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 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.
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 the programme but will other nations adopt a wait and see attitude because if they do yet more instability and uncertainty will introduce 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 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.