At the start of June, HMS Queen Elizabeth departed Portsmouth to continue trials with F-35B jets in the North Sea.
This opinion piece was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Edward Davies. Edward is an MA graduate in International relations from the University of Leeds with special interests in Russia, China, AirPower and intelligence.
With the jets having already declared initial operating capability and a maiden voyage for the carrier task group planned next year, the UK is well on the way to possessing a fully integrated, formidable capability in the F-35B.
However, although the UK has committed to a total of 138 F-35’s over the programme’s life, only 48 B variants have been purchased so far. With the type of the remaining 90 airframes yet to be decided, there has been some considerable speculation and debate surrounding the identity of the remaining aircraft. But why does this matter? Whilst most of the differences between the two variants may appear to be subtle, they were designed to meet different operational requirements and therefore deliver different capabilities and possess different performance parameters. This has significant implications for how the jets are best employed and the problems they are best placed to overcome.
Therefore, there now exists an opportunity to review the makeup of the lighting force before the outstanding airframes are acquired and how this would best meet the future defence objectives of the UK. As this article will outline, operating the correct ratio of a mixed force of both F-35A and F-35B variants could provide the UK with some key benefits without detracting from its ability to field two fully equipped Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.
So, how do the jets differ?
All three variants of the F-35 represent the cutting edge of fifth generation fighter aircraft and stealth technology. Whilst they do not inherently differ in their core capabilities, their different designs stem from the need to meet quite different operational requirements and the way in which they are deployed.
The three variants are as follows:
- The F35A possesses a conventional take off and landing capability (CTOL) and is designed to operate from airfields and is unable to operate from aircraft carriers.
- The F35B is the VSTOL (very short takeoff and landing) variant which possesses a maneuverable lift fan which allows it to operate from both carrier decks and short, austere airfields.
- The F35C is the carrier version, designed to operate from flight decks with catapults and short trap capabilities.
Obviously, as the UK’s Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are equipped with ski-jump’s instead of catapults for launching and short traps for recovering aircraft, the C variant isn’t a viable option for the UK.
Below are some of the key differences between the A and B variants:
|A Variant||B Variant|
|Combat range on internal fuel||669 nmi (1,239km)||450 nmi (833km)|
|Max G limit||+9||+7|
|Max speed||Mach 1.6||Mach 1.6|
looking at the stats above you could be forgiven for thinking that the A was the more capable aircraft. On the face of it, the A can fly further, carry more weapons, pull more G and all whilst costing $36.3M less per airframe than the B variant.
However, it is important to remember that both the A and B variants possess the same electronically scanned array radars (the AN/APG-81), sensor systems, data-link and stealth technology, all of which are extremely capable and are the core on which both airframes’ impressive capabilities are built. Using these systems, both variants can conduct advanced electronic attack and jamming and possess fully integrated radar warning, targeting support and self-protection to detect and defeat surface and airborne threats. According to Lockheed Martin it is these capabilities, combined with aircrafts low observable cross section (stealth capability), which “allows the F-35 to reach well-defended targets” 1.
Additionally, it is important to note that the B variant conveys some advantages over the A in certain situations. Aside from its carrier-borne role, as a result of it’s VSTOL capability, the F-35B could also be operated from ‘austere airfields’ much in the same way the Harrier force has done previously. Austere airfields are those which have either been damaged through enemy action, have been quickly set up without the full infrastructure of a usual base or those which have a smaller runway. This could be of benefit in a quickly changing combat environment where forces need to adapt quickly with potentially limited resources, whilst also decreasing the time required for the F-35B force to be forward deployed on land as well as on, or from, the carriers. In this way, the F-35B could provide increased flexibility being quickly deployed to different areas in small groups to help reduce the threat to the aircraft on the ground.
Furthermore, it is also important to consider the development of the weapons integration on the different variants, as this is not universal across both jets. One example of this already outlined is that the F-35B does not possess an internal gun and the UK currently has no plans to purchase external gun pods. More significantly, it is important to note that weapons such as the American Joint Strike Missile (JSM), a fifth-generation cruise missile, will only be compatible with the A and C variants whilst others such as the Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW) cannot be stored internally on the B variant2. Furthermore, the A variant is undergoing testing in the US to deliver the B61-12 nuclear free-fall bomb, a capability which is not duplicated on the F-35B. However, once again, it could be argued this is of limited importance to the UK, which relies on its continuous at sea deterrent in the form of Trident to deliver its nuclear strike capability and does not possess any free-fall nuclear weapons.
