Why the RAF needs the F-35A JSF as well as the F-35B

By Nicholas Drummond

This article is a slight departure from usual Land Power topics, but discussions about RAF aircraft remain relevant to this site’s over-arching agenda, not least because RAF aircraft perform a vital role in providing close air support for UK ground forces.

F-35B STOVL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (Image:: UK Ministry of Defence)


01 – Introduction
02 – The importance of the Royal Navy and Carrier Strike
03 – The F35 Joint Strike Fighter Program
04 – The need to replace the Tornado GR4
05 – The case for the F-35A
06 – What about Tempest?
07 – Summary

01 – Introduction

 The Lockheed-Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has polarised opinion like no other aircraft.

For diehard critics, the F-35 program is a trillion dollar disaster. It has taken more than 20 years to bring the JSF into service and it has yet to fully meet all operational requirements. The development process has been plagued with technical issues that have delayed its IOC while increasing purchase and sustainment costs. Many of the F-35’s problems are blamed on a “concurrency” strategy, whereby manufacturing commenced before the final production specification was nailed-down. This means that early production aircraft need to be re-manufactured to conform with the latest build standard to be fully capable. Regardless of the aircraft’s technical performance, detractors insist that the acquisition process has been less than ideal.

For advocates, the F-35 is the greatest engineering achievement of this generation. It isn’t just a new aircraft, or a new way of building aircraft, but a fundamentally evolved approach to air combat. Rather than just being a single airframe, it is a family of three different role-specific platforms, each with unique strengths that make it excel across particular mission types. The Northrop-Grumman AN/APG-81 AESA radar gives the F-35 an unmatched ability to locate targets. With this and other on-board sensors linked to an airborne battle management system, several aircraft can be networked together. This enables a group of F-35s to see and engage enemy targets long before they enter visual range. Forming an airborne screen, they can dominate the air across a broad front.[1] Among those who now operate the F-35, there is a strong belief that its next generation capabilities will preserve the NATO Alliance’s technical and tactical advantage versus Russian and Chinese aircraft for decades to come.

F-35 Production line at Fort Worth, Texas (Image: Lockheed-Martin)

Inevitably, such capabilities come at great cost. The US Department of Defense realised that the JSF would need substantial and sustained investment to ensure it met program goals. However, it’s not clear, whether anyone ever thought that the F-35 would be as expensive as it has become. According to the Pentagon, total F-35 acquisition costs are expected to be $406.5 billion over its lifetime, while total operational and maintenance costs are estimated to be $1.1 trillion. This does indeed make it the most expensive aircraft program in history.[2]

However, as production has ramped-up and more customers have decided to purchase the F-35, prices have dropped and are expected to be reduced further. Current costs per aircraft are:[3]

F-35A: $89.2 million
F-35B: $115.5 million
F-35C: $107.7 million

(For comparison, it is worth noting that the Eurofighter Typhoon and SAAB JAS39 Gripen both cost in the region of $90-$110 million each.)

While the Pentagon may not have expected the F-35 costs to be so stratospheric, the program was just too big and too important to fail. Was it unnecessarily ambitious, complex, and risky? Possibly. The F-35’s on-board computer, for example, has more than 8 million lines of software code – more than four times that of another 5th generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor.[4] But the F-35 needed to set the bar high if it was to deliver the step-change in capability needed versus legacy aircraft.

So, the trillion dollar question is: does the F-35 live up to expectations?

Concurrency has actually been a successful manufacturing strategy. It ensured that aircraft were quickly made available to customers so that testing and evaluation could begin sooner. With a larger test fleet flying, feedback was easier to collate and analyse, meaning that issues were corrected sooner, and a higher base performance standard was ensured. According to Lockheed-Martin, the cost of retrofitting new components to earlier F-35 examples will be a fraction of the total procurement cost.

In 2017, The US Air Force ran its annual Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. This is a week-long shakedown that tests aircrafts and pilots to the limit. Participants are divided into Blue and Red teams and conduct air missions against each other. According to US publication Aviation Week, a squadron of 13 F-35As flew 110 sorties to achieve a kill ratio of 15:1. The F-35 succeeded not only in long-range encounters, but also in close-range dog-fighting versus the F-16, F/A-18 and other 4th Generation aircraft. The F-35A’s success was a stunning vindication of the JSF program. Even so, further refinements, such as the Block 4 software upgrade, are expected to improve performance further.

Meanwhile, in separate tests, the F-35B, the Short-Take-Off-and Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant that the UK has ordered has performed well, not only in US Marine Corps testing, but also in recent UK sea trials aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, during October and November 2018.

