe I am misinterpreting your comments on this TD, but the ability to negotiate decent work share in future for any complex project would be wiped away if we only buy in tiny numbers, and other countries would be very happy to take up the slack if we don’t invest/contribute to “earn” our share back and keep it that way.

As a serious aim, we should push hard to grow our involvement/share of these kind of programmes, because if we are not going forwards we are going backwards. This means we need to make sure there are solid reasons to stay as preferred partner on any similar project. On another note, it also means making sure that we push on seriously and quicker with our own developments such as Taranis, so that we have our own expertise to offer, and keep a sovereign capability in key technologies.

The JSF program is not just about the aircraft but about growing and sustaining our technological base – this is actually more important than exactly how good the F-35 is as just an aircraft (or even how much we spend on it). If it does not turn out to be so great, well lets learn the lessons and keep the industry improving. As long we maintain the technology and industry to produce improved machines to deal with potential aggressors in the long run that is our best security.

This relates directly to numbers today and tomorrow. Over time (maybe a long period), I am fairly sure that we must buy at least 100+ airframes, arguably quite a few more. You correctly say we don’t know the costs yet – and therefore we dont know what the full count should be. This is definitely true but only up to point Lord Cooper!

Is it not that the key issue is that there is another parameter? Unless all non-US countries buy absolutely tiny numbers, because the programme basically fails and then we are admittedly perhaps in different territory, then over the course of the JSF programme we simply should be the biggest non-US purchaser (even if only by a small margin). We can afford to do that over a long time period, its not like we have too many jets. We have more money than the Israelis/Turks/Australians/Canadians and we have more to lose. The only way out of this I can see, without risking our aviation industry’s future, is if we instead for some reason end up spending on another US programme probably also run by Lockheed.

I suspect you might then say that that is well and good, but there are still finite resources..I agree this is also true. But the technologies we sustain with the JSF programme are so important I would argue they must be sustained.

So what then if that means cuts to another critical programme? If things were so very bad (remember I mean this in the longer run only) that investing would mean giving up a genuinely critical ability (most likely in relation to the related technologies rather than the actual plane/spaceship/gun/tank) forever, so worse than the Nimrod/MPA “holiday”, well that really is the time when we finally do know that more money must be spent. If one day that was the grim reality, it would be time to man up and win the battle for extra spending. If it was really right, meaning in our long term interests, it can be done.

Sorry for the overlong length! Do you generally agree with that? ;-)

January 28, 2013 7:17 am

@ Tom C

Given the massive industrial benefits to the UK of F35 I think hammond is dreaming with his talk of 50 or so aircraft. The major share one by British companies this far is a real testament to the quality of British R&D in this area be it from the ejections seets to the targetting lasers the rubber dingy or the stealth coating. I even understand BAE spent a lot of time fixing the helmet problems which benefit from previous R&D on the Typhoon helmet. However as per usual now we have invented the dam things we are going to face stiff competition from the Danes, Israelis South Koreans and others who will no doubt expect a piece of the pie when they fully commit. The only reason we have so far not lost work share I believe is the fact that many of the R&D elements could only be done by British companies and everyone else has thus far failed to commit to the program. There is zero chance of the USA allowing us a 15% work share with around 1-2% of total orders. No matter what colour the government of the day there is no way that they or the treasury will jepordise 25,000 high tech export jobs in the UK. So quite simply the MOD is going to be forced to go above 100 aircraft well before the 2030 date that we might look to retire Typhoon. THe question will be what is going to be cut in order to pay for it because we can be dambed sure that while the treasury and the government will insist on the order they will not put up the cash. Ofcourse it could be that the miliary know this and they are using the bare number of 50 orders as a barganing tool to try and possibly force the treasury to take up trident successor funding or soemthing else. It may be that we have to go all F35 and ditch the Typhoon long before we expected. It might not be the worst thing though. If I was to choose a single aircraft to fit our needs then it would be the F35B.

Peter Elliott
January 28, 2013 8:11 am


Its not necessarily mutually exclusive. I can see us ending up with a fleet of around 100 F35B and 100 upgraed Typhoon.

For me Typoon development is not about numbers. Its about AESA, conformals, and continued weapons integration. If we sacrifice some hours expired airframes to acheive this development then so be it. There’s no shame in a scrap-and-build policy if it allows us to support both our R&D and a single production line ticking over in low rate mostly for export.

The numbers above would give us enough for QRA, an expeditonary Fighter/Bomber mix, and the ability in very exceptional circumstances to send 80 plans to sea aboard 2 carriers, enough to spoil anyone’s day.

Industially it keeps both our workshare with F35 and it keeps Typoon as a player in the export market. Its a fine balance – but I see it as achievable.

January 28, 2013 8:15 am

@TD, I might take umbrage with the “deal of the century”. I think we’ll make back our 2B in orders for parts, but since we don’t have access to the source code for any of the control systems, the programme hasn’t made much of a contribution to our ability to design and develop fighter aircraft…which was kind of the point of said 10% share :-(

January 28, 2013 8:23 am

Great article TD. It does seem to be the F35s turn to be the bad apple in the MOD procurement programme not that people have forgotten about the Carriers… However, when they do arrive the F35Bs will give the UK a truly effective, multi purpose and above all first class capability.

With all this said though I do agree that the capability is provides should be to benwfit of a balanced force rather than to the detriment of it. Upgrading the Typhoon (especially the Tranche 1 versions), MPA, ISTAR and UAVs must all get equal priority.

The MOD should look at the F35B in the way it could be used to it’s main strengths – which are operating from our carriers and where runway facilities cannot support Typhoons (like early in the Afghanistan conflict). This in my view hardly warrants 100+ airframes.

I would argue that an optimal number would be 68 a/c in the long term based on:
– 2 FAA sqdns of 16 a/c each. One permanently based on the active carrier.
– 3 RAF squadrons of 8 a/c. One attached to the active rapid reaction JEF brigade.
– 1 joint OCU / reserve / training sqd of 12 a/c.

Buying F35As in the future to replace the Typhoon could be an option but that decision can be deferred many years and the world / technology may be very different then.

January 28, 2013 11:27 am

I still think optimal numbers will be irrelevant in the face of industrial pressure to get over the 100 mark and stay the number two buyer. CAnada and Denmark are finding out that paying into the JSF R&D budget means very little in terms of work share. At present our unique industry skill sets are keeping us in the 15% region but I wonder how long that can last in the face of significant future competition from the likes of Israel and South Korea. 50 more JSF airframes will cost a hell of alot of money to buy and operate and if it comes out of the defence budget in the early 2020’s along with Trident then we are seriously screwed.

January 28, 2013 11:29 am

I’d still go for two squadrons of 12 F35B and a further 12-16 for OCU and sustainment at the moment. It’s the most sensible minimum to avoid excessive risk and financial exposure.

I’d then start saving for a CATOBAR conversion and a couple of LHDs. However, I really am starting to understand this is just a dream as the reality is more likely that should F35B be binned (or be useless) we’ll simply have two 65000t LPHs, which hopefully we can use Observer’s oxy torch to cut a well deck into.

January 28, 2013 11:42 am

I agree with you TD that whilst as many as possible would be lovely, in the real world and on a tight budget something like 80 airframes would be sufficient to meet our needs. Although of course a lot hangs on the size and development of the Typhoon fleet post 2020.

How much do we reckon could be squeezed from 80 airframes? Id like to see perhaps 3 RAF squadrons, 1 large FAA squadron of 16 (12 seems too low, but 24 is probably a bit excessive) plus of course the OCU and some in reserve.

January 28, 2013 12:06 pm

Can I just verify something?

I received a FOI response from the MoD regarding Typhoon numbers. The long-and-short of it was that at the time there were about 72 jets of which 2/3 were active (four squadrons of twelve if memory serves) and 1/3 was “sustainment”.

Is this a normal skew ratio?

January 28, 2013 12:52 pm


You haven’t really got to the heart of the matter. We need to know how serious the ongoing development issues are.

It has been suggested on other forums that the performance of the F-35A is likely to be inferior to that of the F-16, while the F-35C will be inferior to the F-18. In particular, the Rand report stated it can’t climb, it can’t turn, it can’t run and can’t hide – so is likely to get a pasting from anything the Russians have in their arsenal in a dogfight.

The parameters that were used to model F-35 performance by the Rand Corporation have obviously changed, but further weight increases are likely to blunt performance further. The constant defence is that the sensors and radar systems attached to the F-35 will enable it to engage and destroy most fourth generation targets before they even realise that there is an allied warbird with hostile intent anywhere near them. in other words, it doesn’t need to be fast or agile in combat.

This may be true, by fielding a jet that is inferior to those it is intended to replace at such a massive cost, makes me wonder whether such advanced avionics shouldn’t be fitted to legacy aircraft?

My real point is this: like the banks, the F-35 program has been labelled ‘ too big to fail’. Really? At what point do we, could we, should we pull the plug? There has to be a view on this. All the transparency in the world is useless if there is no accountability.

Don’t get me wrong, I want the F-35 to succeed. But there comes a point when you have to say: this aircraft in its current format doesn’t make sense. Let’s can it, develop a more focused alternative design that uses as many of the component technologies as it can, and get that into service.

It may be that the F-35 A and C versions need to radically diverge from the B. Maybe the US should give the B to BAE and let them assume responsibility for getting it right?

I think when everything is said and done, Lockheed Martin’s lack of PM skills will mean that it never gets another major military program. This could well be its swansong.

I find so much uncertainty deeply worrying.

January 28, 2013 2:38 pm

@ Monty

Interesting to note than both the F16 and especially the F18 suffered from all the same criticisim that is leveled against the F35 today.

Also I suspect that with a blank drawing board and no STOVL or CATOBAR requirment anyone today designing a 5th gen fighter with a single engine (remember this was the USAF requirment) would come out with something very similar to the F35A.

January 28, 2013 2:41 pm

TD, thanks for such an excellent blog.
I am interested to understand the financial return of the 10% work share for the UK and the Govt.
Companies typically don’t pay VAT and Corporation tax is pretty low.
A rough calculation of sustaining 25,000 jobs at an avg salary of 40K would give an annual figure of £1bn to the UK.
Assuming a net avg tax rate of 25% means an annual tax revenue to the Govt of £250m. The F35 programme will probably run for 25 years so total income for the UK would be £25bn and tax for the Govt. would be £6.25bn. Coincidentally at an average unit price of £125m for the F-35B then buying about 50 would cost £6.25bn.
So the true cost to the Govt for the first 50 planes is effectively zero! (Albeit ignoring the sunk cost of £2bn to signup.)

A 10% work share for a much larger (2400 planes) F35 Programme is more valuable than the 37.5% share we have in the Typhoon (472 planes).

