WASHINGTON – A new defense spending plan from the UK Department of Defense contains mixed news for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program as London turns its sights on the future design of a native fighter.
The document released on Monday stated that the UK plans to “the [F-35] Force is increasing the fleet size beyond the 48 aircraft we have already ordered. “However, the document said nothing about previously announced plans to purchase 138 of the F-35B models.
On one hand, this is a positive sign for the fighter jet’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin: The promise to source more jets follows discussions about whether the program could be capped at 48. On the other hand, it is far from the British original promise to buy 138 of the short take-off, vertical landing fighter jets to equip the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. The F-35B are primarily intended to equip two new 65,000-ton aircraft carriers.
James Heappey, Secretary of the Armed Forces, spoke to reporters from Washington on Monday and did nothing to cement the proposed purchase when asked directly for the number 138.
“We committed to 48, we’re going to buy 48,” Heappey said. “We have invested heavily in our own Future Combat Air System, which we are developing with a number of other partner countries. I think there is a discussion about what the exact shape of the fast air force will be in the future. But the 48 that I signed up for are in the mail. “
While Air Marshal Richard Knighton, assistant chief of defense for capabilities, said in December the UK knows it “needs to increase the number of F-35Bs to support them [Royal Navy] Carrier until its date of decommissioning ”, he expected to receive“ a final judgment on the entire future fleet in the period 2025 ”.
Justin Bronk, an air warfare expert at the Royal United Services Institute in England, said the government’s stated position with no details of future contract plans is likely to be politically unsustainable unless US counterparts have made specific assurances and believed, “Especially for the US Marine Corps, which is the other primary user of the F-35B model.
“The UK’s operational requirements for the entire Joint Force are credible [suppression of enemy air defenses]pervasive [intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance]and strike capabilities cannot be achieved with 48 aircraft, especially given that the latter will be heavily involved in supporting global carrier operations, ”added Bronk. “However, the lack of detail suggests that funding for future contracts has not yet been identified as the government has decided to put national industrial sustainability – Tempest – ahead of operational requirements in the combat air arena for the foreseeable future.”
The idea that the F-35 may suffer a cut because of the Future Combat Air System program called Tempest comes as no surprise. When the model was unveiled for Tempest at Farnborough Airshow 2018, one of the biggest questions was how the government could afford it while maintaining the F-35 purchase.
According to the review, Britain has allocated £ 2 billion in development funding to Tempest over the next four years – a remarkable sum at a time when the Franco-German-Spanish alliance seems to be shaky to build a rival European fighter.
However, in the recent review, Tempest was highlighted not only as a future combat capability, but also as an integral part of the defense industrial base. The program “has created over 1,800 new STEM jobs in over 300 companies across the country, and sustaining over 18,000 existing ones, supporting skilled jobs in the sector and tens of thousands more in the broader supply chains across the UK. “
The report specifically identified Tempest as a job opportunity in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
For a decade it seemed unrealistic that Britain could afford 138 F-35s, according to Bronk. “But the level of ambition and emphasis signaled on Tempest likely means the highly plausible buy in the UK is now somewhere in the 60 to 72 jets region,” he said.
Still, the F-35 remains fundamental to Britain’s plans, even if the number 138 seems further away than expected. Heappey noted that the use of the aircraft in the American, Italian and Australian navies, among others, gives a common operational picture to work with.
“There will be a community of F-35 nations that we would like to ignore,” he said.