Why did coalition government change fighter plane plan?

 
The US Marine Corps version of Lockheed Martin's F35 Joint Strike Fighter The cost of the U-turn is likely to be about £100m

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The kindest way of describing the government's U-turn over its new F35 fighter fleet is to point out that it should never have rushed to decide on the subject back in its Strategic Defence and Security Review or SDSR of October 2010.

Today a defence source conceded, "it's taken 18 months to figure out all of the detail".

Several factors have combined to today's decision to buy a short take-off and vertical landing version of the plane (the F-35B) rather than the more capable F-35C variant that would have required catapults to hurl it skywards.

The cost of launching and catching the latter type is now estimated at £2bn for the Prince of Wales, and an additional £3bn if the Royal Navy wanted to adapt the first ship of this type, the Queen Elizabeth for this type of operation.

In the current public spending climate, it's hardly surprising that the government has ducked the decision to spend £5bn to gain this capability.

Instead, it will use the F35B, which will use a ski jump type take off ramp much like the now retired Harrier, and the first operational carrier will be available, says the MoD, in 2018 rather than 2025.

So if the decision to use the short take off version of the jet makes sense, why on earth did the incoming coalition government decide to change the plan?

'Wrong way'

David Cameron, in launching the SDSR, said that switching to the F-35C had to happen because, "there is only one thing worse than spending money you don't have and that is buying the wrong things with it and doing so in the wrong way."

Many people said at the time of the SDSR that it was a rushed exercise. Certainly it is now clear that the work done on the cost implications of retiring the Harrier force and replacing it (after a gap of many years) with F-35C was quite inadequate.

Speaking privately to those who were party to some of the decision making, one hears less kind explanations of what has happened. One senior naval figure calls it, "a hopeless shambles".

The key axis in the government's mistake of October 2010 appears to have been that between Downing Street and the RAF.

Liam Fox, the defence secretary at the time, had ordered that his review should retire one major type of combat aircraft in order to save money. Fairly soon the choice narrowed to one between the Harrier and Tornado.

Senior RAF officers saw the possible disappearance of the Tornado, which is the last vestige of the service's wartime Bomber Command, as a threat to the future existence of their service.

They argued strongly for the Harrier to get the chop instead, and succeeded creating the carrier gap, since no replacement could be ready quickly.

'Grown up carrier'

Downing Street, it seems, wanted some positive headlines out of the SDSR, which was largely an exercise in cutbacks, so it decided to back the idea of Britain getting a "grown up" aircraft carrier, ie one launching conventional aircraft with catapults rather than a very large replacement "Harrier Carrier". It therefore stressed the ineffectiveness of the F-35C.

The die was cast. Although the government never quite specified what would happen to the Queen Elizabeth if the Prince of Wales was fitted with highly expensive "cats and traps" for the more capable fighter, there was a strong presumption that it would be mothballed or sold, leaving the country with one carrier, able to provide cover around 60% of the time.

Now Britain has decided that "grown up" is unaffordable, senior naval officers hope that it will at least mean both ships are put into service, allowing the country to have one of these ships available at all times (in case, for example the other is in refit).

But today the government has not given any commitment to deploy both vessels, and it seems quite likely that the nation's huge investment in ships and planes will produce a one carrier "force" with a less capable jet.

 
Mark Urban, Diplomatic and defence editor, Newsnight Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 23.

    15.Beat The Clock
    The reason you cannot use steam is that modern ships engines do not produce it in the amounts required to run a steam cat. Only the nuclear carriers have this option.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 22.

    .

    Why did coalition government change fighter plane plan?

    Is it a financial hangover left us by the previous government?

    Who were they again?

    .

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 21.

    For those of us who have experience of taking over the management of troubled business & other projects (even if on a reduced scale to major MOD procurement) - the problem is familiar ie. of having to assimilate a lot of complex information quickly - sometimes from difficult & unpaid 3rd parties - problem for someone in Hammond's position is that so much appears toxic that it is difficult to trust

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 20.

    The catapult option would allow the Navy to buy cheap Hornet aircraft instead, tried and tested and used the world over and available now.
    As to the cost of these carriers, they are estimating 1.8Billion to modify one carrier to Catapult yet the cost of the (currently being built) USS Gerald Ford is 5.5Billion for a carrier using the same Catapult, twice as big and nuclear powered.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 19.

