U.K. Makes F-35 U-Turn to Cut Costs, Narrow Carrier-Defense Gap

Britain will equip its aircraft carriers with a jump-jet variant of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter after a government U-turn aimed at reducing shipbuilding costs and the gap until the vessels are deployed.

The U.K. will buy short takeoff, vertical landing F-35Bs, as chosen by the U.S. Marine Corps, after reversing a plan to take the ‘C’ version, launched with a catapult and arrester-wire system that would have added 1 billion pounds ($1.6 billion) in unforeseen costs to the carriers, the Ministry of Defence said.

Opting for jump-jets means the F-35 can be deployed in 2018 and fully operational by 2020, wiping three years from the time Britain will be without a carrier jet-force after the retirement of its Harrier fleet last year. The plane is also more viable after the U.S. ended a two-year “probation period” imposed on the model, Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said today.

“When the facts change you have to be willing to change your mind,” Hammond told Parliament in London, adding that 40 million pounds was spent on the ‘C’ variant before the U-turn.

Prime Minister David Cameron said in October 2010 that his government would scrap the previous Labour administration’s decision in favor of the F-35B and would instead buy the so-called “cats and traps” ‘C’ version ordered by the U.S. Navy.

Magnetic Power

Cameron said then that only one carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, due in 2019, would be redesigned to the take the planes, with the required gear, utilizing magnetic power rather than proven steam-driven technology, likely to cost several hundred million pounds, according to people familiar with the plans.

Sister vessel HMS Queen Elizabeth would enter service in 2016 but carry only helicopters, not planes, leaving a gap of eight years during which Britain would lack carrier-based jets. Opting for jump-jets means the Queen Elizabeth will be able to use the F-35 and give the government time to decide what it plans to do with the Prince of Wales.

Hammond’s Labour Party opposite Jim Murphy told Parliament that Cameron’s original decision had been “high risk and high cost” and the result of ministers overruling military experts.

“The prime minister’s decisions have cost British time, money, talent and prestige,” Murphy said.

Liam Fox, Britain’s then-defense secretary, also said at the time that the F-35B was less practical because it would dictate a design of ship from which American and French navy planes could not operate. France is satisfied with the U.K.’s commitment to interoperability, Hammond said today.

The reconsideration of the F-35B was a “relatively new development” driven by “national U.K. financial constraints” and the cost of modifying the carriers to take the F-35C, U.S. Navy Vice Admiral David Venlet, the program manager for the JSF, said in a March interview after a presentation to a Credit Suisse conference on defense programs in Arlington, Virginia.

The U.K. is one of the U.S.’s eight partners on the $382 billion JSF program, the Pentagon’s most expensive. The others are Australia, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Denmark and Norway.