The Ministry of Defence have again refused to commit to all UK F-35 orders being the B variant.

Stephen Morgan, MP for Portsmouth South, asked in a written question:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, whether the Government plans to allocate funding for the purchase of F-35A or F-35B aircraft; and what assessment he has made of the implications of that decision for the ability of the Royal Air Force to land aircraft on aircraft carriers.”

Stuart Andrew, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, responded:

“The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 stated our intent to buy 138 F-35 Lightning aircraft over the life of the programme. The first tranche of 48 aircraft will be the carrier capable F-35B, of which 17 have been delivered so far. Decisions on subsequent tranches of Lightning will be taken at the appropriate time.”

Some respected commentators have argued that a split-buy undermines the aircraft carrier programme, with saying:

“Should the number of F-35Bs be capped at 48, much of the vast potential of Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) will have been squandered. After decades of development and an investment running into £ Billions to purchase these large and capable vessels, their main armament will be a handful of jets.”

The decision, of course could still go either way and the Government appear to be leaving their options open, what do you think about this? Please let me know in the comments.

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Lee Cook

It’s nuts. Two aircraft types, regardless of commonality in many areas, means two repair and sustainment lines, two types of training. Air force jets would not be able use the carriers, reducing deployability. Two small fleets, given the additional use and fatigue of airframes, would mean two smaller sets of aircraft available for frontline use, equals less sorties, equals less combat power.

Nuts. But why should anyone be surprised? Catapults? No catapults. History just goes on repeating itself.

Gerry Walmsley

I agree with you, Lee. Unfortunately, when we are dealing with Politicians, we always have to compromise on capital projects. Why? because we have to pander to their lack of understanding of the real world. I have put the compromise in my comment below and offering the RAF two squadrons of As, but I am worried about the costs involved as you describe in your excellent comment.


Agreed its mad but that’s what happens when the RAF controls FAA fast jets ,they don’t want to spend 6 month’s away on deployment.


They dont want to spend 3 weeks on a deployment…not without a hotel pool and room service anyway…

andy reeves



The F35A engines are totally different to the F35B as is the air frame. There is very little compatibility between the F35A and F35B . This was always on the cards ordering 90 F35A will save over £4 billion over ordering 90 F35B. If we only order 48 F35B the max number we could put to sea would be 16 due to the long maintenance cycle and training requirements plus it is a shared asset with the RAF remember what the RAF did with the harrier fleet when it was shared the navy struggled to get 6 planes at anyone… Read more »

Glenn Ridsdale

Rubbish. Apart from the gearbox and afterburner section the two engines are identical. So is most of the airframe.


Not true Glenn go read the specs on the Lockheed sales pages , the engines are not compatible.
The turbine blades on the F35B are thicker , the fuel system is different and the engine is shorter.

Meirion X

Tom(I think this is really David!)#
Lockheed does Not manufacture the jet engine of the F-35, it is Pratt & Whitney that manufactures the F135 jet engine for all versions of the F-35.

andy reeves

can’t be surprised when its always the same now, when will the u.k have all of the f35’s ordered?

Daniele Mandelli

Decade or more, don’t wait up.

Which sensible actually.

Gerry Walmsley

To achieve CEPP with both carriers, we need two full compliments of F35Bs. A full compliment would be in excess of 3 squadrons of 12 aircraft each. These carriers can operate more than 40 aircraft if needed. Four squadrons (48 F35Bs) with associated helicopters. For two carriers, this is 96 plus spares, Lets say 14. This means that we need 110 F35Bs. From our total commitment of F35s, that leaves 28 (2 squadrons with 4 spares) F35A for the RAF. This balance of As and Bs is after all supports the whole reason for investing over £6Bn in build costs… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

Remember though, air groups for both carriers has never been in the plan Gerry.

See the 2015 SDSR chart released on the Carriers and LPD. 1 active, 1 reserve for both.

In war OK fine put whatever you can on the second carrier, helicopters, F35B from the OCU, Allied F35B, whatever.


On the plus side it would allow the FAA full control of its (minimum 60 B variants) and not pander to the RAF’s single service outlook to defence!


