The UK has signed up for a further six F-35B Lightning aircraft, in addition to the four already contracted last year. The UK is expected to order 48 as part of a first batch.
The six new F-35Bs form part of the Lot 9 production contract. The UK had ordered its first four operational aircraft as part of the Lot 8 production contract announced in November last year. Industry expects the UK will acquire around 90 of the type.
Although the UK’s planning assumption remains at 138 aircraft, the government is set to announce its requirement in the Strategic Defence and Security Review planned for later this month, it has been rumoured that 48 will be the first batch with numbers increasing in following SDSR’s.
The F-35B will be flown as a common fleet along the lines of the now deactivated Joint Force Harrier. The first squadron will stand up in 2016 in the US and will be 617 squadron who will then transfer to RAF Marham in the UK in 2018.
The F-35 programme is often labelled a “trillion-dollar black hole”, the man in charge of the project vehemently disagrees and lays to rest any fears over rising costs.
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the head of the F-35 joint program office, hosted a press event with reporters in defence of the programme, citing constant drops in the cost of the jet.
“It is a fact this program is over budget from 2001’s baseline. It’s just true. We will never underrun that number. We will never save that money. It’s gone. What matters is since that time, what’s happened to the cost on the program? It’s gone down, not gone up. Judge the program today, not where it’s been, but where it is and where it’s going.”
Bogdan also pointed out that this year’s selected acquisition report (SAR) noted reducing procurement costs, down by $3 billion. The report can be found here if you wish to verify this information.
The average cost-per-unit in low-rate initial production lots six, seven and eight, the last three lots on contract, have fallen. The below figures also include engines and adjust for inflation.
- F-35A conventional takeoff and landing model: $117 million, $112 million, $108 million.
- F-35B “jump-jet” model: $145 million, $137 million, $134 million.
- F-35C carrier variant: $134 million, $130 million, $129 million.
The F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) commented:
“Affordability is the number one priority for the F-35 program and this year’s report reflects another year with significant cost reductions and we’re not stopping there. We will continue to drive costs out of the program. The F-35 Joint Program Office has a disciplined approach to analyzing and reducing sustainment costs. Ongoing activities include conducting a sustainment business case analysis and operating a cost war room to find program savings and attack operational, sustainment and total ownership costs.
F-35 unit recurring flyaway costs have been going down with each successive lot of aircraft. Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney have track records for delivering the airframe and engine below government SAR estimates and we expect this trend to continue in the future.”
The Ministry of Defence have clarified the details surrounding the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and their complement of F-35B aircraft, no doubt in response to the plethora of claims that the vessels will sail with “no aircraft”, “no crew”, no sandwiches in the galley etc.
The following is a direct quote from the MoD that explains the timetable for the UK’s carrier and F-35 projects and can be found here.
There has been speculation in the media that there has been a change in the delivery programme for the F-35B that may result in delays to the roll out of the UK’s Carrier Strike capability – and that, in an operational emergency, US jets may fly from the Carriers until the UK F-35 fleet is ready.
- This is not the case. It was always the intention to take a phased approach to ordering F35.
- We are fully committed to both the F35 and the Queen Elizabeth Carrier programmes -both of which are on track to enter initial maritime operating capability in December 2020 as planned.
- We expect Queen Elizabeth carrier to commence sea trials in 2017, and have been clear that UK F35 aircraft will be used for first of class flying trials in 2018.
- Our relationship with the US is mutually beneficial and we share a sense of common purpose. In 2012 we signed an agreement to enhance cooperation on carrier operations. Indeed, UK pilots have already flown from US ships in preparation for UK carrier operations.
Tabloids often like to quote 12 as the maximum number of F-35B’s the carrier will be able to carry, however this, as you probably know, is nonsense. The carriers, in peacetime, will usually deploy with 12 F-35B’s as a minimum and a number of various helicopters. To reduce costs and free aircraft for other commitments, the maximum aircraft complement will not usually be carried in peacetime, it instead will be supplied as required or deployed to the vessels in the event of a crisis. Rather than funding a large and permanent Carrier Air Group, the relatively new concept of a Tailored Air Group rather than fixed Carrier Air Group will be adopted for the Queen Elizabeth class with the exact types and numbers of aircraft embarked being adjusted to meet current requirements and threats. I don’t see there being much call for 36 F-35B’s if delivering humanitarian aid, do you?
The Queen Elizabeth class mark a change from expressing carrier power in terms of number of aircraft carried, to the number of sortie’s that can be generated from the deck. The class are not the largest class of carrier in the world but they are most likely the smallest and least expensive carrier the Royal Navy could build which still have the advantages that large carriers offer.
Crew move aboard the supercarrier in May 2016, sea trials begin in August 2016 and the vessel moves to Portsmouth in 2017.