However, the lack of integration for these weapons systems may be of limited significance to the UK as it looks to integrate its own weapons to fulfill very similar roles. The UK’s F-35B’s can currently be armed with two air to air missiles and two bombs (up to 1,500lbs) with advanced short range air to air missiles (ASRAAM), advanced medium range air to air missiles (AMRAAM) and Paveway IV bombs the weapons of choice. These capabilities are to be complimented by the follow-on modernisation programme which aims to add MBDA’s METEOR beyond visual range missile, SPEAR cap 3 air to surface missile, Paveway 4 Mk3 bomb, Paveway 4 tactical penetrator, upgraded block 6 ASRAAM and Raytheon’s Stormbreaker air to surface missile to its arsenal. These weapons would represent a significant increase in capability for the jet with weapons such as SPEAR cap 3 designed to be carried internally and provide a standoff weapon which can neutralise advanced air defence systems such as the Russian S-400 whilst minimising the risk to the jet3.
Whilst the integration of these systems represents a significant increase in capability for the UK’s F-35B’s, it is here that the F-35A could provide one important advantage. Utilising the F-35A’s larger internal storage space more weapons, such as SPEAR cap 3, could be stored internally without disrupting the airframes low observable cross section and whilst also being launched from a platform with an increased combat range. Put simply, this means that the F-35A could strike more numerous, heavier defended surface targets, further away in one sortie.
Therefore, although there are only subtle differences in compatible armaments and their internal or external storage on the two different airframes, the A could provide more flexibility for future capabilities in this area as it possesses a larger internal weapons payload. In contrast, it is feasible that for some missions, the F-35B would have to carry some of these weapons externally, detracting from its stealth capability.
So, why do these differences matter?
In the past decade the world has witnessed a return to great power politics and a reinvigorated willingness of states to use varying degrees of force on the international stage. This has been accompanied by the erosion of the technical advantage the west has enjoyed over the past 70 years alongside new challenges such as subthreshold threats, in an increasingly contested world. Russia and China are two key examples of this.
In the case of Russia, a reformation of the dilapidated post-soviet armed forces which began in 2008 has transformed the forces of the Russian Federation into a modern, professional and well equipped 21st century fighting force. The Russian armed forces have continued to be a key tool of Russian foreign policy as demonstrated by their operations in Crimea since 2014 and Syria since 2015.
Similarly, China has moved away from its previous mantra of ‘hide and bide’ and, once again backed by modernised armed forces, has become increasingly confident in asserting its claims on the South China Sea and challenging American hegemony in the region. Whilst China has avoided getting directly involved in any conflicts, this does mark a step change in how Chinese military power features in its foreign policy, and how Beijing is willing to pursue its interests.
It is within this context that the UK can expect to face increasing competition from Russia, China and other state actors whilst no longer relying on the operational freedom experienced in previous wars such as Afghanistan. One key component of these capable modern military forces is integrated air defence systems (IADS). Two shocking incidents, the first in Ukraine in 2014 and the second in January of this year in Iran, both resulting in the downing of civilian aircraft have served to highlight the potency and proliferation of these weapons. But looking at these systems on an individual basis does not paint the whole picture and considering their integration into larger networks is key to understanding the threat that could be faced.
Modern IADS are complex, multi-layered defence systems that combine ground based and aerial sensors with long range highly mobile SAMS, shorter range point defence systems and electronic warfare assets and decoys. Russian equipment, such as the long range S-300 and S-400 SAMS, are combined with medium and short range systems, such as SA-17, SA-15 and SA-22, to ensure Russia can keep NATO airpower at length far within their own borders. The way in which this restricts the freedom of movement for NATO airpower would mean that S/DEAD (suppression/degradation of enemy air defences) missions would be a key priority in the first few days of a conflict with the key question being, according to Justin Bronk of RUIS4, not whether NATO could defeat these systems but whether it could do so quickly enough to avoid defeat on the ground whilst deprived of regular close air support. In parallel, Chinese systems such as the HQ-9 and HHQ-9 navalised variant are also a key linchpin in anti-access area denial (A2AD) strategies in the South China Sea aimed at keeping both naval and air assets as far away from the Chinese mainland as possible, once again restricting freedom of movement. In addition to this, whilst these two examples represent the most capable models currently deployed, these weapon systems are proliferating globally and with many smaller powers investing in these systems; as Iran demonstrated with devastating effect earlier this year4.
It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that the UK now faces a greater threat from state actors but also to it’s freedom to operate than it has in recent history. The MoD has itself recognised the change in threats that the UK is likely to face in the 21st century with the armed forces shifting their focus away from counter-insurgency operations toward peer, or near peer, conflict. It would therefore seem that the chances of the UK requiring a capability to comprehensively defeat complex IADS in the future is increasing.
