The F-35 – the UK’s Last Manned Combat Aircraft Procurement?

Five F-35Bs and one F-35C line up at Patuxent River for a photo op. Photo Lockheed martin

Recently, the UK Ministry of Defence announced that it was changing its Procurement decision on the Joint Strike Fighter, the Lockheed F-35 Lightning II, from the STOVL F-35B to the CV F-35C, with a planned order of 50 aircraft.

It was deemed that the extra payload and range capability of the F-35C, coupled with the larger deck size of the new carrier provided a cost-effective procurement compared with the F-35B. Both options have risks – for the carrier, the Brits have yet to integrate either electromagnetic rail launch and conventional arrester gear or the CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery. As for the STOVL option, currently, only the United States Marine Corps (USMC) is definitely (if there is such a word in Defence Procurement) slated to receive this model.

Facing the growing cost of the carrier program, partly because the UK MOD ‘forgot’ about the ski jumps on the Queen Elizabeth carrier, costing £1.2BN to remove, and the difficulties experienced with catapult launch, there is a new ‘Plan’ to revert back to the F-35B! This is on top of the dismal FAILURE of the F-35A to carry out its first sortie from Eglin AFB, owing to (yet another issue) a fuel leak.

2012 should have seen the arrival in the UK of a limited quantity of F-35C aircraft, for evaluation. The Planned In-Service Date (ISD) for the Queen Elizabeth carrier and the ‘stealth’ F-35C aircraft is 2020, but this might be at risk because of programme delays in the F-35C, not least of all in the arrester hook problems, and the likely inability of the F-35C to fire the UK’s standard Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM), as will be fitted to the UK fleet of Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft.

The F-35 Procurement is the US DoD’s largest procurement programme (with an individual aircraft costing in excess of US$150M, more likely US$280M for the complete production run) the program represents a Total Fleet Life-Cycle Cost Estimate of possibly in excess of US$1Trilion (US$1,000Bn). This, for what was advertised as an affordable, capable, stealth fighter for the US and its allies, has now been revealed to be the most expensive fighter aircraft ever developed, with increased size and weight (and consequently reduced capability), and “stealth” compromised by the design and also the external ordnance hard points as fitted to earlier aircraft (certainly not in the league of the F-117 stealth fighter).  This is such a change that it could almost be regarded as an update to an F-16, or the F-22 Raptor – only noisier. Now, being a Radar and EW Engineer by background, I have to confess that the JSF F-35 looks anything BUT a ‘stealth fighter’.

Can the UK afford such procurements? It is understood that even the offsets originally envisaged have been ‘blown’, with the F-35 using Pratt and Whitney F135 engines instead of the Rolls-Royce/GE consortium F136 engines.  What’s more, as the ‘all-knowing’ UK MoD has now decided that the first new Carrier will be mothballed immediately after production, and the second Carrier will only carry one wing (not even a Squadron) of F-35’s (plus 2 in reserve), what is the point of the UK MoD’s Carrier ‘Fleet’? No wonder that the UK and Japan are in discussions about Joint Production/Procurement – after all, the Japanese know that the UK can manufacture good products, hence the plan for Nissan to produce its new car series in the UK.

However, contrast this with the UK’s current demonstrator Unmanned Air Vehicles, Taranis (a large stealth UCAV), about which BAE Systems are keeping the details a closely-guarded secret,  and the European (German-led) Baracuda,; and then there is the BAE Systems Mantis, the European Neuron UCAV, the Talarion Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) surveillance UAV. To my mind, most of these appear to be ‘Stealth’ designs. (Having seen, at extremely close quarters the last flying Avro Vulcan bomber… which overflew my house not too long ago, I think that I know ‘stealth’ when I see it.*)

In addition, there is the Thales/Elbit Watchkeeper, for the UK Army which is a joint UK/Israel UAV intended for airborne surveillance of the battlefield which is entering service. In addition, as seen, there are the existing and future European UAV/UCAV programmes and also the US programmes… and just about every ‘developed’ nation with defence needs and strategies have commenced their own UAV/UCAV programmes.

