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.

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