Earl Howe, Minister of State for Defence and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, has suggested that a change in F-35 variant may be on the cards after the first 48 F-35Bs.

Thye information comes to light in answer to a written question in the House of Lords asked by the Marquess of Lothian:

“To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they remain committed to the purchase of 138 F-35B jump–jets for the Royal Navy.”

Answered by Earl Howe

“As part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015, we reaffirmed our commitment to procure 138 F-35 Lightning II aircraft.

The first tranche of 48 aircraft will be of the F-35B variant, which will be jointly operated by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, and capable of operating from both land and the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers. The decision on the variant of subsequent tranches of Lightning will be taken at the appropriate time.”

The structure of the Lightning force is now somewhat clear.

  • 17(R) Squadron is currently based at Edwards Air Force Base in the US and fills role of F-35B Operational Evaluation Unit.
  • 617 Squadron will be based at RAF Marham and will be the first operational British F-35 unit in 2019.
  • 809 Naval Air Squadron will also be based at RAF Marham.
  • 2 more unnamed frontline Squadrons are to be established.
  • 207 Squadron as the Operation Conversion Unit

This information comes from Air Cmdr. Harvey Smyth, the commander of the U.K.’s Lightning Force, as told to reporters at a conference in London last year.

In 2015, the UK government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review confirmed a planned order of 138 F-35s, with 23 of them to be available for carrier duties by 2023. The UK will have an operational fleet of around 63 aircraft according to Smyth, which is less than half of the total number of F-35’s that the UK has agreed to purchase

However, as reported by AviationWeek, Smyth pointed out that “the total number would cover attrition replacements and the so-called sustainment fleet, which is defined as additional aircraft required to sustain the fleet to its out-of-service date as well as to cover maintenance. Other UK combat aircraft also have large sustainment fleets.”

The F-35B’s maiden deployment is set for late 2017 and it’s bound for the Western Pacific. The jet will deploy aboard an amphibious flattop and the US Navy are planning a more powerful escort force to support it, according to Admiral Scott Swift, head of Pacific Fleet, as reported by Marine Times.


  1. Shit that is not good news for carrier strike. Only having a maximum of 48 F35Bs is not a good result. I guess RAF wants the A version for slightly reduced cost and increased range, fair enough, but that cannot be at the expense of being able to surge enough jets to provide carrier strike for both QEs fully laden 2×36-48 jets= 72-96 frontline F35Bs).
    If this announcement is true than I guess the MOD is only going to comit to having one QE operational at any time.

    • Presumably MOD can’t foresee any time when we may want to run both carriers at the same time, or if they do each will carry a maximum of 24 F35Bs, rest of the air group on each being made up with choppers. I have a nasty feeling the RN will be short changed again

      • I think it goes without saying one active carrier at a time, apart from urgent requirement. Albion and Bulwark operate at this level and considering costs, that’s probably a wise policy. It’s better to have an asset, albeit in reserve or refit, than not have it at all.
        As for F35 numbers, I feel sure that most of the time QE will be operating in a mixed role, which makes good use of the ship. With HMS Ocean going, QE’s multi role makes consummate sense. I believe the days of conventional carrier operation are coming to an end, where the prime function is ostensibly, a fixed wing platform. Adopting a mixed fleet of aircraft allows more in theater options. If a situation demanded more F35’s
        then 48 (when available) could be pressed into action? As for considering the non carrier F35A for a supporting role with Typhoon, that too makes sense. In fact, it would be a true Tornado replacement as its currently operated.

    • It is a disgrace. More penny-pinching when what all parts of the armed forces need is strength and substance. We did have two types of fixed wing aircraft flying from the last conventional carrier we had – Ark Royal. Perhaps the MOD has this in mind ?

    • i think we getting it wrong here, they say we might buy F35A after the first 48, these 48 F35B will probably be the frontline planes, cause we got at least 10 in service already in training or testing use, and they still planning for 4 frontline squadrons(2 RAF/2FAA) ,1 OCU and 1 OEU so these 48 planes probably equiet the 4 front squadrons so that will bring the total number of planes to 66 hopefully, so they probably buy 72 F35A either create more squadrons by increasing the RAF personnel or they probably convert the number of typhoons squadrons to F35A Squadrons. I might be wrong, but we won’t know until the next Strategic Defence and Security Review.