Perhaps we will be able to buy an additional 40 in the 2025-2030 period to get 4 full squadrons from a fleet of 90 aircraft after all.

January 28, 2013 2:45 pm

The fact is though that the program is too big too fail. That is what the US military in particular is worried about: That if the F-35 fails then what will they do before the current generation of aircraft runs out of air hours or becomes ineffective?

The US Navy would be probably be ok with sticking with Super Hornets and whatever comes out of their UCAV programme; but what are the USMC going to do? Try and build Harrier III’s?

The USAF was banking on being able to replace all of their F-15s with F-22s; the F-35 was only meant to be their low cost fighter to supplement the F-22, not the backbone of the combat fleet, which is the position they find themselves in now. The can’t afford a new lightweight fighter programme now – they have a bomber and new tankers to buy.

The rest of the world can always pick another aircraft, be it Typhoon/Rafale/Gripen/Super Hornet/Silent Eagle/etc and have be perfectly acceptable for their needs. We would have to convert the PoW to CATOBAR and buy Rafales or Super Hornets but would not be completely stuffed if the F-35 failed.

Captain Hindsight would say that the actual approach to take would of been to focus on developing common technologies (engine, sensors, stealth materials, etc) for 3 different aircraft: a little cheaper brother for the F-22; a STOVL CAS optimised aircraft; and a 5th Gen Carrier Fighter.

The F-35 is a good aircraft but it is not the best aircraft for the disparate requirements.

Jeremy M H
January 28, 2013 3:32 pm


F-35 turning and speed performance parameters are being measured against clean F-16’s in that case with the F-35 doing the same with a full internal load (around 4,700 pounds of bombs and missiles). Start throwing fuel tanks and bombs on external hard points on other fighters and things change pretty rapidly.

I think the fairest way to compare the aircraft would be in an Air to Air configuration with a comparable fuel fraction vs empty weight. The US government hasn’t done it yet (probably because they don’t care about internet arguments) but using basic numbers you get something like this.

Empty Weight: 13,300kg
Fuel (Fraction): 8,280kg (62%)
Weapons (6 AMRAMM): 912kg
Total Weight: 22,492
Thrust to Weight (Wet)Full up: .56 (.86)
Wing Loading: 526kg/m2

Empty Weight: 15,800kg
Fuel (Fraction): 8,860kg (56%)
Weapons (6 AMRAMM): 912kg
Total Weight: 25,572
Thrust to Weight (Wet)Full up: .49 (.76)
Wing Loading: 411kg/m2

Empty Weight: 14,552kg
Fuel (Fraction): 6,780kg (46%)
External Fuel to match fraction: 1,369kg*
Weapons (6 AMRAMM): 912kg
Total Weight: 23,631
Thrust to Weight (Wet)Full up: .49 (.84)
Wing Loading: 508kg/m2

*Realistically this is two 330 gallon tanks but we will just gift the fuel to other aircraft as it is simpler in this case.

Comments on F-18E: Basically you have an aircraft here that in a like for like configuration (ie an operationally realistic amount of gas and with the same weapons load as the F-35 will have for air to air) that has a very slight thrust to weight advantage over the C and has higher wing loading. It will also be draggier due to having external fuel tanks and weapons that the F-35 does not have.

Empty Weight: 8,570kg
Fuel (Fraction): 3,175kg (37%)
External Fuel to match fraction: 2,138kg*
Weapons (6 AMRAMM): 912kg
Total Weight: 14,795
Thrust to Weight (Wet)Full up: .52 (.87)
Wing Loading: 532kg/m2

*Realistically two 330 gallon drop tanks if not three.

Comments on F-16C: Again we see much the same issue. Everything looks great until we take a look at a comparably loaded F-16 operating under realistic combat conditions (particularly in a theater any larger than European Cold War scenario it was really designed for. We again have a couple of nice, draggy tanks on the wings and missiles hanging around to slow us down even more.

Empty Weight: 11,150kg
Fuel (Fraction): 4,672kg* (41%)
External Fuel to match fraction: 2,241kg*
Weapons (6 AMRAMM): 912kg
Total Weight: 18,975
Thrust to Weight (Wet)Full up: .62 (.95)
Wing Loading: 370kg/m2

*My best estimate based on a few sources that tried to figure this out, it is stupidly classified which makes no sense except for marketing the thing. Realistically we are looking at 2 or 3 external tanks depending on their size.

Comments: The Eurofighter is clearly a kinematically superior platform, as it should be being a 2 engine air-superiority focused fighter. But it probably would lose a fair amount of that performance if it had to carry external gas to match the F-35’s fuel fraction in a realistic combat scenario. How the extra drag would play off against the higher wing-loadings and slightly lower thrust to weight of the F-35’s is a pretty complicated thing but I hardly expect it would eat F-35A’s up easily.

Empty Weight: 18,400kg
Fuel (Fraction): 11,500kg (62%)
External Fuel to match fraction: 0kg
Weapons (6 AMRAMM equiv): 912kg
Total Weight: 30,812
Thrust to Weight (Wet)Full up: .57 (.94)
Wing Loading: 496kg/m2

Comments on SU-35: There are some advantages here from a kinematic perspective but again they are not that great. The F-35 is hardly going to be a wallowing duck in flight.

What the F-35 is not going to do is thrill people at airshows. It will basically come out of the box in a combat configuration and it has no ultra-light configuration that would let it race about and be a stunt fighter. Those extra fuel tanks that you almost always see on fighters in combat are built into the F-35 and this was by design. Yes, if it gets jumped by cleanly configured 50% fuel fighters in opposition territory it is probably going to get out turned. But then again so is a Eurofighter or F-16 of F-18 or F-15 or SU-35 operating in an offensive role. In that sort of scenario the F-35 is going to rely on its low observability and its 360 degree sensor and engagement capabilities to get out.

I think that the aircraft is clearly going to be competitive kinematically in realistic combat configurations. The numbers in regards to that are pretty clear.

Gloomy Northern Boy
January 28, 2013 3:57 pm

I know practically nothing about this, but I vaguely recall that many years ago people who (apparently) did were confident that the (then) amazing stuff the early Harriers did would prove to be a red herring in the face of fast Soviet Jets; are the levels of innovation in the F35B sufficient that the same may prove to be true when it is actually in service?

January 28, 2013 4:10 pm

@ Jeremy M H

excellent bit of analysis. Its amazing how many people forget that F35 will have all this internally and one only has to look at the fact that the two engine F18 toils to beat the single engine F35C to realise some of the great achievments of the program. And this is before you fit the LO and sensors far superior to even the F22.

Much the same argument can be made on cost as many comparisons are for bare F18’s and F16’s with out the ubber expensive targetting pods which are already built in to F35. Give that the chinese are now desperatly trying to get the Russians to sell them SU 35 I think its fair to say that builing a fith gen fighter is no easy task. LM have deffinatley cocked much of it up but I feel fairly confident we will get the right plane out of it its just five years late and way over budget but at this stage performance is the least of my worries.

I have said it before but imagine what woud have happened if the early version’s of the Hurricane or Spitfire were put through the same media and internet scrutiny the F35 has recieved. We would probably have fought the Battle of Britain with Gladiators or Cammels.

January 28, 2013 4:12 pm


Can’t imagine anyone switching the lift fan at Mach 1.5 on the F35B to take a shot at the bad guys but you never know :-)

Jeremy M H
January 28, 2013 4:28 pm


I would take issue with the idea that LM really “cocked much of it up” so much as they played the same game everyone in the industry plays. I am not sure anyone could win a bid for a major program like this (or Eurofighter or A400M or F-22’s and so on) without just flat lying and saying “sure, we can build it in that time frame and for that cost”. If they are honest then Boeing (or whomever) will lie and you will lose. When every major development program is going long I tend to think the issue lies as much with unrealistic government expectations as anything.

The only way around it for the government in my view would be to say we are going to pay X for a new fighter in Y number of years. Build it and the best fighter wins. The problem with that is you would get very little innovation in my view. No one would want to risk much money not knowing if they would win. This kind of thing has worked with relatively simple systems (SDB ended up costing a good deal less than the government had figured I believe because of competition and price pressure) but does not seem ideal to major systems.

January 28, 2013 4:37 pm

Don’t like the idea of the lift-fan top door opening at Mach 1.5 – it’ll go straight through the rear fins!

This F35, F16, F18 comparison is true but you can remove the external tanks from an F16 and F18 to lighten it up for A2A.

January 28, 2013 4:43 pm

This “too big to fail” is rubbish. Any government of a commercially oriented nation knows that what they need to do is commission another company to create market competition. That’ll kick LM into touch.

The UK is absolutely best placed to do this with sneaky US DoD backing.

Jeremy M H
January 28, 2013 4:55 pm


While it is true you could ditch the gas what is your resulting range at that point? How does it impact loiter time? I have conceded that in a hypothetical point intercept the F-35 (or any loaded down aircraft operating over a distance) is going to be at a disadvantage. But those are pretty infrequent operations. The reality is if you are intercepting an F-35 anywhere near your base of operations you probably already died on the ground or your airbase is disabled to begin with.

There is a reason that the vast majority of operation photos of aircraft have them carrying drop tanks after all.

Not a Boffin
January 28, 2013 4:57 pm

“This “too big to fail” is rubbish. Any government of a commercially oriented nation knows that what they need to do is commission another company to create market competition. That’ll kick LM into touch”

It will be interesting to see which companies respond to the USN RFI for F/A XX. It will be even more interesting to see what experience in airframe & propulsion design from scratch the senior engineers in each bid team actually posses (not that it’ll be publicly available).

Unfortunately, when the US went winner takes-all on JSF, it did become too big to fail. Every year since then has only consolidated this fact.

Jeremy M H
January 28, 2013 5:05 pm


I really think the F/A XX will end up getting rolled into an F-15E, F-22 replacement program as well. I think what it should be is basically a 2 engined F-35. Knock down the speed requirements that were part of the F-22 to something a bit more reasonable and ditch the “not a pound for air to ground” mentality. Put internal bays on it that let it be a heavy strike aircraft or a long-range air dominance fighter. Speed and agility somewhere between an F-22 and F-35 will be more than fine. The main thing I want is range and payload capability.

Gloomy Northern Boy
January 28, 2013 5:07 pm

@Martin – a “definite maybe” then!

January 28, 2013 5:29 pm

Jeremy M H,

Well ditching the “gas” certainly reduces range or loiter, but I guess it depends what you’re doing.

Long range interception? Strike with sprint? Drop the tanks just before you get to the “target” – still gives you higher T/W and lower W/S.

I just get the impression no one expects a A2A engagement any more. I mean, when was the last proper fighter versus fighter air war? Falklands??? Were the SHARs in the Falklands that intercepted the Daggers wearing tanks? I just don’t know, but if there was ever a Deck Launched Intercept for these I’d guess not.

