The British Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced May 10, 2012, that the Royal Navy’s (RN) new carriers Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales will operate the F-35B version of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), rather than the previously announced F-35C. This reversion to the short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the JSF, which had been chosen before Prime Minister David Cameron reversed the decision in favor of the F-35C CV version, is already creating massive ripples in the air and naval world, some extending well beyond Great Britain.
The decision, arrived at after reviews of costs involved in both options, means the RN can finally freeze the configuration of the Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, which would have required the addition of catapults and arresting gear had the F-35C CTOL variant been selected. Though the decision will cost between £100 million and £250 million already spent altering the ships design to accept CTOL aircraft, the long-term savings will likely approach £2 billion for British taxpayers, as well as enable a much earlier delivery date for both ships. Recent estimates had projected a three-year delay before the delivery of Queen Elizabeth to the fleet.
In addition, this decision could also provide the RN with two operational carriers operating fast jet aircraft, as the costs of fitting catapults and arresting gear to the two carriers were so prohibitive late in the design process that one carrier would have been either laid up or operated as a helicopter carrier. Without incurring the costs of catapults and arresting gear, there is hope that both carriers will become operational in the future, with both able to operate fast jets.
The decision should also lower per-unit/lifetime costs for the entire F-35B fleet worldwide in the future. The downside for the RN will be the smaller fuel fraction of the F-35B, which will limit the Lightning’s range, and the reduced “bringback” payload of the F-35B to 1,000-pound form factor weapons. However, both range and payload will still be far superior to the Harrier or Sea Harrier, with the added capability of stealth and supersonic speed, which the Harrier never had.
Here in the U.S., the MoD decision will have a number of effects as well. For the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), which plans to make the STOVL F-35B the backbone of its tactical aviation fleet, the news from Britain is a godsend. It reinforces the sometimes-troubled F-35B acquisition of the JSF through greater sales and overseas political support. As previously mentioned, the MoD decision should also reduce overall USMC F-35B program and life cycle costs, thanks to greater fleet size worldwide. For Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems, the prime contractor for the JSF, the MoD decision is pretty much a wash, as it simply trades one version of the F-35 for another.
If there are any American “losers” from the MoD decision it will be the U.S. Navy (USN) and General Atomics, the prime contractor for the USN’s new Electromagnetic Launch System (EMALS). Selling EMALS to Great Britain would have provided a substantial financial and prestige windfall to General Atomics, and the decision also weakens the political position of the USN F-35C carrier variant. The Navy’s F-35C has been experiencing a few program troubles of its own of late, with the need to redesign the tailhook and some aerostructures after problems showed up during operational testing.
In summary, the RN move to the F-35B version of the JSF continues their strong tradition and commitment to STOVL and helicopters for sea-based aviation operations. It also is a boost to the F-35B variant of the JSF, since many critics had seized upon the UK’s switch from F-35B to F-35C as an indictment of the STOVL variant, pointing out additionally that the switch would increase the price of each individual F-35B due to reduced procurement numbers. In the end, the projected additional procurement costs for the two carriers simply due to the conversion to catapult launch and arrested recovery operation, plus a three-year delivery delay, proved too much of a penalty.