    • No one believed there would ever be two carriers in operation at once.
      They can barely do 1.
      And that 1 will be de-facto US marine carrier

      • You can’t operate two carriers at once as you would end up with no carriers when they need maintenance. The US Navy has around 10 Nimitz class so they can operate 5 at any time.
        But don’t see they will be USM carriers, that was just a proposal initially while the F35 fleet are growing (although no reason why USM F35 can’t operate off them at other times, we do most things in tandem with the US).

        • I agree if both were in use at the same time then you can bet American aircraft will be utilised as needed, indeed very sensible to tie them in intimately when working in a dangerous environment alongside their ships anyway.

          The main worry would be attrition over the years which combined with training and maintenance could certainly put pressure on available numbers in a 2 ship environment even though that will only happen in an emergency for the most part. I suspect only rarely will more than 18 or so be on board even a single carrier, as I get the feeling that Apaches will be considered useful in many likely environments where small attack craft may be a serious threat allowing the F35 a more specialist strike role.

    • He’s not saying after the first 48 the rest will be the A model he’s saying that the first 48 will be B model after that the split will decided in further purchases at the time. What that split will be we don’t know.
      However lets surmise that the future will be 5 F-35 squadrons and 5 Typhoon then if there are three B model F35 Squadrons that is enough to fully equip a QE at surge strength and enough to ensure an F35B squadron is always deployed on the carrier in rotation for normal peacetime patrols.

  2. If the 138 is the total number we will buy throughout its operational life (30-40 years), allowing 4 squadrons of F35B’s and presumably some for OCU, then surely they all have to be of the B variant. No point in replacements being A variant unless you are going to equip additional RAF squadrons with that type

  3. Unfortunately this is yet another demonstration of messed up thinking.

    The MOD and Govt dont seem to be on the same page and if the services keep on fighting then I am afraid I would disband all 3 and create a single force where they all have to agree. The UK military is now smaller than the USMC and for me a single command structure is a must. In future all generals will need to do a 4 year rotation in each service and the Air Assets will need to support Ground or Naval operations.

    Very disappointing that we are still confused about all this after 10 years of planning – time for new leadership.

  4. The logical progression from this would be that 617sqn converts to A’s and all the B’s are operated by Navy squadrons.

  5. This would also force the RAF to convert their MRTT to boom refuelers (something already proposed, considering the number of US built aircraft in service so equipped) as the A model is not fitted with a probe for drogue refueling.

    • Any A models the RAF order will be hose and drogue AAR, it’s already possible to make A models with this capability LM has already stated it’s a customer choice which they choose. When Canada was buying 65 they’d already ordered them with the B/C AAR refuelling probe even though the incoming government later cancelled the Canadian order.

  6. if the uk ended up taking 80 f-35b’s and the rest of the 138 as ‘a’ variants with costs of $94.6 and $122.8M for the a and b respectively that would leave over enough money to buy another 16 f-35a’s for total of 80 f-35b’s and 74 f-35a’s and a few pennies left over

    realistically i dont think we are going to be using our carriers for actually fighting major wars and before to long frankly any military ship not under the water is going to be easy target for hypersonic missiles so i’d say take the extra aircraft and have the a vaiant with better cannon and longer range

    • They were bantering around of having the B models replaced by the C models. The reasoning at that point was that it would be used on a CATOBAR QE and PoW. Plus, the additional combat radius of the C model would fit better with operational requirements.
      As we all know, it was decided to stick with the STOVL carriers as the cost for conversion to CATOBAR was considered to be too high. So the B model purchase continued. As it stands, the F-35C will still be the preferred option due to it’s greater range. Plus, as some have said, if and when the QE class carriers are converted to CATOBAR, they will be able to operate the C model off them.

  7. This is all speculative, and a utterly pointless discussion. The two carriers are gonna need all 138 F35B’s cause those are the numbers needed for both carriers to be at full strength, including spares and rotation aircraft when others are in maintenance.. This is all a bunch of bs, talk, with the explicit purpose of amputating the Navy’s Carriers fleet with internal rivalry between the the branches of the Airforce and Navy.. If the Airforce wants F35A then it will have to get the funding for extra aircraft without amputating the Navy’s Fleet of Aircraft for it’s own gains..

    • the government has no intention of having both carriers at sea at the same time – they dont have the money for it – so we only need enough aircraft for one carrier

  8. 48 B variants for the RN and 90 A variants for the RAF, sounds right to me to maximise and war fighting potential.

    Forget about having two carriers at sea each with 36 F35B on time it will never happen.

    The A variants can carry a greater warload a lot further at a lower cost. Some analysis has shown that to complete a combat mission carried by a single A would require 3 missions by a B to have the same impact.

