Can the F-35 get off the ground?

UPDATE: Today, the MoD released a press release quietly revealing, in an article about carrier engines, that they did not expect the F-35 to be at operational strike capability until 2020 after trials beginning in 2018. As of course predicted by this site weeks ago.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, otherwise known as the American defence industry’s unwanted pregnancy, had its first test takeoff from a ski jump earlier this week. The success of the takeoff highlighted not only the aircraft’s ability to get some sweet air from a £2m ramp, but also that it would be able to launch from the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth class-carriers. The test had originally been scheduled for late last year, but Lockheed/BAe cancelled it without giving a reason, and nothing was heard again about it until this video suddenly appeared, because concurrency is a fantastic way of developing military assets.

The Royal Navy, and to a lesser extent the Royal Air Force, have hedged all their bets on this aircraft. With the lack of catapults on the carriers, this is perhaps besides an OV-10 Bronco, the only attack plane they could hope to operate. However, given that the fate of the F-35 lies in a foreign government, the sea lords do not necessarily have a sure thing on their hands. To understand, it’s important to look at the jet’s less disappointing cousin, the F-22 Raptor.

In the 90s the US Air Force planned to buy 750 Raptors, but over the proceeding years, this number was continually cut. As the price of the air superiority fighter ballooned and ended up with the acquisition of only 183 F-22s, at an eventual calculated cost of $412m per aircraft. The project was cancelled entirely in 2011 with an assumption that the F-35 could take up the slack.

Unfortunately the situation has now been entirely replicated in the form of the Joint Strike Fighter, and for a nation with defence spending like the U.S., there is no such phrase as “too big to cancel.” The lifetime cost of the plane is set to be $1.6 trillion, which is equivalent to 25 years of the British defence budget at current levels. Canada has dropped out of the project due to costs, and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has heavily scaled down its orders to barely a few dozen, leaving the Americans to pick up the slack. If those numbers continue to drop, as could happen in this year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, the American legislators faced with budget cuts could be left with little choice but to abort the entire project, or at the very least produce the very minimum needed.

If development does continue, the MoD in this country will still have a number of awkward questions to answer. Given the F-35s love of burning through carrier decks like a hot torch, could we see another set of delays to the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers to protect its extremely expensive components? There are also concerns over the expected operational capability in the U.K., as the MoD continue to promise on a 2018 date, and refusing to consider any contingencies as was exposed in a recent parliamentary question by Labour MP and leading defence inquistor Andrew Gwynne.

The F-35, besides its ability to melt billion dollar warship decks, has the capacity to be a highly capable strike aircraft, but its genesis has been horrific.

How the delayed F-35 could leave Britain’s defences wafer thin for years

It’s now been six years since the F-35 Lightning II was originally meant to be operational and almost 10 since they went into production. Britain’s 14 year saga with the American Joint Strike Fighter program, entered into under Tony Blair’s government, still has no end in sight. 2015 also marks the fourth year that the United Kingdom has been without any carrier borne fast jets after the sale of the Royal Navy’s Harriers, and one year since the navy’s final fast jet carrier, HMS Illustrious, was finally decommissioned.

It is not predicted that Illustrious’ replacement will be in combat ready service before 2020. That will mean for six years at least, Great Britain will not have a single fast jet carrier, and only one helicopter carrier (the flagship, HMS Ocean). It could also be possible that following HMS Queen Elizabeth’s introduction, her complement of aircraft will be quite far behind.

Problematically, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) decided to u-turn from the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review decision to install catapults on the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers after being quoted extraordinary costs by BAE Systems. This means that paradoxically, until the F-35 decides to become a capable warplane, no aircraft but the Harrier, sold as no longer required, could operate from the carrier decks.

Despite the MoD’s insistence that the F-35B will be ready for combat in 2018, Nick Harvey the former Coalition Minister for the Armed Forces, before being reshuffled in 2012, disagrees. In May he told the Independent that the F-35 could end up being more than eight years late.

“Not a cat in hell’s chance” He said on the proposal that the F-35 would be combat-ready by 2018. “I don’t recall … having heard anyone suggesting that these things could be used in combat before 2020.”

In 2018/19, the Royal Air Force’s Tornado fleet of 98 will be retired from service after 36 years. The brunt of duties, should the F-35 not be in service by then, will be entirely placed on the shoulders of the Eurofighter Typhoon, a proven to be totally poor ground attack and reconnaissance aircraft, as evaluated in reports by Armasuisse (graph below). It will also reduce the amount of active RAF fast jets from 223 to a mere 125, according to current numbers.

The size of the initial UK order of F-35s is also concerning for many, with only 48 currently confirmed, meaning that for years to come while the orders are fulfilled, the Royal Air Force could end up at its smallest size in decades with the Typhoon taking up much of the slack. While Russia continues to mount sorties against the United Kingdom’s airspace, those who are charged with defending the country’s skies will be at their weakest.