Sunday, December 2, 2018

About that Split Buy idea...



Not long ago, Johnny Mercer, tory MP for Plymouth, made a vehement plea for honesty in the handling of Defence issues. I cannot possibly overstate how important it is to bring back some honesty in this sector, because there is a clear shortage of it.

I’ve written in other occasions that the way the Defence planning and budgeting is handled in the UK institutionalizes dishonesty and makes it endemic. It also ensures that the leaking of news to the press will continue, forever and ever, no matter how many times the practice is scolded. Watch any hearing of the Defence Committee with serving top brass; and then any of the many hearings with retired top brass. Compare and contrast.

Some of the most gigantic problems with the UK’s way of handling defence are:

-          What little the MOD says publicly about what it plans to procure, how and when is only ever published with 12 months of delay. Parliament gets little to zero actual say on the matter. Compare this to what even the Italian Parliament, not to mention the French or American one, get to do about the defence budget of their own countries. I don’t think I need to add more, it should be pretty obvious that there is an immense problem of accountability. Parliament gets a (very partial) letterbox view on the MOD plans, months after things have already taken place. Obfuscation about future intentions is sometimes complete.

-          The defence committee is a total paper tiger with little actual power.

-          Whatever little power the committee has is most commonly not exploited because serving top brass are literally not allowed to speak their mind freely in front of it. They must always stick to the official line, which is why as soon as they retire they seem to change from doctor Jekyll into mr. Hyde. It makes them look stupid and it makes the committee hearings look like bad comedy.

-          Without a defence committee to speak to, officers are dangerously short of options for fighting back against a developing situation inside the MOD that they feel is potentially disastrous.

This is, in ultra simplified form, the main reason why leaks to the press are constant and why the MOD constantly ends up mired in such disasters and embarrassing U-turns. This is something that the UK absolutely needs to change, sooner rather than later. 

The lack of clarity over future plans seem to extend all the way to the narrow circles of officers defining requirements for the future of the services. Looking at certain decisions, or indecisions, makes one wonder whether one project office talks to the other at all. 
There are quite a few things to say about Strike, for example, or about the never-ending saga of the Warrior CSP and its relationship with Ajax and MIV, which the army seems incapable to settle in a rational way. 
Today, however, I want to write about the F-35 programme because Deborah Haynes, foreign affairs editor at Sky News, has given voice to a worried leak, coming from the Navy, about the RAF’s intention of splitting the F-35 purchase, abandoning the carrier-capable, short take off and vertical landing B variant in favor of the A variant, which can only operate from fully established land airbases.  

The report sadly comes as no surprise although, for the very first time, it goes as far as suggesting that not even the first 48 aircraft are “safe”, as the RAF is reportedly pushing to switch to the A variant possibly already with the next contracts in line, which will cover production Lot 15 (UK expected to procure 7 aircraft) and Lot 16 (6 aircraft).

The UK has just taken delivery of its 17th F-35, BK-17, the third to be delivered this year and also the last. It concluded the 3 aircraft purchase for the UK in Low Rate Initial Production lot 10. Next year, a single F-35B will be added, from LRIP 11. The UK has also confirmed mere days ago that, as part of the first-ever “Block Buy” contract in the F-35 programme, it will procure the expected 17 airframes over lots 12, 13 and 14 (3, 6 and 8 respectively). This is perfectly in line with what was earlier approved with Main Gate 5 and already reported on by the NAO.
Lot 15 is expected to include a further 7, leading the fleet to a total of 42 by the end of 2023, as was promised in the SDSR 2015, with Lot 16 adding 6 more to get to 48 by January 2025.

No purchase plan has been detailed for the year 2025 and beyond.

I don’t believe that Main Gate 5, which authorized the procurement of these first 48 aircraft, will be re-opened and modified. I think it is highly unlikely. But from 2016 onwards the noise about the RAF purchasing the A variant has only ever gotten louder. To ignore it would stupid, because it is a fact that the RAF is interested and in favor of the split. They have said as much, despite some indignant reactions to the latest Sky News report. 