    As for flight refuelling our rc135 and p8 aircraft cannot be refuelled by current tankers, we will have modify the tankers to do so.

    • LM will make the A model with hose and drogue refuelling as the B/C model it’s up to the customer to order it as they want.
      However would be good to get the 5 A330 not fitted with central hose fitted with a boom to allow P8, C17 & RC135

  9. they didn’t state that only 48b on total they just said they would consider the make-up of the remaining 90. 48b is clearly not enough considering that further down their life reliability will drop and existing frames will be used for parts (like what happened with the sentinel, apache, tornado etc etc).

    With 48 probably a realistic best case surge force would be 30, so need at least another 20-30b to make them viable. The rest could be A but then it comes back to why such big carriers if we don’t intend to have enough planes for the size.

  10. Why such big carriers? Original sdr1998 called two carriers weighing up to 40000 tons each.

    This over time this morphed into two carriers weighing 70000 tons each. RN playing games to enhance the status of the senior service rather than investing the limited funds wisely to maximise our warfighting capability across all three services.

    Key decisions on defence procurement have wrong for at least two decades (one of which was to build two very large carriers which cannot be justified given the funds available), which is why our armed forces are in the shambolic mess they are currently in.

    We do not have assets available to protect our new carriers so they cannot be placed in high risk war zones unless our friends the Americans decide to protect them with their forces. This is ok as long as the US agrees to it and does not see this undermining their national self interest.

  11. Earl Howe’s words merely echo what Harriet Baldwin stated to a question put to her last year, so there is absolutely nothing new here. Also, the whole point of having 2 carriers is that 1 is always available. This was even stated by David Cameron when he announced in 2014 that HMS Prince of Wales would be brought into service. Thoughts of 2 carriers operating simultaneously with 36 F-35Bs each is, I believe, highly unrealistic, and I doubt if anyone seriously has plans for that. A warload of 24 F-35Bs on 1 carrier is, I think, more realistic, and various sources have indicated this. For the two carriers to operate together, I suggest the most likely configuration would be 1 acting as strike carrier with 24 or possibly a few more F-35Bs, and the other in the LPH role, with a rotary force and possibly a small number of F-35Bs for self-defence. This might be the case if, for instance, the Falklands needed to be liberated again. However, for the most part, I envisage 1 carrier in service at a time with air assets tailored to whatever was needed at the time. Sometimes they will act as strike carriers, sometimes as LPHs, sometimes a hybrid with 12 F-35Bs routinely carried. Forget about considering these ships as strike carriers in the sense of USN carriers. Yes, they can, and will, act as strike carriers, but very often they will be acting in a different role, and will have air assets appropriate to that role.

    • I agree with all of that Clive and I do think the answer is just a case of keeping options open but if it did end up with only 48 F-35B then I think that would be a huge shame.

      The carriers are designed for a package of up to 36 F-35B in full strike configuration. With 48 x F-35B available I doubt we could even get the basic 36 F-35B strike package onto it. Certainly at least 2 can be discounted straight away because they’re test aircraft from very old batches with all sorts of technical instrumentation and telemetry installed and I’m not sure how current and combat ready airframes 3 and 4 will ever be then look at maintenance cycles and serviceability and, if something big and unexpected happened, I bet more than 8-10 others would be unserviceable. You don’t get 100% serviceability so it would need a lot more than 48 F-35B to have any realistic chance of fully loading even one carrier as a strike platform.

      If this happens it is yet another government-introduced capability gap. They will be giving up on having the ability to configure even one of our carriers for one of the key roles for which it was designed. Someone made a comment/joke a week ago that the QECs were being fitted for-but-not-with aircraft. That really made me laugh at the time but if this hedging-of-bets re F-35A/F-35B from the government ever turns into reality I won’t be laughing then.

  12. Why is everyone now saying the RN will operate both carriers, both with air groups!?
    My understanding always was that we would have 1 constantly in service, so would need 2 to make that happen. In a major war the second carrier could be deployed carrying helicopters but anyone who has started dreaming in the last few years of having two carriers operational at same time with full air groups of F35, Merlin and Crowsnest is mistaken. Where is the extra Merlin squadron for the second carrier?
    I’m just thankful we have the second carrier to maintain constant carrier capability, alike the 4 Vanguard subs.

    • They won’t operate them both at the same time on a regular basis, but there deployment may overlap and on occasion they may be deployed together if needed.. hence the need for 138 F35B’s to be split between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, so that in combination they can both maximize both carrier strike groups too their full potential..

