The UK government has decided to shift its Royal Navy purchases of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) from the F-35B short take-off and vertical model (STOVL) to the F-35C carrier version, according to news reports. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said the F-35C is “more capable, less expensive and longer-range.”
The decision may have grave implications for the F-35B, which is the version of the JSF most troubled by technical problems and cost growth. The Brits’ decision means only the U.S. Marine Corps and the Italians plan on using the B model.
Fewer overall purchases of F-35Bs may increase the per unit price, weakening the case for the F-35B. According to a troubling August Armed Forces Journal article by Lt. Cmdr. Perry Solomon, “As the first airframe in full-scale production, the F-35B will experience the greatest fluctuation in price if quantities later in the production run are changed.” Solomon also notes that the “F-35B is four years behind schedule, and the per-unit acquisition cost has exceeded $120 million — almost triple the amount envisioned by the Joint Initial Requirements Document for the Joint Strike Fighter.”
Solomon explores some of the myriad problems associated with the F-35B in context of fiscal and international political pressures on the overall JSF program and concludes that “Marine Corps aviation is in danger of collapsing under the weight of its ‘inside the Beltway’ leadership.”
With problems with the F-35B and pressure from the U.S. Navy mounting, the U.S. Marine Corps leadership has recently signaled that it could be open to buying some F-35Cs in lieu of an all-F-35B force.
“So we have these two competing things, and we hold both dear, so what does that mean in context of JSF?” Lt. Gen. George Trautman, deputy commandant for aviation, told Inside the Navy on October 7. “What it means is we need to get the C [carrier] variant flying, we need to get it on the carrier, see what problems it has, what issues it has. Then we need to get the B [STOVL] flying, we need to get it on an L-class [amphibious ship] to see what issues it has, what problems it has, and then we need to get the B variant onto the carrier to see what technical issues occur and what it means for the operation of a carrier.”
Image by Flickr user AereiMilitari.org, used under Creative Commons License.