F-35Bs flown from UK aircraft carriers will be a cornerstone of UK power projection for the next half-century. Given limited resources for UK Defence, the F-35B program has come under intense scrutiny. It has already been cancelled once. After the 2010 SDSR, the decision to buy the F-35B was modified in favour of the F-35C Carrier Version, which, like the F-35A takes-off and lands conventionally. However, the plan to fit an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) to the UK carriers would have added around £500 million to the cost of each ship, so the decision was reversed. Since EMALS technology for new US carriers has yet to be perfected, it was a wise decision. Moreover, the STOVL capabilities give the F-35B much greater flexibility when operating from forward land bases, as RAF aircraft will.

Fighter jets join forces with British aircraft carrier to make history
An F-35B takes off from HMS Queen Elizabeth using the ships ski jump. (Image: Royal Navy by Kyle Heller)

Another casualty of the 2010 SDSR was the early retirement of the Harrier fleet. This was a shocking loss of capability. When the UK’s F-35B fleet declares Initial Operational Capability (IOC) by the end of this year, carrier strike will have been gapped for almost a decade. For these reasons, the F-35B is  a sacred cow. It certainly represents an essential asset that the Royal Navy is keen to protect and promote.

Given this backdrop, recent suggestions that the RAF now wants to acquire the conventional take-off F-35A Joint Strike Fighter variant, were not well received. The Navy believes that any F-35A purchase could potentially compromise the total F-35B fleet size for the carriers. This un-leashed a barrage of negative criticism aimed squarely at the RAF. Therefore, the aim of this article is to consider the case for a mixed buy of F-35As and F-35Bs.

02 – The importance of the Royal Navy and Carrier Strike

Before any discussion of the A versus the B takes place, it may be worth stating a few underlying truths relevant to this topic.

First, the UK is a maritime nation that depends on seapower to ensure its security and the continuity of supply of vital resources. This makes the Royal Navy the most important of our three services. Ensuring that the Royal Navy is resourced to protect UK interests at home and abroad remains paramount. No one, least of all the RAF, seeks to compromise the Navy’s ability to perform its essential roles. To do so would be the military equivalent of fratricide.

F-35B on board HMS Queen Elizabeth (Image: Royal Navy / UK Ministry of Defence)

While destroyers, frigates and attack submarines are vital for North Atlantic security, aircraft carriers allow us to project power further afield. This is important, because Britain has a long history of going out to meet emerging threats at distance, before they turn-up fully-formed on our doorstep. Aircraft carriers are mobile sovereign airfields that can go anywhere in the world to conduct combat operations. The way in which the USA has maintained a fleet of large nuclear-powered carriers has been an undoubted success factor in projecting US power over the last half-century. Getting permission for conventional combat aircraft to conduct air attacks from a foreign state’s airfields can be difficult, time-consuming and costly. Sometimes, the mere presence of an aircraft carrier can have a deterrent effect. We used to call this gunboat diplomacy. Whatever we call it today, it remains relevant.

The UK’s previous aircraft carriers, the Invincible Class, were also acquired at a difficult moment financially, just after the oil price crisis of the early 1970s, so were similarly criticised as being unnecessary and unaffordable. The Navy described them as through-deck cruisers to convince HM Treasury that they weren’t real aircraft carriers and therefore financially justifiable. Once HMS Invincible and her sister ships entered service, it soon became apparent that even small carriers were still essential commodities. We would never have been able to retake the Falklands without such ships. What we learned from the Invincible Class is that two larger carriers are better than three smaller ones, which is why HMS Queen Elizabeth is 65,000 tonnes not 30,000 tonnes. Larger ships that carry more aircraft can fly a higher number of sorties within a 24-hour period. When the aim of air power is to destroy key targets as quickly as possible, sortie rates matter. While the cost of £3.5 billion per Queen Elizabeth carrier[5] makes it the most expensive ship acquired by the Royal Navy, it compares favourably to the USS Gerald Ford Class of nuclear-powered super carriers which cost $14 billion per ship.

The aircraft that fly from UK carriers are obviously a vital part of the overall capability equation.  The Harrier jump jet, which was the first aircraft of its kind, proved the viability of the Short-Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) concept for carrier-borne operations. Providing 40 years of stalwart service, it was only natural that a similar type of aircraft should be chosen to replace it. Given that the UK could not afford to develop a Harrier replacement independently, we were fortunate that the US Marine Corps’ parallel success with a US version, the AV-8B, led to a STOVL variant being proposed as part of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. This is how the UK became the only Tier 1 partner for the JSF, with Rolls-Royce using its expertise to develop the F-35B’s lift fan technology.