The first F-35B embarkation on HMS Queen Elizabeth has just concluded, and it was a great success. Trials progressed faster than planned and some test points originally meant for next year's deployment were brought forwards. 15 short rolling vertical landings were also carried out. Two USMC aircraft were employed because the only 3 test-instrumented F-35Bs the UK has are based in Edwards, on the Pacific coast of the US. As they are busy with tests of their own ahead of the IOC declaration next month, it would have made little sense to interrupt their work and fly them across the US. Next year, some 7 british F-35Bs are expected to embark for a new WESTLANT deployment and more elaborate trials. 

Unfortunately, the prospect of a split buy is not properly understood or debated. Much dishonesty surrounds the implications that a split buy would have. Some have been led to believe that 48 aircraft are all the carriers need. Some believe that, since the carrier can embark 36 and there will be 48, there is no problem at all and the air wing will be there. Unfortunately that is not how it works, and if only 48 aircraft are procured, and only two frontline squadrons formed, it must be made very clear that the carrier will most likely never be given a full air wing unless the USMC, Italy, or maybe Japan, which is reportedly to join the F-35B train soon, fill the holes.

Any honest debate about the split buy must be clear on the fact that the carriers face severe repercussions from a change of plans. It is a 100% certainty. Some people believe the UK will form more squadrons as a result of a split buy. This is almost certainly false. Any debate about the possibility of a split buy must acknowledge facts, not dreams. You might believe that never having a full air wing at sea is acceptable, and i will disagree vehemently but at least appreciate the honesty. What you can't do is pretend that the split buy will not make semi-empty decks a reality. 



A change of approach

Much has been said about how the Royal Navy will need to change its approaches, going back to generating task groups from years in which its focus was primarily on multiple single-ship deployments. Much has been written about the difficulties of ensuring that enough escort ships are available to sail together with the aircraft carrier and even more has been suggested about how this will impact the residual ability of the tiny escort fleet to generate hulls for other standing tasks.

Surprisingly, despite much “aircraft carrier with no planes” rethoric on the socials, very few have actually taken some time to acknowledge that it is imperative for the RAF, or part of it anyway, to change its own methods if Carrier Enabled Power Projection is to work. When was the last time that a RAF squadron deployed with its nominal strength of 12 aircraft? We have to go back many years. These days it does not happen, not even on operations. Op SHADER, for example, is about a Squadron (minus) of Tornado GR4 (8 aircraft) and an even smaller Typhoon contingent, of 6 aircraft. Major exercises, such as the recently concluded Saif Sareea 3, normally see 8, 10 aircraft at most. Events including 30 aircraft at once are literally extremely rare; the RAF 100 Typhoon contingent was literally one of few events that have seen so many real Typhoons flying together, ever since the type entered service.

The “carrier with no aircraft” rhetoric is sadly anything but empty. If the current approaches do not change, even the Navy’s minimum ambition of having a full squadron of 12 embarked for every deployment (that means once a year, for perhaps 6 or more months at a time) will simply not materialize.

F-35B squadrons will have to be resourced with more manpower and more equipment packs (spares) and the Joint Lightning Force will have to size its plans on squadrons of 12 deployed aircraft, not on smaller packages. They will have to deploy in greater numbers, and more frequently. There will be impacts on harmony for the manpower involved and there will be impacts to consumption of spares and maintenance of aircraft in general.

This, in itself, is a revolution and it is not going to be any easier than the Task Group challenge the Navy faces. The difference is priority: while there is no doubt that the Royal Navy will try hard to make its capital ship programme work, it is fair to wonder whether the RAF is genuinely interested in making a change of this kind. If it is not committed to it, the decks won’t see many aircraft. It is that simple.