January 28, 2013 5:59 pm

As an aside I saw this today. Does this refer to the 100th RAF Typhoon? Or 100th delivery? The former seems too many the latter too few


January 28, 2013 6:15 pm

Back to earth with a Thwack indeed TD! Grand read, will revisit this in more depth. Good comments too.

January 28, 2013 6:45 pm

@Simon – all the images of SHARs in the Falklands show them wearing tanks. Probably the desire to keep carriers out if harms way meant longer transits.

However there are reports of the Daggers dropping their tanks and running for home.

Not a Boffin
January 28, 2013 6:53 pm

It would be a shame (although entirely understandable) if F/A XX did end up as a joint programme. Agree wrt payload / endurance, but would emphasise agility – you may need to match a peer adversary in a non-BVR constrained RoE environment. Might be a bit sticky if the oppo has good kit. The interesting thing will be whether a re-emergence of a heavy, numerous, long range ASM threat (Tu22M + Sunburn anyone?) in Chinese colours reminds folk that air defence is both killing stuff at long range as well as close-in ACM. And that’s before you get to BMD and MEZ.

The last proper fighter vs fighter air war was Granby. It didn’t last very long because it rapidly became clear that if you can trash the key nodes of an IADS then that nation is largely limited to DCA and if the training and organisation isn’t there, then it’s clubbing baby-seal time, particularly when faced with a major disadvantage in numbers. The Serbian AF largely stayed out of the way later that decade, having digested that lesson.

The one before that was probably the Red Sea Pedestrians vs Syria in 82. That too was a very one-sided affair because adequate tactics, equipment and training were available and had been thought about very carefully following the carnage of Yom Kippur.

Corporate is remembered, because the absence of critical parts of equipment and therefore tactics made it a closer run thing than it need have been. A decent AEW capability coupled with a reliable BVR capability for SHAR (think F/A2 with 4 AIM120) and it might have been an easier op (relatively speaking).

All potential A2A scenarios since Bekaa in 82 have pretty much been dictated by the existence of a force equipped and trained to fight high-performance soviet kit in a dense high-threat environment in the inventories of the West, versus various relatively small AFs with nominally capable kit, but lower levels of C2 resilience and training. They’ve all been fairly rational tacticians and have decided against the kamikaze option. Doesn’t mean we won’t meet that threat one day though…..

Jeremy M H
January 28, 2013 6:53 pm


If all you are doing is punching off an empty fuel tank you won’t gain much in T/W, your main improvement will be on drag as the tanks once empty don’t weight much. Looked at more mathematically…

If the EF punches its tanks after burning the additional fuel that gives it an equal fuel fraction to the F-35 it would weigh at that point 16,734 KG’s and would have burned 32% of its gas. An F-35A that has burned 32% of its gas would weigh in at 19,842 KG’s. The T/W of the EF is at that point .70 on dry thrust. The F-35 is .64. On burner the numbers are .98 for the F-35 and 1.08. The margins are basically identical to what they were before you dumped your tanks.

The point being, the F-35 is really not at a huge disadvantage even against “clean” aircraft. It is not going to over match anyone like an F-22 will do with a lot of people and it probably won’t out-turn a clean or very lightly loaded Eurocanard or SU-27 derivative. But it was not designed to do that.

It was designed to maximize its ability in the flight envelope that aircraft spend the majority of their combat lives in which is a loaded configuration. If they wanted to uprate these raw performance traits it would be pretty easy to cut down the amount of fuel the thing can carry and shrink it, then hang fuel tanks on it all the time like every other aircraft out there. That would have made it nice and pretty for airshows.

January 28, 2013 6:56 pm

George think that was the 100th single seat typhoon delivered to the RAF. Wartons is delivering about 20 a/c per year at present mainly for Saudi Arabia. At present about 600a/c are on firm order with all the nations and about 370 have been delivered.

Jets usually take fuel from the external tanks first for that reason. Tanks will give you a performance penalty which can involve a big drag penalty. That’s why conformals are sometimes seen as the better option.

Before everyone goes into meltdown follow TDs dot&e link hit navy program’s and have a read at the f18 report to see even in service aircraft have issues.

Numbers of jet bought will quite simply be down to the number the government wishes to deploy and sustain deployed you will prob not have a sustained capability with sub 50 jets. We do often hear about fighting as coalitions and planning assumptions when discussing jets and destroyers ect much less when the army’s love affair with armoured brigades and there sustainment is mention.

Jeremy M H
January 28, 2013 7:04 pm


I am not saying I would not have agility requirements I just would not accept massive cost overruns to get pure raw speed and agility over-match as the F-22 shot for. That means if sustained Mach 1.5-1.7 plus is going to cost me $20-$40 million per unit vs accepting 1.2-1.4 I am probably not signing up for the higher speed. I would probably pass on thrust vectoring as well due to the added cost of writing the flight control software and building the hardware.

January 28, 2013 7:46 pm

@ Mark thanks, makes sense when I think about it. We have 6 squadrons (inc ocu) of 12 aircraft giving 72 live and 28 for rotation, more or less.

January 28, 2013 8:30 pm

I’d love to see a post called something like “Why Do We Still Need Jets?” What do jets do that modern missiles/UAvs can’t?

January 28, 2013 8:32 pm

Jeremy M H,

“If all you are doing is punching off an empty fuel tank you won’t gain much in T/W, your main improvement will be on drag as the tanks once empty don’t weight much”

Yes, you increase net thrust because you’ve decreased drag and you lower your weight a bit which decreases the wing loading making you more agile. The F35 is still a fattie!

That’s the reason the Typhoon will do M=2 in that configuration and the F35 will do M=1.6 (well, added to the fact that the turbofan is tuned differently for more subsonic/transonic thrust). It will quite simply run rings around it… assuming it gets close enough ;-)

Perhaps I need to explain my position here. I see the “airframe” and “systems” completely separately. So the differences in the airframe (the bit that’s actually clever to me being an ex software engineer that could write the F35 code in a weekend – useless pillocks!) is L.O. vs agility. I don’t really value the systems as you can fit them to any airframe, which I’d put money on will actually happen. For example, do you really think the V.R. helmet will not be rolled out onto other aircraft once it’s proven? Do you not think a little circuit board with a few CPUs cannot integrate all incoming data streams to generate a cohesive picture of the battlespace? It’s childs play and I honestly do not understand why it does not already exist on all NATO assets. Jesus, it’s just the flamin’ internet for war lords!

Rant over, sorry :-)

John Hartley
January 28, 2013 9:08 pm

TD, forgive me, I can no longer resist this rant.
F-35B was buggered from the start. F-35A & C made sense, even a STOVL F-35 makes sense, but this god awful lift fan solution, means limited payload/range/agility for all time. A better solution would have been the pegasus style solution from the Boeing X-32. Shame the X-32 was pig ugly, but the STOVL system should have been nicked for the STOVL F-35.
The laclustre F-35B wing should have been replaced with the Northrop outboard control surface wing. Much more agile & versatile.(page 15,Flight International, 1 July 1992).
Of course its too late now, but do we really want the only UK combat jet to be an overpriced, short legged, under armed, fragile, one trick pony?
The UK needs a minimum 200 combat jets( 100 Typhoon/F-35A for QRA/COIN, 50 F-35B for FAA, 50 F-35C or E for medium range strike).
Can we afford this? Well if we have to pay benefits to another 300,000 to 500,000 Bulgarians/Romanians then a single Cessna might be out of our reach.

John Hartley
January 28, 2013 9:12 pm

With a missile, how do you go up, have a look, wave to the Russian bomber pilots & gently steer them away from going near UK airspace?

January 28, 2013 9:37 pm


Make a judgement call without comms to abort because the target was actually a school, not a weapons plant?

Jeremy M H
January 28, 2013 9:37 pm


The problem is you really can’t just slap all that technology onto other airframes. They don’t have the computing power for it. They don’t have the avionics bays for it. They don’t have the openings for the distributed sensor system. They don’t have the space for a built in target designation pod.

You can’t just retrofit what is on (or in this case inside) the F-35 onto legacy aircraft. It simply won’t be possible with very costly redesigns. It is just not practical.

There is a reason the F-35 is as thick as it is. You are not going to cram all that stuff onto a Eurofighter or F-16. You might get it on a highly redesigned F-15 with its higher MTOW but then again there is a reason exactly no one has signed up for the F-15 Silent Eagle at this point either. No one really believes you can do it, at least not without associated R&D cost that make the F-35 much cheaper to get your hands on.

January 28, 2013 9:46 pm

Jeremy M H,

Err, really don’t agree, sorry. Anyway, maybe we will see (or not) when F35 gets canned and the systems are migrated to the F15 ;-)

January 28, 2013 10:24 pm

I think I would have to tend toward Simons point of view on the systems. Most of f35s internals are for fuel and weapons bays.

F35 has very gd touch screen cockpit but not everyone agrees with it, you could retrofit that to another jet if there was sufficient power available. Likewise f35 has by all account a very gd aesa radar but that’s not unique to f35. It has effectively a sniper XR targeting pods other jets have very gd targeting pods also. F35 has its helmet but then the helmet on typhoon/gripen is very gd also. Perhaps the hardest thing to put on another jet would be barracuda it’s supposed to be very gd indeed. But again spectra on rafale and praetorian on typhoon are pretty gd to by all account. The comparisons in these only the few who have access can judge with any accuracy.

What f35 does do is rap it all in a low observable skin with very gd data links with probably a better fused picture which you can’t really incorporate in a legacy jet, how much store you put in these last bits will depend if your prepared to pay the f35 price.

Jeremy M H
January 28, 2013 10:44 pm

Think you can really get AN/AAQ-37 onto a legacy jet? I don’t see it. Each of those camera’s has a housing that does not exist in the legacy aircraft and it absorbs a tremendous amount of computing power to fuze that picture together. Your point about the targeting pod is well taken but to hang the thing on your aircraft means accepting the loss of a pylon and some speed and agility restrictions, plus it adds in more weight which makes the kinematic margins all that much closer. I never disputed that it “could” be done. The question is if you can do it in a cost effective manner when you have to start ripping out existing computers and upgrading them as well as upgrading electrical transmission and data transmission cables in the design to make it all work properly.

If you start putting all this stuff inside of (or even hanging onto) a legacy fighter its cost will quickly start to approach that of an F-35 but without the low-observable benefit. As that happens you have to ask yourself…what is the point?

Ace Rimmer
January 28, 2013 10:48 pm

Simon, have Boeing not already had the EOTS mock up on the F-18E?