The UK has long been participating in Unmanned Aircraft programmes, including the Unmanned Combat Aircraft (UCAV) and is proceeding ahead of many other nations, via the auspices of the Civil Aviation Authority in programme ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment), running from 2006 until 2013 with a £62M budget, to de-risk the operational use of UAVs/UCAVs operating in (Civil) Controlled Airspace.

This programme, which involves the cooperation of Industry and Government, has the following key industrial members: Agent Oriented Software (AOS), BAE Systems, Cassidian, Cobham, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Thales. In addition, many of the most innovative small companies in the sector, leading academic minds and the UK regulatory authorities are integral to the programme.

The two principal areas being addressed are:

Separation Assurance & Control – the particular technologies required to control the flying vehicle in the airspace from the ground control station the spectrum, security and integrity of the communication system and the vehicle’s sense and avoid sensor system.

Autonomy & Decision Making – providing the intelligence in the vehicle through a ‘variable autonomy system’, that shares decision making for the mission and contingency management with the human operator.

Integral to these project areas are “Autonomous Sense and Avoid”, a ‘first’ in aviation technology.

ASTRAEA has already been successful in terms of government/industry collaboration, which has resulted in the UK being recognised as the leading national authority on future autonomous UAV operations in controlled airspace.

So, what will be the impact upon future (UK) combat aircraft procurement? There is already a precedence set in the USA – in 2005, the percentage of UAVs deployed was just 5% of the US Military Aircraft. At the beginning of 2012, that number had risen to 31% (according to a US Congressional Research Service report).

Given that the UK has set a strategy to keep operational all new air systems for circa 40–50 years, what value can be seen in further expensive manned combat aircraft? The UK has demonstrated its ability to monitor, and if necessary, control the flight of an unmanned aircraft from the console of an accompanying manned aircraft (QinetiQ with a BAC-1-11 and a manned Tornado, using AOS agent software). The UCAV and UAV demonstrator programmes will evaluate remote monitoring via satellite links. So, in 2070, an Interceptor/Attack squadron could conceivably be formed entirely from UCAVs with a stand-off Mission Control aircraft. Cheaper Procurement, more versatile attack profiles (no need to worry about a pilot ‘blacking out’ at high g manoeuvres, fewer pilots required (with major impact on training budget), greatly reduced ‘body-bag’ count …

… has somebody got a calculator? This seems to be an extremely cost effective Future Air Force – or is there something that we don’t know about? Most importantly, it would seem that the US DoD and the UK MoD simply just don’t know what to do. Having read a Defence Procurement paper recently, I was just about to say, “Just as I expected” when I realised that it was a Defense (USA) Procurement paper.  Oh, **** !

Meanwhile, China continues to expand its forces, with Chinese warships operating new UAVs at sea, back in 2011, and with anticipated ‘carbon copies of the US Predator and Global Hawk’, it doesn’t take a genius to anticipate that China will soon have UCAV technologies, flying, to accompany their extremely large fleet. China has been offering for sale helicopter UAVs (such as the U8E), China also offers fixed wing UAVs, which are currently about a generation behind Western models (which is the usual Western policy, so no change, there!). The Chinese are willing to compete on price, but most heavy UAV users still prefer American or Israeli models – at present.

No wonder that the USA now plans to virtually leave the Atlantic ocean, and concentrate on the Pacific ocean.

About the author: Peter L. Hartley, MSc, CAET, MInstP, MIET

With 41+ years experience in defense electronics (radar, electronic warfare, C3I and CIS and mission systems) and associated activities, Peter Hartley offers a wide range of skills and capabilities in the field of Systems including System Architecture, Bid Management, Bid Reviews at national/international levels, Business Development (and Business Creation), Customer Liaison, Contract Negotiation, Marketing Support, Engineering Management, Design Authority, Team Building, and Research.

(Particularly as a UK Engineer ran the US Stealth Aircraft programmes – as I was informed by Cranfield College of Aeronautics, who trained the person concerned.)


  1. Why not simply leave the ski jump ramp on? Put in the arrestor wires and make the QE a STOBAR carrier instead. EMALS can eventually be installed in waist position if necessary. But a STOBAR configured QE carrier can still operate F-35B, F-35C, Rafale and F/A-18E and could also operate E-2D AWACS as well. Since most missions with the F-35 will not be operating at max payload with external stores, the ski jump launch, even with the C model of the JSF should be more than adequate. STOBAR would add to the versatility and interoperatability of the QE in the long run.