On the plus side it would allow the RAF full control of its (minimum 60 A variants) and not pander to the Royal Navy’s single service outlook to defence!


Always a sadness we can’t get over the fact that geographically UK is guardian of the North and North Atlantic as its primary strategic place. If we lost these we lose all. Of course its going global again so its broader than this and includes mainland Europe and the south etc, etc. I would be somewhat concerned at the performance of the F35B for certain roles but overall I think maritime and the periphery is far more key than slogging it out on mainland Europe. The Navy is very much multi role and will learn a lot with its RAF… Read more »


In my opinion though, Daniele, the may be a time when we simply have to operate both at the same time – I.E. a national emergency. I know you note this, but I wouldn’t have thought that 48 jets could realistically achieve this (three of which will permanently be in the U.S.), but I think the Falklands proved what small numbers could achieve. But if we need to surge one carrier and operate the other, surely it’s not enough? Also, what happens if say (God forbid), one of them has a catastrophic fire (see USS Enterprise and USS Forrestal among… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

See below Lusty. I made that point in my own post.

48 B agreed not enough.


Ah yes, thanks.


According to Kidd, the carriers could operate up to 70 aircraft under surge conditions. While not all would be F35B’s, I’d say that could be easily 48 F35Bs and the rest helicopters. In which case, what would we put on the second carrier?…..

captain P Wash.

AV8B’s ?

Mac 57

Probably some F17 a few B2s all the SR71s and the Battlestar Galactica for short measure. Seriously I really don’t think this second carrier is going to make it to be a normal taskforce lead ship or anything like that, she is going to be tied up alongside in Portsmouth with the odd trip here and there but nothing major as we just don’t have the manpower to crew both these carriers and the other 19 real front line ships we have just not enough bodies, so dear old Price of Wales will probably be mothballed or used as an… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

Several points. One, despite the government appearing to keep their options open, HM Treasury, the greatest enemy our forces have, will always win out it seems. While cheaper to purchase, some say buying the A will mean those savings will be lost through running two fleets. There needs to be a definitive answer and costs of that if that is indeed the case. Bottom line is enough B must be bought to fully surge one QEC carrier in full fat war role if required. 48 surely not enough. So what number would that equate to for the forward fleet? Added… Read more »


I assume we are talking about ordering all 138 and saving money because the ‘A’ is cheaper than the ‘B’. I think that would be fine if all 138 were in service but I doubt they ever will due to the buy rate. I have an awful feeling that we will end up with only 48 ‘B’s with a few more ordered years down the line to replace the initial batch. That means we will only ever have 2 active squadrons in peace time, 24 aircraft on a carrier designed for many more, plus helos of cause. If that is… Read more »


The A’s also have better performance than the B’s, not as good as the long range C’s but the C’s cost almost as much as the B’s. The A’s also have an internal cannon but can only use boom refuelling method, the B uses Probe and the C can use both.

The americans have had a lot of issues rolling out the B’s and C’s though with them being heavier and hotter, too heavy for many amphibious ships cranes and too large for some ships elevators meaning they can only be stored on deck.

Meirion X

Rob# I don’t know if you are aware, the RAF does not plan to integrate Storm Shadow for use with the F-35A. So the F-35A is Not a true replacement of the Tornado! Split buys are Only worthwhile with bigger Overall numbers!


A split order makes eminent sense long term. There is just a possibility the QE carriers may not remain in RN hands during what will be a turbulent future? If that is the case a fleet of F35A’s would suit the RAF requirements. I know there are fuelling issues between A’s & B’s, but these are not insurmountable. Watching Marham F35B’s mostly taking off and landing conventionally, this obviously puts less stress on systems over a short take off and vertical landing? So, an allotted fleet of F35B’s for the Navy and a modest number of A’s for the RAF,… Read more »

John Anthony

Yes its nuts, however it’s the MOD looking at the future budget short fall, and the a-type is cheaper. The sooner the government changes Osborne’s decision that the 20bn of trident is paid for by the MOD the better things will be. HS2 is not paid for by transport ministry, so why trident?