03 – The F35 Joint Strike Fighter Program

The F-35 was primarily conceived to replace the USAF’s F-16 multi-role fighter, a hugely successful aircraft with more than 4,500 built and sold to 27 different air forces. In order to be a credible successor, it was decided to develop three separate F-35 versions:

F-35A. Conventional Take-off and Landing (CTOL) to replace the F-16 Falcon

F-35B. Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) to replace the AV-8B

F-35C. Carrier Version (CV) to replace the F/A-18 Super Hornet

Ultimately, the JSF programme was not about developing three versions of a single aircraft, but three separate aircraft. This is what has most contributed to its complexity, cost and elongated development timeline.

F-35 needed to be supersonic.

F-35 needed to be stealthy – which required an internal weapons bay.

F-35 needed to provide a networked capability allowing aircraft to share data so that targets could be prioritised and allocated across several aircraft.

F-35 needed to automate as many processes as possible so that the pilot could focus on the fighting the air battle rather than worrying about human/ machine interfaces.

F-35 needed to encompass a completely new way of fighting in the air: engaging enemy targets at distance before they can detect it. This was the second critical factor that has complicated the development process.

To be fair, getting so many leading-edge technologies to work in a single combat aircraft would have been a massive undertaking. To do so in three different variants was a Herculean task and more challenging than anyone could have imagined.

The F-35A

The F-35A was always the most important version of the JSF, because it will be bought in the largest numbers and used as both an air defence fighter and strike aircraft. The development process had to ensure that the need for a STOVL variant didn’t fundamentally compromise the F-35A’s dog-fighting ability. This meant that the F-35A needed to be able to pull at least 9 Gs, which it does.

The F-35B

The F-35B is close in overall dimensions to the F-35A, but loses some internal volume in the forward fuselage to accommodate a forward lift fan. The rear nozzle pivots from a horizontal to a downwards-pointing position to provide vertical lift. It is an extremely innovative solution, but the lift fan adds parasitic weight when in forward flight. Increased weight compromises agility, but the F-35B gives away very little relative to the other versions. It can still pull 7 Gs. The key concern with the F-35B is that the lift fan reduces internal fuel capacity decreasing range and endurance.

(With the Harrier, the UK pioneered an angled ski jump for carrier take-offs. This allows a STOVL aircraft to get airborne more easily when carrying a full load of ordnance. The QE Class carriers will also have this feature.)

The F-35C

The F-35C is conceptually similar to the F-35A except that it has larger wings (which generate increased lift for carrier take-offs and landings). The wings fold to aid hangar stowage and it has a reinforced undercarriage and tail hook for the arrestor wire to snag on landing. It has a slightly higher fuel capacity for increased range.

F-35 specifications
JSF comparison data (Source: Lockheed-Martin)

While the F-35B has a slightly lesser performance than the F-35A and F-35C, versus the Harrier II (GR5/ GR7 / GR9), the F-35B is in a different league.  Just to emphasise this point for F-35B doubters, it offers the following advantages relative to the Harrier II:[6]

  • Stealth capability
  • Supersonic performance of Mach 1.6 (1,975 kph) versus Mach 0.9 (1,065 kph)
  • Greater internal fuel capacity of 6,125 kg versus 3,400 kg
  • Weapons payload of 6,800 kg versus 4,200 kg
  • Un-refuelled range of 833 km versus 556 km

The UK previously had 60-80 Harrier II aircraft and a total fleet size of 143 over its lifecycle.[7] Under current plans, we will acquire 138 F-35Bs over the lifetime of the airframe, but this is not a definitive force size.[8] While the Navy will have two carriers, only one is expected to be used at a time. According to Fleet Air Arm sources, each carrier will routinely deploy with 12-15 aircraft on-board. This will increase to 24 for operations and they have a surge capacity of 36 aircraft. In addition to this, there will be a training squadron, so the Joint F-35 force requires a minimum of five squadrons, or 60-72 aircraft. An ideal number might include two further squadrons, or 96 aircraft in total, enabling the RAF to support for ground force from forward bases as the Harrier did before.

A UK F-35 pilot who provided input to this article suggests that any comparison of F-35B with Harrier or Tornado is futile. F35B is to Harrier what Typhoon is to the Sepecat Jaguar. Any F35 is an extremely capable dog-fighter and the flight control software allows it to perform some very impressive manoeuvres. Against an F-16 it can hold its own and against an F-18 it’s superior. The important thing to remember is that off- bore sight cueing of highly agile missiles levels the playing field, since the same helmet is used to do this across all F35 variants. It means you no longer need to get behind an enemy to shoot him down. If you can turn reasonably hard and move your head to look directly at the aircraft, you can lock with the missile (seeker is slaved to your head pointing angle) and shoot. While the USAF demanded 9G out of a dogmatic adherence to the beloved F16, F35 really doesn’t need it – but has it.