  2. No great issues with your comments – but I reserve judgement on an F-35C being able to use the ‘ski jump ramp’ for successful take-off.

    I think that I convinced MOD (December 1999) to have big enough Lifts for Hawkeye or MV22 (my preference, when fitted with Searchwater ASaC).

  3. Good lord you’re pretty much clueless on this subject aren’t you Mr Hartley. For example you huff and puff about external weapons carriage but don’t seem to understand that exteranal carriage is completely optional! You do understand it has an INTERNAL bay, at leastI hope you do by now. Perhaps do some research next time before penning an ‘article’….

    And your price figures are way off, by tens of millions.

  4. “Peter” – you seem to be one of those anonymous people who loves to write a ‘de-bunking’ response, without reading the article properly. Do you have a Marketing affiliation with Lockheed-Martin, by any chance ? Or are you simply an idealist** ? (I’ll forgive you the “exteranal” spelling mistake – I hope.)

    I have been following the F-35 project since its inception, because I have an involvement with the UK CVF (the Queen Elizabeth Class carrier) and its considered organic Maritime Airborne Surveillance and Control system. All my data comes from the F-35 Program Office and are data in the public domain. I am aware that the F-35 has a limited internal missile compartment (but at missile launch, the radar cross-section inevitably becomes quite large in ‘stealth’ terms). Furthermore, to be of any benefit as a long range fighter (i.e. carry more than two, possibly three missiles/bombs), it is also necessary to fit hard points to the F-35 for external weapon loads, which makes the F-35 ‘stick out like a sore thumb’ on modern AD and AA radar.

    Also, the Pricing data I used are derived from data from the F-35 Program Office and also recent investigations by a unit of the US Defense Oversight Committee, also the UK MOD Procurement at Abbey Wood, plus some projection from HMG Treasury which has the perhaps annoying habit of being accurate. “Tens of millions” of what currency ? “Final prices” are often ‘dumbed down’ for Political reasons, but the ones I used are the real-life figures for delivery to the UK by 2020.

    More to the point, in a telecom to the USA on Tuesday, 20th March 2012, I had all my data confirmed yet again by a source (an ex US pilot) closely connected to the USAF and DoD Procurement.

    If you need to read more, why not read the ‘sad story’ at​F-35_Lightning_II – but please read all the way through, don’t ‘pick and choose’.

    **An Idealist ? One who hopes that the facts won’t get in the way of his/her preference.

  5. The weapons bays on the F-35 are limited compared to what? A strategic bomber or dedicated strike aircraft I suppose. But the weapon bays on the A and C variants have more internal space than the bays of the F-22 and F-117.

    The only time the F-35 will be flying with external stores is after the enemies air defense network has been smashed. These claims that the F-35 isn’t a stealth fighter because it has the capability for external pylons and ordinance is foolish.

    None of these UCAVs mentioned can carry larger internal payloads than the F-35A or F-35C. No UAV has yet demonstrated the capability to operate at full effectiveness against an opponent with modern EW capabilities either. UCAVs have their place, but they quite simply aren’t the miracle cure some people pitch them as. People freak out over the millions of lines of code the F-35 requires, yet a multirole UCAV with effective autonomous capability would probably require double that.

    From a materials standpoint the F-35 isn’t that much more complicated to build than a Super Hornet or the latest generation of Eurocanards. The software and avionics are another matter, but that’s the direction everybody is moving towards. Development costs were always going to be high and the high level of concurrency expected was a mistake. Yet there’s ample room for production costs to be brought down to relatively low figures.

  6. “William”

    Would you say that only two, possibly three, weapon locations within the fuselage of the F-35 (plus a gun) are adequate for air combat ? I most certainly wouldn’t. I doubt that any sane fighter pilot would, either. Certainly my American ex-pilot contact (who works with special projects for the DoD) wasn’t enamoured by the F-35. And (for slightly different reasons) neither is the Project Director, Admiral Venlet (see where the Admiral wants the production rate slowed down, until the aircraft is Fit For Purpose.