The ramp-up is so slow(*) and we are so far away from getting the first 48 Bs that keeping all options open doesn’t seem unreasonable at this stage. HMG is not saying there will be a split buy, just refusing to rule it out. Also, Italy is planning a split buy and there is a possibility that Japan might end up with a split fleet too (the USA doesn’t count since either of its A or B fleets will be huge by UK standards). Waiting a bit to see how the economics and practicalities work out in real life for… Read more »

Meiron X

I agree Julian, Only One new F-35b procured this Year! It would Make sense to procure a min. of 3 per year to 2024.

Simon m

My thoughts are that 138 is slightly too big a purchase for b only and not enough for b and a. I would hope if a war happens with reserve call up etc we would want to field both carriers and my understanding in surge conditions the air group could easily rise above 50 plus aircraft for each carrier in that case I would think that 120 aircraft could be enough looking at about 48 f35 per carrier and a reserve ( we could most likely tap in to USMC reserve if needed) If significant savings are made by a… Read more »

captain P Wash.

My Head hurts already.


The way I see it, money has to be saved, end of. As Daniel keeps reiterating, the plan is not to have both carriers fully active and loaded out al the time. One carrier will regularly be unavailable. When they are both active, we could have one carrier with 3 squadrons (36) and the other will be more for amphibious support and only carry 1 squadron (12) and a strong contingent of helos. We will then need a training squadron (12), and some spares to cover maintenance (say 20?). That brings us to a total of 72 F35b as the… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

T.S I think you’ve made my point much better than me!

And I agree longer term I’d like the FAA to operate it’s own B jets if the RAF ends up with A.

Joint leaves too much inter service rivalries.

Mark Wallace

Definitely a sensible option.
Also having F35A gives RAF better strike range options where we do not use the Carrier’s eg Europe and Middle East.
The commonality between them means F35A allow RAF pilots better transition and cost effective when coming from normal fast jets.
It would also allows RAF to carry JSM/NSM internally.

Meiron X

Mark# : I have read, there is Only 25% commonality between the versions, just like a different type of aircraft! Also are you aware, No plans to integrate Storm Shadow for use with F-35A or B.


I think 7/8 squadrons of 12 F35b and two large squadrons of 16 F35a for the RAF.
Need a proper Tornado replacement, the F35b just doesn’t cut it with range/load out

Mike Saul

The carrier’s will only ever operate as part of US led task force in a hot war situation. The UK simply doesn’t have the warships to support an independent carrier task force on a permanent basis.

Given that, we don’t need 138 B variant models to equip two carriers.

60 B and 78 A would be the best solution given the enhanced warfighting capability of the A model.

There isn’t sufficient financial resources for the UK to have independent global military force as some would like.


While we debate whether we will have enough F35Bs for the carriers it is interesting to note that the US Navy is planning to purchase ‘just’ 260 F35Cs. Even when/if all are operational that is nowhere near enough to equip all of their carriers. It seems the F18 will be around for some time yet.

Glass Half Full

You should also add 80 USMC F35C to that number because they will also fly off the carriers. But while QEC and the US super carriers can carry about 70 aircraft it seems unlikely that anyone will want to submit stealth coatings to extended exposure on deck, especially in peacetime, so I imagine they will have dibs on hanger space. Its also true of course that F35 fifth gen aircraft will be hugely more capable than F18 so even the US will likely sail with significantly fewer aircraft than they have done historically.

Meirion X

Rob# The USN uses it’s carrier based F-18’s mainly for combat air patrols over the airspace of vast areas of ocean far away from mainland USA, it is more similar to how the UK uses it’s Typhoon force to patrol mainland and North Sea airspace. It is more of a deterrent.


If they sell Pow then they won’t need so many carrier variant and Rafael will get what they want.


Despite the valid points above, the A variant is able to carry more weapons due to the absence of the lift fan. I would have thought the best option is to buy at least another 30 B variants on top of the proposed 48 in order to bolster the carriers during war time but the rest be of the A variant because it has a greater capability for the RAF

Steve R

As many have said here, the problem with a split buy, if we only purchase the 138 airframes, is that it reduces to total amount of frontline planes. Say an even split between A and B. That gives us 69 airframes each for A and B type. That would mean 3 squadrons totalling 36 planes, 1 OCU squadron of 12 planes. That totals 48, giving 21 spare airframes. Duplicate that to accoint for both types and you get 6 frontline squadrons totalling 72 F35s. That would be fine if not for the fact that there is then no surge capacity… Read more »

Trevor Holcroft

How realistic is this “surge” idea thing? 70 planes plus helps? We are not even ready for 12 yet. And who are we intended to surge into? Russia is on its knees militarily and economically. It needs a surge in manpower.

