Coalition set for defence strategy U-turn over carrier jets

The F35B is undergoing test flights in the skies over Texas
The F35B is undergoing test flights in the skies over Texas
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THE Royal Navy has announced the next generation of aircraft carriers will use the original version of the joint strike fighter (JSF) in an apparent U-turn in the government’s defence strategy.

A press release issued by the Royal Navy said the B-version of JSF, which is being tested over Texas, “will deliver the punch of the Royal Navy’s future carriers at the end of the decade”.

That version of the jet, which is capable of vertical take-off and landing, was originally ordered by the previous Labour government, but ditched by the coalition in favour of a cheaper model.

In the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) published in November 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron damned the version of the JSF ordered by Labour as “more expensive and less capable”, saying it was part of “an appalling legacy the British people have every right to be angry about”.

He announced that a new version would be bought and “we will fit the cat and traps – the catapults and arrestor gear to the operational carrier”.

The Ministry of Defence last night insisted no final decision had yet been made.

But the press release put out by the Royal Navy was taken by political opponents as evidence that the SDSR is unravelling with question marks over its base review, as well as a capability gap left by the scrapping of the replacement Nimrod spy planes.

Opposition parties have been calling for the review to be reopened, not least because of the fact that the UK will be without an aircraft carrier until at least 2020, possibly 2025.

The press release came after reports that senior commanders made it clear to Mr Cameron that the government should revert to the B-version and drop the plan of purchasing a C-version.

The Scotsman understands that the government is resigned to a U-turn on one of its most high-profile changes to defence policy in the SDSR because of problems in design and the estimated £1.8 billion cost of installing a cat and trap system.

The decision is waiting to be signed off by the National Security Council, but ministers have accepted they have little choice.

Reverting to the B-type also allows both new carriers to be brought into use, because it was too expensive to install the launch system on both. In addition, the cat and trap system would not be compatible with French aircraft, one of the major reasons for the original change.

A spokeswoman for the MoD said the Royal Navy article was about aircraft purchased by the last Labour government and there was an ongoing review into whether to switch to the C variant.

She added: “No decision has been made yet.”

But opponents pointed out that the Royal Navy article appeared to say specifically that the B-version of the JSF is the one which will be used.

It said: “The jet, which is the short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the F35 (JSF), will complete a series of company and government checkout flights before being handed over to the MoD later this year for training and operational tests at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

“The frontline variant of the jet – also known as the Lightning II – will fly from the decks of HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, under construction at half a dozen yards.”

F35C: catapult take-off

THE F35C, the third version of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) considered by the UK government, differs from the A and B versions because it is specifically designed for aircraft carriers.

It has larger wings than the other two versions and relies on a catapult and trap system for take-off and landing.

This is the version which will be used by the United States’ aircraft carriers.

David Cameron announced in November 2010 that the UK would also use this version.

However, to use the F35C would mean that the United Kingdom would probably not have an aircraft carrier ready until 2025, would not be able to use both of the new ships and modifications would cost £1.8 billion.

F35B: vertical take-off

ThE second version of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) was primarily designed for the UK’s aircraft carrier programme.

The F35B differs from the earlier F35A by being designed for vertical take-off and landing.

This meant it was unable to travel as far, because it had to sacrifice some of its fuel capacity.

Its critics pointed out that carriers using the B-version would not be compatible with the US or French jets, the UK’s two key allies.

Importantly, the UK and French now have a carrier-sharing agreement.

This version started trials in December 2011 and three have already been ordered by the UK government.

The first of the tests on the UK-purchased jets started in Texas this week.

F35A: runway take-off

THE first version of the Joint Strike Fighter of F35 was for conventional take-off and landing from a runway.

The A-type was the one first designed when Lockheed Martin won the JSF contract over Boeing for a project to supply Nato members with a new generation of fast fighter jet with stealth technology, which makes it virtually invisible to radar.

The first of this version took flight in December 2006 and is due to be the backbone of Nato airforces, including the RAF.

The UK versions of these jets are expected to be based at RAF Lossiemouth in Moray.