Despite Brexit fears and potentially disadvantageous pound-dollar exchange rates, there has been no suggestion that F-35B numbers will be cut. What can be said definitively is that we will have failed to replace the Harrier and failed to resource carrier strike properly if we acquire less than 60-72 F-35Bs for frontline service.

04 – The need to replace the Tornado GR4

The RAF has 60-72 Tornado long-range strike aircraft. It was developed in the mid-1970s with a total of 992 built and used by the UK, Germany, Italy, and Saudi Arabia. Affectionally called the “Tonka” and highly regarded by its pilots, the Tornado has seen extensive operational use. It was deployed in Iraq during the first Gulf War; Former-Yugoslavia during the Bosnia / Kosovo War; again in Iraq during the Second Gulf War; Afghanistan between 2006 and 2014; Libya during the Civil War; and continues to be used in 2018 in Syria. The Tornado’s operational track record makes it one of the important RAF aircraft to see service during its 100 year history. Despite its success, the Tornado fleet is showing its age and will be retired from March 2019.[9]

The RAF’s Tornado has been in service for 40 of the RAF’s first 100 years, making it one hits most successful aircraft. (Image: RAF / UK Ministry of Defence)

While the F-35B will take-on a variety of Tornado roles, it should be remembered that F-35B is primarily intended to replace the Harrier in a Royal Navy Carrier Strike role. As already noted, as a STOVL aircraft, the F-35B’s lift fan means that it carries dead weight that limits its capacity for fuel and ordnance. No less important, 60-72 F-35Bs cannot replace 60-80 Harriers plus 60-72 Tornados. We need to replace Tornado, but equally we must maintain a critical mass of frontline aircraft so we have resilience in a protracted conflict.

The RAF presently operates a fleet of EF2000 Eurofighter Typhoon fighter aircraft for use in the Air Defence role. It has now upgraded 40 out of the current fleet total of 149 aircraft to the latest Tranche 3A standard, so that Typhoon can perform a secondary strike role.  Although we also have an additional 67 Typhoon Tranche 2 models, when an aircraft is being used in the strike role, it reduces the available fleet size for the air defence role.

Without the 2010 Defence cuts, the RAF would have had the following combat aircraft fleet composition:

60-72 Tornados
149-160 Typhoons
60-80 Harriers*
This adds-up to a total of 269-312 aircraft.

*(We should not forget that when the Harrier was retired early as cost-saving measure, it not only reduced the total combat aircraft fleet by 20%, it also gapped the STOVL capability for 8 years. Neither fact changes the need for additional strike aircraft so that we have a credible total.)

05 – F-35A versus additional Typhoons

It has been suggested that buying additional Typhoon Tranche 3 aircraft could offset the loss of the Tornado. However, at a total cost of £17.6 billion for 160 aircraft, Typhoon is the most expensive combat aircraft procured by the UK to date. Individual Typhoon FGR4s cost approximately £110 million. This makes Typhoon at least as costly as the F-35B, but without a STOVL or stealth capability. A further problem is that Typhoon is a 4th generation aircraft that will be obsolete by 2035, so any additional aircraft purchased now will have a short shelf-life.

F-35A CTOL variant

Alternatively, we could acquire additional F-35Bs, but since these are expensive and are designed for the carrier role, could we be better off using the F-35A? The RAF thinks so.

The F35A has a number of significant advantages compared to be F-35B:

  • Increased range(1,093 km versus 833 km)
  • Increased payload(8,160 kg versus 6,800 kg)
  • Increased G-rating(9.0 versus 7.0)
  • An internal cannon
  • Less weight and increased agility(The F-35A more capable in the air defence role)
  • Lower purchase price(F35A: $89.2 million versus F-35B: $115.5 million)

The F-35A’s longer internal weapons bay allows it to carry up to 6 AMRAAM missiles internally, whereas the F-35B can only carry 4. Although this increased capability has not yet been fielded, the ability to carry a higher quantity of air-to-air missiles will be a worthwhile uplift in capability.  The F-35A can also carry two 2,000 lb GBU-31 JDAMs internally, whereas the F-35B can only carry two 1,000 lb GBU-32 JDAMs.[10] Unfortunately, the UK does not use the GBU-31 JDAM at this time so cannot take advantage of the extra space provided. It is possible that the UK may subsequently acquire other new complex weapons that would benefit from being able to be carried by an aircraft with a larger weapons bay than the F-35B.

The F-35A is a simpler aircraft to maintain than the F-35B.  With some 2,500 F-35As expected to be sold versus 500 F-35Bs, spare parts for the A version will be more widely available and less expensive. Overall support costs are expected to be much lower.

