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

Related Stories

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

On board with the US air crews fighting Islamic State

During four days on board the US carrier taking part in the fight against Islamic State, progress appears to be slow and steady.

Read full article

More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • Comment number 43.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    The cost of this is a drop in the ocean compared to the contract terms agreed by the last government on almost every military contract they made.

    Every decision was based around jobs in a certain MPs constituency.

    They have and will continue to cost us a fortune.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers went on strike yesterday over pensions. This coalition government wants to take away what we deserve and what we were promised but yet they will waste £100M over this kind of thing which was nothing more than "Labour picked those planes so I want something different". This current government of young toffs is a disgrace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    #38 A Harrier could operate from a carpark. In fact one of the last exercises I did with the army was to convert an abandoned German supermarket into a harrier base (we drove a bulldozer through one wall). Both us and the US have plenty of perforated steel planking to make landing pads so even if melting asphalt from the F35 exhaust is a problem we already have the solution in stock.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    It would have been better to refit the old carriers and upgrade the harriers. After all, the Americans bought our harriers to keep theirs in the air until 2030 now. So they think the harrier is still a valid jet.
    Politician meddling in military decisions is always bad news, but despite countless examples, nobody learns.
    Anyway, I wonder if you can hire an aircraft carrier...and jets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Have tests been carried out to asses the F35b's ability to operate from a car park; as some postwrs claim? With the hot blast from it's aft nozzle thw car park may well meed some Concrete slabs or aluminum planking on it before the big bird lands.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    #35 I'd like to see you intercept a Soviet TU-95 Bear off the East coast of England (because Putin still sends them into our airspace weekly) in a spitfire. By your logic we should only pay firefighters when they're actually putting fires out. It takes 3 years to train a pilot & I doubt if (say Argentina) will give us 3 years notice for Falklands II

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    To continue building weapons like F-35, meant to protect us against potential enemies like the Chinese, would mean basically borrowing from lenders such as . . . well, the Chinese.
    I'd like to close with a quote from David Cameron: "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."

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    It's about time we scrapped the RAF, what do these guys actually do on a day to day basis when there are no wars on, it's a waste of tax payers money funding these new planes that we don't actually need, if a Spitfire could do it's job in WWII then it can still do a job today, it aint broke it don't need fixing

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    #32 The biggest reason for these overspends are politicians meddling with the specs. Take our successive governments: if they'd just stuck to the initial carrier design with the initial requirement for VSTOL aircraft rather than flip-flopping about with what they want they'd have saved at least a billion pounds already.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Analyst Winslow Wheeler calls the F-35 "the jet that ate the Pentagon", Total life-cycle cost of its funds to operate/support the jet, could total $1.5 trillion or more (annual GDP of Spain). F-35 is an unaffordable boondoggle because defense officials, abetted by members of Congress, insisted that the plane was perfect toy. And then, US sold some toys to Britain & Canada.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, (Pentagon's biggest procurement program), is perfect example of wanton spending US & rest of the world can't afford. Built by Lockheed Martin in early 1990s, it was "the" stealthy jet for Air Force, Navy & Marine Corps. First plan: 2001 = 2,866, cost $233B. New plan = 2,457 jets, cost has risen to $397B. Oops, cost/aircraft has doubled,,,inflation not included.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    #30 Continued. Remember there were two Harriers: The Royal Navy's FR2 'Sea Harrier' (primarily designed to protect the fleet from air attack) was retired in 2006. The coallition got rid of the GR7 & GR9 RAF ground attack versions in 2010. Because in recent years both were painted the same colour & both operated from carriers people seem to have forgotten that not all harriers are the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    #27 The harrier was designed for the RAF initially to operate in WW3 Germany. It was anticipated that the Soviets would destroy all NATO airfields in 24 hrs so a plane with a limited warload and range that could operate from a carpark or wood was sensible (at the time the Navy still had big carriers with Buccaneers & Phantoms) With no threat to airfields Harrier loses it big advantage to the RAF.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    This is not about party politics but generations of incompetence at the MoD. TSR2? Some of us remember Blue Streak! That and a desire to play wargames with the big boys - whose defence budget has ruined the worlds largest economy to defend it's borders against the threat of...er well... Mexico.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    This whole thing stinks, CVF was designed "for but not with" cats and traps, however the builders are now saying it's going to cost £2b to fit cats and traps to a ship that itself costs £2b. Maybe we should get a quote from newport news for fitting cats & traps since they can build a full CVN for £8b, Hell maybe we should just buy one of those.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    It is obvious why the RAF wanted to drop the Harrier, it takes off easily from ships, ie it's navy. Mere inter-service rivalry that the government stupidly listened to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    As soon as this government got in they started deficit reduction plans at a time when we had posistive strong growth. Now we have a double-dip recession.

    The government said Labour's decisions were wrong and chose a different aircraft. Now they reliase why Labour chose it.

    They seem to think they're still in opposition and can just criticise what Labour did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    22.U14761436 - "Why did coalition government change fighter plane plan? Is it a financial hangover left us by the previous government? Who were they again?"

    It was too expensive to have cats & traps before the global financial meltdown, even more so since.....hence why the cats & traps option was never more than a wishlist item from the Navy & not taken forward by the previous Govt......

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Perhaps they should just give up and formalise what is quite apparently the basic truth of our defense by combing the two jobs of Minister of Defense and CEO of BAE.


Page 4 of 6



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.