The Telegraph and some other newspapers and internet sources reported about Philip Hammond having given indication during the July 19 handover of ZM135, also known as BK-1 at Forth Worth, that the UK would acquire 48 F35B.
At the start, i did not give this figure much importance: i was unable to find any hard evidence of the minister having actually said it, and the official position indeed remained the same: the number of F35s to be procured is for SDSR2015 to decide.
And, said or not, even the eventual 2015 decision won't be definitive: cuts, of course, could arrive at any moment, as we sadly well know...
|Philip Hammond speaks at the official handover of ZM135, also known as BK-1, the first of 3 pre-production F35B ordered by the UK.|
I was not ready to believe that Hammond would give away such an accurate figure to the press, especially when he and the other defence ministers regularly avoid giving any solid indication on quantities to Parliament despite being asked about it at least once a month.
But spreadsheet Philip is surprising me once again, since it seems that he did say that. And Jane's says that it received further confirmations from the MOD.
I'm sure that many in Parliament won't appreciate, but i fear that i now have to believe to the figure. The source, this time, is the respected Jane's, which reports:
In remarks on 19 July in the United States, Hammond said the UK would order 48 F-35Bs to equip the UK's future carrier strike force. He added that a follow-on F-35 buy would be set out in a future Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), with the aim of replacing the Eurofighter Typhoon in UK service.
The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has confirmed his comments, telling IHS Jane's : "The defence secretary said that initially the UK would buy 48 jets for the aircraft carriers and announce at a later date what the final numbers would be. We will not finalise our decisions on the F-35 programme until SDSR in 2015."
Jane's reports that the follow-on order might be made up by cheaper, longer-range, non carrier-capable F35A.
Nothing definitive, but the Split Buy rumor is back.
The first time, it was in 2005, when Future Offensive Air System (FOAS, the intended Tornado replacement programme) was killed. That's when rumors of a split buy of 80 F35B and up to 58 F35C started to circulate. The C would be the Tornado replacement, possibly under a formal programme split: the F35B would meet the original Joint Combat Aircraft requirement, with the F35C procured under Deep and Persistent Offensive Capability (DPOC, the programme the RAF conceived to replace FOAS in the Tornado-replacement role).
Back at this time, the F35C's range and full-size weapon bays were given as main reason for the choice. In pure British style, there were some "imaginative" proposals such as removing the naval features from the C (hook, folding wings etc), something that, no doubt, would have ended just like the plan for Typhoon fighters without guns: removing such weights and components would dramatically change aspects of the plane's centre of gravity, and require software modifications and other expensive adjustements that would have no doubt made the changes a source of additional expense and not of savings.
In 2010, the SDSR killed DPOC (nominal but unallocated 1 billion budget) and assumed that the sole JCA would replace both Harrier and Tornado. The choice was the F35C, and this time there was an added reason: facts had changed.
In 2001, when the UK entered the F35 enterprise with the B as preferred solution (but never with a really definitive selection), it was expected that the F35C would be the most expensive of the 3 variants.
By 2010 it had become absolutely clear that it was actually the F35B that would cost the most to buy and then to run through life.
The 2010 decision was soon reversed, as we know, and now we are back in the B field fully, with the reason being a still rather unconvincing estimate putting the cost of fitting catapults and arrestor wires to CVF at 2 billion for Prince of Wales (converted at build) and 3 billion for Queen Elizabeth (converted at her first major refit, eventually).
I say rather unconvincing for a number of reasons. One of the funniest ones is that, in their latest explanation, MOD officers say that they found out they'd have to modify 280 compartments instead of an earlier planned figure of 80/90 in order to fit EMALS and wires into Prince of Wales, pushing costs up dramatically.
What does not really fit into the picture is that such compartments are not being built yet, so it's the paper design that needs changing, not a physical vessel (at least in Prince of Wales's case).
Again, even if 280 compartments need redesign, one cannot possibly understand how the financial impact can be so mostrous, considering that each CVF has over 2800 compartments, that the class was designed with a 111 million pounds Assessment and 175 million pounds Demonstration phases and that the virtual total unitary cost (inclusive of a 1.56 billion cost increase purely caused by a 2008 slow-down imposed to the works by Labour government) is 2.6 billion.
Rather spectacular modifications muse be necessary to double the cost of the vessel while modifying a tiny fraction of it...
At the moment, the UK has taken ownership over ZM135, the first F35B. Its brother, BK-2, should be delivered to the UK next month.
