The head of the Royal Air Force has confirmed plans to purchase 74 F-35B jets adding that it is “possible” the UK may eventually have a fleet of 138 F-35s.
The specific number was revealed by Air Marshal Knighton during a Defence Select Committee meeting:
“I have said this to the Public Accounts Committee, and I will set it out for Committee members here. We have on contract to deliver 48 F-35B aircraft. As part of our planning assumption in the IR and SR that we have just been through, we have assumed an increase of a further 26 F-35B aircraft, which would take the total fleet to 74.
We have said that the decision about further purchase, beyond that 74, will be taken in the middle of the decade, in the context of what we decide to do on our Future Combat Air System programme. It is perfectly plausible to imagine a situation in which we could have the fleet of 138 F-35s that we originally described back in the early 2000s.”
“We are in the process of negotiating that additional purchase beyond the 48 with the Joint Program Office and with Lockheed Martin. The Secretary of State has been very clear that the final commitment that we make to those aircraft will be dependent on the Joint Program Office and Lockheed Martin demonstrating improvements in cost associated with support and the integration of UK weapons. But we have set aside the budget for that increase and for the additional infrastructure, support costs and people associated with it.”
How will the fleet look I hear you ask? Knighton answered that too.
“All 74 aircraft would be operational, but inevitably you will have a number that are in the operational conversion unit, teaching pilots to fly for the first time on the aircraft, and a number that will be going through routine maintenance.
We are talking about a relatively new aircraft that will evolve, in terms of its maintenance cycle, over the next decade, but we would expect, for a fleet of that size, probably about 20% of them—something like that—to be in maintenance at any one time.
If you want rough numbers, about 15 of them will be in maintenance, but as I said, that will evolve as we understand more about how we maintain this thing and how long it takes. That would leave you with 60-odd in the forward fleet.”
We reported recently that funding had been delegated for an additional tranche of F-35B jets for Britain beyond the 48 already ordered.
Kevan Jones, Member of Parliament for North Durham, asked via a written Parliamentary question:
“To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, when the planned equipment investments for (a) A400M and (b) F-35b will be delegated to the RAF’s TLB.”
Jeremy Quin, Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence, responded:
“Funding for a second tranche of F-35 Lightning has been delegated to Air Command as part of our recent annual budget cycle. Funding for Atlas A400M which not yet been delegated. A decision on future tranches of F-35B will be made in due course.”
For more on the planned additional A400M purchase see here, now, on to the F-35B.
I reported around Christmas time that the UK was undertaking “detailed analysis to evaluate the scale and timeline” for a purchase of a second tranche of F-35B Lightning aircraft.
Jeremy Quin, Minister for Defence Procurement, stated in December 2021:
“The 2021 Integrated Review confirmed our ambition to continue the growth of the UK Lightning Force beyond 48 aircraft. We are currently undertaking period of detailed analysis to evaluate scale and timeline for procurement of our second tranche of F35B Lightning aircraft together with associated infrastructure and support requirements.”
The former First Sea Lord said during a webcast earlier this year that the UK intends to purchase between 60-80 jets for four deployable squadrons, this matches with the above confirmation.
This is welcome news given the speculation the buy could be capped at 48.