It has been stated, ad nauseam, that maintaining two separate fleets is more expensive than maintaining a single fleet. It is difficult to comment on this since there are no definitive cost comparisons that provide a reliable answer. The question is whether the utility and lower acquisition cost of the F-35A offset potential additional fleet running costs.

F-35A showing the mix of weapons it can carry. (Image: Lockheed-Martin)

Some people view the F-35B as a less capable version of the F-35A. While the F-35B’s STOVL abilities come at a cost, it is much closer in performance to the F-35A than the AV-8B Harrier was to the F-16 Falcon. Irrespective of any comparison with the F-35A, the F-35B offers a very high level of combat utility versus any other 4th generation aircraft. If the performance gain with the F-35A is marginal, is it worth the aggravation of having two fleets? In the final analysis, the two aircraft offer complementary benefits which offer great flexibility overall.

06 – What about Tempest?

Earlier this year at the Farnborough Air Show, British Aerospace presented its Tempest concept. This aims to replace Typhoon with a 6th Generation aircraft that has the following features:[11]

  • Stealth / Low observability
  • Able to perform Air Defence and Strike roles
  • Twin, variable cycle engine (VCE) designed to maximise efficiency at subsonic, transonic and supersonic speeds
  • Mach 2.0+ speed (2,500 kph)
  • Manned and unmanned operation
  • Larger internal weapons bay than F-35A

When Tempest arrives, it means that the UK will only need two combat aircraft types: a single-engined STOVL strike aircraft for the carriers (F-35B) and a twin-engine fighter for air defence and long range strike (Tempest). Tempest will be a true replacement for Tornado as well as for Typhoon.

BAE Systems Tempest Concept (Image: Team Tempest)

Notwithstanding its potential benefits, Tempest presently exists only on paper. Given expected high costs and small production quantities, the UK will need to develop this aircraft in partnership with other countries. Without partners, Tempest will be stillborn. Should Tempest fail, we would consider alternative versions of the same concept. We could join the Franco-German Système de Combat Aérien du Futur (SCAF) program which has similar objectives. The USA is also developing its own 6th generation aircraft, the Next Generation Tactical Aircraft (NG TACAIR).

None of the above aircraft is expected to enter service before 2035-2040. The important thing here is not airframe performance, but timing. A decision concerning the Tempest acquisition strategy will be made by 2020, but a final commitment and investment in Tempest is not expected to be made before 2025. The anticipated date for an initial Operational Capability (IOC) is 2035, but, given the time taken to develop both F-35 and Typhoon, a Tempest timeline of 15 years from drawing board to combat readiness seems extremely aggressive if not unrealistic.

To de-risk Tempest, the UK may need a bridge between Typhoon and Tempest. The F-35A, which is likely to remain in service until 2070, could easily fulfil this requirement.

07 – Summary

Prior to 2010, the UK had a total of around 281 combat aircraft. The Harrier fleet was retired early as a cost-saving measure, not for strategic reasons. In fact, since 2010, the number of threats we face has increased not declined. The loss of the Harrier fleet reduced the RAF’s total combat air fleet to just 221 aircraft: 149 Typhoons, plus 72 Tornados), a net loss of 60 aircraft. It was barely acceptable to reduce frontline strength as a temporary cost-saving measure, but not as new level of permanent capability reduction.

Harrier 3
Harrier GR9 in Afghanistan. (image: RAF / UK Ministry of Defence)

Although the retirement of Tornado will be partially offset by the acquisition of 138 F-35Bs, as a STOVL aircraft, it is primarily intended to replace the Harrier. Although the F-35B can perform some Tornado roles, it lacks the Tornado’s range and payload capacity.

We have converted 40 Eurofighter Typhoons to the perform a Strike role, but this reduces the number of aircraft available for the primary air defence role.[12]

Ideally, the UK needs 96 F-35Bs, 149 Eurofighter plus 72 Tornado replacements, or a total of 319 combat aircraft, with an active fleet of about 280-300 aircraft. Typhoon and F-35B are expensive, so we are unlikely to be able to afford a significant number of additional aircraft of either type.

Tempest should be a flexible and capable aircraft when it arrives. The problem with Tempest is that it’s unlikely to arrive before 2035-2040 and since we have no idea of the final specification,  we cannot predict costs or numbers. Many unknown factors make it a risky proposition.

The F-35A is more capable than the F-35B and less expensive than Typhoon. It is also stealthy and well able to perform a Tornado-type bomb truck role. The F-35A is ready now and won’t be obsolete in 10 years time. F-35A costs are likely to become lower as more nations use, while Typhoon costs are likely to increase as it ages.

For the above reasons, the F-35A seems to be an obvious choice to provide the UK with additional capabilityA decision to acquire F-35A in 2020 with deliveries commencing in 2025, would ensure there was no gap between Typhoon being retired and Tempest entering service, if indeed it comes to fruition.

