Published On: Mon, May 14th, 2012

UK MoD admits rush job on overturned F-35 recommendation

London, UK – 14 May 2012

By Tim Fish

Rushed carrier strike planning by MoD led to mistaken F-35C decision

The UK Ministry of Defence has said that the British government’s decision to overturn its selection of the F-35C version of the Joint Strike Fighter was made because the MoD did not take longer to consider its options when making carrier strike recommendations for the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.

“There was work done to evaluate what the costs would be – that’s an initial paper-based exercise where you don’t want to spend substantial sums of money over an extended period of time,” said a senior MoD official.

That early cost analysis exercise was found to be incorrect, the offical said. He explained that “preliminary decisions about the direction” of carrier strike aviation were put forward by the MoD. Only afterward did the ministry “do further work to see if the original assumption was valid.”

That process, he said, took 18 months, after which time the MoD decided their original assumptions were incorrect.

In the SDSR of 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government selected the carrier variant F-35C version of the JSF to replace Britain’s airborne strike capability – to be flown from the second of the two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, HMS Prince of Wales, from 2020.

The Royal Navy will now operate the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version of the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.

The MoD has not indicated how much time would have been required to conduct a correct cost assessment for the F-35

The official also said that, since the ministry’s original decision in 2010, over GBP 40 million (USD 64 million) has been spent on carrier conversion design work and other studies, all of which are now being scrapped.

The revelation from the senior MoD official followed a statement made to DefenceReport on 23 April by a senior government official involved in the procurement programme that Prime Minister Cameron’s switch to the F-35B was both a mistake and a missed opportunity.

Despite investments in carrier conversion work being lost, MoD officials insisted that scrapping the “cat and trap” F-35 would produce long term savings.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announced in the House of Commons on 10 May that, following a feasibility study of the CV (aircraft carrier) decision, additional cost increases associated with the installation of catapults and arresting gear on HMS Prince of Wales would exceed GBP 1.05 billion (USD 1.69 billion). He also said the Navy’s airborne strike upgrade would be delayed, as the delivery of an operational carrier would be pushed to 2023.

The MoD originally projected the cost of carrier conversion to be GBP 1 million (USD 1.6 million).

Supporting the MoD’s feasibility study are claims by the ministry that question marks over the technical maturity of the F-35B variant aircraft have now been resolved. “That is underlined by the fact that the US took the plane off probation two or three months ago,” the MoD source said. The UK is set to receive its first F-35B test and evaluation aircraft in July.

Explaining carrier strike cost increases

The MoD has outlined four areas where they say programme cost increases originated:

  • installation of ‘cats and traps’ was more invasive than originally thought with 290 major modifications required instead of the original estimate of 80
  • the number of systems that were needed to be brought over from the US to operate the catapult and arresting gear was more than expected
  • the routing of the procurement process through the US’ Foreign Military Sales programme instead of direct from manufacturers has added to ancillary costs
  • production and manufacturing time delays have inflated original cost projections

The MoD has said the decision to return to the F-35B STOVL aircraft means that the first carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, can be used for training and allow the RN to begin CV air operations in 2018.

Hammond said that bringing both carriers into service could be provided at a net additional operating cost of GBP 60 million (USD 96 million) per year, but the decision on whether to use both vessels will not be made until the next SDSR in 2015.

Labour Party Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy criticised the latest carrier decision, saying “the biggest blow to the government’s defence credibility is this chaotic carrier programme.”

“Standing at the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister announced his plans to U-turn on Labour’s carrier strike policy, scrap the Harriers, sell Ark Royal, (and) build two carriers but mothball one,” Murphy said.

“In tough times, GBP 250 million (USD 402 million) have been squandered while the forces are having their allowances cut,” the Shadow Defence Secretary added.

Labour’s former Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth added: “I reviewed this decision, taken by my predecessors. The fundamental facts were there at the time and have not changed. We have been up an extremely expensive cul-de-sac for the last 18 months as a result of a shambles of an SDSR.”

In response to experts who have criticised the F-35B for its smaller weapons load-out and reduced operational range when compared to the C variant of the same aircraft, MoD officials have defended their decision to purchase the less capable platform.

“The Carrier Variant version of the JSF aircraft does have some capability advantages over the STOVL aircraft,” the spokesman said.

“We judge that those aircraft advantages are more than outweighed by the overall capability advantages of an earlier, affordable and potentially 100 percent availability (of carrier power).”

While senior officials at the MoD confirmed that errors made in assessing and selecting the F-35C were a result of hurrying the decision process at the time of SDSR, sources have not indicated how much time would have been required to conduct a correct cost assessment.

DefenceReport also understands at the time of publishing that the government’s selection of the F-35B is to be the final decision regarding JSF procurement for the Royal Navy.

The UK’s first JSF flew its first inaugural flight on 13 April at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The launch of the first F-35 at Eglin AF Base on 7 March was cut short due to an in flight emergency.
Feature and inset photos /

About the Author

- Tim Fish is a defence journalist and specialises in maritime and naval reporting of frontline news and equipment updates.

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UK MoD admits rush job on overturned F-35 recommendation