And how soon will any surge run out of missiles?
It seems extremely unlikely that we would evet carry more than 48 on these ships. It’s the mechanics ground crew etc that do the surging in reality. In a warm war an action on terrorists we can use 24 and we are currently zapping the insurgents from Cyprus.

Daniele Mandelli

“And who are we intended to surge into?”

Anything we need to. Which is the whole point of having a military to do that should HM deem it necessary.

24 yes is fine on the ship.

But where are the 24 to replace them? And provide spares? And training? And depth reserves?

Trevor Holcroft

And France Italy Germany India Japan?? What surges are they planning. We are not USA or the USN. We cannot “surge”. Neither can Russia nor can China. Stop pretending. We have 2 carriers … it’s massively likely that we will have 1 on station at a time except for propaganda “surges”. We have one possible likely naval potential real enemy… Argentina. And they are a bucket of spanners. The likely number of actual regular F35Bs on board will be 12. In any serious action alongside treaty partners we would put up 36. This would be in support of some middle… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

“We are not USA or the USN. We cannot “surge”. Neither can Russia nor can China.” I meant surge extra aircraft over the peacetime 12. “Stop pretending.” Pretending. Pretending WHAT ? I’m quite serious. You seem to be getting confused with the term “surge” which to most will mean allowing the QE to go to a war footing with extra aircraft. Any country has armed forces to be able to go to war if war comes. “We have 2 carriers … it’s massively likely that we will have 1 on station at a time except for propaganda “surges”.” I did… Read more »


Italy has put its order for F35B on hold and now may only order 12 F35A and they where only going to order 8 F35B .

The F35B is a total dog , the USMC is totally dissatisfied with it but to much political capital has been invested in it to cancel the project.
And Israel F35A where detected by the Syrian air defence.

Meirion X

Stave R# You are Right that the overall number of F-35’s would need to be increased to make a split buy worthwhile. But the big question is, what would the RAF need 90 F-35A’s for? They would need to be forward deployed in the Baltic States, if the plan is to use some of them as a deterrent against Russia. The same applies in the Far East, to forward deploy F-35A’s against China. Also I am aware, the RAF does not plan to arm the F-35A with Storm Shadow, so the F-35A is Not a true replacement of the Tornado!

Steve R

I was just basing that on an even split to be honest, seeing the minimum amount the FAA would need and just replicating that for the RAF.

90 airframes would easily cover 4 frontline squadrons, a 12-plane OCU plus spares. Could be reduced to 3 frontline for RAF squadrons, 60-70 total F35A airframes.

Typhoon is capable of carrying Storm Shadow though. Is it just 2? I know Tornado can carry 4 if they don’t have drop tanks.

Paul T

Tom – can I add that in Italy’s case they are trying to balance a volatile economic situation with their spending requirements,a political system which produces a new government in some cases on a yearly basis,its not surprising that their overall F35 buy might be subject to change.In the case of Israel it might never be known if their F35A Aircraft have been detected over Syria,i don’t think anyone who knows anything about Stealth Capabilities would pretend that the F35 is Invisible.The picture is also confused by the fact that they have local agreements with the Deployed Russian Air Defence… Read more »

stephen hunt

Perhaps if they did decide to have two types of f35 then the they would only need one aircraft carrier and they could mothball the prince of wales or sell her off to the french or german navies as they are looking at a joint carrier set up ,after all governments of this country only look at the short term and waste millions of pounds in doing so

Harry Bulpit

Firstly we need to get rid of the idea of 138. Unlike most countries e.g Japan we haven’t ordered 138 straight up, but it wjat we hope to purchase over its life span. Secondly a lot have forgotten that the actual plan was to buy both A and B variants to replace tornado and harrier. But of course everyones forgoten this. At the end of the day its all a lack of money and back bone from the government. The carriers have been a waste of money and continue to do so unless there properly funded. Including crew, additional escorts… Read more »

Trevor Holcroft

This seems true. The later ones will have different, better, capability and they will be being built for donkeys years. If the Tempest develops then that might eat into the eventual numbers of F35s proposed.

