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

    Comment number 103.

    Shambles, chaos, incompetence.

    This is what happens when you have clueless idiotic here today gone tomorrow politicians making decisions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    The Best plane was the Spitfire it done the job. So we will have a Air craft carrier but no Harrier to go with it. With all these Modern Weapons why do we still have Foot Soldiers. I thought you could see the enemy miles away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    #100. M134 Minigun

    Peter. Interesting comments, maybe its worth checking this out for some background info. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYNbaYL-puQ


    Wow..good point home dog

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Peter. Interesting comments, maybe its worth checking this out for some background info. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYNbaYL-puQ

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    The SDSR may have been rushed, but the outcome was correct.

    We're now going to get two carriers with no aircraft, as the B isn't in ready yet OR fully costed. Both carriers will also require modifications to handle the B's exhaust, at extra cost.

    We're also now tied into the B, where with cats we could also have bought cheaper Rafales or Hornets. The B's upkeep is will be a horrific price.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    The answer to the question is."Sods Law"..Aka UK Politics.Since when did a Left Wing Politician give any credit to a Right Wing Politician?
    Since when,did a Right Wing Politician give any credit to a Left Wing Politician?
    Am sure there are some very intelligent Politicians.
    Why do they not work together,to benefit everyone?
    Or,is that not part of their Job Descriiption?

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    What i don't understand is why we're buying american planes, and helping there economy along when ours is in such a bad state. If we need these planes, fair enough. Lets use them as a stop gap until we can develop our own. Surley it makes more economic and military sense to have (at least most parts) planes made in our country. Mistake in the short and long term.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    94. anotherfakename

    It is the percentage of initial investment as to the amount of work that is apportioned. Remember that we will buy x amount of aircraft but will supply the entire amount of parts for the aircraft sold worldwide. BAE systems also own many of the companies in the USA that supply parts for this aircraft. As a total manufacturing base that went 30 years ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    I just read this comment: Defence Secretary Hammond announced change in choice of fighter aircraft for Royal Navy's new aircraft carriers was part of "affordable equipment program". Hammond said costs of fitting catapults & arrester gear doubled in 18 months to @ £2B. Hammond: ‘When the facts change, the responsible thing to do is to change your mind..."
    Where was oversight during this 18 mos?

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    So the main bulk of the fusalage, the engines, electronics, computers, seat, radar, engine, assembly etc. etc. will be AMERICAN jobs paid for by BRITISH tax payers.
    Get it into your heads that buying foreign cars, lorries, aircraft, uniforms etc etc creates FOREIGN jobs and unemployment in the UK. This might 'save money' on the car... but COSTS MUCH MORE in unemployment for EVER

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    91. anotherfakename

    It is a joint venture between a number of countries and UK being one of them, the UK taxpayer & BAE systems have already invested £millions into it. It will provide British jobs, that's the whole point of joint ventures - we will make the aft fuselage as well as vertical and horizontal tails and fins for the aircraft, the design is American and assembly will be in the USA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    @89, I agree, we pay 'top people' far more than they are worth already. They are nothing but blundering over paid idiots - to a man (and woman) we can see this by the mess they have made of everything from buying foreign planes to wrecking British industry to the bail outs of the banks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Still the wrong turning.... its a British aircraft carrier and should carry BRITISH aircraft. If we ever needed to go to war (and whats the ship for if its not for that) then we NEED to be able to build our own aircraft and aircraft carriers, if we can't we have lost before we start! Besides which, buying British creates British jobs which are desparately needed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Maybe we should just bring back the Blackburn Buccaneers, like we did in 1969.


    We would save a fortune and re-start the British aerospace industry

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    These people don't live in the real world so they have no idea how stupid they look

    Lord Browne: Civil service pay curbs hold back 'talent'

    Roll on the Independence vote and a golden opportunity to dump at least one level of useless moronic government fools

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Edit 87. £12m in pocket!

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    According to reports harriers were sold to US for £112m (Thats after a £600m refit. Discounting the refit costs the MOD is only £12m out of pocket.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    This U turn has cost £100 million

    with the state of the economy and all the cuts, it just makes you want to weep

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Firstly the whole episode reeks of corruption, particularly form BAE and RAF. RAF wants to get rid of the carriers because it threatens the future of the service!!

    Only way to rectify the project....
    Cancel F-35... it is too expensive, and as it turns out less capable that say F-18 (which is far cheaper).
    By fitting cats and traps we can then use Airborne Early Warning aircraft (crucial)

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    The comments regarding the "input" of the R.A.F. Are interesting - this is now the third time in less than a century the navy has been scuppered by the air marshals, 1930s equipment freeze, 1960s cancellation of CVA 01,then the scrapping of the Harriers. Ark Royal and continued interference with the C.V.Fs!


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