Government drops plan to buy F-35 for navy’s aircraft carriers

The coalition government has announced it will abandon its plan to buy its preferred fighter jet for the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers due to escalating costs and delivery delays.

In a statement to MPs in the House of Commons yesterday, defence secretary Philip Hammond said that the decision to revert to Labour’s original plan to buy the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35 model was part of an ‘affordable equipment programme’.

The coalition had previously approved the decision to equip Britain’s two new £5bn carriers — HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth — with Lockheed Martin’s F-35C Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a variant that can operate on carriers with catapult and arrester gear.

Hammond said that the costs of fitting the necessary catapults and arrester gear — ‘cats and traps’ — to launch and recover the F-35C from the carriers had doubled over the past 18 months to almost £2bn. He also claimed that sticking with the F-35C would delay the project by at least three years to 2023 at the earliest.

Hammond said: ‘When the facts change, the responsible thing to do is to change your mind, however inconvenient that may be.’

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy accused the government of incompetence and added: ‘The previous Labour government got it right and this government’s policy has unravelled.’

‘More capable aircraft’

Under the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), the coalition had planned to switch to the F-35C — arguing that it was a more capable aircraft and, unlike the F-35B jump jet, would be interoperable with the US and French navies. Hammond said the latest decision had been discussed with the French and US governments and claimed the US defence secretary Leon Panetta endorsed the move.

‘The F-35C has a longer range and the ability to carry a greater weapons load in its internal bomb bay,’ said Dr Lee Willett, head of the Maritime Studies Programme at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. ‘That is because the F-35B has a shorter bomb bay because it is a jump jet and the fan that enables it to do its jump-jet operations is built in behind the cockpit and takes up room that is given to the bomb bay in the F-35C variant.’

He claimed that the internal bomb bay issue is important because the F-35 is a stealth aircraft, so the more weaponry you can put inside the aircraft the less the aircraft’s stealth signature is affected by having weapons hanging from the wings. However, Willett also said the UK might not necessarily need the extra bomb bay space that the F-35C offers.

The defence secretary said that abandoning the plan meant that both carriers could eventually become operational. So far, the plan is to put HMS Queen Elizabeth into operation from 2020, but it has not been decided whether HMS Prince of Wales will enter service when it is complete.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said the F-35B will begin trial flights off the HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2018. The official completion date for HMS Prince of Wales has not been announced but a decision will be taken on whether the ship will be put into operation in the 2015 SDSR.