The UK will buy a grand total of 17 F-35B fighter jets between 2020 and 2022 – and acquiring the A model of the supersonic stealth fighter hasn’t been ruled out.
The American government announced on Wednesday the awarding of F-35 production lots 12, 13 and 14 to Lockheed Martin. A legal formality, the class justification and approval document (available here) also discloses how many aircraft each customer nation will receive.
Between January and December 2020 the Royal Navy will receive three F-35Bs, with this number rising to six more being handed over in 2021 and eight in 2022. The approval doc added that these could be “other such quantities or variants as may be authorised by the Ministry of Defence.”
Last year the then-Minister for Defence Procurement, Harriet Baldwin, confirmed that no decision had yet been made by the government on whether it would stick to the planned B model or mix it up with a purchase of F-35As. She said:
“Decisions on the precise details of subsequent tranches will be taken at the appropriate time to ensure the most appropriate capability and the best value for money.”
Sources have whispered to El Reg that the UK hopes to have 40 F-35s by the year 2023, suggesting the MoD hopes Lockheed will go into full production that year. The latest approvals plus the number of aircraft currently on UK strength is 27, which is more than the number ministers publicly committed to, assuming all are delivered on time. For the moment deliveries for all F-35 customers are officially classified as “low rate initial production”, explaining the drip-feed rate of aircraft received by the UK.
The F-35B is the Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing (STOVL) version of the supersonic stealth fighter. It is optimised to be flown from short landing strips (i.e. aircraft carriers without catapults, like Britain’s new ones) and will form the critical part of the UK’s future carrier strike capability. In contrast, the F-35A is designed to be flown from airfields only and cannot be landed on Britain’s Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.
In total the UK will be buying 138 F-35s, though the Ministry of Defence has been vague about when we’ll complete that purchase. By February this year we had seven jets on charge, all of which are based in the US for trials and clearance work. That month the purchase of three more F-35Bs in Lot 10, for delivery to the RN in 2018, was quietly announced by the US. Each aircraft costs around $120m, though the exact price is jealously guarded by all involved.
HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s new 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier, will be capable of carrying around 36 F-35s, though she will routinely deploy with just 12 jets aboard. The US Marine Corps will supply what is thought to be half a dozen F-35Bs for the British ship’s maiden deployment, which will see her touring the South China Sea in late 2020. ®