  13. I have said this before somewhere on UKDJ but the key for me is that the F35 is replacing 2 fleets and regenerating a known and accepted capability gap from 2010.

    The regeneration of the Harrier fleet disbanded in 2010 for carrier ops and the Tornado fleet for precision bombing etc.

    I believe we need a combat fleet of 138 F35’s to replace both capabilities as from memory we had a force of circa 117 Tornados at the beginning of 2017 and I think the harrier fleet was 36 when finally sold off (after years of bitter infighting and force reduction between the RN and RAF) Part of the rationale for selling the Harriers was that the UK could not sustain 3 fleets of combat aircraft, so I don’t see that changing now.

    Even if we had a combat fleet of 138 this would be 8 squadrons of 16 +10 for OCU etc. and does not sound too outrageous. We would then have a balanced combat fleet of 8 squadrons of Typhoon and 8 of F35, perhaps this could be split into the 2 variants but below this threshold unlikely.

    This is all entirely unlikely given we can’t even afford an extra sentinel… but hey why not.

    Lastly and more to the point for me is that the RAF need to get onboard with the RN’s requirements or risk alienating a lot of politicians. We cannot continue to have in-fighting in our forces – they are just too small and as the USMC have demonstrated a single force structure is doable.

    The UKAF are now an expeditionary force and we should follow the USMC command structure (with the RN rolled in) and have a clear view of what we can bring to the party (which is not everything)

  14. Rather than cut the F-35B numbers why not look to keep the RAF front-line fighters up to strength with additional F-35A aircraft to replace Typhoons as they move to take on the role currently undertaken by Tornado GR4 aircraft.

  15. The only time both ships will be at sea will be for photo opportunities in the English Channel. They should at least take them to Gibraltar and sail through Spanish territorial waters to make up for all the nonsense their navy gets up to.

  16. Agreed, Julian, a further batch of ‘B’ models would be sensible, and we may well end up with that. I don’t think HMG want to box themselves in by stating that all 138 will be ‘B’ models or 72 will be ‘B’ models etc, then set themselves up for easy shots from the Opposition if it were decided that variant numbers should differ from what had previously been stated. All governments dislike boxing themselves in, so it doesn’t surprise me that Harriet Baldwin and Earl Howe’s statements are not more detailed at this time.

    It should also be remembered that for military operations, QE and PoW will most likely be acting in coalition with ships, aircraft and ground forces of allied nations, whether that is through NATO or some other looser coalition. Of course, it is difficult to predict future conflicts, but the only ones I can see even remotely happening where the UK acts alone are a Falklands liberation (I really don’t think this is likely given Argentina’s current woes) and limited strikes on a country (similar to the 1986 attack on Libya by the USA). Realistically, we are not going to go to war with Russia, China, North Korea etc alone. We would be part of a coalition, NATO or otherwise, and in that event, I suspect that the USMC would be likely to want to base F-35Bs on QE or PoW, and in that situation, the active carrier could act as a true strike carrier with a mix of 36 UK and US aircraft, and I think that is the likeliest way we shall see a full complement of Lightnings on a QE carrier.

    One last point would be that now HMS Queen Elizabeth is a reality and HMS Prince of Wales soon to be so, it is very much easier to (given the political and financial will) obtain more aircraft for them, rather than the other way around.

  17. I think it would be terribly short-sighted to mix the versions. The ability to surge two carriers or replace one lost in action is worth more than the slight gain in range that would be realized by flying “A” models. This smacks of inter-service rivalry. It may, indeed, be time to merge the three services and simplify the command structure.

  18. Not sure what the fuss is about, I wanted and expected this. 48 F35b is enough for both carriers and they should be the fleet air arms. The only conceivable event that we would need both carriers would be the Falklands again, Cyprus maybe? highly unlikely. A major war where we would be part of a coalition. Like a few guys have said 36 on one as the strike carrier and 12 and helluva lot of helicopters on the other, its a damn site more than what we could do now.

    And the 90 F35a variant given to the RAF to replace the tornado fleet. Some squadrons at home and a couple of squadrons in Cyprus, a squadron in the middle east. It has an extra 300 mile range and the only variant with and internal cannon, and it’s cheaper.

    • Why not purchase a few more F35Bs and put them on a couple of ships and then they can go to the Med, Middle East or pretty much anywhere. Don’t give any F35s to the RAF and you also save on fixed overseas bases. Some of the savings can go on some additional escorts for the RN to protect those floating airfields and provide in flight refuelling. Let the RAF stick with air defence of the UK and transport. We don’t need and can’t afford two expeditionary airforces!