Whatever we do, we should not buy the F-35A at the expense of the F-35B. We must not compromise F-35B numbers or carrier strike.

Before writing this article, I was fortunate enough to receive direct input on the F-35’s capabilities from pilots who know the aircraft intimately. Within the bounds of what they were allowed to say publicly, they were universal in their praise for the aircraft. They’re excited and energised by the prospect of it entering UK service. Whichever versions we acquire, they are in no doubt that it will provide us with a leading-edge not a bleeding-edge capability for now and the future.

UK F-35Bs fly in formation en route to their new home at RAF Marham.(Image: RAF/ UK Ministry of Defence)



[1]Source: Lockheed-Martin, Northrop Grumman.

[2]Source: US Department of Defense, March2018via Bloomberg

[3]Source: US Department of Defense, September 2018 via Defense News

[4]Source: Lockheed-Martin

[5]Source: Phillip Hammond, UK Minister of Defence, November 2013

[6]Source: BAE Systems

[7]Source: UK Ministry of Defence / RAF

[8]Source: UK Ministry of Defence / RAF

[9]Source: UK Ministry of Defence / RAF

[10]Source: US Air Force Program Brief / Lockheed-Martin (September 2006)

[11]BAE Systems, Farnborough Air Show 2018

[12]Source: UK Ministry of Defence / RAF


  1. I guess the big question to ask is how serious do you want to be about Tempest?
    If you are very serious about it, a purchase of more Typhoons rather than F-35A would make sense. Since it puts more money into some of the companies that are working on Tempest, keeps their production lines running to keep skilled workers employed. And it could be leveraged as a reason why Germany and France should join Team Tempest, since it is the UK that is keeping German workers employed.

    I also worry that if the F-35A is bought as an interim solution, they’ll simply just cancel Tempest. Because interim solutions have a tendency to become the permanent one. Like the rifled gun on the Challenger 2 or the Stryker in US Army service.
    And if F-35A wants to replace Tornado it would need to get qualified for all the weapons Tornado carries, which would add costs and take time. Meanwhile Typhoon is already cleared or going to be cleared for them. So there isn’t any additional cost or development time in that front.


  2. Another well written article. You have to love these Hitech Aircraft, the capability they provide is amazing. But is Hitech always necessary.? Do we need a multi million pound aircraft for counter insurgency operations, could a cheaper less capableable aircraft fulfill some of the lower requiremts, leaving the expensive and capable assets to be used when needed. Something like a Super Tucano.


  3. Going to have to disagree with you on this one Sir !

    We painted ourselves into a corner with the carrier design which means the F35B is the only game in town for the RN and our fleet.

    The RAF has no such constraint. Of course it will be riddled with some ridiculous jealousy if the Fleet Air Arm has newer shinier toys, in the shape of the B, so because no inter-service rivalry crisis should ever be left un-used, it will campaign hard that it needs the F35A.

    But does it ?

    Stealth: The original plan was for the F35A to be a “first day of the war” low observable strike asset, which could later fit pylons that ruin the low observable characteristics to provide greater range and payload flexibility.

    The F35 design provides limited front aspect stealth in certain frequency bands, allegedly at great cost to it’s maintenance bill. It provides nothing in other frequency bands, and of course nothing in IR or UV spectrums, and many (all?) Russian fighters carry an IR sensor for cuing their weapons.

    Would it not be better to use Storm Shadow or similar, newer missiles with stealth shaping / coatings and lower IR signatures ? Would it not be better to continue the development of the BAe Taranis ( https://www.baesystems.com/en/product/taranis ) and develop a good system of pairing with Typhoon’s with close proximity, low capability of intercept, high bandwidth data links, giving the back seater in a Typhoon control of 2 or 3 Taranis in a flight ?

    Then there are the benefits to continuing development and investment in the Typhoon. A single type of fast jet for the RAF is not a bad thing, when that jet is very, very capable. However it would be even more capable if we pushed ahead with the AESA, conformal fuel tanks etc.

    For all those who talk about the amazing sensor fusion capabilities of the F35, please tell me why the Typhoon cannot have the same capabilities, actually based in software that we “own” and are allowed to modify at our will, unlike the source code of the F35, which the US retains sole control of.

    So yes, you are right the F35B is a big step up from the Harrier II and Sea Harrier – this is great for the RN and FAA (although I would have liked to have seen cat’s and traps personally).

    However I simply see no compelling capability based argument for the F35A for the RAF. I would rather seen investment in Typhoon, and Taranis including electronic warfare / electronic attack capabilities because I think the window of advantage for stealth aircraft has already closed. Further investment that might make us some money from more export sales, upgrades by the existing European users, and will actually help in developing techniques and technologies for the Tempest.


