Government in £100m U-turn over F35-B fighter planes


Defence Secretary Philip Hammond: "The responsible thing to do is be willing to change your mind"

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The government has changed its mind over the type of fighter planes it is ordering for the Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the F35-C had hit development problems and it would be cheaper in the long term to order F35-B jump jets, as originally planned by Labour.

The cost of the U-turn is likely to be about £100m, he told BBC News.

Labour said it was an "omnishambles" which risked "international ridicule".

Mr Hammond said delays to the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter programme, a multinational venture led by American company Lockheed Martin, meant they would have not been operational until 2023 - three years later than planned.

"When the facts change, the responsible thing to do is to examine the decision made and be willing to change, however inconvenient that may be," said Mr Hammond.

'Facts have changed'

As part of its SDSR defence spending review in 2010, the government decided to "mothball" one of the two aircraft carriers, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth, ordered by Labour.

Why did costs escalate?

  • The F-35C was seen as an attractive option for the UK's non-nuclear carriers as it does not need steam from reactors to power its launch catapult or "cat"
  • Its Electromagnetic Arrestor Launch System (EMALS) works on land but there were problems with its arrestor gear in testing
  • The F-35C can fail to catch the wire or "trap" on landing due to the design of its hook
  • The US is paying for modifications
  • But any delays to new American carriers meant the UK could have been the first country to install EMALS on a ship
  • The expected technical problems led in part to the costs of fitting "cats and traps" spiralling from £950m to £2bn
  • The F35-B does not need "cats and traps" as it uses a short take-off "ski jump" ramp and can land vertically
  • But it also experienced testing problems and has only recently escaped the threat of cancellation

Abandoning the plan to fit the "catapults and traps" needed by the F35-C to one of the carriers while mothballing the other, opened up the possibility that both could eventually become operational, said Mr Hammond.

"The 2010 SDSR decision on carriers was right at the time, but the facts have changed and therefore so too must our approach. This government will not blindly pursue projects and ignore cost growth and delays," said the defence secretary.

"Carrier strike with 'cats and traps' using the carrier variant jet no longer represents the best way of delivering carrier strike and I am not prepared to tolerate a three-year further delay to reintroducing our carrier strike capability.

"This announcement means we remain on course to deliver carrier strike in 2020 as a key part of our Future Force 2020."

The estimated cost of fitting the "cats and traps" system to HMS Prince of Wales had risen from £950m to £2bn "with no guarantee that it will not rise further".

But, he revealed, the government had spent between £40m and £50m on design and assessment work and there would also be penalty costs associated with scrapping the F-35C deal.


He told MPs the eventual cost of the U-turn would be "nowhere near" the £250m claimed by Labour and warned "fiscal incontinence" over defence procurement would undermine "the support we should offer our armed forces".

When pressed about the cost of the rethink on BBC Radio 4's The World at One he said it would be in the region of £100m. Labour has called on Mr Hammond to publish the full costs.

Unveiling the decision to "mothball" one of the carriers and order the F35-C in October 2010, as part of the government's defence review, David Cameron attacked Labour's "appalling legacy" on defence procurement and said decisions were "now being made in the right way and for the right reasons".

Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy: "Nothing has been gained. Two years have been wasted"

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said Mr Cameron should now apologise for the government's "incompetence", saying that the prime minister had ignored warnings from the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office about the "high risk and high cost" of opting for the F-35C.

"It is as incoherent as it is ludicrous," he said. "The prime minister's decisions have cost British time, British money, British talent and British prestige.

"Describing this government's defence strategy as an omnishambles would be a compliment.

"The previous Labour government got it right and this government's policy has unravelled."

He said the government should never have scrapped its Harrier jump jets, which he said had been "sold off to America for a fraction of their value" - a decision he said risked "international ridicule".

Labour peer and former security minister Admiral West described the U-turn as a "shambles".

