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.
Firstly the figure of 138 has been there since the mid 2000s and even earlier when the original operational requirement was generated to replace the RN & RAF Harrier fleets on a Joint service basis with broadly like for like numbers of a single aircraft design (curiously harking back to the 1960s and the P1154 supersonic Harrier project) – and certainly in sqn number terms within what the UK MoD called the “Joint Combat Aircraft” (JCA) programme.
While at the time the MoD had not fully committed to the JCA being STOVL or VSTOL capable like the Harrier, but a single aircraft type solution was certainly seen as the only affordable way ahead to satisfy the RN Fleet Air Arm (FAA) and RAF’s Harrier replacement needs for both carrier ops and minimal facility/short runway expeditionary land base ops. Recall too that during that period the Joint Force Harrier (JFH) had been created from the SDR98 defence review and both FAA and RAF numbered sqns were regularly deployed aboard either of the 2 active Invincible CVS light carriers or on land based ops such as in Afghanistan.
Thus the 138 airframes were calculated as the number required to support an operational force of 6 sqns plus an OCU (larger sqn size equivalent) through life – likely to be based at 2 locations but still to be within a single new UK Joint Lightning Force (UK JLF). In 2005 the MoD committed to the JCA solution being the F35B STOVL variant which also then underpinned the STOVL design and configuration of the Queen Elizabeth (QE) CVF carrier class about to go to build contract in 2007 – both decisions being fully inter-related and integrated.
In UK defence matters of course, particularly in the last 25 years, amendments to procurement and force level plans have become an unpalatable feature as unforecast financial constraints and crisis intervened to cause cancellations, reductions or amended plans. It was not helped too as major conflict involvement required greater in year defence expenditure, and key and very expensive projects such as the F35 and QE carrier programmes doubled in price for various reasons mostly beyond the UK MoD’s control.
In reality the first step back from requiring the originally envisaged 138 F35s happened in 2006 when money simply wasn’t available to buy replacements or fundamentally upgrade the FAA’s Sea Harrier FA2 fleet to meet essential performance requirements especially in hotter climates and that very capable AMRAAM equipped naval fighter was withdrawn prematurely with many airframes less than 15 years old.
This of course removed 2 sqns and although compensated for to some extent by the creation and use of a common fleet of offensive support GR9 Harriers within the remaining reorganised JFH sqns the reality was now that the requirement for 138 F35Bs looked unsupportable and unsustainable in practical and financial terms within the forecast procurement budgets available out to 2015 at that time.
This was further complicated at the same time as it was becoming clear that F35 project development timescales and costs were getting out of hand and questions were being asked at all relevant UK Government, MoD and industrial levels of just how many F35Bs the UK could ultimately afford.
A question still not yet answered.
The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review onwards
The major change then occurred of course during SDSR2010 called by the new UK Coalition Government and with a clear remit to reduce UK national debt, meaning slashing the forecast MoD procurement budget by 30% to remove an unfunded black hole that already existed in the 10 year DE&S plan, and also the annual in-year operational defence funding by at least 7%.
After much MoD staffwork juggling and some very unpalatable decisions to restructure combat air capabilities to meet not only the immediate financial constraints but also ensure enough money was left to fund F35B and QE carrier development and purchase for the future, the (heart-breaking for many) decision was made to scrap the JFH Harrier GR9 Fleet and the remaining active RN CVS strike carrier 5 years earlier than previously planned.
Taking a “capability holiday” for the sake of a much improved future QE carrier and JCA/F35 capability was deemed the only affordable plan. This also led to a fundamental MoD reappraisal of which variant of the F35 was now needed to meet the carrier force level capability required within the new more restricted money available.
Simultaneously the RAF of course saw not only the withdrawal of the Tornado GR4 force brought forwarded to 2018 from 2025 but in effect a halving of its combat aircraft sqn numbers underpinned by an arbitrary halving of its aircraft readiness commitment to NATO. This latter aspect is not often fully appreciated by outside observers or those who focus on RN ship, FAA and QE carrier matters and the force level issues associated with those capabilities.
In effect the future of the UK manned combat aircraft capability out to at least 2040 for the RAF (and FAA) was to be vested in just two types – upgraded swing role Typhoon, and whatever variant(s) of F35 were finally confirmed as required.