It’s the Russians who have all the phantom tank planes and ships they keep pretending they have. And do the Chinese really have the jet engines and various radars they pretend?

Harry Bulpit

F35 will be a great asset and a major step up. But no matter how good a piece of kit is be it a tank, jet or ship it will never be able to be in two places at once. And thats the issue.

Trevor Holcroft

Of course. But my pound coin can only be in one place at a time, my pocket or the till. We can afford what we can.
We are doing better than most. It will be some time before we finally buy these planes and ultimately we use these planes to defend Britain. So the possibility of using A’s seems a practical issue to think about.

David Steeper

The answer is obvious. If the RAF don’t want the F35B the FAA can provide 48 operational aircraft with 96 or so F35B’s. This is a family website so I wont offer my opinion on what the RAF can do !


USA operates at least two types of the FA18 and the French operate two types of Raphale both states have done it extremely successfully that’s not the issue. If there is a split order you might regard it as a sign that the government wants to off load the second carrier.


I think 48 will be the limit for F35b. Remember PoW is being configured for RM Aviation so will only get, max 12 for self defence. Leaving 36 for QE. In a surge situation. 138 is over entire program, so again 48 “A” for RAF. Everything else will be joint with USMC only good point. Independent FAA.

Meiron X

The minimum fighter squadron size on the old Ark Royal for self defence was 18 Phantoms, plus a Buccaneer squadron for strike, attack.

Meiron X

US Navy F-18 squadrons are usely around 18 in size deployed, to take account of aircraft in maintenance.
If RAF/FAA deploy F-35b squadrons with only 12 aircraft, maybe only 8-10 are available instantly?
The RAF only need squadrons of 12 because of easy access to spare airframes in storage.
So FAA deployments of a squadron at sea need to be larger then 12, to take account of Not so easy access to spare airframes at sea.


Even in conflict, I doubt you would put more than 30 F-35B on each carrier. Even that is beyond the hangar capacity. So 60 F-35B suited & booted for war. Allowing for spares, early models, training, trials, I cannot see the UK needing more than 88 F-35B.
So the RAF, could have 50 F35A, without harming QE/PoW.

Glass Half Full

The QEC can actually carry up to 70 aircraft (not all F35B of course). It was stated in an interview with, at the time, Commodore Jerry Kyd back in 2017. This shouldn’t be surprising as the QEC deck is about the same size as the Nimitz and Ford carriers and the planes can be be packed very tightly, just as the US Navy does on their carriers, even without folding wing capability. A bonus is that high deck packing of aircraft on QEC is arguably lower risk than CATOBAR carriers because even SRVL is a much safer and more benign… Read more »

Left hand down a bit

I dream of an independent FAA since the loss of the Shar to keep the shiney Typhoon purchase. The F35b is a true multi-roll aircraft, land anywhere do everything but if it keeps the light blues happy let them have 60 “A” and the FAA 60 “B” with the remaining 18 of the purchase being split for a joint training unit. ( Or you could give them to the AAC just to put the cat amongst the pigeons )


My feeling is we need to buy enough to full the carrier’s, now that we have them and a split buy will only result in a excuse for a reduction in overall numbers or a further delayed buy rate. Russia isn’t the risk in my view. The cold war didn’t go hot and no reason that this version will. China isn’t also, as we have no way to contain them, our tiny armed forces wouldn’t have a chance and I doubt even the US would risk it. My feeling looking around the world, is that Saudi and similar countries are… Read more »


If you want 36 for war surge then look no further than a total buy of 40-42 non-orange-wired or early “lot” evaluation airframes.

1982: Falklands. 28 of 31 Sea Harriers saw action. 20 went south on 5th April with 8 more arriving 43 days later on 18th May (multiply by 1.3 to get 36 in theatre eventually).

However, I believe we need to SUSTAIN an air-defence AND strike squadron on ship which means an absolute minimum of 48 non-orange-wired or evalulation lots. This means 54 at the moment (after we’ve added another to the OEU).