    Regarding external hard points and enemy air defences: which future aircraft is intended to ‘take out’ the enemy air defences ? Surely that is a Mission Role for the F-35 ? If not, then the programme is something of a waste of time (and a great deal of money). And when the onboard missiles are exposed on an F-35, the radar cross section ‘leaps up’.

    Incidentally, according to a very recent Press Release from Lockheed Martin, there is the possibility of increasing the missile capability, albeit using a large and heavy revolving feeder. The F-35B is seriously limited in range and, with that capacity of munitions, it wouldn’t need stealth at all, not with its limited combat radius. (US Military Doctrine suggests that US Marines would not be inserted into an area where the US hasn’t achieved air superiority – and it is the USMC which is planning to utilise the F-35B !)

    The so-called ‘Stealth’ has only been achieved by compromise – it is intended to operate at (NATO) F-band and I-band. I have news for you – the counter-stealth radars that I worked on in 1999 show up so-called stealth aircraft as though they were big old bombers. Even some of the UK’s old AD equipment could readily detect F-117 at ranges you would be amazed at – obviously the figure is highly classified, but all you had to do was visit the ‘War Trials Site’ not far from RAF Spadeadam in the UK, where a bi-annual Test of Air Offence and Land-based Defence was held for friendly NATO countries (if you had Clearance) and you would probably have been somewhat upset of the high ‘detection and kill rate’ of Rapier FSB1M against US fighters. As long as there are cables in an aircraft – it is NOT stealth.

    Please don’t re-interpret what I wrote, and then dismiss it as rubbish. That’s simply blind foolishness.

    I accept that the illustrated versions of UAVs and UCAVs were early models, and would not currently have the (intended) capability of the F-35. The units in advanced Development are too highly Classified to report upon. There is a serious error in your comment about “lines of code”. Back in 2004, AOS flew TWO cooperating, autonomous UAVs across Test Areas in Australia. The code was Java, and is written using a tool called JACK™. The cockpit voice recognition of the Australian Buy of the F-35, using ‘context-sensitive’ algorithms, uses JACK™ – derived software. (As AOS is a Client of mine, I have no intentions of discussing the exact nature of the implemented code, but you could always check that with the JSF Program Office.) Compared with that, the flying code software is no ‘biggy’. That’s why the UK is ahead of the USA in cooperative operations with UAVs and UCAVs operating in Civil Airspace – check out Project ASTRAEA. Since Lockheed-Martin have been ‘playing’ with JACK™ for some time, at their “Skunk Works”, you might care to check your facts.

    IF the F-35 is relatively straightforward technology implementation, as you say, then why does it cost so much ? WHY were Development Costs “always going to be high” – please expand on that, or is that a ‘cover-up’ remark ? And why do the costs keep escalating ? And why are airframes developing fatigue (see Admiral Venlet’s comments, in the link above) ?

    Sorry, William. I guess that many Americans feel somewhat ‘patriotic’ to the F-35, but facts are facts, whether or not you like them. From my viewpoint, I wish that the F-35 was further ahead and in-service with the UK (but at a much lower cost).

    I have been following the development of the F-35 with great interest, since my new Designs for the UK Queen Elizabeth carriers’ organic MASC had to interoperate with the F-35. I have spent some 40 years in Defence Electronics and Avionics, and can usually, with a simple glance at an antenna, describe the parameters and performance of the radar or ESM or ECM. The Radar Equation and ESM Characteristics are now built into my brain, as are a variety of transmitters and active arrays (ever since 1981, when I designed my first nuclear-hardened active array). And I know my stealth ! (I guess that you knew that a Brit, trained at Cranfield College of Aeronautics, was recruited to run the US Stealth program ?)

    Believe it or not, but my article was NOT intended to ‘debunk’ the F-35, but simply point out the inevitable – that future combat aircraft will be unmanned. In WWI, the pilots could damage the aircraft during manoeuvres; in WWII, the pilot and the aircraft were built of similar strength. In today’s world, the aircraft can outperform a pilot (who would ‘black out’ at the g-forces that modern aircraft can achieve). And those words came from American pilots.

    I’ll let the last words come from Enough said ?

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