Across the Channel, France does manages to generate an air wing of 20 or more combat jets roughly once per year. When the Charles De Gaulle deploys, a couple of squadrons are regularly embarked. With the recent demise of the last squadron of Super Etendard, the French are heading for a navy-owned, all-Rafale M fleet numbering 44 jets in 3 squadrons plus a small OCU element within a larger OCU squadron, joint with the air force. Two of these three squadrons of Rafale M will be embarked every year. And before anyone tries to belittle the Charles de Gaulle availability, I’ll remark that she does deploy, although her deployments tend to be frequent but short; probably also as a consequence of being a “lone wolf”, with no second hull available to ease wear and tear and cover periods of maintenance in port.

A brief history of some notable CdG recent cruises

February – May 2010  deployment included “Brilliant Mariner” exercise in the Arctic Circle, embarked group of 12 Super Etendard and 7 Rafale M
June 2010 – training in the Mediterranean alongside USS Truman

13 October 2010 – 21 february 2011 – “Agaphante” deployment to Indian Ocean, flew 240 sorties over Afghanistan while there. 12 Super Etendard and 10 Rafale

20 March 2011 – 12 August 2011 – “Armattan”, 1350 sorties; 8 + 2 Rafale M and 6 Super Etendard
March – June 2012, training deployment with 8 Rafale and 7 Super Etendard
Refit period durint January – August 2013

20 November 2013 – 18 february 2014; “Bois Belleau”, deployment in the Indian Ocean in support to CSG-10, USS Truman

13 january – 19 may 2015; “Arromanches 1”, Indian Ocean then retasked against ISIS; 12 Rafale and 9 Super Etendard
18 November 2015 – 16 March 2016 “Arromanches 2”, 18 Rafale and 8 Super Etendard
30 September 2016 – 14 December 2016; “Arromanches 3”, 24 Rafale M, first deployment without Super Etendard


The Royal Navy has publicly voiced a plan for routine deployment of a squadron of 12, with a two-squadrons major deployment / exercise roughly once every two years. A number of RAF officers, serving and retired, have told me in no uncertain terms that they do not think the RAF subscribes to even this humble and unimpressive plan, and that we should not expect it to be the norm. They fully expect less aircraft to be embarked, and if they are right it will be difficult not to feel that the whole project is a failure and that the ships are indeed too large and should not have been built in their current form.

We are heading for a force of 48 jets that deploys a smaller air wing than a force of 44 jets. It will please no one.

The carriers have been built to comfortably embark three F-35 squadrons at once, but there is now a very real risk that the UK won’t ever have three squadrons at all. The F-35 plans have, for most if not all the history of the programme, rotated around a target of 4 frontline squadrons. Air Cmdr. Harvey Smyth, the commander of the U.K.’s Lightning Force went on record as recently as May 2016 describing plans for four squadrons of 12 jets, plus the OCU which would, over time, also grow to number 12 aircraft.
It is obvious that with four B squadrons it would be much more realistic to aim to “routine” 2-sqns embarkations and it would be much easier to eventually surge up to three for a major operation.

We have to go back to Operation Telic in 2003 to get to see 30 Tornado GR4 deployed (plus 20 Harrier, a few Jaguars and 14 Tornado F3 for air defence). Focusing on regenerating the ability to deploy such a substantial air wing and doing it with much greater frequency would be a revolution in itself. If training exercises are seen as a separate event from embarkation and deployment on the carriers, the deck will be even more empty.  

138 aircraft (and 150 before that) seem too many to sustain "just" 4 squadrons. The Typhoon fleet was, at one point, going to have 107 aircraft and five squadrons (plus OCU, OEU and Falklands detachment), despite having to cover the all-important QRA requirement. With the retention of 24 Typhoon tranche 1 in the longer term, the plan is now for 7 squadrons from 130-some. But, as we’ve seen earlier, the actual deployable size of these squadrons is debatable at best, and that has to be taken into account. On the other hand, the Typhoon sustainment fleet is supposedly dimensioned to ensure that the fleet can be maximized was it ever needed in its air defence role. 
Those who say that a 138 aircraft buy should support the formation of more than 4 squadrons might have some merit. Note, however, that just saying it won’t make those extra squadrons appear.

