Once again, UK doesn't rule out buying F-35A fighter jets

It'd be more expensive than just buying Bs. Why do this?

The United Kingdom is edging ever closer to buying F-35As, instead of the B model needed to fly from the Navy’s new aircraft carriers, as a senior officer once again refused to rule out a future F-35A purchase.

Lieutenant General Mark Poffley, deputy chief of the defence staff for military capability, told MPs “I don’t think we can rule that out” when asked if the British armed forces would buy F-35As as well as F-35Bs.

Last year defence procurement minister Harriett Baldwin MP similarly refused to rule out an F-35A purchase.

This matters because if the Royal Air Force secures a purchase of the non-navalised F-35A variant, it could leave Britain’s future flagships without enough fighter jets to deliver their intended effect.

Squadrons, numbers, deployments

To ever so slightly oversimplify things, the basic idea behind the two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers is that they can rock up off a hostile country’s coast and use their F-35B air wings to impress, scare, shoot down and potentially even bomb the uppity natives into submission. For non-hostile countries, the carriers rock up and become one of the world’s greatest floating cocktail bars with an awesome (and moveable) view, complete with a hangar that easily beats most London nightclubs for floorspace. In the British military argot, all of this is called “carrier enabled power projection”.

The astute reader will rapidly realise that the entire thing is based around there being enough F-35Bs aboard the carriers to project the power, in a warfighting scenario.

The basic F-35B deployment aboard the carrier will consist of one squadron, possibly two at a pinch. One squadron is 12 jets. Unlike the RAF’s ground-based operating model where small detachments from squadrons fly to a nearby airfield for combat operations, an entire F-35B squadron will have to deploy onto the carrier (singular – the rough idea is that one carrier will be deployed at sea while the other is alongside at home for crew training).

Roughly, you need around four squadrons in total to sustain one squadron at sea: one squadron aboard the Big Grey War Canoe™; one squadron that has just come off the Big Grey War Canoe™; one squadron at home on leave; and one squadron working up ready to take its turn aboard the aircraft carrier. The maths is not precise; in the modern armed forces, aircraft are pooled instead of being issued to particular squadrons for their exclusive use, while experienced personnel whose skills are in short supply may be unlucky and end up with back-to-back deployments.

Incidentally, the same four-owned-for-one-operational is the same model used for Britain’s nuclear deterrent submarines.

What has this got to do with the RAF turning some of Britain’s planned purchase of F-35Bs into F-35As, then?

Break out the abacus

The UK has long publicly committed itself to buying 138 F-35Bs. We know that the UK intends to use around 63 aircraft in its operational fleet at any one time, leaving the rest in reserve. That gives you five usable squadrons, not counting the permanent R&D jets based in America, which will never leave that country.

Of those five squadrons, one will be the operational conversion unit (ie, the training squadron). That leaves four squadrons … see where this is going?

Working on the assumption that the MoD has decided it will have no more than those 63 aircraft to fly at any one point, a purchase of F-35As would eat into the number of aircraft available for working up the carrier air wing. To make an RAF F-35A unit viable you’d need about 20 or so aircraft, allowing for testbed jets in America, operational conversion aircraft, and the 12 actually needed by the frontline squadron.

That would leave the F-35B fleet short by two squadrons’ worth of aircraft. Suddenly, absent a massively unlikely cash injection to operate another two squadrons of F-35Bs, your neat and predictable four-squadron model drops to a two-squadron one. You also need lots more trained and skilled personnel to fly two separate fleets; the F-35B is the vertical takeoff model, optimised for short field (and carrier) flying, whereas the F-35A is a conventional land-based aircraft.

In terms of what the F-35A can do, it’s not a million miles from the Eurofighter Typhoon, though its communications fit is far more advanced and, being 20 years newer, it’ll be around for longer. Perhaps the MoD’s intention is to buy F-35As at the very end of the F-35 purchase run, though this is pure guesswork.

In short, then, buying F-35As would lead to increased costs and less eventual capability. Which raises the obvious question: why on Earth is the MoD repeatedly not ruling this out? ®

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