Nineteen months ago, when the new coalition government published its hurried and much-maligned Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), I was engaged in studying the review process for my dissertation. In interviews with officers and academics alike, all echoed the same warning: (I paraphrase)
‘The SDSR is only the beginning. You watch – the government will realise its mistake before the 2015 SDSR.’
And so it came to pass. On the decision to abandon the Short Take Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) F-35B in favour of the catapult-launched F-35C the experts have been proven remarkably prophetic.
To be entirely fair, the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter did, in 2010, appear to offer three distinct advantages over the STOVL F-35B. Closer inspection and subsequent events, however, show these to be far from the ‘compelling evidence’ we were presented with in the SDSR.
Firstly, it is entirely true that the F-35C has a greater range and payload, operating out to 30% further and carrying almost 20% more weight. This ignores the facts that both variants can carry the full range of weapons that the UK intends to operate with the aircraft, and that the STOVL variant offers greater flexibility and agility – not least with regards to operating bases. Additionally, since 2010, the cost of fitting the necessary catapults and arrestor gear to the carriers has spiralled, cited as the primary reason for now reverting to the STOVL variant.
Secondly, in 2010, the F-35B was suffering from serious power and stress problems that threatened the future of the programme. Since January 2012, it has been declared back on track, albeit behind the other two and with a significant cost increase to the aircraft.
Thirdly, using catapult launched jets offered interoperability with French and American carriers and aircraft. This ‘requirement’ was parachuted into the SDSR at the last minute in order to justify selection of the F-35C. With jets and carriers due to enter service approximately simultaneously, interoperability was of no use in plugging the ten-year capability gap left by withdrawal of the Harriers and Invincible class carriers. Besides, weight issues mean that operating F-35s from the Charles de Gaulle looks unlikely to be possible. It is true, however, that abandoning ‘cats and traps’ will allow the new carriers and jets to enter service up to five years earlier. Furthermore, there are other important partner nations who operate STOVL carriers – Spain and Italy for example.