What is certain is that splitting the purchase will make it difficult, if not impossible, to ever increase the number of squadrons. F-35B airframes are of little use as sustainment fleet in support of F-35A squadrons, and vice versa. Inexorably, there will need to be two separate sustainment fleets, and this means an higher net number of aircraft parked into hangars. Parked F-35As will not enable F-35B squadrons to deploy, and vice versa. Two squadrons of B and two squadrons of A risk to never match the availability of deployable assets that would come from 4 squadrons of a single type. This is a fact. And while F-35B squadrons could always replace or supplement F-35As operating from a land base during an operation, particularly an enduring one requiring multiple squadron rotations, the F-35A squadrons will not be able to replace the B ones at sea or in smaller / austere air bases.

Some spares will be common, but many others won’t be. Much of the training will be common, but some of it won’t be. The engines are similar, but not at all the same. Whenever in the future there will be a need for upgrades, there will be two (small) fleets fighting for the same (small) budget, and it is extremely, unpleasantly likely that we will end up going through new versions of the fratricidal battles between Sea Harrier and Harrier GR7/9, or between Harrier and Tornado.
To say “it is going to be different this time” is, I’m afraid, pure naivety. The very same reasons now put forwards in favor of an F-35A purchase will be used again in the future to ensure that it gets first dibs. One of the two fleets risks to become the poor cousin, the one who has to beg all the time because it is the last of the line. And it is easy to see which one is most likely to end that way.



Honesty required

It is true that the unitary cost of the F-35A is significantly lower than that of the B, and that the sustainment cost is probably going to be substantially different as well. This is probably the most compelling argument in favor of an A purchase, for obvious reasons. The price of all three variants has been decreasing steadily, lot after lot, and the latest LRIP 11 unitary prices stand at:

89,2 million USD for an F-35A
115,5 million USD for an F-35B

Some supporters of the A argue that the purchasing 90 As will generate a substantial saving that can be reinvested in other priorities, possibly beginning with more spare parts to sustain the two fleets. These supporters are, in my opinion, the only ones speaking with honesty, because the small differences in combat range, maximum G and weapon bays dimensions are far less credible motives to pursue an A purchase.

Can we first of all start the debate from honest premises for once? Let’s admit it: the MOD needs to save money, and the RAF (the F-35 budget holder) believes it has a way to save money that will only hurt the carriers, and “not the rest”. From their perspective, that’s entirely fine. It depends on whether or not you agree with that sentiment. I do not. There is already Typhoon, and a single fleet of land-only platforms is enough. I’d very much rather build up the ability to deploy at sea an air wing large enough to enable complex operations. This is, after all, the whole reason why there are a Queen Elizabeth-class and a Joint Combat Aircraft programme.

I’ve said it in other occasions and I will keep saying it: it was an enormous mistake to call them “strike” carriers. To virtually restrict their usefulness to the realm of strike, deep or not, is to undersell their usefulness. If Strike was the problem, it could be tackled in many ways, from expanding the Tomahawk arsenal and the number of launching platforms to adopting long endurance UCAVs. 

What aircraft offer over waves of cruise missiles is flexibility. The carrier air wing is a shield as well as a sword. The Navy needs it to be able to push with confidence into contested environments where there is an enemy air threat. Aircraft are needed to support the fleet in all kinds of missions, not just for “strike”. Strike is possibly the dead last on the list of why the ability to deploy airpower not just near the sea but at the center of a naval task group is so important. Whenever there is a debate on the survivability of carriers my argument is simple: what would the survivability of a surface task group be like without the carrier? That is the real heart of the matter. 

