RAF plan for F-35 split-buy undermines aircraft carrier programme

Deborah Haynes, foreign affairs editor at Sky News has reported that, behind the scenes, the RAF is arguing hard to split the UK purchase of F-35 aircraft into two variants. The F-35B is the only fixed-wing aircraft able to operate from the new QEC aircraft carriers but it’s no secret that the RAF harbours the ambition to procure F-35As as a direct replacement for its land-based Tornado force.

Despite being constantly assured that inter-service rivalry is a thing the past and that the RAF was 100% behind the carrier project, there has always been discussion of an alternative agenda for F-35. The RAF and MoD would like to dismiss this report as an “uninformed rumour”, but Deborah Haynes has an outstanding track record of unearthing the real story about what goes on at the MoD. We wrote about these concerns several years ago but this is more substantial evidence that the carrier project has never been loved by the RAF. While there is no doubt that RAF personnel currently involved at the delivery end of the carrier project are committed, skilled and enthusiastic, at more senior levels, the attractions of the F-35A and being unshackled from involvement at sea are the priority.

The decision to procure A or stick with B is expected to be made at next SDSR, probably in 2020 but the split-buy battle has clearly already begun in Whitehall. Air Commodore Bradshaw, the Lighting Force Commander told Janes last month (innocent face) he was “unsure what effect procuring the land-based F-35A might have on the joint concept of operations” and he could see “no reason not to transfer the F-35Bs solely to the RN”. A nice clean compromise this might appear, but the issue is the total number of aircraft needed to ensure credible carrier strike capability. The UK has signed contracts for the purchase of 48 aircraft, the last of which should be delivered by 2024, but the long-term plan is to buy a total of 138. It is the second batch of 90 aircraft that the RAF would like to change to F-35A and take complete ownership of.

The numbers game

The number of aircraft that typically makes up a squadron is conveniently kept rather vague (anything from 8-16 aircraft but 12 is considered about average). Also the “Tailored Air Group” concept for the carriers means that no one has been obliged to give any concrete figures about how many aircraft the QEC can expect routinely embark. The QEC is designed to operate up to 36 fixed-wing aircraft which would be a very powerful and effective force able to deliver sustained operations for some time. As a very approximate rule of thumb, to get one frontline aircraft to sea would require another 2 or 3 aircraft in the sustainment fleet or on training duties. Aircraft must undergo scheduled maintenance and be available for training and trials and all that before considering attrition – either losses in combat or accidents.

It is unclear over how many years the second batch of aircraft would be purchased but it is safe to assume it could be spread another two decades into the 2040s. Even if all aircraft purchased are B variants, the QEC might only ever embark 36 UK-owned jets in an emergency and unsustainable ‘surge’, drawing on training units. 12-24 embarked jets is more likely, sometimes enhanced with a squadron of USMC aircraft.

Should the number of F-35Bs be capped at 48, much of the vast potential of Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) will have been squandered. After decades of development and an investment running into £ Billions to purchase these large and capable vessels, their main armanent will be a handfull of jets. The prime purpose of the carrier project is to provide the reach and flexibility that land-based aircraft often cannot offer (not to mention organic air defence for the fleet). Land-based strike aircraft may be a better solution than using the carrier in some circumstances if a convenient base is available. The F-35B can of course operate from land bases if required and potentially even from small austere landing grounds. The A variant has no such flexibility, unable to land on a carrier and can only operate from nice long, smooth runways.

A versus B

Proponents of the A variant will argue it has better performance, longer-range and has a lower fly-away price than the F-35B. While there is truth in this, the issues are very more complex. Calculating the full through-life cost of an aircraft is a multi-faceted calculation. There is some commonality between the A and B aircraft but each will need its own logistics and training pipeline which adds cost. The F-35 project started with the goal of 70% commonality in components but after years of developmental changes, there is now less than 25% commonality between the 3 types.

The A has significantly better range than the B but the UK is not equipped to air-air refuel the F-35A. The only option would be considerable expenditure on adding the capability. The A’s range advantage may sometimes be offset by the fact the B can fly from a carrier and can get often get closer to the action anyway. The A has a slightly bigger weapons bay but as yet, the UK possess no weapon to take advantage of this. The A has better manouverability and can pull higher G than the B. This is desirable but the F-35 has not been purchased for its dog-fighting capability, rather its sensor fusion and ability to have the upper hand over aircraft well beyond visual range.

By splitting the fleet it reduces mass, lowering the impact and credibility of both fleets. Instead of a single pipeline of pilots and maintainers focussed on preparation for carrier-based aviation, numbers are diluted and training and operating philosophy diverges. With just 48 aircraft, in the long term, the case for mothballing or selling one of the carriers might become another unpleasant prospect when cuts are called for. The promised Continuous Carrier Capability that would offer such a flexible tool for government would evaporate.

The interests of UK defence as a whole?

If the UK had an unlimited defence budget then a split buy and an RAF / FAA divided ownership would be a perfectly valid option. The opposite is the case and all three services should be working together to maximise the return on investment, especially the large outlay already made on the carriers. From the outset, the Lightning Force was always advertised very much as a joint organisation with the RAF working in harmony with the RN to generate its carrier aircraft. Unfortunately, you cannot trumpet the virtues of joint working, one team, one fight etc, while at the same time working to weaken the centrepiece of a sister service for your own single service interest.

The RAF may argue that they have “the strategic interests of the UK as a whole” in mind and they are merely providing their advice to ministers who will take the decision. Unless you have a strong emotional and institutional attachment to land-based deep strike, It is very hard to find much operational or financial justification for the split-buy which comes at the cost of badly undermining Britain’s newly acquired primary conventional deterrent.