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How many F-35s for Fleet Air Arm and RAF? What type mix?


Army.ca Fixture
Fallen Comrade
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Excerpts from a major piece by someone who knows his stuff:

138 UK F-35 Lightnings, do we still need them? – A personal view
The UK Government and then Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt recently reaffirmed in Parliament that the UK and its MoD remain committed to purchasing at least 138 F35s “over the life of the programme”.

Why 138, do we really need that many and how long is “over the life of the programme”?
The following is the personal analysis David Simpson. David served for over 25 years as an RAF pilot, in executive flying appointments and as a senior staff officer including MoD Operational Requirements and Capability Management.

In addition to his front line flying he qualified via ETPS Boscombe Down as an experimental test pilot in 1987 and went on to command Experimental Flying Squadron at the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough in 1989. Operationally David was involved in the Falklands, Bosnia and Gulf war. Before joining the aerospace industry in 2005 David was U.K MoD Director of (Test) Flying responsible for regulation and approval of all MoD Project Test flying activities. For more about David, read the author information box at the end of this article.

Hence out of SDSRs 2010 and later endorsed in 2015 came a revised plan for a minimum of 48 F35Bs to provide exactly that – 2 op sqn plus a training unit) capability by 2025. A very different policy to that envisaged in 2005 for 138 F35B and 6+1 sqns to be delivered by 2020.

Of course, the QE class had been designed in detail specifically to routinely operate in full strike carrier configuration with some 36 F35Bs and relevant numbers of Merlin ASW and ASAC helicopters so there was always going to be MoD staff aspirations to increase overall fleet numbers beyond 48 at some point to ensure this was possible...

As indicated above, it emerged from SDSR2015 and the more optimistic financial plan therein that the UK JLF [FAA/RAF Joint Lightning Force] equipped with F35B would develop gradually and when affordable into a 4 op sqns plus one suitably sized OCU sqn force.

This in theory allowed for up to 3 sqns to be carrier deployed in extremis when required, with one or two still being the norm. A minimum of one would then be available always for a land expeditionary deployment or any permutation between the one active carrier and land deployment depending on the actual operational demand at any given time.

What all that meant of course was no abiding requirement for 138 F35B aircraft – 4 sqns of 12 active ac each along with a similarly sized OCU means 60 active ac on the front line. Add 50% more airframes (a common fleet type planning assumption) for deep servicing fleet planning and attrition storage and that makes 90 not 138. Even 90 may well be an over requirement in the shorter term in these days of much lower routine attrition and more rapid deep service turnarounds increasing fleet numbers availability...

...behind the scenes, ensuring the one active QE class carrier can deploy with 3 F35B sqns is high on the agenda. The US/UK agreement to use 1 USMC F35B sqn off the QE class cleverly underpins this, and in reality means that by 2023 such a 36 F35B force on board will be achievable to ensure full air wing carrier crew integration trials and training and if operationally required on a specific UK CSG deployment given there will be 2 UK op sqns (617 & 809) by then too.

When a 3rd UK sqn might be available to substitute for the USMC unit is another question, with yet no official procurement plan announced to make that happen as yet. However, it is anticipated such a plan will emerge later in 2020 and certainly by the next SDSR. That said, the integrated use of a USMC F35B sqn has valuable allied political, operational, training and UK F35B fleet management benefits and may well become the norm for decades to come.

It’s perhaps worth saying at this point that any wider enthusiasm or aspiration to be able to consistently operate both QE carriers in strike configuration will of course take a much greater investment both in more F35Bs and indeed the supporting ASW and ASAC helicopters. The low numbers and availability of the latter being an equally constraining factor on 2 fully equipped active UK strike carriers as would be F35B sqns availability.

The additional cost in provisioning such is immense and way beyond UK, RAF and RN budget limits as presently planned. It would take a major change in UK defence policy and increased defence expenditure to implement such a “two active strike carrier” capability on a regular basis especially when there is much to do elsewhere in the 3 services after many years of low funding. Of course, 2 carriers would not be available all the time either given regular maintenance down time requirements.

Keeping the present policy to use the 2nd carrier as a relief replacement for the first or as a concurrent LPH if needed is a cost-effective solution within the budget and wider UK aircraft availability constraints [emphasis added].

So why is HMG and the MoD still focused on saying we will buy 138?

Well in short, its down to political and top level intergovernmental programme commitments made in 2005 to buy those 138 that also provided (along with £2Bn of UK R&D funding) the leverage to make us a Tier One programme partner with all the programme integration and industrial benefits associated with that.

The positive impact on UK industry of our Tier One status is financially massive as well as keeping the UK up there with 5th gen combat ac technology for decades to come.

At the time we were the biggest by some margin non-US customer for the F35 too.

During SDSR2015 it soon became apparent to HMG and the UK MoD that the US would not take kindly to a reduced UK F35 purchase plan too. Given the original procurement plan was to buy all 138 by 2020, the new politically dictated compromise of “138 through the life of the programme” is at this new stage as much of a ‘saving face’ aspiration as it is a genuine holding position until the real level of procurement and its timing beyond the first UK tranche of 48 F35Bs by 2025 is decided and approved by the UK MoD, HMG and the HM Treasury...


In conclusion given the above, it’s then manifest that with a likely active F35B fleet topping off at around 90 through life, and an F35A buy of around 40 [emphasis added] this does indeed still imply a UK requirement to buy around 138 F35s “over the life of the programme” out to 2040 or later.

... if the UK commits to purchase and support an available F35B fleet of between 80-90 airframes then it will be able to operate one active strike carrier at any time with a 36 F35B strike air wing of 3 sqns and associated ASW and ASAC helicopter units – one active strike carrier being the only funded and approved policy at present [emphasis added]...

