Does Anyone Know How Much a JCA Will Cost?

There are three versions of the F35 or Joint Strike Fighter, only one will fulfil the UK Joint Combat Aircraft (JCA) requirement.

The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force’s preferred option to fulfil the Joint Combat Aircraft requirement to replace the existing Harriers is the F35B variant. The final decision on aircraft and numbers will be taken in in 2013 although in practice the decision on type has already been made, the lack of catapults (or the ordering of these long lead time items) on the CVF signposts the decision.

The F35B will combine low observable (stealth) with supersonic speeds, exceptional sensor fit and short take off and vertical landing. 

F35B Power and Propulsion

One of the original selling points of the F35 was an affordable unit cost as a result of advanced design and build processes and above all else a huge production run. It is obvious that the more you make of almost anything the lower the unit price will be, economies of scale come into play as development costs are spread over larger numbers and manufacturing efficiency improves.

The F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme is beset by politics, that much is certain, as one would expect from such an ambitious and multi national programme. Over 100 UK companies are participating in the programme, much shareholder value and many jobs will rely on it.

The reality of complex weapon systems development means that costs will always escalate and timescales will always elongate so as long as they remain in some sort of control we should not be unduly troubled. However, when those cost and time over runs begin to impact both operational capabilities and the overall budget then they are of real concern.

The flight test programme continues and this is maturing a number of technology’s including extensive software based testing but it is also throwing up some difficult problems and these introduce a lot of risk into the programme. There have been weight issues which forced a redesign of the internal bomb bays resulting in the bays being too large for some UK munitions such as Meteor.

Another serious design issue is that of heat dissipation. All aircraft generate significant amounts of heat that are usually dissipated into the fuel, hydraulics and by direct venting via heat exchangers. The JSF has reportedly had serious issues in dumping this excess heat, in no small part to using electrical actuators instead on hydraulic ones, resulting in hot and cold weather restrictions. Again, technical hitches are to be expected and no doubt they will be resolved but at what cost both in Pound notes, time and capability. Something is going to have to give.

The Dutch have nominated the Joint Strike Fighter as winners in their fighter replacement programme on the condition that Lockheed Martin offered them a fixed price. Obviously at this stage in such a complex development Lockheed Martin were unable to offer one. The Dutch have therefore compromised, ordering a couple of test and evaluation aircraft now but deferring the main decision until 2011 or 2012. Whilst still promising for Lockheed Martin the Dutch decision creates even more uncertainty in the programme. In order for the final order to be realised the test programme must demonstrate performance and capabilities beyond PowerPoint.

The UK has announced the purchase of three operational test and evaluation aircraft as part of its commitment to programme but will other nations adopt a wait and see attitude because if they do yet more instability and uncertainty will introduced and this is never a good thing.

So the final answer to the question posed in the title of this post is, no, but it is very highly likely that it will not be anywhere near the initial proposal, the proposal that the requirement was built around. It is certainly shaping up to be close to that of the Typhoon, blowing the affordability out of the sky/water.

There are as many cost estimates as parts in the engine from different countries and organisations.

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.

Whilst many argue that the better option would have been the carrier variant, building catapults and traps into the CVF but I agree with the decision to select the F35-B model, it offers the most sensible compromise combing capability, flexibility and perhaps above all, through life cost.

It is often argued that the profit to UK companies will far outstrip the MoD’s costs and this is a strong reason to stay with the programme, even though the value of this involvement is not contingent on final numbers ordered by the UK. However, this value may or may not come back into the MoD’s equipment budget and it also makes the very big assumption that all those British companies stay British and located in the UK. This is far from a certainty.

Whilst there is no doubt it will provide an excellent capability to have, is it enough to emasculate the Royal Navy for and is it enough to divert funding in the RAF from much needed transport and ISR capabilities?

Can the armed forces afford it given the stress on the MoD budget from other programmes and ongoing operations, is it value for money?

I do not believe so.

Not good times ahead.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
April 15, 2009 8:49 am

I’m still not sure exactly what we need these for. We’re getting 230 Typhoons, to replace 150ish Tornados.
That leaves 80 “extras” we dont need, if we even need 150 Typhoons for air defence duties.
The F35 offers “stealth”, but ALARM seems to cover that well enough too.

Even if we ignore operational advantages of Typhoon, surely 50 JCA Bs cant cost less than fitting catapults to the CVA’s?

April 15, 2009 12:00 pm

All of the unknowns surrounding the money spent by the UK in the Afghan war are what will drag down the MOD and make big defense projects hurt and hurt bad. Look around you.

April 16, 2009 5:34 am

If I take your meaning correctly, you seem to be arguing that STOVL is the best all-around option. I wonder if you’ve seen Bill Sweetman’s piece over at Ares Blog. He basically argues that VSTOL/STOVL promised what it couldn’t deliver at a price militaries could afford. Simply put, he argues that fixed wing vertical aircraft have a lousy price/performance return, and that nations would be better off with conventional or carrier-launched aircraft.

April 16, 2009 9:08 am

I think we’re sold on the advantages of a joint RAF G/A and FAA solution, we’re just not sure why thats the F35B not a Typhoon

April 16, 2009 9:31 am

Program Performance (fiscal year 2009 dollars in millions)

Research and development cost $46,840.8
Procurement cost $197,437.3
Total program cost $244,772.1
Program unit cost $99.663
Total quantities 2,456
Acquisition cycle time (months) 125

Source: United States Government Accountability Office
Report to Congressional Committees

April 16, 2009 9:39 am

It is often argued that the profit to UK companies will far outstrip the MoD’s costs and this is a strong reason to stay with the programme, even though the value of this involvement is not contingent on final numbers ordered by the UK. However, this value may or may not come back into the MoD’s equipment budget and it also makes the very big assumption that all those British companies stay British and located in the UK. This is far from a certainty.

One teeny weeny point, its not profit if the taxpayer has to face the increased costs just to satisfy a load of smaller British companies and pour billions down the toilet on an aircraft that doesn’t even have a flipping gun. At least its not as bad as the ‘Typhoon’ but ffs when is Defence Procurement going to grow a brain stem and equip us properly for the wars TODAY in a cost efficient manner.

At least the Yanks are looking in the right direction

April 20, 2009 7:03 am

By that, I mean the UK equivilent of the Gates Review

August 4, 2009 12:02 am

STOVL…harrier was successful onboard ships as the navy cancelled the proper replacement to Ark Royal, so that left the “through deck” Invincible class cruisers and the only fighter capable of flying from them was the Harrier. SToVL has so many limitations personally dont see it as a real option, and did the RAF seriously think it would fight the russians hordes marching across europe with a few harriers operating from forests…..No I dont think so either. Why bother having a full size carrier and then fit it with over expensive over complicated STOVL aircraft with limited endurance and weapon capability. Marinised version of eurofighter would have been the way to go and that was presented to the Navy in the earlly 1990’s. Unfortunately top brass in RAF and navy were ex harrier and had some form of misplaced loyalty to a a seriously flawed concept.

Give the new carriers the capability they need, proper fixed wing and AEW fixed wing aircraft not limited endurance and altitude helicpters

August 5, 2009 10:28 am

Was Harrier a success?

They shot some Mirages in the back as they ran for home without the fuel to make a fight of it, not that I have anything against shooting the outnumbered injured in the back, seems the safest way to fight a war, but its not exactly Battle of Britain material.