For close to two decades western armies have battled with a technologically inferior enemy, completely devoid of air power of its own, only in presence of overwhelming, readily available air support.
The fact that anyone could ever argue for navies to fight a pear or near pear enemy without assured, organic access to air support is mind-boggling. However good you might believe a Type 45 to be at shooting down enemy missiles and aircraft, you do not want it to operate without the outer bubble of security represented by the air wing operating at range. It is exactly because I’m a believer in air power that I support aircraft carriers.

The differences in raw performance between B and A are not enough to make an argument. The B can be carried and potentially based closer to its targets, more than compensating any range difference. Air to Air refueling will do the rest, as it always has.

In addition, the RAF literally does not have a single weapon, in service or planned, which would fit the A’s bays but not the B’s. The largest weapons such as the Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon will almost certainly internally fit neither (it is a Storm Shadow and Harpoon replacement and it is pretty hard to imagine, given the requirements, that it could get that much smaller); all others will fit both. The advantage is absolutely virtual, and development or procurement of weapons specifically sized for the A will only further expand the differences between the two fleets. “But this one carries XY, the other can’t”. We have already seen this movie. This is actually part of why I think a split buy can only result in trouble further down the line.

The F-35B has weapon bays which are 14 inches shorter than those found on A and C and a payload limitation to two of the external pylons. 

 
The difference between variants. Both B and C use a special pod containing the gun and 225 rounds, mounted on the central pylon under the fuselage. The A variant has the same gun but installed internally and with 180 rounds. 

The smaller unitary cost of the F-35A is definitely attractive, and I’m not blind to it. However, there are good reasons to doubt of the exact extent of the savings to be reaped. The need for two separate sustainment fleets will eat away part of it; the need to procure two different stocks of spares will be another cost to contend with. Training differences will have their own cost too. Notably, as of today, the F-35A is only equipped for Boom air-air refueling, which the RAF is not equipped for. Money will be required to either fit Booms to Voyager or to add the probe on the F-35A. Space is reserved on the A for such an adaptation and in theory it can be done easily, but even if it worked without a single hitch, it would still require a budget. The purchase of booms for Voyager would be a most desirable investment as it would also benefit the C-17, Rivet Joint and Poseidon fleets and, possibly, the Wedgetail fleet if the new AWACS procurement proceeds. But there will be a substantial cost to this solution, however, and a new training burden to absorb.

There is a possibility to retrofit the A with refueling probes, but as of today nobody has gone in this direction

When all these factors are considered, is the saving still noticeable? Can it in any way compensate the negative implications of a split buy? In my opinion no, it can’t. Not unless the number of squadrons ends up higher than 4. A split buy will do nothing to increase the number of deployable combat aircraft; it will only split that number across two variants, not interchangeable. It will, de facto, turn “carrier without aircraft” from social media slogan to cold, hard fact.

If there was a realistic hope to get six squadrons, 4 of B and 2 of A, I might sympathize with the idea, even though even in that case I’d still be wondering whether maximizing the number of deployable assets from a single fleet wouldn’t be more efficient.

The biggest problem of all is that, already as things stand, even getting to four squadrons looks increasingly challenging. 



Manpower and TEMPEST

Honesty is required when it comes to manpower and timeframes as well. The UK will only complete its first 48 F-35 purchases in 2025, and a further 90 would have to follow to complete the intended 138 aircraft purchase. There has been no official indication about when the procurement effort will end. A "project end date" in a Major Projects spreadsheet suggest 2035, but in Written Answers the ministers have suggested that purchases could end in 2048, the year in which the F-35 is supposed to leave active service. 

Now; I think nobody believes, even for a second, that the 2048 OSD will hold true, just as the 2030 OSD for Typhoon didn’t stick, but I encourage every reader to ponder the seriousness of purchasing the last few aircraft in the very same year currently assumed as the end of the service life of the type. Clearly, the minister is not being honest in his answer, even assuming that the idea was to purchase less “sustainment fleet” aircraft by relaying on the fact that the production line can be expected to be open and active for many years into the future. You’d still not be procuring your last few replacement aircraft in the literal OSD year, would you? 