In this regard, whilst both aircraft possess a powerful ability to electronically attack and disrupt components of IADS, here, the F-35A could provide a competitive edge to aid in S/DEAD or strike missions against other surface targets. As Bronk points out4, the way in which to defeat IADS is through detecting, classifying, tracking and transferring of target data onto strike assets. These assets could include cruise missiles but also stealth capable aircraft which can get sufficiently close enough to engage these targets or utilise stand-off and stand in jamming attacks to disrupt them.
This scenario is one setting in which the F-35A could confer an advantage to UK forces. The ability of the F-35A to fly further with more internal weapons without jeopardising it’s stealth capability and strike more targets in fewer stories at earlier stages in a conflict would significantly contribute to defeating these systems and gaining freedom of movement within an area of operations. This would then also open the door for less capable fourth generation aircraft such as the Typhoon to enter the fight with a much lower level of risk allowing more assets to be brought into the fight, increasing force lethality and the speed at which early objectives could be achieved.
But how practical is operating a mixed force?
With the UK not yet committed to the type of the remaining F-35’s, deciding to opt for a number of A variants would still seem to be a viable option for the UK with no obvious penalty being incurred as a result of this. Furthermore, each $79.2M F-35A would represent a saving of $36.3 million per jet when compared to the latest round of production lot 13 F-35B’s priced at $115.5M each5; a factor which could become more important as the UK economy grapples with the impact of coronavirus.
In addition to this, operating a mixed force would not require the division of resources but would continue to allow the pooling of resources, with the requirements of both types being largely similar. The current and planned infrastructure in place at RAF Marham would be suitable to house both variants avoiding the need to invest in another site for the F-35A whilst the training of engineers and equipment for the B variant is expected to be almost universal to that of the A. This could also be true for the operational conversion unit (OCU), with a mixture of F-35A’s and B’s combined together to create a slightly larger than usual squadron that once again could consolidate training.
If the UK were to procure a mixture of F-35’s it would not be the first European nation to do so. The Italian air force is set to receive 69 F-35A’s and 40 F-35B’s with the navy procuring 22 B variants for use on their newly refurbished Cavour carrier. The Cavour carrier is similar to the old invincible class in size and the number of aircraft it can carry, and as such requires a smaller number of jets to keep it operational. The Italians have been followed by the Japanese who recently announced an order of 42 F-35B’s to operate off their Izumo carrier alongside the original 63 F-35A’s on order.
Using the examples set by both the Italians and Japanese it is possible to estimate the number of F-35B jets the UK would require to sustain it’s carriers, identifying the size of the remaining force which could account for F-35A variants. In contrast to the Italian and Japanese carriers, the much larger Queen Elizabeth class carriers can carry a larger number of jets, up to a maximum of 40. Assuming both carriers are available to be deployed with a full contingent of 40 aircraft at the same time, which wouldn’t always be required and would be an unlikely scenario, an additional 20 jets could provide the additional number required to equip the OCU and account for scheduled maintenance bringing the total number of F-35B jets required to sustain both carriers at full force to a maximum of 100. This would leave the remaining 38 jets to be purchased for the RAF as A variants, providing the UK with increased capabilities and improving its ability to meet important defence objectives.
Whilst the differences between the F-35A and B may appear to be subtle, each of the variants is designed to perform slightly different roles which has significant implications for how the jets perform, the weapons integrations possible and, therefore, how they’re best employed.
Currently, the UK faces an increasing threat from states with modern, well equipped armed forces who are willing to use force on the global stage in pursuit of their foreign policy objectives. One key area in which this could manifest is the deployment of IADS and other A2AD systems which are proliferating globally and have the ability to restrict the UK’s freedom to operate in a contested environment. Operating a mixed force, for example 38 F-35A and 100 F-35B variants, would allow the UK to maintain two full strength carrier wings to project force globally whilst also benefiting from the increased range and payload the F-35A brings to the fight. Here, it is the ability of the F-35A to maintain the integrity of its low observable cross section whilst carrying more weapons further to the fight which would provide the UK with an advantage in a heavily contested airspace. This would provide the UK with an increased ability to defeat IADS and other threats, whilst deterring adversaries from deploying these systems and eroding their ability to restrict the UK’s freedom to operate. Adding the increased range and internal payload of the F-35A to the UK’s inventory would increase the capability and options available to government and military decision makers which would in turn aid in its pursuit of defence and foreign policy objectives.
In addition to this, the purchase and integration of F-35A into the current F-35B force would be relatively seamless, requiring no additional investment in infrastructure and only a small divergence in training for pilots, engineers and other trades to operate with the aircraft. Furthermore, at a time when defence spending is likely to be squeezed as a result of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy, each F-35A represents a $36.3M saving per jet when compared to the B variant, representing a saving of over $1.3billion across the total order (assuming 38 F-35A variants are acquired).
Therefore, it would appear that this is one of the few occasions in defence procurement when spending less could get you more.