  19. Why the panic. The answer changes nothing. That has always been the official line. It is unlikely we will go for a mixed fleet, not impossible but unlikely. Costs of the B variant will decrease over time and hopefully the powers that be will see the benefit of the carriers once they are deployable. The usual shenanigans from the RAF are to be expected but resisted. The A will offer nothing we need. It’s greater range and payload would be irrelevant in most scenarios. All the A would bring to the table is a headache, more infrastructure and logistics costs and dilution of the carrier strike concept.

  20. I do hope the RAF realise the F-35A will never be able to deliver the munition load of a Typhoon. But an ‘A’ plus a Typhoon is a pretty lethal combination. ‘Baby and bathwater’ come to mind …

    And can someone answer a question? Why haven’t our F-35Bs got the ‘C’ wings with folding wingtips (especially as BAE make the folding tips) given they are mostly for carrier use? I am sure the air jets in the wings could be modified to fit.

  21. Personal i think we should buy “only” 48 (OR 68) F35 B to carrier Royal Navy. Since cannot change carrier design even carrier designs can change to STOBAR or CTO-AR so it will massive increase cost best solve it is reduce F35 B number.

    And Royal Air Force use BAES system update Replica (with knowledge of F35) and label it as 5.5 generation to replace tornado buy 128 of it and 64 taranis successor. It is good opportunities for creating british job and better equipped.

    Is priority number one focus on sixth generation multi-roles fighter for replace typhoon in 2030s

    That will solved our problem.

  22. Interesting discussion on a favourite subject of ours.

    A couple of points to add.

    The carriers can hold a lot more than 36 F35b – I estimate 72-80 at full load. The deck is circa 20% smaller than a Nimitz class and these have a stated max load of between 100 -160 aircraft depending upon info source, so again I think we could punch it up to 100 aircraft if needed (but we dont have 200 aircraft to fill both).

    I think we can all assume 48 F35b can go on a CVF quite comfortably (most CGi imagines show 16 sitting on deck with plenty of room to spare).

    The US are now looking at their big carriers as they are not going out fully loaded the thinking is that maybe the America class is the right size and capability at a price point that allows for more coverage (not sure how true this is). By any stretch of the imagination the America/Wasp classes are great assets and are defacto carriers.

    As a group of people with an interest in defence I do like the fact we all care, but we should be conscious that the govt is constantly pre-conditioning us to expect less and as a knowledgeable set of interested parties it is our role to question every decision and keep the pressure up.

    The NAval aviation force was always expected to be re-constituted and a capability gap accepted, these should be interim risks and not a way to reduce forces over time.

    Lastly and very importantly, The MOD is very wasteful with its budget and the USMC are able to purchase better kit and have a much larger force (inc. a much large Air Force) on an audited set of accounts that indicate a yearly spend of under $30bn (£25bn). This does exclude the navy and other areas, but surely the UK can replicate the USMC capability and fund the other parts out of the remaining £15bn pa (based on 2020 budget forecast of £40bn).

    Forums like this need to keep the pressure on government to do more – the budget is not terrible it is how it is managed that is.

  23. One would presume that the B and C models are more costly than the A due in part to the number of expected orders for the aircraft. Obviously there is the cost of the B model lift fan and roll post system and the c models larger wing and strengthened undercarriage…. but if we reduce the number of B models…. will the unit cost become higher?

    The question is do we really need a jump jet? As really the requirement to use short roads and Forrest clearings went out in the 1990’s and is the F-35B robust and simple enough to maintain in that environment without a massive logistics and support footprint I know the cost to convert the carriers to Cats and Traps would be very expensive but I think this really should have been the option from day 1.

    This isn’t the first time the government has do e a U turn on the F35 and it now seems the use of all 3 variants has been covered. Standard MOD and Government procurement strategy really….

  24. Ok so if we bulster our air fleet with the usm f35b, how does that work if we go to war with a country that the yanks dont want to war with. For example, when the argys invaded falklands the yanks didnt want to know, they wanted no war and to resolve diplomatically.

    So if the argys were to do it again and we need the usm f35bs to fully compliment our carriers in the naval strike force that were to be sent down there and the yanks say no again, how do we manage then??

  25. A force of 40 f35cs would give the ref a specialised groundcattack capability due to payload . The rest of the order would allow for 2 carrier strike groups


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