More significant in many ways than the early demise of the JFH, the programme to replace Tornado GR4 from 2025 with a mix of UCAV and manned stealth aircraft (FOAS – Future Offensive Air Systems) had been cancelled too – and this is highly relevant later in this analysis. The RN too realised it could now only afford to complete the buy of and operate one QE class carrier with the PoW being the one reconfigured to come into service and the QE mothballed or sold.
The SDSR2010 outcome on the UK F35 purchase programme was a definitive and real reduction from the original 138 aircraft requirement of F35Bs to around 35 F35Cs for the one and only revised and catapult equipped RN QE class carrier, but as yet an indeterminate number of F35Bs for the RAF.
Fortunately, or otherwise by 2012 the SDSR2010 proposal to save money by using only 1 catapult reconfigured carrier for launch of F35Cs was abandoned after costs of the catapult modifications proved far more expensive than originally understood in 2010, and it became clear also that F35C would not enter operational service with the UK earlier than 2025.
With no additional budget available the F35B and STOVL carrier design returned, along with any future in-year money saved underpinning the future availability of both QE carriers for service given both were already contracted to be built to that configuration. Out of that ultimately came the policy of one active carrier with a minimum of 12 F35B aboard and a new normal compliment for major ops of 24 (ie. 2 sqns).
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. Bear in mind too that the JCA and hence the F35B was still being purchased to replace the RAF’s Harrier expeditionary capability from minimalist land bases. The UK F35B purchase has never just been about having aircraft to purely operate from carriers.
Furthermore as a result of SDSR2010 the F35B purchase was increasingly seen as its capabilities were confirmed through testing as the only affordable way in the shorter term to replace the all weather precision attack capabilities the Tornado GR4 with a modern stealth and network enabled aircraft notwithstanding the Typhoon force was also to be upgraded too to ensure as much offensive air capability within a much reduced RAF combat air fleet overall.
This latter driver is important to grasp as now not only does the RAF’s operational credibility depend on joint operation of the F35B as originally envisaged as a Harrier replacement but also its hitherto longer range airfield based capacity provided by Tornado – something not contemplated in the more optimistic pre-2010 RAF days of FOAS arriving after 2025 to replace Tornado. This added even greater emphasis on RAF involvement in F35B than necessarily envisaged in 2005.
Those sceptics who sometimes question the RAF’s commitment to F35B need to understand this significant driver as even with a likely 4 F35B op sqns available by the early 2030s, these represent 40% of the UK and the RAF’s combat air capability – not something the RAF would wish to lose or not be part of in any circumstance. Both the RAF and FAA therefore have a fully vested interest in seeing a successful joint F35B force (UK JLF) be it from the QE class carriers or expeditionary land bases, and both are fully committed to it.
Fleet size and availability
As indicated above, it emerged from SDSR2015 and the more optimistic financial plan therein that the UK JLF 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, Indeed the RAF is trying to generate 7 + 1 OCU Sqns from 150 Typhoons at present – a clear indicator of the beneficial front line airframe availability within modern combat aircraft fleet management. Someone might argue therefore that 80 or so F35Bs are all that is needed to sustain 4 ops sqns and an OCU of 60 active aircraft.
This is reinforced when the F35 production programme is destined to continue until at least 2050 (“the life of the programme”) when regular top up buys will be possible at the time needed rather than spend money early for too many airframes to be stored and unused for many a year as was the practice in the Cold War era.
The price tag
At £100M an F35B unnecessary surplus purchase is just not a wise investment further reinforced by the spiral capability development policy behind the F35 meaning it’s often wise to invest in the upgraded version later and minimise expense upgrade costs.
So in reality 138 F35Bs to sustain the planned UK JLF F35B force level is simply too many – no surprise given that figure was as mentioned supposed to sustain the 2005 plans for 6+1 sqn level units (90 front line aircraft).
In the severe SDSR2010 financial planning environment any reductions in planned numbers were seen as essential – certainly out to 2020 – but less so now in the post SDSR2015 procurement budget period where the SDSR2010 decision to only have 18 F35B initially out to 2020 has now been revised and the 2nd op sqn (809 NAS) fully funded from a 35 ac fleet by 2023.
Furthermore, it’s now well recognised that peer on peer conflict threats are increasing and the beneficial realities of having stealth and networking aircraft capabilities aligned with a fully equipped aircraft carrier too are now writ large in UK defence planning as opposed to being seen as future capabilities.