Besides, the formation of further F-35 squadrons, regardless of the variant employed, will depend on a range of factors, and one is clearly the rate of further purchases. It could take many years for a third squadron to stand up, and there is no telling when the 4th might follow. The last two equipment programme documents do not exactly promote optimism: the graphic of the EP 2017 show the Combat Air procurement budget nose-diving into 2027, suggesting very small purchases in 2025, 26 and 27, and possibly beyond.

Please note how the procurement budget allocation for Combat Air nearly vanishes into the 2020s. This is going to be the elephant in the room. 

In order to have all 138 aircraft by 2035 (considering two years of production time, the last aircraft would need to be ordered in 2033 to arrive in 2035), the UK would need to order at least 8 F-35 per year, dropping to six+ if the last order, rather than delivery, took place in 2035. At the moment, the purchase of 8 aircraft in a single year is only expected to happen once, in year 2020. It is not necessary to sit within the MOD’s high level meetings and be given classified briefings to see that it will be difficult, at best, to up the purchase rhythm. Typhoon procurement will soon be over; but its spiral development is here to stay (thankfully, too, but it will have a cost).
Mind you, it is not impossible, but it is pretty hard to imagine, right now.

In its infinite talent for making its budget unreadable, the MOD has this year changed the format of the Equipment Plan and cut back on the graphics, only putting up one, the aggregate for Air Command as a whole, which puts together, with uncertain consequences, what, up to the 2017 edition, was shown separated in Combat Air, Air Support and Helicopters. By the look of it, anyway, there is no reason to assume the Combat Air budget situation has seen any improvement.

There no longer is a separate Combat Air graph, unfortunately, but the Air Command aggregate published early this month does not suggest any improvement. 

Moreover, the UK is now supposed to develop its own new generation fighter, and project TEMPEST has been launched with great fanfare. The secretary of state for defence says the new fighter should enter service in 2035, and that means that development costs will have to compete for room in the budget with ongoing F-35 purchases. If the 2035 date is to be taken seriously (honestly, i think few do, but it is an official line and we can't ignore it), not just the development but also the production of TEMPEST (or whatever fighter jet will come out of it) will overlap with procurement of F-35. The implications for the budget are obvious. Can both things fit the Combat Air budget? Not if the nose-dive in funding levels evidenced by the last two EP documents holds true.

Project TEMPEST will need funding, in the same years in which the next batch of F-35s is due to be procured. Can both squeeze in the same budget? 

This, of course, is before any further reduction or change is forced upon the whole effort as an effect of the affordability gap between budget and procurement ambitions.

The implications for manpower are also important. Who is going to man the next F-35 squadrons?
The RAF is disbanding its last two Tornado GR4 squadrons next year, but is standing up two Typhoon squadrons in their place. IX and 12 are standing up respectively at Lossiemouth and at Coningsby; 31 Sqn will become the first of at least two Protector squadrons. Tornado is a manpower intensive machine, but even so I doubt the margin is enough to suddenly enable a proliferation of combat air squadrons.


2017 Fast Jet Fleet (frontline squadrons only; OCU and OEU excluded) 
Typhoon
3(F) Sqn  1(F) Sqn XI Sqn 6 Sqn II(AC) Sqn

Tornado GR4
IX(B) Sqn 12(B) Sqn 31 Sqn

F-35B
617 Sqn (building up)


Near future plans  
Tornado GR4 bows out in early 2019
Two additional Typhoon squadrons, IX and 12, to gradually build up.

