Dubbed by some as the biggest and most important fighter programme in the world today, this fifth generation fighter has divided opinion since its inception. With the jet's international début looming, and the dark spectre of the fleet being grounded (still in force as this is written) threatening to give further ammunition to the critics, the aircraft is facing one of the most important periods in its development. Lockheed Martin have finally decided that now is the time when it is safe enough and practical to push the jet out and show its customers exactly what the aircraft can do.
Amongst the development delays, government U-turns and setbacks, critics of the jet have been vociferous in how effective it will be in UK service. Likewise, those who support the machine have been equally vocal about how the new capability it brings will bridge the gap left by the retirement of the venerable Harrier and more.
It is only fitting then, that UK Airshow Review's very first Talking Point is on the most topical of current military aviation debates - Is The F-35 Right For Britain?
argues in support of the aircraft:
The UK is the only Level 1 partner in the F-35 programme. 15% of every F-35 will be built by British industries; considerable British innovation has gone into making the F-35 a reality. Some 130 UK companies are involved which secure or create around 25,000 UK jobs over the next 30 years. This is worth approximately £30b to the economy.
A "cheaper" off the shelf solution like the Rafale or Super Hornet could be bought, is it really going to be cheaper? Fitting a CAT and TRAP system to the carriers, testing, delays and increased operating costs through its service life make it difficult to make this assumption. Neither design is new and the USN is considering replacing some of its Super Hornets with the F-35C from 2025. For the UK to cancel the F-35 would not only set the whole carrier programme back but also be a huge blow to the RAF and FAA, the F-35 is what they have repeatedly said they want. How much a licence would built Rafale or Super Hornet actually cost and how quickly could it be operational? Factoring in the inevitable costly and time consuming tinkering the MoD would do.
The contract for the fourth UK F-35B in 2013 confirmed the unit cost at $145.9m, including engine and all mission systems. Using the current exchange rate, that puts the F-35B at £85m each, for the more expensive low-rate production examples. Lockheed Martin estimates that during full-rate production from 2019, the cost of an F-35A will be $85m (under £50m), meaning the F-35B should cost around £60-70m. A Tranche 3 Typhoon currently costs approximately £71m. Any argument that suggests the F-35 is expensive compared to other fighters is without substance.
Stealth cannot be discounted as something "we don't need". It's relevance in a conflict such as Afghanistan is unnecessary; however the UK will have finished Operation Herrick this year. We can expect this not to be the case in the next conflict. Stealth is essential for any future air campaign. It’s a deterrent and if such a capability is unnecessary, it is concerning that supposedly "unfriendly" nations (without such scruples on who they export their technology to) are developing their own low observable warplanes - T-50, J-20 and J-31.
Technical difficulties, delays and cost overruns are sadly inevitable with a programme of this magnitude, as every modern warplane has suffered. The F-35B is the best aircraft for the UK, designed from the outset to be fully compatible with the CVF carriers. It’s not a case of whether we can afford the F-35, but whether we can afford to be without it.
To dismiss the F-35 as "unproven" is futile, no warplane can truly be proven until it has gone to war. The F-35 is the first all-aspect stealth aircraft the UK has operated. With a Radar Cross Section believed to be comparable to that of the B-2 it's not difficult to see what a huge game changing warplane it can be for the UK. What it offers is maximum flexibility; it can go where conventional aircraft dare not and when the enemies defences have weakened, then you can use external stores, non-stealth aircraft will never have this advantage. Indeed, in a recent interview Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Hostage stated "You're not going to get a Growler close up to help in the first hours and days of the conflict, so I'm going to be relying on stealth to open the door."
Internally the F-35B can carry similar ordnance to the Harrier, only further and faster – exactly as the design requirement specified. With munitions getting smaller and equally as lethal, it's an obsolete point against the aircraft.
To suggest the FAA could operate the Rafale or Super Hornet sooner and cheaper, is hugely optimistic, as well as a substantial loss to British industry and the economy. If we cannot afford the F-35, then we couldn't afford the Typhoon either.
The decision over which aircraft is to replace the legendary Harrier is one that has rumbled on and on, and even with the decision to acquire the F-35B seemingly set there are still questions to be raised about its suitability.
With frequent technological hang-ups on what seems like every area of the airframe from the paint to the engines and the associated cost overruns the time is surely right to question if the F-35 is indeed right for Britain, and at what point the time comes to say enough’s enough. These constant headaches have seen costs spiral, and for a platform that is still unproven. In many ways the logical decision for Britain would be to go with a proven design.
With the money saved by cancelling the F-35 a proven, capable naval fighter could be purchased. The F/A-18 or Rafale would both be excellent candidates at a fraction of the cost. These types may lack the glamour of the F-35, but that is not what this is about. In an age where confrontations are increasingly against irregular forces, is stealth capability really a “must have”?
For the F-35 stealth capability has meant major compromises on other areas of the aircraft, most notably weapons load. In order to allow for the F-35 to be stealthy we are confined to limited internal weapons loads. The argument that this can be supplemented by underwing ordnance doesn’t really add up, what’s the point in stealth if the aircraft is so heavily hamstrung in its combat performance as to render it ineffective? An aircraft such as the Hornet is capable of the same supersonic transit speeds but with a greater range of weaponry. This would need little in the way of trials and the FAA could be looking at having a combat ready carrier as soon as HMS Queen Elizabeth is delivered, rather than the current lengthy and growing capability gap.
Some elements of the F-35 programme would undoubtedly be “nice to have”. In an era of shrinking defence budgets however our armed forces increasingly have to prioritise. The F-35 does not meet our current defence priorities. We need a capable aircraft that will work quickly and for a sensible budget. The F-35 is a relic of Cold War thinking. A conventional engagement with an adversary capable of dealing with even third generation fighters is unlikely. We have neither the budget nor need to go any further, and certainly not at the cost of invaluable capabilities like effective close air support, a varied weapons load and a swift entry to service at a reasonable price.
Designs such as the F/A-18 or Rafale do not require much in the way of modifications given the increasing commonality in weapons systems across NATO members and as such there would be no need to tinker. The additional cost of cat and trap fitting to the new carriers is of course an issue, but would bring a much greater degree of operational flexibility with other aircraft being potentially able to operate. While the cost would probably be comparable to the F-35 the degree of flexibility provided would be potentially much greater.