"It is extraordinary, it does smack of total incompetence. I'm just utterly amazed," he told the BBC's Daily Politics.

'Expensive cul-de-sac'

Lord Stirrup, who was head of the armed forces when the 2010 decision was made, said the government had made a "perfectly rational decision" to backtrack after discovering the "true nature of the costs and the risks that are involved".

But former Labour defence secretary Bob Ainsworth said the 2010 decision "was taken in the face of clear advice" and the facts had not changed in the way Mr Hammond claimed.

"I reviewed this decision, taken by my predecessor. The fundamental facts were there at the time and have not changed.

"We have been in an extremely expensive cul-de-sac for the last 18 months as a result of a shambles of an SDSR and I can only congratulate you for bringing some sanity to it," he told Mr Hammond in the Commons.

Mr Hammond insisted the risks associated with the F35-B were "dramatically different now" to what they were in 2010 when there was a possibility it would be cancelled due to technical problems.

F-35B stealth jump jet


Short Take Off Vertical Landing

Cost per aircraft: £65.5m*
Combat range: 1,667km (900nm)
Selected: Trials by 2018

F-35C Carrier Variant

Hook wire landing system

Cost per aircraft: £59.9m*
Extra cost to adapt carrier: £2bn
Combat range: 2,200km (1,200nm)
Rejected: Due to carrier conversion costs
F-35B STOVL Source: JSF, MoD, *2012 prices

The Royal United Services Institute said the vertical take-off and landing F35-B version is likely to cost more per plane and will have a shorter range and payload capacity than the conventional take-off and landing F35-C. Royal Navy pilots and ground staff will also have to be retrained in the use of jump jets.

The U-turn also means French aircraft will not be able to land on British carriers but Mr Hammond insisted this would not get in the way of joint carrier operations. It will also be compatible with the Italian Navy and the US Marine Corps, the government has said.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1012.

    It would be funny if it weren't so serious and such an amount if money squandered. The MoD should watch Top Gun to get some tips on how it's done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1011.

    1010.Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells

    Not sure about the F-35s sealth capabilities, does externally mounted weapons affect this? I would have thought they would take that into account in the design phase.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1010.

    1004. Golgotha

    But the whole stealth profile has been compromised by having to carry this weapons pod externally as a result of the increased size of the power plant. Is this particular candle worth the light?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1009.


    I think you'll find the pilot doesn't press a trigger on the joystick "Angels one five"-style no more! 8(

    The software fires a known number of rounds when the plane one is dogfighting is 'going' to pass through the firing cone the system is tracking, given the lead, on the target plane... and robogun fires!

    It's all them computars wot do it thees days, m8!

    No more "Tally Ho, chaps"!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1008.

    IF F22 is toxic it could be the lithium in the laminates. The Russians pioneered the use of that lightweight metal in fuel tanks for its space program and it wouldn't surprise me if the usa made a plane from something that reacts vigorously to air!

    Like making them from sodium and flying in the rain!! LOL

    And perhaps 3d printing the 3d structure under the skin would be cheaper these days too!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1007.

    Comments about why get rid of the Harriers, mothball Ark Royal and scrap Invincible...why...just think for a minute !!! The last government didn't leave us enough money to keep them.
    And who had to tell the sailors and airmen was David Cameron and he did it in person,face to face..give the guy some credit.Don't you think that was the hardest thing to have to do....get rid of your flag ship!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1006.

    The B or C type is irrelevant, both are useless when fighting covert terrorists. Who do we actually think we will be fighting in 2020?
    I can tell you it won't be traditional warfare in any case!
    Americas military might has actually weakened it's position, forcing enemies to adopt tactics that render big hardware useless, yet we still spend £bn's doh! Those pesky enemies just won't stand still!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1005.

    I don't think this is hitting home with some users. This drop in technology our navy and airforce will just be a regional power in 20 years. Britain really needs to start considering what her role in the world is going to be with such plans. We cannot have elected governments wanting to show off their conscience by bombing countries with a severely under-funded and under-equipped military.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1004.