BK-3, that at one point following the SDSR 2010 was destined to be given to the US Marines in exchange for an F35C (CK-1), will arrive next year, since it was ordered one year after the first 2.
These planes will stay in the US, as probably will the first 6 "production" F35Bs.
Calling them "production" airframes is not really correct, since they are still going to be part of Low Rate Initial Production blocks. Only from 2018 or 2019 there will be full production-standard F35s.
Anyway, the UK has placed long lead orders this year, that will be formalized in 2013 as the order for the first of the 48 (if reports are true) planes planned.
In any case, here are some observations of the two possible scenarios implied by the latest development:
Tornado and Typhoon Tranche 1 go in 2019 (leaving 5 Typhoon squadrons), 48 F35B by 2023, additional F35 A or B in the 2020s.
48 F35B for the carriers. Possibly to be ordered/received by 2023, this date being indicated in the MOD Business Plan 2012 as the "end date" for the JCA effort.
Not too bad a number, but a very tight one nonetheless.
6 of these airplanes would stay in the US, with the USMC Squadron 501 "Warlords" at the Eglin F35 Integrated Training Centre, and act as a OCU to prepare pilots.
There won't be any UK-based OCU at least until 2014, but after that part of the airplanes might need to be used for a training formation at home.
Even if they are not needed and training is met by the Eglin facilities and UK force in there, the very best number of frontline squadrons that could be formed would be 3. And that would leave just 6 airframes to rotate in the force to cover maintenance needs.
The original Italian Navy assumption (now the plan has changed) was for a force of 22 F35B: 3 based in the US for training, 5 expected to be in maintenance/not available at any one time, and 14 available for embarking on the Cavour aircraft carrier.
The UK order would be a bit more than double that size, so let's make an empiric assumption and say that 6 airframes in the US do it for training. More than a quarter of the fleet would be unavailable most of the time, so that would mean 10/11 airframes. And a 6 + 32 (3 Squadrons) + 6 (attrition) airframes would struggle to make ends meet.
48 airplanes would realistically support 2 frontline Squadrons, with the third being routinely understrength to some degree.
Not unacceptable, considering that squadrons would normally rotate at different readiness levels, but this is arguably the very, very barest minimum for having an aspirational capability of filling up a CVF with a Wing of 3 squadrons in case of need.
The lack of attritional airframes would in addition mean that airframes would age faster, as there wouldn't be enough spare aircrafts to enable a rotational use, spreading the flying hours on more aircrafts.
This is, to a degree, acceptable in my view because the F35 is going to be in production for many, many years into the future, and its future price will likely drop over time, depending on how much export success it effectively reaps around the world.
With this background, it does arguably make sense to buy less airframes at the start, cutting back on the Attrition pool, in favor of buying replacement airframes in later years as and if it proves necessary.
Even so, in my opinion the eventual follow-on order should really be for the same aircraft type, to increase the number of carrier-capable aircrafts and to avoid the duplication of costs and issues that would be unavoidable if a split buy was the chosen path. F35A and F35B might have a lot in common, but they are simply not the same thing. Training and logistics would be partially different, and while the A's support and training would be less expensive per airframe, i'm not convinced that it would be an advantageous approach when all things get considered together.
The follow-on order for F35A would be, really, the third attempt of the RAF to procure a dedicate Tornado replacement. While Hammord reportedly said "that a follow-on F-35 buy would be set out in a future Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), with the aim of replacing the Eurofighter Typhoon in UK service", i really do not think that a total replacement of Typhoon is on the cards.
The Typhoon Out of Service date is 2030, notionally, but it is unthinkable that the main industrial product of Europe, the most numerous (it'll be from around 2015, since at the moment there is technically more Tornado GR4s still) aircraft in service with the RAF, the main export offer of the UK in the defence aerospace sector, the horribly-expensive superfighter does not get a Mid-Life Upgrade like all other major defence platforms.
The idea of retiring Typhoon just 12 years after it hits Full Operating Capability (planned for 2018 at the moment) is frankly impossible to accept or conceive.
Typhoon will no doubt live much longer than 2030.
A possibility is the loss of the 52 Typhoon Tranche 1, which have for some time now been assumed to go out of service by 2019, same OSD now planned for Tornado GR4.
The Tranche 1, relatively new but hard-worked already, would cost a fortune to upgrade, and they have some structural differences compared to Tranche 2 and 3 aircrafts that would prevent them from expanding their capabilities sufficiently (or making it financially unfeasible, anyway).