January 28, 2013 11:11 pm


It’s also a doubled edged sword though. Some countries may not want or require all those capabilities. Some countries may not want all those capabilities up front. Another consideration in difficult budget times is if I buy 40 f35 they all come with targeting systems ect. On the jets where stuff is podded I may buy 40 jets all fitted to accept the pods but only 20 pods and fit them to the deploying a/c saving some cash. There is growth margin in some of the legacy designs but you accept increased risks in some missions not everyone has the same requirements as the us military.

January 28, 2013 11:25 pm

@Jeremy MH and Simon

It’s not often on TD that the comments provide greater analysis than the article itself, but your input certainly achieves that. Congratulations and thank you! Very interesting. I find myself warming to the F-35 by the day. Most encouraging when people who appear to know what they’re talking about provide such compelling perspectives. Carry on like this and you could end up getting David Cameron re-elected! (Only kidding.)

Jeremy M H
January 28, 2013 11:56 pm


I agree with that 100%. It makes sense for the US which has to buy targeting pods and what not on such a scale that you might as well just put them in the damn airplane and be done with it.

For others I actually think it is a positive in as much as it gives your politicians far less options to do things like that. It takes away the “fitted for but not with” aspect of things and because the vast majority of the upgrades (at least until there is a new engine for the thing) will be software pushes you are in good shape for staying on the cutting edge for quite some time regardless of what your politicians think about the issue. To me that is the best part of F-35 as an export customer but I am admittedly looking at it from a capability side rather than a cost side.

January 29, 2013 9:33 am

@ mark

One of the advantages of the F35 system is that its suppose to be able to deliver more usable aircraft and need less attritional spares I.e. no two seat trainers. This is good given its uber cost. I would have to say that only buying 20 pods for 40 planes seems like a false economy ( just the kind we tend to make). In terms of performance we need a slightly over weight stealthy bomb truck to replace harrier. The us had the same requirement until it f**ked up the F 22 as the aircraft was designed for the US and UK req that’s why it looks the way it does. I agree that this is not what many nations like Japan and Canada need but its not really our problem. Unlike Typhoon which probably is the aircraft they need F35 seems to have little in the way of problems getting export orders.

I would also have to suggest that given modern SAM threats both ours and Russians having clean aircraft like F16 doing a2a seems unlikely.

January 29, 2013 9:51 am

I think what Mark is getting at is the fact that it could be advantageous to be able to remove parts of the F35 systems to create a cheaper product.

It’s like buying the “Elite” version of a car and not having the “Sport”, “Club” or “Life” versions available for those that don’t want integrated satnav, phone, alloys and Xenon headlights… all things that you can fit at a later date when finances dictate.

I guess there maybe some systems that are dependent on the platform to “fit” (in a logical and physical perspective) but I don’t think there are that many.

January 29, 2013 10:02 am

Thinking about the EOTS… why weigh yourself down with 200kg of targeting equipment when you are just defending the air?

Perhaps it weighs much less when integrated into the chin of the F35. However, you’re still lugging stuff around that isn’t strictly necessary for all missions.

Software is a different matter because it doesn’t weigh anything. ;-)

January 29, 2013 10:11 am

Again I would suggest if your buying the F35 for air defence you are probably buying the wrong thing. I know for us its envisaged for fleet air defence but when was the last time we even had such a capability 2006 ? Its really a secondary role. One could also argue that over the sea BVR is even more important and I think in BVR the F35 will be excellent. I would seriously doubt its possible to build a 5th gen aircraft without having integrated targetting pods.

January 29, 2013 10:44 am


Well fleet air defence is still air defence.

As for 5th gen pods. I suppose you’re right simply because of the assumed definition of what a 5th gen aircraft actually is. All controversial but…

High maneuverability ;-)
Advanced avionics
Networked data fusion from sensors and avionics
Multirole capabilities

Stumbled on an interesting factoid (wiki – so debatable) that 80% of the cost of the F15E is avionics. Somewhat backs up Mark’s idea.

Alan Garner
January 29, 2013 1:21 pm

Taken from the very little I know about these types of collaborations and procurements, weren’t the Panvia and Eurofighter consortium’s both considered failures in terms of price and delay, if not the performance of what they finally produced? It looks very likely, whatever the aircraft performance, the F35 will also fail on these measures. You may see where I’m going with this but were there these kinds of delay and cost overruns with the Harrier program? Not on the same scale I’d wager.

Could the case be made for an export underwritten indigenous fast jet program when the time comes to replace Typhoon and Lightning 2? How many single requirement + licence built contract programs have failed to make money worldwide? How many multi requirement multi nation programs fail to lose money?

I’m sure there are many political reasons for entering multinational, especially US-UK, programs. But how much political capital was lost licencing Harriers to the USMC (if anything capital was gained)? How much would be lost licencing a future design around the world, and would it be worth the ire of LM, Boeing, Dassault, and political friends/advocates for the profits gained?

Jeremy M H
January 29, 2013 2:40 pm


I don’t see it. I don’t think the UK (or anyone else) does any better with a high end fighter development program. Like everyone else the major defense programs in the UK have all gone well over budget.

The Harrier was simply an aircraft from a different time. You could afford to build a very limited A version of it then fix all the problems and build the B version later. If you tried that today you would get hammered politically. More than that no one can get away with buying a specialist aircraft like the Harrier or the A-10 anymore. The money is just not there.

January 29, 2013 3:15 pm

@ Alan

TSR 2 was a pretty big cluster f**k. I am sure by the rapid acquisition now of SU 35 that the Chinese are not finding it easy to get a bargain price 5th gen plane either. I think we have to realise this stuff is really difficult and as Jeremy points out we can’t afford a dozen special planes. Acquisition cost may be high put sustainment should be lower. It’s been a long time since a new aircraft came out that was totally useless. How many came out in the 20’s 30’s and 40’s that were a waste of time and never really used

January 29, 2013 4:09 pm

Isn’t the type 45 for air defense? I thought the f-35 was for strike capability.

January 29, 2013 4:18 pm

@ JS – Primarily it is but it will also provide fleet defence with AMRAAM hopefully meteor and a nice big AESA radar it should do a pretty good job.

Jeremy M H
January 29, 2013 4:27 pm


You don’t defend a task force at sea with just one level of defense. F-35 will handle both missions.

January 29, 2013 4:40 pm

Suppose we had twice the number of type 45s. Could you then defend a task force? You can buy a new type 45 for the price of just 4-5 F-35s.

January 29, 2013 4:49 pm

Monty. Am right in saying you are quoting a study performed by a commercial entity for several military jets whose performance characteristics are not in the public domain (any design documentation will be classified exact performance figures will be top secret) based on a simulator with what pedigree, how accurate is the simulator, was it written by a company that specialises in military simulators?

Not a Boffin
January 29, 2013 6:02 pm

Fixed wing aircraft do defensive things that AD ships cannot do. Non-lethal interception and warning for a kick-off. Visual ident of a non-identified target for another. Shoot the archer, not the arrow is always a good motto if it all kicks off.

What people often miss is that you can also provide air defence of ground forces during an operation, until the point comes (if it does) that land-based air can/should take over.

Unfortunately there are a number of rather naive / ignorant folk in MoD, HMT and elsewhere who don’t understand the concept of layered defences and believe that capability can most efficiently be delivered by single systems.

January 29, 2013 7:52 pm


The point I was making is that the option to add systems later is advantagous for cost, speed of service entry and long term capability. This is significantly more difficult on low observable a/c and cost will be higher. If for example only 1/3 of your fleet is at readiness to deploy having all you fleet fully equipped all the time could be considered wasteful. F35 may have less a/c in attrition and less in the training fleet but it will have some. If as TD suggests we stop at 40-50 a/c we looking at a very small fleet available it would not be sustainable and you would have to questions its worth or indeed if these funds would not be better used else were.

This is a presentation of fatigue issues on f35.


Jeremy M H
January 29, 2013 8:09 pm


I like that phrase, shoot the archer not the arrow. Very applicable.

That is the biggest thing here. If you are dealing with Anti-shipping missiles your inbound targets in many cases will multiply from a dozen planes to two dozen or more missiles. More than that if you can shoot at the planes carrying heavy anti-shipping weapons before they are in range they are more likely than not going to have to ditch the weapons to evade you. Even if your CAP can only get a few of them it can cause massive problems for anything but the most determined attacker.


Yeah, I don’t think more Type 45’s does it unless you are talking about a carrier escort group of at least 3 which would let you send at least one well down the suspected threat axis to act as a missile trap. Still it is not really a good substitute for a strong CAP.

January 29, 2013 8:16 pm

You could have a carrier escort group of many more than 3. You could probably buy something like 20 type-45s for the price of the carrier/f-35 program. Use tomahawks and UAVs for the ground attack. You don’t need a cutting edge fighter to provide “Non-lethal interception and warning for a kick-off. Visual ident of a non-identified target.” An old clunker can do that. I’m just playing devil’s advocate for fun.

January 29, 2013 9:24 pm


It’s an interesting question and how or what the uk sees as its deployed requirements. Cost will be a issue no question but like with type 26 if the numbers and cost can’t be made to work then its the wrong aircraft to buy. For me it would be in and around the size of the harrier fleet we had which was in the region of 72 a/c this would allow a sustained capability with that fleet.

The final size of the typhoon fleet will be important. The current contracted typhoon fleet is roughly similar in size to the pre sdsr gr4 fleet so should be able to support a similar sized force. However the need to support the qra requirements would impact typhoons ability to sustain a significant (a afghan sqn sized) deployment indefinitely wihile providing further contingency such as a Libya sized gr4 requirement. This would fit with the planning assumptions of a enduring medium scale commitment and a further two small scale intervention operations as well as standing tasks.

January 29, 2013 10:25 pm


Can you enlighten us as to how many aircraft 72 aircraft can keep in the sky 24-7-52-etc?

I was under the impression that you need about 1/3 of your fleet as “frame swap” sustainment and around 12 (average) front line aircraft to keep a single pair airborne. So, 18 jets will keep 2 in the air until their air-hours are up. Add to this a few for conversion training and you’re at the minimum 22-24 to give you about a decade of service?

In addition you need about 25 air crew per jet to sustain the front-line capability and the same again working in “sustainment”?

Is this in the right ballpark?

January 29, 2013 10:37 pm

@ Mark/TD

‘It’s an interesting question and how or what the uk sees as its deployed requirements. ‘

I think that’s the key, what do we expect to do with them? Then we can fill in the blanks. I think it’s hard to read across from other platforms to L2 as it’s quite different. The lack of twin stickers will change the numbers as will the huge increase in simulators. Other issues such as maint hours per flown hour will have an impact, has this been released yet? I know it has for A400M* I’ve no doubt LM will claim ultra low maint hours, but then they all say that ;)

As Mark suggested in the outline above, my thinking in terms of numbers to meet that sort of ops and length of operations I think 65 would be about the number needed. But I suppose we’re all guessing.

