It was revealed yesterday that the MoD is in negotiations with the F-35 Joint Project Office to buy another tranche of F-35 jets. This second batch will consist of 26 aircraft, in addition to the 48 already under contract.
The Integrated Review published in March 2021 stated only vaguely there was an intention to buy “more than 48” F-35s. Speaking in a Parliamentary Defence Select Committee session, Air Marshal Richard Knighton, Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff specified the exact figure for the first time in public. The initial tranche of 48 jets already on order will be delivered by 2025 and Knighton said the MoD now has the funding in place for the purchase of a further 26 aircraft, including the support and personnel costs. This will bring the UK fleet up to a total of 74 aircraft (minus the one jet lost in a non-fatal accident at sea in 2021).
In negotiations with Lockheed Martin and the JPO, the Defence Secretary has stated that the contractor must demonstrate reductions in support costs and apply more urgency to UK weapons integration. Work on the integration of Meteor BVRAAM and SPEAR-3 has begun but there is no definitive date for their entry into service which is largely dependent on how quickly LM can deliver the Block IV software update for the aircraft. The flyaway cost of an F-35B is now approximately £85M so the MoD has considerable leverage when negotiating what is potentially a £2.2Bn deal. It is unclear when the UK can expect delivery of this second batch but will need to reserve aircraft from the production runs which are divided into ‘Lots’. LM’s target is to build 156 jets per year for customers worldwide but recently COVID, inflation and supply chain issues have complicated negotiations for Lots 15-17 and the price tag may begin to rise, reversing the downward trend as production has ramped up.
The idea that the UK could go for an F-35B / F-35A split buy has thankfully now been consigned to history but for now, it is unclear if there will be a third tranche of F35Bs. Knighton noted that: “the decision around further purchase beyond that 74 will be taken in the middle of the decade in the context of what we decide to do on our Future Combat Air System [FCAS] programme. It’s perfectly plausible we have a fleet of 138 as we described back in the early 2000s.” If the UK goes all-in with FCAS, ie. Tempest and its associated UCAV, distributed sensors and novel munition components, there are unlikely to be any spare funds available for further F-35 purchases in the 2030s.
FCAS may have three possible outcomes. (A) Overcoming vast technical challenges, it will be second only to the nuclear deterrent in defence spending and the centrepiece of the UK aerospace industry, ideally with multiple international partners and export buyers. (B) A technical demonstrator that achieves some success but proves ultimately beyond the reach of UK capability and is used as leverage to be a tier-1 partner in a future US fighter development programme. (C) A failure that results in the UK buying more F-35Bs and eventually replacing the Typhoon with an ‘off the shelf ‘ purchase from the US, having little UK industrial input.
The RAF now plans to have 3 frontline F-35B squadrons (4 were originally planned). Each will have a strength of between 12-16 aircraft. Assuming that around 20% of the jets are in maintenance at any given time, this leaves about 60 available for the ‘forward fleet’ which includes aircraft assigned to the OCU (207 Squadron – pilot training) and OEU (17 Squadron – operational evaluation unit based in the US). The 47 remaining aircraft that make up the tranche 1 purchase provide a bare minimum output for carrier strike capability. Routinely the carrier will deploy with 12 jets (although this may be frequently enhanced with USMC aircraft). In ‘surge’ condition 2 squadrons totalling 24 jets could be deployed. The carriers are designed to embark up to 36 fixed-wing aircraft (plus helicopters) but this could only be managed by the UK alone in a dire emergency by stopping pilot training and severely disrupting the maintenance cycle.
Although just 54% of the promised 138, a force of 73 jets provides a little more depth and the possibility of 24 aircraft more routinely deployed on the carrier. Of course, this will also be dependent on what other land-based tasks the Lightning Force is required to undertake in addition to its core naval aviation role.