617 Sqn achieves FOC, expands into a “super-squadron”, then splits into two as 809 NAS returns, by 20203


In the meanwhile, Protector is supposed to “double” the current Reaper fleet. If that holds true (for now "only" 16 are on orderer and 16 is not the double of 10), at least one of the current Reaper squadrons (XIII and 39 Sqns) will transition to the new type; maybe both. Note that a Protector squadron might have a lower manpower requirement as the new type introduces autonomous launch and recovery capability, but don’t let the absence of a cockpit fool you: unmanned assets are actually pretty manpower intensive as their extra-long mission cycle requires multiple shifts.

14 C-130J are to stay in the long term, and it is a very welcome move, but they will need to be manned.

The number of AWACS crews is supposed to grow to 12; the Shadow R1 fleet is growing from 5 + 1 unconverted airframe to 8; Two P-8 Poseidons squadrons will have been stood up by the time 809 NAS is up and running. If Sentry is replaced by new E-7 Wedgetail there might be a positive impact on AWACS manpower totals, but it is hard to say.

11 Group has just been reformed and extra personnel is heading for Cyber and Space related posts.

Next year, after a delay (should have been this year), the RAF will take over the Islanders and Defenders of 651 Sqn Army Air Corps.

Current fleets in the Military Training System are demonstrably too small, and the RAF will be sending a hundred trainee pilots to the US, after also signing a 3-year deal with a civilian provider for additional multi-engine training as the system simply cannot cope. In 2019 one of the stated priorities of DE&S is to find a solution to the problem, which, if it materializes, will probably require more trainer aircraft.

It has been recently confirmed that by 2020 the RAF will disband its lone bomb disposal squadron, releasing manpower for other roles. The Army has just reorganized EOD by eliminating hybrid regular – reserve regiments; concentrating reserve squadrons back into 101 RE; transitioned 35 Royal Engineer into EOD role, re-organizing regular squadrons and bringing back 49 Sqn from disbandment. The current RAF Bomb Disposal role will be absorbed by units within the army’s growing EOD force; overall a reasonable solution, but it is unrealistic to expect it will be enough to open new and great manpower margins.

The newly reformed 28 Royal Engineer regiment will be taking back control of the CBRN mission during 2019, but probably 27 Squadron RAF Regiment will become one of its sub-units (alongside Falcon Sqn, Royal Tank Regiment) rather than disband, so the effect on RAF manpower is unlikely to be significant, even as 20 CBRN Wing disbands, which is what I assume will happen.

There might or might not be some manpower recouped thanks to ASDOT (Air Support to Defence Operational Training) which from 2020 will replace the current "aggressor" squadrons and the Cobham-provided, Falcon 20-based electronic warfare training aids. 
736 NAS, the Navy's aggressor squadron on Hawk T1, is expected to disband in 2020 and depending on how ASDOT will work and who will man the new system, some manpower might be able to migrate towards the F-35. 
The RAF own aggressor unit, 100 Sqn, is instead expected to carry on to 2027; after that, as the Hawk T1 era comes to an end, there might or might not be a shift of manpower to other areas. 

Where are the manpower margins coming from? The SDSR 2015 authorized only a small boost to overall manpower figures, which sadly remains on paper anyway, since the RAF has a sizeable manpower deficit and the balance of inflow / outflow remains negative. So I have to ask again, where is the manpower coming from?

I do not think the RAF is currently awash with bored personnel with nothing to do, so I can’t help but wonder who is going to man additional squadrons. 

My belief has always been that the two additional Typhoon Sqns enabled by the partial reprieve for the Tranche 1 aircraft would be nothing more than placeholders to be sacrificed come 2025+ in favor of F-35 squadrons number 3 and number 4, but the official line is that Tranche 1 is here to stay for the long term, well into the 2030s if not out to 2040, current OSD for the Typhoon as a type.
I keep believing that Tranche 1 will not actually survive that long; but if it does it will only make me wonder all the more how the whole thing is supposed to work.



Long range strike needs? Why was FCAS abandoned?

