British Study Determines F-35C Would be More Economical Option Despite Costly Carrier Upgrade

A formation of two F-35C flying from Patuxent River over the Atlantic flight test range. The F-35C was designed to support the US Navy carrier Air Groups. Photo: Lockheed Martin
Lockheed Martin test pilot Bill Gigliotti flew the F-35 BK-1, the United Kingdom’s first F-35B Lightning II production aircraft on Friday, 13, 2012.

As Defense Update wrote before, (1, 2) the British Ministry of Defense (MOD) is evaluating two F-35 variants for its new aircraft carriers – the F-35B Short Take Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) and F-35C Carrier Variant (CV). The UK originally opted for the F-35B but under the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) MOD planned to overcome development delays and rising costs by adopting the F-35C developed for the US Navy, which was considered a more dependable long-term solution.

But it seems the downside of the STOVL means more than costs and timetable. A classified operational analysis prepared for the MOD WAS leaked by the Daily Telegraph casts shadow on the capability of the F-35B to meet the requirements set by the military with at the number of  planes currently planned for procurement. The document stated that in order to fulfill the entire mission requirements set by MOD, which could be met by 97 F-35Cs, MOD will have to buy 136 F-35B STOVL ‘jump jets’, at an extra cost of £2.4 billion.

Nevertheless, British Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to support shifting back to the STOVL variant.

Among the missions these carrier-based fighters will have to perform are support missions in land locked areas such as Afghanistan, or long ranges missions to the Falklands, as well as over-land sorties protecting British interests in the Arabian Peninsula and Africa. In most of these contingencies, transit distance will significantly limit the mission endurance of a STOVL variant, whose fuel capacity has been limited to clear space for the lift fan. The CV variant carries extra fuel tanks in this empty space. Furthermore, the STOVL variant needs more fuel to support the fuel-guzzling hovering for the landing. According to the operational analysis study prepared for the MOD by the Defence Science and Technical Laboratory (DSTL), the F-35B could spend roughly 20 minutes over a target 300 nautical miles away from the aircraft carrier, compared with 80 minutes for the conventional F-35C.

A formation of two F-35C flying from Patuxent River over the Atlantic flight test range. The F-35C was designed to support the US Navy carrier Air Groups. Photo: Lockheed Martin

The construction of the Queen Elizabeth II aircraft carriers must match MOD choice of aircraft – protecting the deck surface from the high temperatures created by the jet blast on vertical landing, or adding catapults and arresting cables and extending the deck to support the catapult launch, which will also be able to support the French Rafale fighters on joint missions at sea. The F-35C choice has hidden extra costs as well. Catapults and arresting gear were not included in the original plan of the two carriers. MOD is estimating the conversion of the carriers from theoriginal design to one that supports the F-35C could cost up to £2 billion. MOD claim it cannot support these growing costs within the current budget and austerity plans as dictated by the SDSR.


  1. Since the UK appears only to be committing to 12 F-35 aircraft onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, by 2020 – 2022, the issue appears to be nugatory.

    What function does MOD Planning perform, given that it has long been known that the F-35B has much shorter endurance than F-35C (excluding mid-air re-fuelling) ? This is nothing new.

    It appears that, once again, HM Treasury and MOD Procurement cannot work together. Nothing seems to have changed in the last 50 years, here.

    And the PM is not helping matters by making Public Statements that he and his Government are prepared to change their minds about Procurement, based upon latest Cost Figures – that is always expected of Government, so why make a ‘political point’ about it ?

    MOD has had some 12 – 15 years to come to a Policy Decision. If prevarification continues, the cost of the CVF (HMS Queen Elizabeth) will increase by a substantial amount.

    Although never mentioned in Defence Analyses, the Admiralty has always known that (relatively slow) HMS Ocean could be used as a launch and landing platform for F-35. In the case of the F-35B, a STOVL ramp for take-off would be required and a hardened, blast-proof area required for F-35B landings. In the case of the F-35C, the front ‘Gatling Gun’ would need to be re-located, and a CATOBAR system fitted (as per HMS Queen Elizabeth) – probably a cheaper option.

    If MOD and HM Treasury cannot cooperate, then should the UK cease to pretend that it is capable of “Force Projection” ?

  2. Hi,

    I have to admit to being a bit perplexed by this article as well. If the requirement to loiter for up to 80minutes a distance of 300nm away from the ship has always been a requirment, but prior to the latest SDSR a STOVL ship with F-35B was being considered there seems to be somewhat of a disconnect.

    If on the other hand this 80 minute requirement is something new, where does it come from. And if its just a comparison to show that the F-35C will have features that the F-35B will not, its not really clear what the significance is, as one could easily pick other aspects where the F-35B shows advantages over the F-35C. (One example for instance being that the catapults and arrestor gear needed to operate the F-35C will require a larger ships crew than a STOVL ship without these features).

    In the end then, without further information, I agree that its hard to see what the significance is of what is stated in the article.

  3. Personally I think the British would find it cheaper and better to further develop the Typhoon so it can be carrier launched rather than even buy the F35.
    The Typhoon is made in England so it means jobs whilst the F35 will be made in the good ole USA.
    A carrier version of the Typhoon would also provide an extra potential export.

    Its cheaper than the F35, its combat proven and the British just don’t need the F35 & its stealth capabilities because these days when it comes to wars the British don’t fight anymore unless its part of an American coalition and America has the toys to carry out any operations that might involve the use of stealth and also when was the last time that NATO forces actually went to war with a country armed with modern weapons that could compete in performance with western technology.

    There is no logic to the idea of buying the F35B.
    If the F35C is capable of being carrier launched from a carrier then why buy an inferior plane just because it has STOVOL capability.
    Sounds to me like British nostalgia for the now retired Harrier.

    Don’t be fools and either buy the F35C or develop a carrier launched version of the Typhoon and drop all plans to buy the F35 which is overpriced and still in development stages.

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