On Thursday, the British government announced that it had decided to do a U-turn on the acquisition of the Lightning II for the new British supercarriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. The Royal Navy will now acquire the ‘jump-jet’ variant of the aircraft (the F35B), rather than the carrier version (known as the F35C), which requires catapults and arrester wires. This draws – I hope – to conclusion a period of dithering that has cost time and precious resources, to the tune of two years and over £100 million.
Many analysts and media commentators have criticised the decision. They point to the F35B’s reduced performance and the fact that without catapults and arrester wires, the new British carriers will not be able to launch proper maritime surveillance aircraft. However, given the resources and time frame available, I think the choice was sound; indeed, the present government should have never detracted from the previous government’s decision. With a combat radius of just under 300 kilometres less than the F35C and a payload of just over 1,000 kilograms lighter, he F35B is indeed an inferior combat jet, although the differences are not that dramatic, particularly when thinking about the kind of foes the aircraft are likely to meet.
At over 830 kilometres, the F35B still has a long combat radius – better than the old Harrier ‘jump-jet’ – and if launched from a British aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, Black Sea or South Atlantic, could penetrate deep into North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus or Argentina (or almost anywhere else London decides to attack).
However, while the F35B has a reduced range and a smaller payload, it has a number of advantages:
- It can utilise temporary land bases in a way that its larger cousin the F35C cannot, which may be important in the future should the British want to penetrate deep into Central Africa or Central Asia. A British carrier could – theoretically – act as a mothership and forwardly deploy the F35Bs to an operating station deep inland, from which they could mount punitive strikes against an enemy;
- Should supercarriers be rendered vulnerable by the next generation of high speed anti-ship cruise or ballistic missiles, the government could acquire a group of smaller vessels to spread the precious and expensive aircraft out more carefully, making it harder for an enemy to hit them in one go – only the F35B could take off from such small vessels;
- The F35B could operate from a new generation of British helicopter carriers, when the government decides to replace HMS Ocean. This would allow the tailoring of smaller air packages for operations like Operation Palliser during 2000 in Sierra Leone, where a supercarrier would be too large a vessel, and which may – in any case – be needed elsewhere;
- The F35B will become available sooner than the F35C. The Royal Navy could have an operational aircraft carrier by 2018 rather than 2020 or even the mid-2020s, should the F35C suffer more technical setbacks;
- Most critically of all, the purchase of the F35B will allow the Royal Navy to acquire two supercarriers, rather than one. While the government has still to decide – in the 2015 Strategic Defence Review – to actually bring the second carrier into service, the costs would be greatly reduced, to as little as £60 million a year. It is vitally important that the United Kingdom has access to at least one aircraft carrier at any one time: acquiring the F35B will allow the nation to do that.
So what has motivated this decision? Expense has, to some extent: the cost of retro-actively installing electromagnetic catapults and arrester wires into the design of the not-yet-built HMS Prince of Wales was rumoured to exceed £1 billion, almost a third of the vessel’s total cost. This seems very excessive; the cost for retro-fitting HMS Queen Elizabeth, already at an advanced stage of build, would have been even more prohibitive, even if the government had decided not to mothball the ship on completion.
What many analysts have overlooked is the Libya intervention last year. With the loony withdrawal of HMS Ark Royal a couple of months previously (and, it must be said, the previous government’s failure to acquire the supercarriers it decided to build in 1998, more quickly), the Royal Navy had no way of projecting airpower into Libya, above and beyond the firing-off of a few cruise missiles or use of Apache attack helicopters from HMS Ocean, which cannot function without the suppression of enemy air defences due to their vulnerability. The British were left reliant on France and Italy: the former for the Charles de Gaulle and the latter for air stations, from which to forwardly deploy Tornados and Eurofighter Typhoons. Britain could not press the Tripoli regime down in the way that it might have done had it had an aircraft carrier located off the coast, ready to launch round-the-clock air raids.
So, aside the cost, the government may have decided to acquire the F35B for two further reasons: firstly, because it will allow the Royal Navy to regain aircraft carriers more quickly than had they been provisioned with the F35C; and secondly, the F35B – which does not need either vessels to be converted – means that both aircraft carriers could be brought into the fleet, leaving the United Kingdom with a constant ability to propel a large combined maritime and air expeditionary force around the world at a time of its choosing. Whatever the case, the decision makes a mockery of the 2010 Strategic Defence Review, which should be reconsidered as quickly as possible.