* @ Mark
I believe it’s now completed it’s latest test phase hopping around Europe. From what I heard on the grapevine it was impressive, high level of servicability throughout.

January 29, 2013 10:38 pm

If F35 numbers come down to 50-80 is there any gain in it staying purple?
Wouldnt it be more efficient to let the FAA get on with F35 and the RAF concentrate on Typhoon?

January 29, 2013 10:40 pm

@ Simon

‘Can you enlighten us as to how many aircraft 72 aircraft can keep in the sky 24-7-52-etc?’

You mean similar to SAC during the cold war?

January 29, 2013 10:44 pm

@ Chris M

When you say ‘efficient’ what do you mean by it?

January 29, 2013 10:49 pm


Not my area I’m afraid but I don’t think deployed operation work that way it will be sorties generated per day, the tonka detachment in afghan keeps more than 2 aircraft employed. Harrier did ok with a 72 a/c force once the ~2008? Review cut numbers to about 50 it struggled. The US are planning to fly about 305hrs per year each giving a 25 year life. For training purposes your looking at 50% of time in a sim. 25 aircrew per jet seems rather large don’t think they have that many pilots in a sqn

Topman yes heard that to by all accounts it went well. Hopefully they can move forward at a quicker pace now.

January 29, 2013 10:52 pm

Surely it has to be better to have them under one organisation rather than have two dicking about trying to score points? No one else to blame for a start.

January 29, 2013 10:54 pm

For ops it’s generally FH per month.

January 29, 2013 11:01 pm

@ Chris M

I know what you mean now. I’ll say no more, but of a rabbit hole that one ;)

John Hartley
January 29, 2013 11:11 pm

Just been comparing QE/PoW with the American Midway class carriers. Nigh on identical size & displacement. Both conventionally powered, yet the Midways had two/three catapults. Typical 1980s Midway airgroup, 48 F/A-18s, 10 A-6E Intruders, 4 KA-6D tankers, 4 EA-6B Prowlers, 4 E-2C Hawkeyes + 6 Sea Kings.
Makes the QE/PoW airgroups look feeble.

January 30, 2013 12:32 am


When you spoke about what Typhoon can be expected to handle were you using a figure of 107 airframes? I agree that a lot of the questions hanging over the UK’s F35 purchase do depend on the eventual size and shape of the Typhoon fleet.

I also agree that around 50 F35B is just too low to factor in safety margins for attrition and maintenance. Nor is it enough to get a decent lifespan out of the airframes in general, better to spend more money at the front end of the project than later on.

Although I side with TD in thinking that it would be hard to justify a fleet of more than 80 under current planning assumptions. You could maybe take the number to 100 if Typhoon got no further investment and/or had it’s numbers salami sliced, but I think that’s about it.

January 30, 2013 12:45 am


‘If F35 numbers come down to 50-80 is there any gain in it staying purple? Wouldnt it be more efficient to let the FAA get on with F35 and the RAF concentrate on Typhoon?’

I once had some sympathy for that idea, but I can see 3 very good reasons why it’s not the way to go.

Firstly the FAA can barely keep it’s dwindling stock of helicopters running, let alone dozens of fifth generation fighter-jets. Without a major investment of manpower and cash its just not feasible. Is it worth all of the re-training and moving stuff around?

Secondly the number of F35B in UK service is unlikely to stay at 50 forever, it’s just not enough to operate an effective fleet. Most people think that the number will eventually rise to at least 70, possibly 100+ airframes, thus making it far more viable for both the RAF and FAA to get a fair share.

Thirdly it goes against the spirit of ‘joint force’. We are no longer in a position where doubling up on people and equipment and having distinct services operating similar units for similar roles is acceptable.

I believe that the F35B force will initially be largely dedicated to carrier ops through it’s restrictive numbers and the priority attached to making use of QE/POW, but after the mid 2020’s we will see a gradual build up to a larger fleet that increasingly splits it’s time between the 2 services, perhaps with an eventual 2-3 RAF squadrons and 1-2 FAA squadrons in operation. Jam tomorrow and jam for all, that’s the dream!

Aussie Johnno
January 30, 2013 1:51 am

A thought, what sort of production life are the F-35B or F-35C likely to have? Doubtless the F-35A will remain in production for several decades and just as with the F-16, in 2032 we will be talking about the highly evolved 2 seat F-35ZA, but what prospects for the B or the C?
The C is looking for all the world like a one customer aircraft. The USN will take what it politically needs to and then move on to an aircraft it really likes.
With the B, the current customers are The Marines, the UK and Italy. Once the Marines have taken their fill, you can only see the unique aspects of the F-35B costs escalating further.
The assumption being made is that you can make an initial buy and the top up. The question is what will those top ups cost?

January 30, 2013 7:08 am


I was considering typhoon as a 7 Sqn force. So more than 100 airframes.

January 30, 2013 10:22 am

Mark, All,

Sorry, got carried away. 25 aircrew per airframe is for surge only. Generally it is more like 150* + pilots per squadron front line and some more behind the scenes in sustainment.

* Based on 25 maintenance hours per flight hour (this is the bit I was worried about with the F35B stats, it seems much, much more) and 48 flight hours, per squadron, per day.

January 30, 2013 10:44 am

John Hartley,

Midway packed about a third of the aviation fuel as QE/PoW before requiring refuel, so probably needed refueling every couple of days.

Her final airgroup in Desert Storm was 3 F18 squadrons and 2 A6 squadrons with a few Sea Kings and (I presume) some Hawkeye, so about 66 aircraft.

I’d suggest that if QE/PoW were operating smaller aircraft like the F18 or A6 they too would manage in the region of 60.

It would be interesting to find out how many Super-Hornets the USN would have put on Midway (I’d guess only two squadrons)?

January 30, 2013 4:49 pm


As a very rough estimate, and assuming you wanted to effectively manage and maintain the fleet to beyond 2030 instead of running it into the ground, I think you would need 130-140 Typhoon to keep you’re 7 squadrons, Falklands flight and a operational conversion unit going whilst keeping enough back for attrition, rotation to minimise flight hours on the airframes etc.


Is the idea of keeping some or all tranche 1 Typhoon’s in service longer pure fantasy, and if it is then why are their increasing rumours that this is something the RAF might be considering?

January 30, 2013 5:05 pm

@Challenger I’ve lost track of how many Typhoons we will end up with in total if we keep at T1s and complete our committed purchases and also how that fits with Tornado OSD and F35B intros. Whilst I don’t see an overall fast jet fleet of much more than 150 in the long term, I’m open to debate about keeping the T1s, accelerating retirement of Tornados or other options. Surely the T1s can do a QRA / FI job at least for the immediate future. Don’t think we’d get anything for them – seems a wasted investment otherwise (now there’s a novelty)

January 30, 2013 5:27 pm


We are contracted to purchase 160 Typhoon’s, 1 T1 was lost in a training accident over in the States leaving 159 of which 52 are supposed to leave service around 2019 to leave 107 newer/more advanced models. I think that’s the simplified gist of it!

I think most people wouldn’t argue with the T1’s being capable of QRA work, it’s just a case of whether it’s physically viable to keep them in service longer.

You’re right we wouldn’t get a lot for them, most potential customers would prefer new T2/T3 versions and in any case I think the purchase price would be fairly insignificant compared to what it cost us in the first place.

It’s important to speculate on Typhoon’s future because what happens will have a direct influence on our F35 plans. With 160 Typhoon’s we obviously wouldn’t need or want as many F35, but then again would buying a mere 48 airframes be sufficient for us to stake a claim in the wider project from an American point of view?

It’s never simple is it!

January 30, 2013 5:56 pm

@challenger, thanks

We need money in a number of areas, MPA, additional RN escorts (or OPVS!), additional airlift, crowsnest and copters in general spring to mind.

Don’t we have around 200-220 fast jets at present – incl T1-T3 plus Tornado?

Should we be setting a number now of say 160 and reduce numbers more quickly, letting T3 replace Tornados and then F35B replace T1s – ending up with c 107+48, then perhaps 100+60, 90+70 ultimately before view is taken on T3 replacement. I suppose if the Tornados are in better nick than the T1s that could switch round.

If we are going to have to get used to 160 fast jets, start now perhaps and reinvest elsewhere?

January 30, 2013 6:00 pm


I’m a little confused by what you mean aircrew. If you mean pilots then I would guess a standard 12 a/c sqn would have around 16 pilots assigned the major coalition ops usually like a 2 to 1 ratio of pilots to aircraft from reading about ops in Iraq.

Challenger the tranche 1 r2 program involved 43 a/c I would suggest that is the number your looking at going fwd in retaining that tranche.

Mickp if you want to stay at 160 a/c simply park f35 purchases to 2030 and accept reduced ability to provide air cover to deployed forces

January 30, 2013 6:28 pm

Where does a fast jet UCAV fit in to the numbers game? Surely a upscaled production Taranis is the true replacement for the Tornado? Particularly as it won’t be able to undertake air defence missions.

Peter Elliott
January 30, 2013 6:30 pm

@ Mark

So from where you are sitting the likely 2020 FJ numbers look like:

(107+43)+48 = 198

Does that number seem like enough to do the given tasks?

If not (or if more Typoons get lost along the way) what would you choose for a top up?

T3b Typhoon – with AESA and Conformals?
More F35B? – to give enough for both RN and RAF use
F35C? – because its a better Tornado replacement

January 30, 2013 6:37 pm

@ Tom

When there is a “real” system to purchase which is a decade or more away if that.

Jeremy M H
January 30, 2013 6:49 pm


I think any talk of deploying Taranis as a viable combat system is drastically premature. It is basically in the demonstration phase and we can’t even really be sure where it is in that process as it only just started flying in 2013. It may or may not happen and cannot at this point be treated as a sure thing in any sense. A lot of funding (and for practical combat application a lot of testing and infrastructure development) would have to be done to place it into service.

January 30, 2013 6:56 pm


Most likely around that number don’t know the delivery schedule for f35 but I guess the tornado rundown will start in about 12 months time so it will be in flux for a while.

The raf works on the same rotation requirements as the army eg for sustained ops (10 years Iraq no fly, 10 years afghan, 4 years Bosnia) requiring a sqn deployment usually means 5 sqns total personnel wise. 3 qra taskings essentially requires 2 -3 sqns worth of personel. What tasking requirements over and above that give you end number.

Depends on how important carrier aviation is to the future requirements.

January 30, 2013 7:10 pm

@x and Jeremy MH – Sorry didn’t mean to say Taranis itself, but given that people are trying to predict FJ numbers beyond what is known, we must be getting to the territory where somekind of UCAV is going to start coming into the force mix of FJs?