  4. I am reminded of the story of an introductory class for USN fighter pilot trainees during the Cold War, in which the instructor asked: “Who is our enemy?”

    “The Warsaw Pact” came back the answer.

    “Wrong: the Warsaw Pact is our opposition – our enemy is the USAF!”

    More seriously, I think the question hangs on whether this (or any future) government is prepared to buy the quantities of aircraft you suggest. If so, then the F-35A makes a lot of sense. However, if the total F-35 buy is reduced, the equations change. The smaller the total number bought, the more important it becomes to preserve flexibility by acquiring the B model.

    After all, past history indicates that in UK service, the B model is more likely to see action for the reasons you give – carrier capability and short-field performance provide more options to get involved. Unless access to military airfields close to the action can be obtained, the F-35A might turn out to be a hangar queen while the B is doing all the work!


  5. (1) Look at the wing loading of the A and C versions. The C version is going to turn much better (especially instantaneous turns).
    (2) Typhoon is widely considered Gen 4.5, not Gen 4. It’s nowhere near a F-15 or F-16 in capability.
    (3) Typhoon can carry much more air combat missiles than F-35 at a given flight profile.
    (4) Typhoon is a super cruiser.
    (5) It’s likely that both typhoon and F-35 are obsolete by 2035. Both lack DIRCM (and especially F-35B cannot incorporate DIRCM without sacrificing its lift engine), which will likely devalue IIR-guided missiles (including RF + IIR sensor fused ones to some degree) in air combat and air defence. Neither is really RF stealthy in the rear about 300°. Neither uses TVC so far.

    @Tony Williams:
    “hangar queen” is a word for extremely maintenance-intensive aircraft, not for aircraft that don’t get used much in anger. The B version is guaranteed to be more maintenance-intensive than either A or C.


    One really needs to form an idea of what air war looks like in the 2030’s or 2040’s to judge the F-35.
    I have my ideas and opinions about air defence, air/ground and air combat and my conclusions are that the F-35B is near-useless for want of fuel capacity, the F-35C will be insufficient for the USN’s ambitions and the F-35A will be about as satisfactory a multi-role aircraft as is an early series Gripen today.
    It’s all very technical stuff, with much important hidden from the public, though.


  6. The biggest argument as I see it for a more basic F35, allows the MOD to eventually operate more of these aircraft, and allow the RAF to operate the plane from purely landbased locations. In Afganistan, we operated aircraft from hot, dusty airbases that just might not suit the more complex F35B? We have yet to see this plane in such environments apart from the Californian airbases. Just how much additional maintenance will the ‘B’ require under such conditions? An additional 30 ‘A’s could allow the more expensive F35B to be spared longterm degradation in extreme environments?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The F-35B was designed so it can operate from temporary, short bases as well, such as a clearing in the jungle. The F35A however requires a 6000 foot concrete runway.


    2. Why did we fly hundreds/thousands of sorties using fast jet aircraft?

      For conflicts like Afghanistan it would have been more cost effective and less detrimental to the service life of the fleet to have used something like a AT-29B Tucano for patrol duties. Dare I say it, our troops may have been better protected.

      Keep fast air on stand by, but the truth is the Apache was king in terms of fire support. To which we didn’t always have enough!

      We got rid of the old Harriers only for the Libya campaign to prove it would have been more cost effective to use these than fly from Cyprus. Planes that had only been recently upgraded and were perfect at precision bombing.

      Use resources better and then had the money to buy new. Right not we have been fighting for years, all the kit is worn out and we have no money to replace anything!


  7. Um the plan is 4 F35 squadrons plus an OCU spitting this into 2 versions is lunacy.The chances of extra squadrons in not good considering the defence black hole.Sorry for being cynical but the RAF wants the A version so it doesn’t have to go to sea,the RN can man the 2 B Squadrons and the RAF the rest the other reasons used are just a cover story to justify it.


    1. The word lunacy in this context is a little tough. There are good arguments for both sides of this issue. I’ve identified a few points where the ‘A’ could prove useful, but your points may well hide the truth….the RAF want a bit of their own F35?

      I don’t know if it would have made a difference, but having two similar fighters during the Battle Of Britain, showed strength and weaknesses of both types. Is it always wiser to have choices? Cheers.


      1. Lunacy is a refrence to the money involved in this project,inclusive of carrier’s and their support ships it is a very large number.For sure the A has some advantages but they are not significant against the damage done to the flexibility of a single type.The total fleet is just to small to split in this way, the extra bay length is irrelevant as there is no planned weapon that needs it and the range advantage is not great.In fact the ability if a carrier to get closer to the action gives the B an advantage in many situations.The A undoubtedly has a capital cost advantage but this will probably be compromised by the increased logistical and trainig costs over time.
        If 6 squadrons were planned then fine no issue but the current 4 envisaged should not be split.