The plan going forward
It may yet not be endorsed and funded policy but 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.
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.
Deciding how many additional F35Bs we need as discussed above beyond the 48 so far funded is now the key initial and imminent question to underpin everything.
This now also has to be set alongside how many additional F35s and of what variant the RAF intends to buy to meet its commitments for stealthy and high performance expeditionary defensive counter-air and attack ops as originally envisaged in the FOAS and Tornado replacement programme.
This has further impetus too now as SDSR2015 funded the retention of the 30 or so Tranche 1 Typhoon F3s to partly compensate for the early removal of Tornado but which are not capable of upgrade to full FGR4/5 standard and must be retired by 2030. Given the RAF’s earlier FOAS requirements wherein a proportion of that then separate procurement was touted at the time to be F35A in 2025 – then the stage is set for some of the 138 UK F35 commitment now being translated into such an F35A purchase alongside the finally agreed number of JLF F35Bs required.
Given the UK’s extant one op carrier policy that means this could be achieved within the 138 “through the life of the programme” F35 procurement strategy and commitment. This also implies a likely commitment to buy about 40 F35A by 2030 to replace those 2 Tranche 1 Typhoon sqns alongside the required F35B buy now to provide additional airframes for long term support of 4 +1(OCU) JLF Sqns for use on the active QE carrier and other land based tactical deployments.
That all said it is still possible the Tranche 1 Typhoon replacement could still in theory be done by buying 40 F35B to replace the Tranche 1 Typhoons albeit with lesser capabilities in range, internal weapons capacity (including types) and sustained air combat manoeuvrability than the RAF believes it needs in these wider roles. In essence, such a decision will swing on not only the operational value of the F35A additional capabilities but also whether any additional costs or indeed savings make a sub fleet of F35As affordable over its planned life.
Should such a buy happen, its possible that the RAF F35As may collocate with their USAF equivalents at RAF Lakenheath to save costs too.
For sure be it an all F35B purchase ultimately or a mix of A & Bs, the overall final purchase number will also be influenced by emerging force level and type balance considerations for Tempest procurement post 2035 – the main 6th generation replacement for the later Typhoon Tranche 2 & 3 variants.
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 this does indeed still imply a UK requirement to buy around 138 F35s “over the life of the programme” out to 2040 or later.
It’s certainly a logical option within the commitment made and to provide the UK with the affordable and more tailored combat aircraft fleet that the MoD has been considering for some time and now needing to make some critical decisions given the lead times involved.
The further flexibility of the situation being that if emerging threats and increased budgets demand greater investment then ultimately the UK could buy more then 138 of the present or future upgraded F35 design.
Tempest in whatever manned guise it ultimately emerges by 2035 may affect this final UK F35 purchase number too. Of course, if Tempest never emerges then F35 and its future variants may also offer an alternative to replace Typhoon from 2035.
Most significantly 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.
None of this will be anything but expensive given the 48 Tranche 1 F35Bs are already budgeted at over £9.5Bn for both procurement and a 10 year support programme. Those 2 additional JLF B and 2 RAF A sqns as discussed above are going to cost around £20Bn for procurement and support for the first 10 years of their use – a very large sum indeed.
Let us all hope future UK governments will fully fund such a 138 F35 commitment as regularly stated in recent years – for both the RAF, FAA and UK combat air power credibility would suffer significantly if not.
About The Author
David Simpson 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 conflicts and has operated helicopters off carriers and smaller vessels for both test and operational reasons. His final appointment in the RAF before his early retirement into the aerospace industry in 2005 was as the UK MoD Director of (Test) Flying for the Defence Equipment & Supply organisation based at Abbey Wood within which he was responsible for the regulation and approval of all UK test and development flying and plans (including the F35) wherever it took place under MoD Project team management across all MoD and related industry airfields.
The D Flying appointment was also Head of Profession for all qualified UK experimental test pilots. Following executive and project management time with Lockheed UK and Babcock Defence, he was more recently COO for British International Helicopters where he also managed the first of type introduction of AW189 helicopter in the demanding Falkland Islands all-weather SAR role. Currently he is a board member of Lease Corporation International, and FlyPlymouth looking to reopen Plymouth airport and develop it further for modern aerospace activity and employment. He has had an abiding interest and affection for UK aircraft carrier operations since 1965.