January 30, 2013 7:30 pm

@Mark. I’d have F35B deployable (on CVF) and enough Typhoon for Air defence / QRA (UK and FI)as the non negotiable core. I’m talking about cutting Tornado earlier and retiring the T1 Typhoons in conjunction with F35 buy – if there is a money saving benefit. I think 107 T3s and 48 F35s is sufficient to meet my non negotiables, in fact more than a bare minimum. Over time we’d perhaps see more F35s

January 30, 2013 7:33 pm

@ Tom

I didn’t mean Taranis specifically. The OSD of Typhoon and Tornado are known. Yes the former that is 17 years or so away and who knows what will happen?

When the US get a UCAV in the air, in a squadron that is in service not as prototype, then “we” will be able to discuss one for the RAF (or the Land Arm of the FAA as it will be known as by then…)

Not a Boffin
January 30, 2013 7:34 pm

Midway’s last big conversion (SCB 101.66) left her with 1.2M gallons of JP5 capacity, which I would suggest is a little more than QEC has F44 bunkers for.

However, Simon is correct, that ship can carry & operate more than 40 cabs. Trouble is to really operate them (ie turn them round) you’d need more chockheads, bombheads etc, which we haven’t currently got accommodation for.

Jeremy M H
January 30, 2013 7:54 pm


Honestly, I am not sure what to make of European UAV development. On the one hand it is critical to get into the game as it is going to be a major fraction of the aerospace business in the military sector moving ahead. But I am not yet convinced they will replace manned systems as soon as many think on the majority of strike missions. In particular I think data transmission rates on satellites will make it very challenging for smaller nations to reliably operate such aircraft in large numbers so I don’t think it can replace manned aircraft anytime soon.

January 30, 2013 9:41 pm


That’s a huge increase in fuel stores for Midway during her life!

However, 1.2m US gallons is 4.5m liters which I make about 3600 tonnes. So, sorry, Mr John Hartley, you were very much more correct than I thought. CVF may as well be the 4th and 5th Midway.

Can’t quite figure how they get 15000nm at 20kts out of them whilst CVF is only supposed to go 10000nm at 15kts? Looks like some sneaky use of aviation fuel in the boilers.

John Hartley
January 30, 2013 11:10 pm

The main change between the Midway & the QE is crew numbers. Midways had 4500 approx. QE is a third of that, around 1450.

January 30, 2013 11:23 pm


‘I suppose if the Tornados are in better nick than the T1s that could switch round’

The Tornado’s are getting rather old and I don’t think any appetite exists to try and keep three types of fast jet running, we will likely struggle to keep two!

‘If we are going to have to get used to 160 fast jets, start now perhaps and reinvest elsewhere?’

I personally don’t think 160 fast jets is an adequate number if we are going to try and simultaneously run QRA in the UK/Falklands, a credible carrier force, have a land based expeditionary capability and keep to the same standard of training and maintenance that’s currently seen as acceptable.

I think around 200 airframes is what we need, that’s what the combined Tornado/Typhoon fleets currently has to play with and their doesn’t seem to be anything else to cut, not without sacrificing planned capabilities.


‘the tranche 1 r2 program involved 43 a/c’

Thanks! Still sounds like enough to make themselves useful on QRA if it’s at all possible.

@Tom + Jeremy M H

On UCAV’s everything does seem quite hazy, I agree their is little point in making strong statements on what we may or may not eventually get because it’s just too early to tell. Although at the same time, whether it’s Taranis or something else I do think we will eventually see a degree of UCAV capability that’s primarily sold as a belated Tornado replacement for long-range strike.


I personally see a firm justification for up-to 200 fast jets. So that broadly means either 107 T2/T3 Typhoon and an eventual 80-100 Lightnings, or preferably 140-150 Typhoon and 50-60 Lightning in service up until 2030 before which further decisions on the future fleet can be taken.

January 30, 2013 11:44 pm


On 160 I was sacrificing a large (but not all) land based expeditionary capability in the short term to get MPA / ISTAR / airlift up to scratch. In a coalition op, these would be what we bring to the party (with carrier air) instead of land based fast air, also TLAM across the fleet, Apache and ultimately UAVs. For sole ops (and I’m only thinking FI here), then its carrier air anyway. I was thinking balanced capability rather than an excess of something and gaps elsewhere

I think we could end up around 180 or so – 107 Typhoon and 70 Lightning. Not sure T1 Typhoon will last to 2030?

Not a Boffin
January 30, 2013 11:44 pm

The main difference twixt Midway and QE is that Midway was designed as an axial deck carrier with an airgroup north of 100 aircraft in 1943 and served till the 90s with an airgroup in the high 60s, low 70s.

QE has been designed to operate 40+ aircraft in 2012……..

January 31, 2013 12:01 am

@ mick p

‘Not sure T1 Typhoon will last to 2030?’ More a question of whether we want to pay for it or not.

January 31, 2013 1:11 am


‘I was thinking balanced capability rather than an excess of something and gaps elsewhere’

I don’t totally disagree, I have long thought that our priority should be bringing the more niche stuff to the party whilst relying more on other partner nations to provide the bread and butter troops, fast jets etc. Although as you said we are talking about a balance here, we should still strive to retain some vestige of broader capability to feasibly take action without large-scale international support.

Anything below 180-200 jets and I think you would need to curtail certain planning assumptions and by extension reduce front-line capabilities. I think the only essential difference here is that you’re seemingly OK with that whilst I’m not.

With around 100 Typhoon’s tied up with QRA and only able to generate the smallest of expeditionary groups for either a solo or coalition effort that leaves the planned 48 Lightnings (at least initially) bearing the brunt. I’m seriously dubious about just what level of force can be extracted and utilised from such a small fleet.

January 31, 2013 6:05 am


I was coming at it from the angle that if the cake doesn’t get any bigger, then something has to give to allow what I view as crucial capability gaps to be filled. RAF fast jet fleet is one area that could be considered, accepting that it may reduce some options under planning assumptions. Hopefully in today’s equipment announcement, we get everything! I agree on 200 fast jets ideally, in the same way as the navy probably needs more than 19 DD/FFs

January 31, 2013 7:57 am


Ok but then you don’t like the cheapest way to achieve your aim and losing the least capability. That is add a few more typhoon onto the end of the order an maintain 160 typhoon and kick f35 a decade down the road. A large force can always squeeze a bit more out than 2 small ones. By p8 instead of f35 and let the navy fly it if they can generate enough people to do it.

January 31, 2013 8:35 am

@Mark – scrap / sell CVF then?

John Hartley
January 31, 2013 8:56 am

At a time of austerity, the public does not want to see billions spent on something, only to see it scrapped just before it comes into service. After the Nimrod MRA4, if you scrap CVF, then forget any new large defence projects for a generation.

January 31, 2013 9:44 am

@JH totally agree

When I am talking about reducing fast jet numbers to an acceptable minimum to eek out ways of freeing up money for other capability gaps the buy of f35b to equip cvfs is not for debate in my view. That is our core expeditionary capability. So if there is any reduction I don’t see kicking F35 out to 2030 can be on the table

January 31, 2013 10:41 am

For 10 odd years you have the large helicopter assualt vessels. I thought mpa was the highest priority to replace for the navy.

January 31, 2013 10:53 am

@John Hartley and mickp – I’m going to surprise many here by disagreeing with you and supporting Mark’s notion of kicking F35B into the long grass. While I fully support your view of carrier air being the core of our future expeditionary capability, the key word there is “future.” The F35B is still a very troubled program, there’s still a lot wrong with it. We still have no idea of just how capable it will be, how much it will cost, and therefore how many we can afford. There’s no rush with CVF – they’ll be around for 50 years. So I say let the marines get F35B into service; take it to sea, iron out the kinks, find out just what it can and can’t do. We are contracted to carry on buying small LRIP numbers which I’m fine with; 48 F35B will provide plenty of CAS assets for a future 2/3 buy of LHD and give RAF more options for deployments abroad.

If say in 2030ish we decide that F35B is not good enough/too expensive, then we say no thanks and buy F35A for RAF and bite the bullet and either convert QE/PoW to cats n traps or order batch two from scratch. We can use those designs the French paid for! Then go for the best carrier airgroup we can afford, who knows what might be on the menu in 20 years time?

So what do we do with CVF in the meantime? Precisely what I suspect is now intended for them: one active, basically as an LPH with a fast jet contingent but never more than 12 unless there’s a flap on, possibly acting as a platform for coalition jets – marines/Italian/Spanish, while the other is “in readiness” with just a small crew to keep things ticking over, again unless a flap develops and both are made active. A terrible waste of money – certainly, but what’s new? Unlike TD I do not rejoice in saying I told you so, so I will leave each of you to decide for yourselves whether it would have been better to build CATOBAR ships in the first place instead of STOVL ships.

January 31, 2013 11:49 am

The only thing I’d add to pushing F35B to 2030 is that who is going to provide expeditionary jet power if there is no airfield?

Will the French keep CdG available till then? I doubt it.

We (the EU) sort of need CVF with jets available by 2020 ish in order to have any credible expeditionary capability without the USA lending a somewhat large hand in things they may not give a hoot about.

We’d be much safer as a nation and as part of the EU (or NATO) if CVF were CATOBAR. And that is based on the UK owning absolutely zero CATOBAR capable aircraft – CVF simply plays host to Rafale and F18s from other nations.

January 31, 2013 11:51 am

Problem with kicking F-35 down the road is that it needs research funding NOW! not in 10 years time. Declining to participate will actually reduce the chance of a workable plane in service and is more than likely to see the whole thing cancelled.

Anyway, the money is already tossed into the pot, no getting it back until the plane actually gets into service.

January 31, 2013 12:18 pm


‘it would have been better to build CATOBAR ships in the first place instead of STOVL ships’

Yes of course, a load of cheaper Super Hornets back at the beginning with the necessary catapults and Hawk-eye’s to create a cohesive carrier package, lovely!

Except that was a hell of a long time ago. I see little point in whining about the decision now, better to make the most of what we are getting instead of dreaming about that which we will never see.

January 31, 2013 12:34 pm


I agree with you that 100 or so Typhoon’s for QRA and maybe some limited expeditionary ability, plus 48 F35B for carrier ops are the absolute core capabilities that cannot be touched.

I also recognise that without enough money for both 200 fast jets and decent MPA/ISTAR/Heavy lift then it will be a case of taking from Peter to pay Paul. My only real point is that if it comes to making the tough decisions on who gets what funded and we reduce our fast jet ambitions to roughly 150-160 airframes then we will have to make some further tough decisions on what we can and can’t do.

So I hope we can keep to our current planning assumptions and related capabilities…but I agree that if money gets any tighter then all bets are off!