The idea is to remove them early from service, and keep a 5 squadrons fleet flying with a force of 107 Tranche 2 and Tranche 3. [Note, again, that 5 frontline squadrons supported by a fleet of 107 means 21.4 airframes per each 12-aircraft frontline squadron. Applied to F35B, the same ratio supports only 2.28 frontline squadrons, as mentioned earlier. What Typhoon is not likely to have is a production line open for as long as the F35's one. In addition, there is no US centre that trains pilots for the Typhoon!]
The Tornado GR4 and Typhoon (Tranche 1) are the two machines that will need replacing in the 2020s, and a second order of F35s, plus, in good time, the hoped-for UCAV, will be the only real option available for keeping up the fast jet numbers in the UK. The hope of the RAF is probably to get around 50 more airframes: post SDSR, a long-term target figure of "around 100 F35s" continued to circulate, in fact.
For maximum efficiency, though, i'd very much prefer if the UK sticked to the sole B variant, for maximum flexibility.
The F35A, of course, costs less, has a greater range and full size weapon bays.
The B's bays are 14 inches shorter, so there is less space for fitting current and future large weapons and/or payloads. The internal hardpoint for air-ground weaponry is rated for 1500 pounds, against 2500 for A and C variants.
In addition, the second of 3 pylons under each wing of an F35B is rated for 1500 pounds payload, against 2500 for the A and C variants. The innermost underwing pylons are rated for 5000 pounds on all variants (on these pylons the UK F35 will eventually carry Storm Shadows) while the third point on each wing is for AA missiles only, and the UK F35s will carry ASRAAMs on them.
The F35A as a standard comes fitted with USAF-style receptacle, for Boom-type air to air refuelling. The RAF uses the USN method of Probe and Drogue.
Fortunately, the F35A is "ready to take" the same kind of probe and drogue kit used by the B and C, but nonetheless, there will be additional cost to fit it.
The main problem is that a Split Buy without the money for making it a big split buy is only going to buy two small aircraft fleet instead of a single, decent sized one.
Instead of 100 between F35B and F35A, i'd take 80 F35B any day, if the problem is money.
If the problem is about range and payload, then stepping away from the C was not right.
And, finally, there is another fear connected to a split buy: that of the two fleets entering a competition for access to the little budget available. The kind of internal, fratricide competition that gave Harried a death from a thousand cuts (the reduction enacted in 2009 was the death blow that was used as justification for the final retirement in 2010, as the many cuts had made the fleet "too small"), that forced the First Sea Lord to announce he would resign if the RAF went ahead and sacrificed the Harrier (2008).
I really do not want to hear, in a few years time, the same old shit.
"F35A costs less..."
"We've got more range and payload than them..."
"We can't put that weapon on the B..."
"We should just cut the B..."
No. It's happened once. Strategic Thinking has been sacrified once already, and it must not happen again.
The Jane's article, reportedly, talks of yet another scenario. Please be aware that i cannot check it myself, i'm reporting from other sources:
Typhoon Tranche 1 retained, giving a 7 squadrons force. 48 F35B procured by 2023, a second order of F35 in the very long term (2030) as manned part of a Typhoon replacement, probably completed by drones.
This would see the MOD abandoning the plan of retiring Tranche 1 Typhoons by 2019.
The Typhoon force would instead grow to 7 squadrons plus OCU and OEU, probably with the Tranche 1 used for the 2 "Air Defence" Squadrons (3rd and 6th RAF) and the Tranche 2 and 3 used in 5 "Swing-Role" deployable squadrons, due to their more complete capabilities.
The F35B force would be made up by 48 airplanes, procured probably by 2023, as said in Scenario 1.
The second buy of F35 airplanes in this case is, effectively, a non-binding promise. The government might well say they will order more F35s in 2030, but effectively they don't know, they can't and won't promise.
It is a nice way to say that, really, the F35 order has been slashed from 150, then 138 all the way down to 48. Quite dramatic a cut, more than two thirds of the original planning figure.
Not even worth bothering thinking about what will happen in 2030: way too far away in time to say. Not to mention that, as i said earlier, i really do not expect the Typhoon to bow out of service that soon.
This second scenario is admittedly attractive financially speaking because retaining already available, already paid-for Typhoon Tranche 1s is undoubtedly going to be less expensive than a second F35 order in the early 2020s.
A force of 48 F35Bs, however, calls into question the sense of adopting a "60:40" split between RAF and Fleet Air Arm.
With 48 being the bare minimum number for a single carrier wing, the focus on naval operations for the force must be absolute, or it won't make much sense.