MarkOttawa said:
Excerpts from a major piece by someone who knows his stuff:


There's the 'Battle of Britain' factor there too... as I recall, the RAF are still seen as the main deterrent to any invasion of UK soil so I assume they want to keep a sizable number of air superiority aircraft at home while concurrently conducting various expeditionary tasks.
I realize this question probably belongs in the QE Carrier thread, but it's somewhat relevant to this topic.

I thought the UK and France were doing the 2 carrier thing together?  Or am I completely out to lunch?
France pulled out of joint carrier project in 2008:

If the UK ever gets 138 F-35s it will be a miracle:

British F-35 buy is still a moving target, defense ministry tells lawmakers

British Ministry of Defence officials have confirmed the military will buy more than the 48 F-35B combat jets already on order, but they were reluctant to be drawn on exactly when and how many aircraft may eventually be involved when they gave evidence to the parliamentary Defence committee Dec 8.

The number and profile of a future order will in part be decided by the outcome of assessment work the British are doing on their future combat air strategy, Air Marshal Richard Knighton, the deputy chief of the defense staff for capability, told the committee hearing.

“We know we need to increase the  number of F-35Bs to support the [Royal Navy] carrier through to its out-of-service date. The precise number will dependent a bit on the work we do and the investment we are making  on the FCAS,” he said, referring to the UK-led Tempest program. “We expect to make a definitive judgement around the total future fleet in the 2025 timeframe,” Knighton added.

Britain originally committed to buy 138 of the Lockheed Martin short take-off vertical landing combat jets to equip a joint force of Royal Navy/Royal Air Force aircraft. The F-35Bs are principally scheduled to equip two new 65,000 tonne aircraft carriers.

Knighton said the final number could be up to the 138 commitment, or less. “We need to do the analysis  and work to ensure we get the right number,” he told the committee.

To date the British have ordered 48 of the jets. So far 21 have been delivered, with the remaining aircraft under contract due to be delivered by 2025 [emphasis added].

The first of the carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is scheduled to make its first operational deployment next year to the Indian Ocean with a mix of British and U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs onboard.

The British plan to only deploy one carrier at any given time due to a lack of resources. Some 24 jets are expected to be the full complement of fighters on board even though senior Royal Navy officers have said the ships could operate with up to 72 jets at a squeeze [emphasis added].

Knighton said the British “will be able to operate up to 24 aircaft from 2023 onwards, that’s been the milestone for some time. If we want to order aircraft to be delivered in the later part of the decade we will need to allocate some of the funding that we anticipate [being available] to do that. That is part of the analysis and thinking that we are doing with ministers at the moment.”

Defence committee chairman Tobias Ellwood commented on the small number of jets the British plan to operate from the carriers, saying: “We are going to end up with a fantastic looking aircraft carrier, very bespoke aircraft, but not many of them onboard.”

Sir Stephen Lovegrove, the permanent secretary at the MoD, told the committee that while it was certain Britain would order more jets it wouldn’t be anytime soon.

It’s inevitable we are going to buy more than 48 jets, otherwise we won’t be able to operate the carriers probably. Not for the next four years, though, it’s about the 48 [jets on order] [emphasis added].”

“There are certainly plans and conversation with Lockheed Martin about the future purchases, we just haven’t got to the stage of contract yet,” said Lovegrove.

The permanent secretary, the MoD’s top civil servant, suggested the aircraft wouldn’t be available quickly even if Britain had the funds to buy them.

“Even if tomorrow we discover the magic money tree and we decided we wanted to buy 200 F-35B we couldn’t get them just like that anyway. They take forever to manufacture, we will make our orders when they are available,” he said.

Other take-aways from the committee hearings included MoD permanent secretary Sir Stephen revealing that Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is to make a statement soon outlining program cuts ahead of publication of the government’s integrated strategy review set for publication in late January.

The government recently announced a £16 billion increase in MoD funding over the four years starting in April 2021, much of that will go to equipment and other capital programs.

Despite that, Lovegrove signaled there were some painful cuts coming to programs that don’t support the government’s swing towards cyber, space , underwater and other high-tech programs and away from legacy platforms.

Lovegrove said the time for “sentimentality” was over on legacy programs. There were some “difficult decisions to be made” in what he termed “disinvestment.”

Pentagon officials who had been kept informed of British intentions were said to have approved of the British moves.

Knighton said a program to update the British Army’s Challenger 2 fleet is due to go the MoD’s investment approvals board in the next few days. The program was in good shape, he said.

A reduction in Challenger 2 numbers has been touted by analysts and media as being in the government sights for months.

Perhaps a good thing they can't shake the money tree, and buy another 24 or so F-35B's right now.

Not anything bad against the aircraft.  But the F-35, for all of the impressive capabilities that it brings to the fight, still has some serious teething issues to overcome on the software development side & the maintenance side.  Ordering them in a few years will probably be a smart move, as some of the remaining issues will be worked out by then.  :2c:
CBH99 said:
Perhaps a good thing they can't shake the money tree, and buy another 24 or so F-35B's right now.

Not anything bad against the aircraft.  But the F-35, for all of the impressive capabilities that it brings to the fight, still has some serious teething issues to overcome on the software development side & the maintenance side.  Ordering them in a few years will probably be a smart move, as some of the remaining issues will be worked out by then.  :2c:

Sounds positively Canadian  ;).

haha I've said it before, perhaps our incompetence with procurement is actually a blessing sometimes.  Not often, but sometimes.  By the time we get our F-35's (If that is what we end up buying) - our aircraft will have FAR fewer issues than if we bought them a decade ago.

We just need the PR spin to make it look like an intentional, intelligent decision & just sheer idiotic processes the government uses against itself  ;)