U-Turn over F35
25/04/2012 Leave a comment
The future of the Harriers replacement has taken a recent loop.
Some may ask why this should matter but is is crucial to understand the strategic and financial impact of this decision.
The difficulty arises in that there are 3 different variants of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), or F-35, which is set to replace the Royal Navy’s Sea Harriers and the Royal Air Force’s Tornado GR.4.
The question is which variant best fits the U.K.’s strategic interests?
Up until the Strategic Defence Review, the U.K. was dedicated to purchasing the B version. This would allow the U.K to operate the aircraft off of other nations ships as well as the Queen Elizabeth class carriers that are currently under construction.
The B variant also provides greater strategic and tactical flexibility. Strategically, Britain has a strong maritime tradition which is tied to its colonial past. One reason that British forces were able to quickly launch a task force to retake the Falkland Islands in 1982 was because of the Harrier’s Vertical Short Take Off and Landing (VSTOL) capability. More recently, RAF Harriers were operating out of Camp Bastion in Afghanistan before other aircraft could because there was no dedicated runway.
The VSTOL version of the JSF does have one major downside. The vector thrusters lead to a smaller fuel tank, meaning that the B variant will have a shorter range and lower payload than its carrier aligned counter-part. This is countered by the very nature of the aircraft. It’s ability to land anywhere means that it can be refuelled and rearmed provided that there are secure zones to do so.
There are also financial implications for keeping the F-35B.
The cost of the carrier version has soared due to technical issues associated with the arrester gear. The hook conflicts with the stealth features of the aircraft which, in turn, has resulted in a review of the carriers themselves. A project that was meant to cost £400 million has now escalated to £1.8 billion. This, combined with the additional cost of training pilots in complex carrier landings, means that the B variant is a cheaper option.
If the Government has the strategic interests of the U.K. in mind, its best option is to stick with the original and the (B)est option.