If you don’t accept that it is about money, let’s talk about capability. Requirements-wise, what problem does the F-35A solve that the B can’t?
Is the RAF suddenly obsessed by the marginal range advantage? Has a crucial requirement been identified for some kind of 2000 lbs new weapon that is too long to fit into the B’s weapon bays (there is a 14 inches difference in length between the B’s bays and those of the A and C variants)?

In that case, why did the UK suddenly shy away from further developing Taranis and / or continuing with the much advertised Future Combat Air System project for an unmanned combat aircraft to be developed alongside France? The UK’s refusal to carry on with the project and give the go ahead to the demonstration phase has all but turned into a diplomatic embarrassment and has allowed France to behave like the victim despite having earlier killed the joint MALE project (Telemos) and caused years of delay to the FASGW-Heavy (Sea Venom) anti-ship missile. 

The RAF has (thankfully) not completely abandoned the UCAV realm as it has launched a new initiative called LANCA which aims to come up with a “low cost” UCAV “made in Britain”. There is no telling, of course, what LANCA is supposed to be able to do, at the moment, whether it will ever enter service, in which numbers or manned by who. The MOD, naturally, does not feel we are entitled to any indication in that sense. 

If there is such a pressing need for a longer ranged aircraft with a larger weapon bay, surely the UCAV path has to be explored as answer to that need. Naturally, factors such as budget availability come back to the fore, but i don’t think the F-35A is the right answer. Not in the current procurement scenario.

These are the kind of things that the Combat Air Strategy should have clarified, but, just like the Shipbuilding Strategy before, it has only made the waters murkier.



Desperation?

Is the MOD desperately looking for a way to reduce F-35 procurement costs without, for a few more years at least, admitting officially that the UK is never going to procure 138 F-35? 

Is the government afraid that a cut in F-35 commitment will result in an immediate American backlash against british industry involvement in the programme? 
In particular while Trump is at the helm, there is little doubt that the US would be extremely displeased by further cuts from the only JSF Tier 1 partner. A switch of variant (again) would probably cause some disbelief and some irritation, particularly within the USMC which has collaborated with the UK in all ways possible so far, but would "hurt less" than a net cut. 

There can also be no doubt at all on the fact that all other partners are eager to secure as much additional involvement for their own industries as possible, and any reduction of the british share is a potential gain for them. If the disastrous handling of Brexit negotiations proves something is that allies will still happily take away everything they can from you, if you allow them to.
Importantly, the vast majority of regional work for maintenance has yet to be assigned to the various countries. The UK secured some valuable work for MOD Sealand but literally hundreds of other components have yet to be assigned to this or that location and contractor and it is not difficult to imagine british bidders losing some luster if the news from the MOD turn sour. 

Some say that the british Tier 1 status has been secured forever and ever by the original 2 billion pounds contribution to the design phase, but allow me to be extremely skeptical about that. 

I’m starting to fear that the MOD might allow its plans to become distorted by the mirage of F-35A-generated savings, and rush down the split buy path without having an actual, half decent plan.
Timeframe of further purchases and the overlap with the costs associated with TEMPEST are two enormous factors that make it very hard to imagine that the UK will ever procure all 138 aircraft. Would it be a tragedy? Depends on how deep the axe hits. But splitting a force of a mere 4 squadrons across two fleets, or worse still ending up splitting the purchase and then downsizing even further below the target of 4 Sqns, would be a complete disaster.



And to close, a deliberately inflammatory tease below

You know what also costs less than the F-35B? 
The F-35C. The unitary cost dropped to 107,7 million as of LRIP 11. And it has longer legs than even the F-35A, and the same weapon bay size and already comes fitted with AAR probe.

In an alternate universe there is a UK which built the carriers (from the start, not from 2011, when it was too late to change minds without paying the price for it) with catapults and procured 90 or so F-35C and also replaced Sentry with the latest Hawkeye. 

Hindsight and dreams, as they say.



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