    1002.Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells

    It's not it's primary weapon that's why, If I were the enemy I'd be more worried about the AIM-9X Sidewinder, AIM-132 ASRAAM, AIM-120 AMRAAM BVR AAM, AGM-158 Joint Air to Surface Stand-off Missile and its many other armaments it can carry

  • rate this

    Comment number 1003.

    I'd have ordered 24 aircratf carriers, butt that's because I can only operate my keyboard with my nose....good job I'm no 'in charge' eh?...

  • rate this

    Comment number 1002.

    Can any of you wise and knowledgeable contributors explain why this aircraft is equipped with a 25mm gatling gun which has a cyclic rate of fire of around 3500 rds per minute, and yet carries only 220 rds of ammo. This amounts to a 3.5 seconds burst of fire of 60 rds per second. Not too much room for a second crack at the target. And at what price?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1001.


    usa gets away with using old tat like F15 & F18 ONLY because their opponents are typically disorganised 3rd worlders with no AAA.

    I think F35 may come into its own against Russian, joint-ventures with China, or homegrown Chinese force... up against 'quality in numbers', something the u.s doesn't normally dare fight.

    They know those older u.s. carriers & planes may struggle to survive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1000.

    There comes a time when a country cannot afford to punch.
    Let alone above its weight.
    Reserve currency gone.
    Wealth squandered by spivs, bankers.

    Hardly surprising is it?

    You can be as smart as you like but some things cost.
    And if your wealth creation is being sold off cheap then there is no surplus left to engage in flights of fancy.

    Perhaps we can get a virtual carrier built virtually. . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 999.

    this has been one almighty mess since the SDR, the blame should be levelled at the previous government as well for trying to pass off larger through deck cruisers as actual aircraft carriers which they most definitely are not.They should have been designed from the ground up with a cat and trap system and they could have flown a range of aircraft and not been reliant on a single aircraft type

  • rate this

    Comment number 998.

    992.Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells

    "To be pedantic, there was a carrier version of the F22 to replace the F14... but it was cancelled in the early '90s"

    Exactly, sorry to be pedantic but, F-22s as they are now, can't land on Carriers. As for post 939, I did hear something about them being toxic but to be honest I've no proof that it's true, just a rumor that I heard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 997.

    this U turn should be backed up to the hilt as should Mr Cameron's Government by the time 2015 rolls around they'll have made that many mistakes,U-turns & all the rest of the stuff that comes & goes with inept governing the voter will be glad to see the back of them 100% proof they should never have been put there in the 1st place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 996.

    And on the day the Defence Secretary announces this U-Turn and at additional cost, the MoD is also coming under the spot-light for paying over the odd's (significantly so) for it's RAF tanker fleet.

    How can this be anything other than incompetence on, surely, high level officials in the MoD.

  • rate this

    Comment number 995.


    Agreed. F35X will be useful but not the whole story as any air campaign goes.

    But your assumption is that a future war will be exactly like those we've already had; namely 'powerful' usa picking a fight with a weak opponent in order to look good back home, thus distracting u.s.peasants from the tent cities, 8m living in their cars & gas at $40 a gallon.

    What if it's against China?

  • rate this

    Comment number 994.

    All this begs the essential question against whom is the UK or NATO for that matter going to fight the next world war? Yes next world war you can not convince me that such aircraft are needed to take out the Taliban. North Korea? That would be a hedious land war the NK air arm would quickly collapse. Russia? No it seems everyone wants to make China the enemy while doing big business them. Nutty?

  • rate this

    Comment number 993.

    These ships are diesel/ electric. Steam Cats would mean installing steam boilers,pipes, pulleys and wires like the old Steam powered Ark Royal.. Maybe they tried electro catapults and they don't work .... hence back to VTOL.


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