    We plan our entire Navy around one single aircraft – the F35B. It will be used by the UK and the US Marines only and will therefore be very expensive and probably full of technical issues due to its design. If it doesn't work the Navy will have a floating football pitch.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 18.

    We actually need the VSTOL F35's more than the damn carriers. They might be slightly less capable than the cat & trap version but you can fly a VSTOL from a freighter (the atlantic conveyor carried the RAF's harriers in '82 and was converted to a carrier in 2 weeks) Equally you can fly the VSTOL off the ship and operate them from carparks if you have too. Much more versatile.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 17.

    So, the to keep the RAF happy we have got rid of through-deck cruisers and aircraft so that we can replace them with a larger version of what we already had but it is called an aircraft carrier. It will carry aicraft that have less range, carry less weapons less efficiently and don't have the capability to launch conventional carriier aircraft. Fleet Air Arm of old must wonder what has happened.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 16.

    The conservative government over many years has had a leaning towards American military companies despite oposision as to price and servicability I would like to know why .Remember t s r 2

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 15.

    Liam Fox didn't know what he was doing when he killed the Harrier, the coalition doesn't know what its doing now. Catapult systems costing BILLIONS? Why not install tried and tested steam catapults? They surely do the same job?

    It's been a shambles for the last 2 years.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 14.

    Re: 12. oldpip
    .
    The simple answer in a word, No.
    .
    The reasons why are slightly more complex.
    Firstly, we put them in charge, and secondly, they wouldn't like a dose of their own medicine.
    .
    If we keep electing those with the loudest voices, the biggest mouths, and the largest egos who once elected, ignore us, discard intelligence, logic and adandon common sense, who needs their heads examining?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 13.

    As tempting as it is to blame Labour for allowing all these change/cancellation clauses into the inital contracts, unless I am mistaken the arms industry the world over inerts these clauses left, right & centre.......it seems par for the course with the milliray/industrial complex though I'd be delighted to hear any evidence to the contrary & hope I am just being paranoid?

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 12.

    If waterboarding is not torture, can we not use it on our politicians to elicit accurate and honest answers to simple questions?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 11.

    OK, what's the big SECRET?
    We have long had nuclear powered subs roaming the globe, our governments, rightly or wrongly declared their intent to continue building nuclear power generating stations, so why were the carriers not designed to be nuclear powered, if they consider it safe?
    .
    Remember how cheap and clean they told us it was going to be all those years ago!

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 10.

    What came first, the knowledge that to cancel the carriers would cost more in cancellation cost than too build them or to build them and have a aircraft the RAF wanted. Labour really stitched the system up didnt they.
    Talk about hands behind ones back.....Mark is there is a way to charge the last admintration with total in compentence

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 9.

    Have you seen the state of this nation?
    .
    We are in a real mess, it's a nightmare for many.
    .
    Have we abandoned the youth of today to the scrapheap?
    .
    Why are real jobs for British people not being created instead of chucking our money about abroad.
    .
    Remember the Harrier!
    .
    We could have been building it's replacement, we have the know-how & the expertise, creating jobs here for our own benefit.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 8.

    Why? We can't afford the better option & the Govt made a monumental error in the first instance not recognising Labour did actually make the right decision in the first place.......

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 7.

    Why don't we draw in our horns, stick our tail between our legs & turn turtle?
    .
    We might as well in this economic climate, our idiotic decision makers just continually pour our money down the drain in one way or another. One of the largest & fastest routes for money disposal/dispersal is via MoD with an almost endless supply of "mistakes." Another example is Voyager which includes the PFI element

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 6.

    The F35B variant was the better choice as a more direct replacement for the now disbanded Harrier sqns. As a weapons platform the C variant did not have the versatility of the VSTOL F35B and retrofitting catapults etc to the FCV would have made it more expensive in balance than changing the aircraft type. It actually looks like financial and strategic sense.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 5.

    Another major blunder by this failing and incompetent government.

    I would like to see an investigation into who funds the Tory Party to establish if the companies involved in these contracts are influencing our government with generous financial gifts !

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 4.

    This is not a 'U-Turn' - it is a reconsideration of a decision - which EVERYONE does every day. Trying to turn this matter into a Politcal matter is sheer, infantile nonsense.
    'U-Turn' - A silly often-used word of Labour & their Dogmatic Media.

    Get real...

 

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