At least 60 F35Bs, as we had in the squandered Harrier II fleet. I’d like to see a Harrier III as a cheaper platform to give more flexability, though not just a supersonic version that was pulled before. We need enough Bs to fully equip 1 carrier at surge levels plus enough to both equip the 2nd plus enough in reserve to replace early losses in any conflict.

Simon m

To say the RAF don’t want the b is false as it is like saying that the original requirement for the harrier did not exist. Aircraft not so reliant on airfields and that can be based closer to the frontline are a force multiplier. What the RAF don’t want is stealth cuts by having their aircraft and personnel on the carriers as they’re effectively becoming part of the fleet air arm. I believe it is a dangerous game as the joint force is here to stay and the raf tactic to push for a split buy will effectively kill tempest.… Read more »

Rob N

We should buy all F35B for the simple fact it gives the maximum flexibility. It also saves money just running one type. The F35A is not much better then the F35 and the RAF now have the Typhoon that can also do ground attack. The FAA can only use one model.

A split buy would only favour the RAF an unified buy would favour the UK.

Steve R

Fully agree. I would only favour a split buy if defence suddenly got a significant budget boost and we were looking to increase F35 numbers that would mean A-variants are additional and not eating into B models.


A split buy in numbers of 138 F35As and 72 F35Bs, with a definite split of ownership with the former going to the RAF and the latter to RN would preserve the availability of RAF airframes for their core role while providing certainty to naval aviation for a generation. 138 F35As would represent a like-for-like replacement for the Tornado force, with 72 F35Bs constituting the same for the Sea Harrier fleet, except that both legacy types would be exhanged for what is billed as the most technologically advanced aircraft in the world, and despite the well reported issues with the… Read more »

Simon Lloyd-Williams

We need the F35Bs to face off the real threat, Russian aggression against the Baltic states, Poland and Romania. Not chasing around the globe on second tier, compromise designed, aircraft carriers. If the RN really needs to confront the Chinese, then keep building Astutes. They are the only boats that will give us a credible chance of victory against them.

Meiron X

We Need both submarines and fighter aircraft to face off Russian, Chinese and Iranian aggression.
An aircraft carrier is a moving Airbase.

The USN uses it’s carrier based F-18’s mainly for combat air patrols over the airspace of vast areas of ocean far away from mainland USA, it is more similar to how the UK uses it’s Typhoon force to patrol mainland and North Sea airspace. Which is more of a use of as deterrent, 24/7 days of all weeks of a year.


OK I’m in for some trouble here, but I’ll try anyway. Does it make sense to split the F35 purchasing into two types, if it saves money and both carriers can get a full complement of aircraft, then yes. However, the F35 B should have the priority initial purchases and be capped at 84, 72 for the carriers and 12 for refit and training. Seeing that there would be only one carrier group operational at one time unless there is a critical situation then from the 72 aircraft 36 would be on the carrier with the other 36 in the… Read more »

Hilary Przystupa

And if they take time to load? – I don’t suppose they have any cannon? Anywhere? An old ww2 plane would’ve come in handy for the woman pilot they sent up to intercept the 911 liner she had to consider ramming. No time to load missiles ^ ^) just saying.


Lots of very good arguments but my understanding is that the lifetime buy of F35 will be 138 and therefore will be phased over a long time. Planning is for 4 frontline squadrons and OCU of 12 each plus 3 orange wired for T&E. That’s 63 total and the planned maximum number of frontline jets to undertake ALL tasking save an all out war where they would chuck the kitchen sink in. So a split buy on these numbers is just not feasible, or NUTS as the first person so eleqently put it.


The way I see it there is a simple and fair solution to this;

– The Royal Navy get 90 F35B; 36 for each carrier, for total of 72, with the extra 18 accounting for an OCU, maintenance etc. A squadron of USMC F35B on each carrier in addition could mean each QE Class could have 48 aircraft – the sweet spot.

– The RAF gets the last 48 F35s in the A form as somewhat of a replacement for the Tornado.

I’m not an expert but I don’t see how this wouldn’t be a fair and realistic compromise?