January 31, 2013 12:43 pm


I think we are on the same page. I haven’t seen any detail of the 10 year plan yet but I fear there will be no real new money

Some days I even start to question (and for me it has always been a total untouchable)whether we should in fact scrap CASD and reinvest in substantial increases in conventional forces as being more relevant. Even then though, the MOD would not get the money!

Peter Elliott
January 31, 2013 1:36 pm


“Depends on how important carrier aviation is to the future requirements.”

And presumably also on the relative unit costs of F35B and a fully evolved Tranche 3b Typhoon – neither of which is a known number at this stage.

January 31, 2013 1:38 pm

“The only thing I’d add to pushing F35B to 2030 is that who is going to provide expeditionary jet power if there is no airfield?” – If we can’t provide air cover then we don’t go.

If the rest of the EU want carrier air then they are welcome to subsidise it; perhaps our NATO allies might like to pitch in? Ah, thought not.

“Except that was a hell of a long time ago. I see little point in whining about the decision now,” – No it wasn’t and whose whining?

Gloomy Northern Boy
January 31, 2013 2:31 pm

@Mick P – I fear that scrapping CASD for the modest increase in conventional forces that it would buy would be a huge strategic error unless it is a part of our scaling down to self-defence only – in which case we wouldn’t need the extra conventional forces in any event – we could manage with the minimum number of F/J Squadrons to patrol our direct airspace, an offshore patrol navy, and a Crown Militia; a perfectly reasonable option, although not one I would favour – not least because I think it would make it all but impossible to sustain our overseas interests and territories in the medium and long term and cost us our role in the G20; resulting in future generations being poorer and having less life chances generation on generation.

In my view it is the combination of CASD + very small but highly effective conventional forces that keeps us on the UNSC – and from that our other “Top Table” places flow – allowing us to defend our worldwide interests and territories effectively and keeping us (comparatively) rich and (comparatively) independent of others. The modest increase in conventional defence expenditure netted by abandoning CASD would not cut it, and the UNSC Seat for Western Europe would fall to France – Brazil would bid for and almost certainly get ours. They would by then be much more useful to the US than us, and less of a problem for China or Russia than India.

Again, in my view the only way we might avoid this outcome is if we built up our conventional forces massively – with 300 million people the Cousins have 2-3 million in uniform; with our 60 million people the equivalent number for us would be 400-600,000 and that might do it – I stress might, because I am not convinced.

Mind you, those are excellent reasons to argue that Trident II is about our role in the world and long-term future – a national strategic decision with ramifications “right across the piste” – and indeed off-piste dodging the trees! – and therefore doesn’t belong on the MoD Budget…

Got to be worth a try.

Jeremy M H
January 31, 2013 2:31 pm


I would say the cost for the F-35B are just as well known, if not more so, than a fully evolved Typhoon and you get an aircraft that is vastly more capable in a number of ways. At some point someone has to buy the an AESA radar and pay to have it integrated into the Eurofighter and so far no one has agreed to cut that check as far as I can tell. This development has cost and that has to be amortized over a certain number of aircraft. Just how much will a fully evolved Typhoon cost?

January 31, 2013 2:40 pm


You’re advocacy of CATOBAR seemed to also suggest that it would have been much easier to go down that route originally rather than faff around with the current set-up…well yes I won’t argue with that.

What I will argue with is the fact that the original decisions to build the ships without catapults, to buy into the F35 programme and as a result sacrifice any way of having Hawk-eye were all taken more than a decade ago.

So when I say whining I mean lamenting after lost possibilities that are firmly in the past instead of looking at what we have, what we are going to get and the best way to use them.

January 31, 2013 3:16 pm


Re: lamenting and looking forward.

Would be nice to see some heads roll though. It’s normally considered gross negligence in anything other than defence procurement.

Jeremy M H
January 31, 2013 3:40 pm

I tend to agree with Challenger that you have to make the best of what you are getting. But more than that I don’t think the UK gives up a ton, other than E-2 which I am not sure you would have bought anyway in this environment, going to CATOBAR.

I don’t think that for the majority of the missions the UK will fly the F-35B will put it at a significant operational deficiency to the F-35C. For the USN in there is a big difference. This is primarily due to 2 weapons (JSOW and JASSM) that because of pylon and internal carry restrictions are really impacted by the B to C differences. The UK is not really dealing with those particulars. As an Air Defense fighter and strike aircraft (with the weapons the UK has) the B will do just fine.

The loss of CATOBAR for the UK is really only important in my view looking at the absence of E-2 and its potential impact on UAV operations. But there is not much you can do about it at this point and I think the reality is that the UK (and Europe) have their plate full trying to digest current UAV programs (mostly a MALE project to do what MQ-9’s can already do but that is another subject for another day) and get carriers into the water period that those things are a long way out and probably never occur.

F-35B will be the bane of any navy trying to go to CATOBAR because it is going to offer a huge percentage of the F-35C’s combat capability and one is swimming upstream trying to convince political types that carriers do anything but serve as a mobile airfield for pointy jets.

January 31, 2013 4:01 pm

“F-35B will be the bane of any navy trying to go to CATOBAR because it is going to offer a huge percentage of the F-35C’s combat capability”

And what if the other guy went pure F-35C or analog?

In hindsight, LM might have been better off developing a pure F-35 non-VTOL first, get it out on market, then try stuffing in the VTOL. You won’t get 100% compatability, but you’ll still get massive parts commonality. Face it, most of the rest of the world using or planning to use the F-35 have absolutely no intention of using VTOL other than France, UK and US. This would have fast tracked a lot of structural problems, though how the software part would be affected, I’ve no idea.

January 31, 2013 4:29 pm


I have no problem with ‘heads rolling’!

@Jeremy M H

‘But more than that I don’t think the UK gives up a ton, other than E-2 which I am not sure you would have bought anyway in this environment, going to CATOBAR’

Exactly, as lovely and brilliant as E-2 is it’s pretty expensive, id have been surprised to have seen us ditch Crowsnest/Merlin in favour of pursuing something so high-end and pricey during the current economic climate.

You’re right in saying that the F35B will do us just fine. Sure it’s not an all singing all dancing strike platform, but the only reason the Americans really require that is for the Pacific. I think anyone would have a hard time justifying why the UK would ever NEED that kind of capability, as lovely as it may be!

January 31, 2013 4:33 pm

I believe the decision to go with a STOVL design -ahem- which would be easily adaptable -ahem- to cats n traps was taken in 2002. Steel not cut until years later. Anyone who thinks that was ages ago must be younger than the majority of my socks.

“I would say the cost for the F-35B are just as well known, if not more so, than a fully evolved Typhoon and you get an aircraft that is vastly more capable in a number of ways” – With respect, I think that’s b*ll*cks. A fully evolved F35B will cost how much – will be available when – and will feature what capabilities? Are you forgetting that the F35 is only a third of the way through flight testing and expectations have already had to be reduced?

I want F35B to be a roaring success, and to cost a shilling each. But let’s be realistic and not make silly unfounded statements about how great it WILL be when we mean how great we HOPE it will be. Oh, and what’s happened to having a Plan B?

January 31, 2013 4:35 pm


I only mentioned CASD as it is frustrating for the reasons you say that it sits entirely in the MOD budget. I’m a strong supporter of CASD

I suppose the other option you haven’t covered, for completeness, is keep the subs and have a militia – ie self defence and trident so bin the expeditionary stuff

Not a fan of that either but I’m sure some may be!

Peter Elliott
January 31, 2013 4:41 pm

OK – so instead of lamenting E-2 lets consider what we could achieve cost effectively.

If we could get something like a hummingbird to lift a vigilence pod to 9,000m into the sky we would have a pretty kick-arse AEW capability that networks directly to the Fast Jets and, presumably, to the carrier’s control room.

January 31, 2013 5:17 pm


‘Anyone who thinks that was ages ago must be younger than the majority of my socks’

Well in all fairness I don’t know how old you’re socks are!

2002 may not be long ago for you or me, but it’s a hell of a lot longer in the world of defence and politics.

We have established the you would have gone CATOBAR in 2002. However what would you do now in 2013 to rectify the situation?

January 31, 2013 5:27 pm

@Observer: V/STOL is not something that you can tack on. It impacts just too much, and given the JSF’s requirements, the absolute first thing a non-VSTOL design would have done is go for twin engines…which would make VSTOL impossible. Now, if they wanted to develop a non-VSTOL aircraft, then develop a single engined, much lighter “Harrier 3” using most of the same components, I think that would have worked well

January 31, 2013 5:52 pm

“However what would you do now in 2013 to rectify the situation?” – It would be far too simplistic to say go cats n traps, that horse has bolted. Hang on, horse, that’s it! Put next years equipment budget on a horse. Can’t be a bigger gamble than what we’re doing – 10 year capability gap to be plugged by putting all our money on F35B, a filly of no providence who is known to blow a bit in the gallops and is a bit short on stamina, although her owners swear by her.

Is it considered bad form on here to quote yourself? No, good then:

“WiseApe says:
January 31, 2013 at 10:53”

Edit – btw, back in the 90s, when some of my socks had only just taken up residence in the sock drawer, I hoped to see ‘Vince class replaced by three 35000t ish Wasp-like ships, routinely carrying 18-24 of whatever replaced SeaHarrier, so it’s not that I’m deadset against STOVL, just that, as I’ve said before, once we decided on 65000t ships it made more sense to me to go CATOBAR.

Jeremy M H
January 31, 2013 6:04 pm


Frankly I think what the only way the UK gets into the E-2 game is if they ditch (or more likely never owned) E-3’s. The E-2D in particular will close the gap enough that one might as well just have one platform if your overall buy is pretty small.


There will no doubt be changes in F-35 cost but overall the projected cost for the aircraft are pretty stable and trending down at this point. There have not been major revisions to the program cost in a few years. The average projected purchase cost of an F-35 airframe (all variants) has only grown about $4 million since 2010 which to me indicates a fair amount of stability. The cost of each low rate production lot is coming down on a year to year basis pretty much as they thought it would. Yes there is more testing and yes it will find issues but that is pretty normal and built into program cost really.

What the F-35 has, and the Eurofighter does not, is that the actual hardware needed for it to be what we think it will be is on the airplane as it now exist. For the Eurofighter 3b configuration (the one with an AESA) there is no funding certainty at all. No one has agreed to pay for the radar. There is no agreement on just how many aircraft would be built or refitted for this capability. Right now the 3A specification, as far as I can tell, does not include the new radar. There is talk that it will enter into service in 2015 but there is no clear distinction on if this means that it will be there and you could buy it or if everyone has agreed to buy it. Even if it does exist there is still the admission that the 2015 date would represent really only a basic capability and there would be a substantial road map to get things like electronic attack, ground mapping and jamming into the aircraft and flying.

