TechUK strengthens air force with new F-35B fighter deal

UK strengthens air force with new F‑35B fighter deal

British F-35B fighter jet
British F-35B fighter jet
Images source: © Licensor | Maciej Hypś

21 June 2024 19:11

The United Kingdom plans to finalise a deal to purchase 27 fifth-generation F-35B Lightning II fighters this summer. This announcement was made by James Cartlidge, Secretary of State in the British Ministry of Defence. This is good news for the British Air Force and Navy, which share a fleet of these aircraft. Until now, they had to be content with the promise of only 48 fighters ordered a few years ago, of which 33 have already been delivered.

The United Kingdom planned to purchase a total of 138 F-35Bs to replace the now-retired Tornado strike aircraft. However, numerous changes in British governments in recent years have led to continuous modifications to these plans, and it is not really known today what the final number of the British F-35B fleet will be. The needs are significant. Besides the necessity of equipping two aircraft carriers with planes, the Royal Air Force also has its requirements. The current number of aircraft does not allow for the completion of all the missions set for the Air Force. This will be the case even after all the planes from the first contract have been delivered.

The British have so far ordered 48 F-35Bs, and one of the delivered ones has already been lost in an accident.
The British have so far ordered 48 F-35Bs, and one of the delivered ones has already been lost in an accident.© Licensor | Maciej Hypś

British Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are adapted to carry about 30 F-35Bs each, and they have already gone to sea simultaneously. This means that to equip just the aircraft carriers, about 60 aircraft are needed, and preferably more, because some are always used for training on land, and there needs to be a reserve in case of overhauls or failures. And the F-35 is known for its unreliability. Then there are the Air Force's needs. Therefore, the announcement of the purchase of an additional 27 units, which will allow the formation of a third squadron armed with F-35Bs, is meeting with enthusiasm from aviators. If the contract is indeed signed in the next few weeks, aircraft deliveries should be completed by the end of this decade.

The current government has returned to the idea of purchasing a total of 138 F-35s. This is supposed to happen by the middle or end of the next decade. It is not yet known which versions of the aircraft will be ordered in the future. Years ago, when the shape of the British F-35 fleet was decided, two concepts clashed. The first called for the purchase of conventional F-35As for the Air Force and F-35Bs with short takeoff and vertical landing for the Navy. According to the second concept, only F-35Bs were to be bought to achieve full interchangeability of aircraft between the Air Force and the Navy. Ultimately, the second concept prevailed, but there may be some changes in the future. The F-35B can operate from aircraft carriers but carries less armament and has a shorter range than the F-35A. Additionally, the land-based version of the fighter is significantly cheaper.

Ordering an additional 27, and ultimately acquiring a total of 138 F-35s by the United Kingdom, may negatively impact the British-Italian-Japanese program to build the next-generation GCAP fighter. Each of these countries intends to acquire a significant fleet of F-35s in various variants. However, the costs associated with such purchases may turn out to be so high that they will not be able to afford a sufficiently large number of GCAP fighters. Based on the available numbers and plans for F-35 purchases in the three countries, it can be estimated that GCAP production will not exceed 400 units, with a more probable number being about 350 units.

The British F-35Bs are shared by the air force and the navy.
The British F-35Bs are shared by the air force and the navy.© Licensor | Maciej Hypś

For such a small production scale, the unit costs of each next-generation fighter will be enormous. Therefore, it may turn out that the result of the GCAP program will be a much simpler aircraft with fewer capabilities than the French-German-Spanish competitor NGF. Such an approach would significantly lower the price and allow the new aircraft to enter service much faster. Time also suggests that the GCAP may be simpler than the NGF. Current schedules indicate that GCAP production is expected to start around 2035, while for NGF, this time is five years longer.

Apart from considerations about fighters, work is underway in the United Kingdom to develop several types of unmanned aircraft to operate from aircraft carriers. In addition to developing the drones themselves, this will require the rebuilding of both aircraft carriers, particularly installing catapults and arrestor cables (brake lines).

The F-35B has the capability to hover and land vertically.
The F-35B has the capability to hover and land vertically.© Licensor | Maciej Hypś

Drones of various types and sizes may take over early warning tasks from the AW101 helicopters, surveillance and target acquisition missions, and even anti-submarine and surface ship tasks. Additionally, fighter drones should, of course, work directly with the F-35s. The option of introducing unmanned aerial tankers is also being considered. The programme is being carried out under the codename "Ark Royal," referring to the famous aircraft carriers in Royal Navy history.

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