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Supersonic stealth jumpjet rolls off production line

Harrier successor: very cool, but is it useful?

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The earlier X-35 prototype during trials

The X-35 prototype, which demonstrated that

supersonic jumpjets were feasible.

Despite being packed with sexy features, the F-35B has its critics. The vertical-thrust hardware badly limits payload and range, and eminent analysts have suggested that its Stealth coatings may not survive a pelting with pebbles and grit during a vertical landing at a less-luxurious base. Improvised basing in the field is at best a nice-to-have these days, anyway, as the Cold War threat of enemy bombing raids against airbase runways is largely gone.

As to operations from small carriers, the US Navy has a good few full-sized ones; and the Royal Navy is getting new, bigger ships which could easily launch and recover non-STOVL planes if they had the necessary kit.

The F-35B, unsurprisingly, costs more than other versions of the jet. Switching to a mix of land-based F-35As for the RAF and arrester-hook F-35Cs for the Royal Navy might well yield savings sufficient to cover the cost of catapults and arrester wires on the new Brit carriers.

This would also permit the RN to purchase and operate existing, cheap, excellent E-2 carrier radar planes to replace its current aged, badly altitude- and endurance-limited surveillance choppers.

(If the present UK carrier plan stands, the RN's AEW Sea Kings will need to be replaced with a new, unique rotorcraft which will by its nature be expensive and not very good.)

Overall, then, if the UK passed on the jumpjet F-35 it would get a lot more capability for the same money - or indeed, probably a good bit less money once the carrier radar-bird costs are considered. A shift by Blighty to the other versions might well torpedo the whole F-35B model, but the jarheads would get over it - they already operate normal carrier jets. As for the Italians, too bad.

On the other hand, the concept of a supersonic stealth jumpjet is pretty snazzy, and it does a science fiction fan's heart good to see new vertical-thrust technology being developed. Cool as it is, though, it's hard to say that the F-35B makes any military sense for the UK, and that very possibly goes for the US too.

The F-35B will now undergo a long period of tests, though the basic technology was validated by the earlier X-35 prototype platform. The aircraft is expected to enter US Marine service from 2012, followed by other customers. It will be named "Lightning II".®

*US Marines are so called owing to their passion for extremely "high and tight" haircuts. This has now been carried to the point where a fashionable marine shaves the sides of his head almost to the bare flesh, leaving a sharply-defined skullcap region of short stubble on top, mildly reminiscent of a jar with a lid on. The US marines aren't as tough as they think they are - frankly, nobody could be that tough - but even so, jocular commentary on their coiffure is normally offered only from a safe distance.

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