British defence minister refuses to rule out F-35A purchase

We're still getting 138 jets but nobody knows if they'll all be F-35Bs, as planned, or not

F-35Bs fly past HMS Queen Elizabeth at Rosyth dockyard, Scotland. Crown copyright
F-35B with under-construction aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. Crown copyright

The Royal Air Force might buy F-35As instead of F-35Bs, according to a UK Parliamentary statement by the minister for defence procurement.

Harriett Baldwin, in a written answer to a question from Labour MP Kevan Jones, said:

The Strategic Defence and Security Review confirmed the UK's commitment to procure 138 F-35 aircraft over the life of the programme. Decisions on the precise details of subsequent tranches will be taken at the appropriate time to ensure the most appropriate capability and the best value for money.

She added that Britain now owns five F-35Bs, which is a small improvement on the situation in June, when the one jet we owned outright came and toured Blighty.

The F-35A is the land-based version of the super-expensive supersonic fighter jet. The B version is optimised for vertical takeoffs and landings, while the C version, which only the US Navy has so far ordered, is a true carrier fighter.

The A version has been beset with technical problems throughout its development, including a tailpipe fire after aircraft were parked facing the wrong way, ejection seats with the potential to break the pilot's neck, internal insulation that crumbled into bits, and ongoing software screwups that keep grounding the entire F-35 fleet.

Nonetheless, Britain's F-35B order simply has to work; no other production fast jet in the world is capable of flying from the Royal Navy's new 70,000-ton carriers, which were stupidly ordered without catapults and traps for launching and recovering aircraft. While that was excellent news for Lockheed Martin, designers of the F-35, it means that Britain is now totally committed to the £104m fighter for the next 50 years.

By 2023 Britain hopes to own 24 F-35Bs, which is not enough to fill the air wings of both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales and keep land-based squadrons operational. Thus, we're having to go cap in hand to the Americans and borrow 50 per cent of Queen Elizabeth's air wing from the US Marine Corps for its first operational deployment.

The Ministry of Defence did not reply to El Reg's invitation to expand upon its choice to keep the F-35A door open. ®


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