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MoD to bin F-35B navy jumpjets in favour of tailhook birds?

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The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) is set to make a major change to the design of the new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy, according to a newspaper report. It's suggested that the ships will now be equipped with catapults and arrester wires, allowing them to operate normal carrier aircraft rather than the complex, expensive jump-jets which had been planned.

According to the Daily Telegraph today "the MoD has indicated that it will drop the jump-jet... The Daily Telegraph has learnt from senior defence officials that an announcement is due this autumn."

The MoD's current plan is to build the ships without catapults or wires (though there is space in the design to include these later if desired). This will mean that the only aircraft able to fly from them will be helicopters (or tiltrotors) and short-takeoff/vertical-landing (STOVL) jumpjets like the famous Harrier. The Harrier is set to be replaced in coming years by the B version of the F-35 stealth fighter, which will include STOVL capability.

However the F-35 is also to be produced in a C version with large folding wings, beefed-up airframe and arrester hook, which will be capable of flying from the US Navy's catapult-equipped carriers. As the F-35C doesn't require the F-35B's central lift fan, swivelling exhaust nozzle and associated array of fuselage doors and lids, it will be a more capable plane, able to carry more fuel and weapons. It will also be cheaper to buy and to operate.

On top of all this, some in the MoD are known to have doubts about the F-35B's ability to make a vertical deck landing with weapons still aboard - a vital capability for a fleet fighter, which is to be the plane's primary role in the Royal Navy. Other customers, like the US Marines, intend to use it mainly as a strike plane and are less concerned.

Nonetheless, thus far the MoD has chosen to stick with the jumpjet plan - in large part to keep down the cost of the carriers. Catapults and arrester gear aren't a significant expense in themselves, but current catapults are powered by steam from the ship's engines. The planned new Royal Navy ships will be propelled by gas turbines, however, and so have no steam (US and French carriers use nuclear propulsion, which can easily furnish steam from their associated turbines).

Adding powerful auxiliary steam boilers for catapults or upgrading the ships to nuclear propulsion would significantly increase their cost. There is an alternative option, the use of electrically-powered catapults, but these don't yet exist. They are being developed in the States for the next US carrier, but as a new technology there is naturally some risk that they won't pan out, or may be subject to delays and cost increases.

The added costs of catapult ships, however, would almost certainly be outweighed by the greater expense of vertical-lift aircraft. The proposed fleet of 150 F-35Bs would be likely to cost at least £2.25bn more just to acquire than the same number of F-35Cs, not to mention running costs; and then there's the matter of fleet airborne-radar aircraft to consider.

Maritime AWACS planes are only made in catapult-launch versions, which has meant that the Royal Navy has hitherto been restricted to helicopter radar, an unsatisfactory compromise as whirlybirds cannot achieve the height and endurance required to do a proper job. A custom rotary-wing fleet radar solution would cost a lot more than buying the Hawkeye carrier radar planes used by the Americans and French, too.

So it makes excellent sense to go for catapult ships and cheaper, better aircraft. But plans to date had called for the carriers to be ordered some years before the planes, and the MoD's out-of-control budget situation always leads it to seek short-term savings no matter the future cost.

Recently, however, major spending on the ships has been pushed back into the next government. Details are sketchy, but it may well be that the budget lines of the ships now overlap much more significantly with those of the aircraft - which could offer a clue as to why the MoD is now willing to accept more expensive ships. Reduced payments for F-35Cs in the same years as the carrier bills could now mean in-year savings down the road, which would trump all other arguments in Whitehall. So the Telegraph story has some credibility in that respect.

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