Naval pilots will return to the skies in jump jets as the Government changed its decision over the future fighter for the Fleet Air Arm.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond today announced Whitehall would not press ahead with ‘cats and traps’ and the traditional carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter, but revert to the jump jet variant because of “unacceptable” spiralling costs and delays.
Britain’s jump jet version of the F35 making its maiden flight last month over Texas. Pictures: Lockheed Martin
FLEET Air Arm pilots will fly Britain’s next-generation jet from the Royal Navy’s super-carriers five years earlier than planned after the Government reverted to its original decision to buy the jump jet version of the Joint Strike Fighter.
After months of intense media speculation, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond today announced that the cost of and delays to the traditional carrier version of the fighter had become “unacceptable” – and Britain would invest in the short take-off/vertical take-off variant of the stealth jet.
The jump jet model, the F35B, was originally ordered as the ‘punch’ of Her Majesty’s Ships Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales.
But under the 2010 Defence Review, the Government decided it wanted the F35C – with a longer range and greater payload.
The F35C also requires a return to traditional carrier operations not practised by the Royal Navy since the demise of HMS Ark Royal IV in the late 70s: catapult launches and arrestor wires to stop the jets on landing.
Mr Hammond said the cost of adapting the two super-carriers – currently being built at half a dozen yards around the UK, with the Queen Elizabeth taking shape in her assembly dock in Rosyth – had doubled from the original estimate to £2bn.
That price rise and the delays to the F35C programme – current estimates suggest it would have been 2023 before the first jets were flying off the decks of the two 65,000-ton leviathans – plus the progress made with trials involving the jump jet model led the Government to change its 2010 decision.
“The 2010 SDSR decision on carriers was right at the time, but the facts have changed and therefore so too must our approach,” said Mr Hammond.
“This Government will not blindly pursue projects and ignore cost growth and delays. Carrier strike with ‘cats and traps’ using the carrier variant jet no longer represents the best way of delivering carrier strike and I am not prepared to tolerate a three year further delay to reintroducing our Carrier Strike capability.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.”
Britain already has its first jump jet F35 as a trials model; it flew for the first time last month.
In the 18 months since the defence review, the US Marine Corps – which has also invested in the F35B – has conducted extensive trials, including the first flights on to and off its ships.
Queen Elizabeth, which with her sister will be based in Portsmouth, is due to begin sea trials early in 2017.
The first F35 Joint Strike Fighter trials from her deck are now planned for 2018.