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Excerpts from a major piece by someone who knows his stuff:
138 UK F-35 Lightnings, do we still need them? – A personal view
The UK Government and then Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt recently reaffirmed in Parliament that the UK and its MoD remain committed to purchasing at least 138 F35s “over the life of the programme”.
Why 138, do we really need that many and how long is “over the life of the programme”?
The following is the personal analysis David Simpson. David served for over 25 years as an RAF pilot, in executive flying appointments and as a senior staff officer including MoD Operational Requirements and Capability Management.
In addition to his front line flying he qualified via ETPS Boscombe Down as an experimental test pilot in 1987 and went on to command Experimental Flying Squadron at the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough in 1989. Operationally David was involved in the Falklands, Bosnia and Gulf war. Before joining the aerospace industry in 2005 David was U.K MoD Director of (Test) Flying responsible for regulation and approval of all MoD Project Test flying activities. For more about David, read the author information box at the end of this article.
Hence out of SDSRs 2010 and later endorsed in 2015 came a revised plan for a minimum of 48 F35Bs to provide exactly that – 2 op sqn plus a training unit) capability by 2025. A very different policy to that envisaged in 2005 for 138 F35B and 6+1 sqns to be delivered by 2020.
Of course, the QE class had been designed in detail specifically to routinely operate in full strike carrier configuration with some 36 F35Bs and relevant numbers of Merlin ASW and ASAC helicopters so there was always going to be MoD staff aspirations to increase overall fleet numbers beyond 48 at some point to ensure this was possible...
As indicated above, it emerged from SDSR2015 and the more optimistic financial plan therein that the UK JLF [FAA/RAF Joint Lightning Force] equipped with F35B would develop gradually and when affordable into a 4 op sqns plus one suitably sized OCU sqn force.
This in theory allowed for up to 3 sqns to be carrier deployed in extremis when required, with one or two still being the norm. A minimum of one would then be available always for a land expeditionary deployment or any permutation between the one active carrier and land deployment depending on the actual operational demand at any given time.
What all that meant of course was no abiding requirement for 138 F35B aircraft – 4 sqns of 12 active ac each along with a similarly sized OCU means 60 active ac on the front line. Add 50% more airframes (a common fleet type planning assumption) for deep servicing fleet planning and attrition storage and that makes 90 not 138. Even 90 may well be an over requirement in the shorter term in these days of much lower routine attrition and more rapid deep service turnarounds increasing fleet numbers availability...
...behind the scenes, ensuring the one active QE class carrier can deploy with 3 F35B sqns is high on the agenda. The US/UK agreement to use 1 USMC F35B sqn off the QE class cleverly underpins this, and in reality means that by 2023 such a 36 F35B force on board will be achievable to ensure full air wing carrier crew integration trials and training and if operationally required on a specific UK CSG deployment given there will be 2 UK op sqns (617 & 809) by then too.
When a 3rd UK sqn might be available to substitute for the USMC unit is another question, with yet no official procurement plan announced to make that happen as yet. However, it is anticipated such a plan will emerge later in 2020 and certainly by the next SDSR. That said, the integrated use of a USMC F35B sqn has valuable allied political, operational, training and UK F35B fleet management benefits and may well become the norm for decades to come.
It’s perhaps worth saying at this point that any wider enthusiasm or aspiration to be able to consistently operate both QE carriers in strike configuration will of course take a much greater investment both in more F35Bs and indeed the supporting ASW and ASAC helicopters. The low numbers and availability of the latter being an equally constraining factor on 2 fully equipped active UK strike carriers as would be F35B sqns availability.
The additional cost in provisioning such is immense and way beyond UK, RAF and RN budget limits as presently planned. It would take a major change in UK defence policy and increased defence expenditure to implement such a “two active strike carrier” capability on a regular basis especially when there is much to do elsewhere in the 3 services after many years of low funding. Of course, 2 carriers would not be available all the time either given regular maintenance down time requirements.
Keeping the present policy to use the 2nd carrier as a relief replacement for the first or as a concurrent LPH if needed is a cost-effective solution within the budget and wider UK aircraft availability constraints [emphasis added].
So why is HMG and the MoD still focused on saying we will buy 138?
Well in short, its down to political and top level intergovernmental programme commitments made in 2005 to buy those 138 that also provided (along with £2Bn of UK R&D funding) the leverage to make us a Tier One programme partner with all the programme integration and industrial benefits associated with that.
The positive impact on UK industry of our Tier One status is financially massive as well as keeping the UK up there with 5th gen combat ac technology for decades to come.
At the time we were the biggest by some margin non-US customer for the F35 too.
During SDSR2015 it soon became apparent to HMG and the UK MoD that the US would not take kindly to a reduced UK F35 purchase plan too. Given the original procurement plan was to buy all 138 by 2020, the new politically dictated compromise of “138 through the life of the programme” is at this new stage as much of a ‘saving face’ aspiration as it is a genuine holding position until the real level of procurement and its timing beyond the first UK tranche of 48 F35Bs by 2025 is decided and approved by the UK MoD, HMG and the HM Treasury...
In conclusion given the above, it’s then manifest that with a likely active F35B fleet topping off at around 90 through life, and an F35A buy of around 40 [emphasis added] this does indeed still imply a UK requirement to buy around 138 F35s “over the life of the programme” out to 2040 or later.
... if the UK commits to purchase and support an available F35B fleet of between 80-90 airframes then it will be able to operate one active strike carrier at any time with a 36 F35B strike air wing of 3 sqns and associated ASW and ASAC helicopter units – one active strike carrier being the only funded and approved policy at present [emphasis added]...