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Cameron's F-35 U-turn: BAE Systems still calls the shots at No 10

Threat of cheap, powerful kit for UK forces warded off

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Comment So there it is: done. As this is written, defence minister Phillip Hammond is on his feet in the House of Commons, trying to justify the fact that he and his boss, David Cameron, have decided that the Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier (maybe carriers) will not now have any catapults or arrester gear in order to save money. This means that the only aeroplanes able to fly from British decks will be the F-35B supersonic stealth jumpjets.

The F-35B in the hover. Credit: Lockheed

Maybe there's some way you could put more doors and motors and extra doodads on there and give yourself some more stealth and maintenance headaches ... it's hard to say how, though

It's well known that the F-35B will cost a lot more to buy and more to run than the F-35C catapult version: and it's also well known that the main cost of aircraft carriers is not the ships but the planes. So, right out of the gate, we can see that this is a foolish decision.

In fact it's a lot worse than it seems, as the contest in real life was not between the F-35B and the F-35C: it was between the F-35B and - for the immediate future - one or another cheap, powerful, modern carrier jet already in service. This would most most likely have been the F-18 Hornet as used by the US Navy and many other air forces around the globe, but possibly the French Rafale instead of or alongside Hornets.

In fact the UK will not be able to afford either the F-35B or the F-35C in any large numbers any time soon. Both planes are, after all, brand new supersonic stealth aircraft - only the second make of supersonic stealth aircraft ever built, in fact, and the first ever which can land on ships. They are brand new, bleeding edge kit and will cost accordingly. Both planes are still in flight test at the moment, in fact, and the F-35 programme as a whole has suffered serious cost and time overruns. This has led to delays to US orders, which have in turn pushed up costs for other early purchasers. Production is still at a low rate only.

Thus, if the Royal Navy had managed to get its hands on a catapult carrier, it would have been compelled (very happily!) to buy or lease an interim carrier jet to tide it over until a reasonable number of F-35Cs could be bought for a reasonable price - probably at some point in the 2020s. There would be no need for a full force of F-35Cs any sooner than the 2030s, by which point they would be affordable and there might be a real need for their stealth and other advanced capabilities.

Fortunately in that case, the F-18 Hornet - the US Navy's current combat plane - would be easily and cheaply obtained. Many hundreds of Hornets have already been made, a large worldwide fleet is in operation and so running costs are low, production would otherwise cease fairly soon. The Hornet would be a steal. Royal Navy pilots are already flying it, in preparation for the happy day when a catapult-equipped HMS Prince of Wales should join the British fleet and Britain would get a powerful carrier air capability again and avoid such future embarrassments as Libya, where just about everyone else was able to put more aircraft into the sky above the battlefields.

Of course this would have been disastrous news for some people. Once there were some F-18s with British markings on them, there would almost never be any good reason to send our existing landbased combat jets - the Tornado and the Eurofighter - to war. Both of these planes cost enormous sums to use: they were built by ineffient and fragmented international consortia, they aren't in service in very large numbers, and the maintenance and support contracts under which the British forces operate them are cripplingly expensive. In the only likely mission for British jets in the near future - ground attack - they are both inferior in performance and capability to the F-18. As for the seldom-required air-to-air combat mission, the Tornado is incapable of this and the Eurofighter probably isn't a lot better than a Hornet. Not that it matters: air to air combat hardly ever happens and when it does the adversary planes and pilots are never good enough to cause any proper Western aircraft a problem (unless there is a lack of radar aircraft, of course, which there will be thanks to today's announcement).

So once we had some F-18s we would seldom bother using our Eurofighters and Tornados, and we would surely rethink our current plans to massively upgrade them. We might in fact, if we were smart, reconsider having them at all.

And this would be terrible news for the company which has those fat service contracts under which those planes are run, the company which built the British parts of them: namely BAE Systems plc. This firm is nowadays a multinational which makes most of its money - and has the great majority of its employees - outside the UK, but it still owns the great bulk of the remaining British defence industry. As such it would lose many, many billions if the Eurofighter was not upgraded for ground attack, if the Tornado was got rid of - or just if those two planes didn't get flown so much.

A catapult carrier in the Royal Navy, then, is something that BAE Systems passionately does not want to see happen.

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