There is just so much uncertainty about what exactly the Eurofighter is going to be since it lost the Indian order. That is why I say the cost estimates are very much in flux there. If you spread the cost of a fully capable AESA set with all the software you need to use it right over several hundred aircraft that is great. If the UK is the only one who picks it up then it gets really expensive really fast.

January 31, 2013 6:07 pm

I should have said I didn’t envisage our carriers having to undertake any LPH duties back then, either.

Edit: – Sorry Jeremy M H, your comment has only just popped up on my screen so not had chance to read it yet.

Peter Elliott
January 31, 2013 6:24 pm

Come on boys – no-one has shot me down yet for proposing hummingbird + vigilence as an affordable AEW solution.

When I say affordable I’m comparing to E2D+EMALS conversion.

But it could be very comperable with, say taking an extra 8 Merlins into the fleet with kit conversions.

Especially if it can go 4,000m higher and stay up there 3 or 4 times as long…

Gloomy Northern Boy
January 31, 2013 6:28 pm

@Mick B. – Take your point; and on the unconsidered option I don’t think it is because I don’t think the Cousins would help us renew Trident if we folded our tents. I should add, I do think we can use it independently, but need their weight in procuring it in the first place.

Mostly I think we agree.

January 31, 2013 6:40 pm

@Jeremy M H – ” The average projected purchase cost of an F-35 airframe (all variants) has only grown about $4 million since 2010 which to me indicates a fair amount of stability” – That’s $4million in two years for the airframe, not including engine, or combat capable software. I stand to be corrected on this but combat capable software won’t be available until Block 3? Which is when and how much of that has been written?

Some of the structural faults we already know about will not be addressed until LRIP7 or later – with no guarantee they will be successful, but fingers crossed.

It pains me to play devil’s advocate on this, I want F35B to be successful (and for us to buy enough to equip all three of our carriers!) but optimism doesn’t pay the bills, or solve engineering problems. My concern is that the cash strapped DoD will simply call time on the project; no further money will be spent and the marines (and us) will be left with the F35B at whatever stage its at when DoD pulls the plug. After all, it’s not like the B is projected to be a big export earner for LM, that’s where the A comes in.

Re Typhoon future development. We’ve been going it alone for a while now – I believe the Italian jets are still strictly air2air? However, perhaps the Indian loss has provided our partners with the kick up the backside necessary to make them realise that development is essential if they want to win export orders and keep their own high tech jobs going. Also, what choice do they have; apart from Italy’s much reduced buy they’re not touching F35.

January 31, 2013 6:44 pm

So then were all for spending money on istar/airlift/mpa ect provide we buy more fast jets for the navy carriers first.

Some things to remember there is only one country who can deploy continuous air power from the sea the United States. France has a very part time capability and everyone else significantly less than France. We have not really had issues with land basing a/c and are not likely to deploy at any scale without allies.
Now I do believe in the idea of carrier based air power BUT is it vital right now for the uk with so many other capability gaps.

For one our R&D spending on f35 is fixed at the current value. The overruns are all the US’s we currently have 4 a/c either accepted or in build and are to support the development and testing of the a/c this would continue as is. Essentially you buy an extra 10 typhoon on top of the current order to round out at 160 a/c long term with about 8 sqn(prob a couple light but we are advocating istar spend ect). Typhoons production and in service costs are now very well know a lot less risk than f35.

You then start replacing typhoon with f35 from about 2028 if the issues are resolved to an acceptable level. You could in theory ramp cvf conversion costs into a complete transition to carrier capable aircraft fastjet fleet if that was deemed the route to follow. In the mean time we have significant helicopter capacity on cvf nationally and a base for others harriers or f35 on a coalition op.

Have a rough punt a f35 cost for the first 48 say 5-6b pounds between now and 2022 which were not spending you could purchase about 30 p8 mpa over the same time period and remain cost neutral.

Peter Elliott
January 31, 2013 6:51 pm


Do you consider the cost issues of fitting AESA rader and all the clever gubbins that go with it to Typhoon are a known quantity?

Or could the costs of that sort of development still bite us in the arse if we deicided to put all our eggs in that basket?

For me both Typhoon AND F35B have cost issues that are un-knowable today. We just don’t know the unit cost of either a Block 3 F35 or Tranche 3b Typoon will be in 2020. So its very hard to decide.

January 31, 2013 6:59 pm


Typhoon tranche 3b is dead as a door nail the tranche 3a is the last funded partner nation buy. All uk tranche 2 and 3 buy comes with the provision of integration of aesa and conformals the Saudis in particularly a interested in this. The current p1e software upgrade coming on to typhoon over the next 12 months lays the software ground work for all future weapons and systems integration. Aesa radar has been under development by the uk for sometime.

El Sid
January 31, 2013 7:26 pm

@Mark – you’re forgetting the tax we get back on our industrial involvement in the F-35. I know it doesn’t flow straight back to the MoD budget, but as far as HMG as a whole is concerned, being involved with F-35 means we get about 50 of them for free. Abandon F-35 and buy 50 Typhoon in place of 50 F-35 means that a lot of BAE employees (and RR and others) get the sack, and HMG is a lot of £££bn’s worse off.

January 31, 2013 7:30 pm

El Sid

I’m not abandoning anything merely moving the purchase down the road by 10 years as to a degree so have Canada Australia and even to an extent the US has done.

John Hartley
January 31, 2013 7:42 pm

When it comes to CVF & F-35B, I would not start from here, but we are where we are.
I have been shot down many times for saying my plan b should F-35B be a pup, is to make QE/PoW STOBAR capable.
My earlier post/rant said that if I had designed the F-35B it would have had the pegasus style Boeing X-32 engine, not the lift fan solution we are stuck with, + the Northrop outboard control surface wing. My fantasy STOVL F-35 would be more agile & longer legged than the current F-35B. However we are stuck with it & can only hope it comes right.

January 31, 2013 7:47 pm

Peter I’ll start

First the vigiliance pod won’t have a 360 degree sensor in it so theres’s going to have to be some fancy processing to integrate the output of the x sensors together that make up your 360 sweep. There’s been no contract award relating to the vigilance pod as Crowsnest is still in ‘study’ so any work that LM have done is going to be PV and maybe small study work from the MOD. Thats a very different proposition to a fully working, integrated and tested radar. Personally I’m facinated to see what LM get out of their trial on a Merlin this year. I’m willing to bet there will be mininal modes available and there won’t be a HCI on that trial rather it’ll be some engineering lash up or a message injector. Thats just putting it on a chopper.

Putting it on a UAV well does the UAV have sufficent power. What are your datalinks like, what is the range of the datalink in it, what’s the band width available? Lets not forget all the data coming off the sensor is now going to have be processed is that done in the UAV or on the ground? It’s complicated and it going to take several years to get working.

I don’t doubt that long term the vigilence is a great idea and the way forward. The problem is 2016 SeaKing goes out of service. The LM solution won’t be anyway near mature by then. Purely because the contract hasn’t been awarded for Crowsnest yet they can’t possibly know what the requirements actually are for the radar and it’s consoles. Sticking it on a UAV is just going to make a project that will probably be four to five years long even longer.

Or we take an existing helicopter, existing radars and consoles that we’ve been using for years and have a core of knowledge about and fit them together, not saying that this does not have integration costs but the R&D component is less and if spiral development is used you just flow updates etc into the existing program.

Peter Elliott
January 31, 2013 7:54 pm

Still no-one telling me “Hummingbird is vapourware and will never lift anything heavy enough high enough to do AEW” or “you can’t do AEWC without a team on board to do Control” or “vigilence won’t cut it we should stick with searchwater becuase it works” or “that sounds a great idea for 2020 but what are we going to do for 4 years until its ready?”

Come on people. This is a critical system, one that is actively limping towards Main Gate, with solutions that could look very different from the legacy platfrom, or almost exactly the same. Directly relevant to F35 and to the E-2 discussion that was gripping the thead a moment ago.

What’s not to discuss?

Peter Elliott
January 31, 2013 8:03 pm

Thanks Mmoomin

So you reckon stick Searchwater on Merlin as a ‘quick fix’ – but still keep trying to get Vigilence / Hummingbird working for later. Potential reasons to keep trying might be:

If Hummingbird can go higher than Merlin it will ‘see’ further.
If endurance is longer it interrups other deck ops less.
If the whole lash-up needs fewer operators/maintainers.
If by feeding all control decisions back to Carrier HQ you get more informed decision making.
If it takes up fewer deck/hanger spots allowing you to carrry more of something else.

Anything I’ve missed?

January 31, 2013 8:08 pm

@John Hartley – “I would not start from here…However we are stuck with it & can only hope it comes right.” – My thoughts exactly.

@Peter Elliott – Sorry, still not firing on all cylinders. Not up to multitasking.

All Politicians are The same
January 31, 2013 8:21 pm

Whatever we get as SkASAC replacement has to be “good enough” and cheap enough. We are not looking to buy a huge number and therefore whatever we go for should be a safe option.

So, we should not be looking at some fancy unmanned system but a nice simple in service helicopter.

1. So we are not stuck with development costs. We may well be the only operators world wide.
2. So that the controller in the helo can get on with controlling CAP etc without the need for an extra body in the ops room. Ops rooms can be mad enough already without bringing another function onboard.
3. Using onboard consoles and link/comms is simpler and stops having to refit everything the helo can fly off to allow processing of the info. A Merlin could operate from a T45. A helo based option is laso already proven in a land based scenario. It can handle all the processing and guide troops etc by voice without having to make a complex mobile HQ.
4. Pushing the altituded up by 4000M only increases the radar horizon by 50NM for a 5M high target.

SO lets keep it simple, a manned rotary wing solution. Radar TBC the vigilance pods if 2 are fitted would offer 360 degree capability and commonality with F35 but I would not put that commonality above getting a useful capability in service sooner.

January 31, 2013 8:59 pm

APATS thats just it I just think the LM solution is too complicated for the time frame available. Not that I don’t think the idea is good.

Peter Elliott
January 31, 2013 10:03 pm

Trouble is you can bet if we do spend a few bob to put Searchwater on to Merlin there will be nothing left in the kitty for developing Vigilence/Hummingbird.

That 50 nm might give you an extra 90 seconds to engage a Mach 3 missile (Please check my maths someone) which could be the difference between QEC being sunk or not. OK – so not many potential OpFor have a Mach 3 Anti Ship Missiles today. But by 2030?

By the way doesn’t the spec for the RN’s UAV UOR look suspiciouly tailored for the ability to lift a radar high in the air and keep it there?

At the end of the day I agree with APATS that a quick fix using Merlin must be implemented by 2016. But I hope we don’t give up on looking for a better solution too. Being short of money should lead to a more innovative approach to problem solving not less.