The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) reversed course on its Carrier Strike program, confirming a switch from the F-35C CV version back to the F-35B STOVL version of the Joint Strike Fighter. The decision was expected, and has been driven by a doubling of the estimated cost (to more than $3.2 billion) to convert for “cat and trap” operations one of two new British carriers that are already under construction. The conversion would also delay the introduction of the Carrier Strike capability “by at least three years,” to 2023, British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said. The reversal is politically embarrassing, since in 2010 the incoming government made a strong case for the F-35C, citing its longer range, greater payload and lower acquisition cost.
Defense sources in London said that the number of technical risks with the F-35B are declining, and are no greater than those currently identified for the F-35C. The operating and support costs of the F-35B are higher, but not when the costs of training pilots and operating the cats and traps are added to the ship-conversion costs. Although its payload is less, the F-35B could still accommodate the UK weapons that are planned for internal carriage, namely 500-pound and 1,000-pound Paveway guided bombs, and Meteor and ASRAAM air-to-air missiles. In-flight refueling would mitigate the range reduction, the sources added.
However, the MoD is evidently still concerned about the F-35B’s weight margin. A defense source told AIN that the MoD will revive its study into the shipboard rolling vertical landing (SRVL) technique. This may be needed to ensure that the F-35B can land back on the carrier with a full weapons load, especially in hot climates.
Meanwhile in Washington, the F-35 program executive officer reassured Congress that problems encountered during F-35 development are normal for an advanced fighter aircraft. “There is no known design issue that cannot be overcome by effective engineering,” Vice Adm. David Venlet told the House Armed Services Committee.