Blighty orders first 3 supersonic stealth jumpjets
Fleet Air Arm still has tough battle ahead
The UK has ordered its first three Joint Strike Fighter (aka F-35 or "Lightning II") supersonic stealth jumpjets. The initial trio of UK planes will be prototypes built as part of the F-35's development phase, giving Blighty access and input to the jet's final design.
The F-35B operating as a normal runway plane.
"The Joint Strike Fighter will form an essential part of our Future Combat Air capability," said Defence minister John Hutton, announcing the buy yesterday in Washington.
"By purchasing three aircraft for testing, we will secure access to the development of the programme. Working alongside their US colleagues, our pilots will gain an unrivalled understanding of this awesome aircraft and its capabilities.
"This is a vital programme for UK Defence both for the military and for industry, with over 100 UK companies involved in the programme."
The American F-35 programme will produce three different versions. One will be a conventional runway plane, intended for service with the US Air Force and various overseas buyers. Another will be built for catapult launch and arrester-hook landing, and will be bought only by the US Navy on current plans.
The other type, the F-35B, will have a central lift fan driven by the engine and a downward-swivelling exhaust. This will deliver vertical thrust, letting the plane land on a pad like a helicopter if lightly loaded. The F-35B is meant to replace the famous Harrier jumpjet with many of its current operators, including the US Marines, the RAF and the Royal Navy.
There are indications that the RAF is actually more than a bit lukewarm about replacing its present force of Harriers; senior airmen would perhaps prefer to sink that money into enhancing the third tranche of Eurofighter, making the Euro jet into a proper deep-strike bomber. (It can drop smartbombs already, but the RAF regard this as an "austere" capability.)
"Does it do what it says on the tin?"
The Royal Navy, by contrast, regards the F-35B as vital. This is because the new British carriers will not have catapults or arrester wires, so as to save money in the short term. Thus, only helicopters and jumpjets like the F-35B will be able to fly from them.
However, there are concerns within the UK Ministry of Defence regarding "weapons bring-back". The Royal Navy will need to use the F-35B as a carrier fighter, flying routine patrols armed with a pair of hefty AMRAAM missiles and then returning to the deck with them still aboard. The late, great Sea Harrier couldn't manage this in hot climates - hot air reduces the performance of jet engines - and was duly binned some years ago.
F-35B programme chiefs are adamant that the new plane will be able to make a safe vertical landing fully armed, but nobody really knows yet. The first F-35B has flown, but only in normal runway mode - it is to be fitted with a new engine before proper hover testing starts.
The RN remains confident that it will be able to operate the F-35B, however, as it has developed a plan for so-called "rolling vertical" deck landings. This will see the jumpjets coming down using their vertical thrust, but still moving forward fast enough to get added lift from their wings. The RN believes that this will mean an F-35B being able to set down with weapons and reserve fuel even in hot conditions - and it should reduce wear and tear on the engines too. Senior naval aviators have confirmed to the Reg that they think this will be the standard method of landing on British carriers in future.
Despite the navy's enthusiasm, the F-35B faces an uncertain future in Britain. The RAF don't really want it, and are hoping to kill off the existing Harrier force before it arrives - so making it much simpler to cancel the new plane. The MoD as a whole are sceptical about the weapons bring-back issue. General Sir Kevin O'Donoghue, chief of MoD equipment, has said of the F-35B:
"Why don't we wait and see what the operational test and evaluation comes out with ... Does it do what it says on the tin?"
Meanwhile the F-35 programme as a whole is universally loathed by everyone in the aerospace industry except its main manufacturer, Lockheed. This is in large part because the F-35, if it turns out even halfway decent, looks set to dominate the entire western-world combat jet market for decades to come. This could very possibly lead to a big contraction in the military aerospace industry worldwide, explaining why the plane is so widely hated and why it gets such unremittingly negative coverage in the trade press - even to the extent of promoting some quite marginal commentators as experts. Even Lockheed don't like to boost the F-35 too much, in case it cuts into US sales of their significantly more expensive F-22 Raptor superjet.
The F-35 is indeed a fairly good thing for British industry, as Mr Hutton says. Rolls Royce, for instance, are heavily involved in the vertical-thrust gear and are hoping to do well out of an alternate engine to be developed for the plane. But the F-35B isn't as good for BAE Systems plc as a fully-pimped Tranche 3 Eurofighter would be; and the F-35 programme is a major competitor against Eurofighter for export sales, too. Industrial support for a large British F-35B purchase will not be strong.
So it's really only the carrier programme keeping the UK F-35B purchase alive: but the carriers could start looking very vulnerable if Gordon Brown and the Scottish shipyards disappear from national politics next year, as seems quite likely.
No carriers, no UK F-35Bs, in all likelihood. Yesterday's buy of the prototype birds doesn't necessarily mean anything, for all that Blighty has already sunk £2bn into the F-35 development programme.
It'll be interesting to see how all this pans out over the next few years. ®