  8. I personally think both the a and b could be considered but only if :
    1) the buy rate can be increased by procuring the a as well as b
    2) the numbers are increased to allow 80 bs to deploy in a crisis and ensure a large number 40 to 60 a models can be deployed by my reckoning nearer 160 to 180 for maintenance ocu squadrons etc.
    3) the money for tempest research and procurement is knocked on the head. I feel it’s currently a cash cow/white elephant for BAE I hope that I am wrong.

    My preference is for the b model only especially as I can’t see the above happening
    – but only if tempest is really going to happen and is enshrined in a contract similar to the carriers. We still need to increase the buy rate of the b it is way too slow


  9. One problem with the F35-A is that it is a Boom-type AAR (Air to Air Refuelling) whilst the F-35B is the Drogue type AAR which is what is currently equipped on all current British combat aircraft and also our Voyager AAR fleet. If we were to purchase F-35A’s we would have to either modify Voyager to have a Drogue & a Boom refuelling system or look to acquire aircraft with Boom AAR (Such as the American KC-135 ) which would be far too costly for the already stretched thin defence budget. Not to mention crewing these new planes


    1. What would the cost implications of redesigning F35A’s with Drogue type AAR be? Currently, many countries are buying the F35B but might consider additional orders for ‘A’? If enough potential customers can be determined, it just might make sense to carry out a redesign?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t know what the cost is to fit F-35As with a drogue re-fuelling system. It may be easier to re-design Voyager so that it has a boom as well drogue re-fuelling. This allows interoperability with the USAF and other F-35A users.


      2. Yes, you may be right, but you did comment previously about tanker issues being very expensive. A design fix on the F35 could be a more viable long term solution?


  10. Another reason for A models.” Lockheed Martin Missiles & Fire Control has disclosed development of a new internal weapons rack to increase the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) internal loadout on the A and C variant F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter multirole stealth aircraft.

    The F-35A and F-35C are equipped with two internal weapons bays that allow the platforms to carry two AIM-120 AMRAAMS, or a single AMRAAM and a larger air-to-surface precision-guided munition such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), in each bay. A Lockheed Martin internally funded development, designated ‘Sidekick’, will allow both F-35 variants to carry three AIM-120s in each bay for a total internal AMRAAM load of six missiles”

    Also RAF allegedly looking at boom for some voyager to a similar standard as french versions


  11. If only we had bought the F35C and with its increased range the carrier group would also have been less compromised in terms of detection.

    Though more expensive on paper the F 35C has by far cheaper life cycle costs than that of the F 35B and would have been a better investment for the UK long term. To get all the advantages 5th generation aircraft can now offer, it obviously needs it to be airborne as much as it can be at critical times.

    We need to increase numbers and procure more numbers of aircraft! But like the FRES program, penny pinching has left us with a big headache and less capability. It would of been nice for the RAF to have some foresight and also pushed for the C model also.


  12. Before worrying about any of this, we need to sort what we already have:
    – sufficient technicians and budget to get the airframes we do have in to appropriate flying order.
    – money to turn on / fix stuff the airframes are already fitted with.
    – sufficient pilots to fly the suitably enabled and maintained aircraft, as per above.

    After this, i come down very marginally on the side of a further Typhoon buy – the spiral development opportunity leading in to Tempest is what swings it for me. I think the Typhoon : F-35A unit cost would pretty much even out when considering the costs associated with another ac type. But the increased service life of the F-35A is very appealing…however I pay heed to the warning about an ‘interim’ F-35A buy becoming an ‘instead of Tempest’ buy.

    For clarity, the spiral development areas as I see it could include: conformal fuel tanks, engine heat exchanger (fuel economy / range rather than increased speed), aero dynamic tweaks (as previous) TVN, AESA, EW, future weapons, future data links.

    If we take Typhoon as an example, the peak number of airframes that are (could be) operational out of the total buy is about 70ish %. Working on a 12 ac per sqn basis, my ‘within budget (sort of) fantasy fleet’ would see 2x sqns of T1 ac for U.K. air policing (QRA sqns north & south, respectively); so 24x ac. I would see these as being the last to be upgraded, if at all.

    I would have a further 1x ‘high end’ AD-focused sqn that received spiral development upgrades prioritised for high-end air-to-air roles; 12x ac here.

    Then I’d look to bolster the existing 40x multi-role ac to enable a proper 4x sqns of 12x ac…this would be the purchase of an extra 8x T3 ac. The spiral development here would concentrate on strike capability.

    In addition to these 7x ‘frontline’ sqns (84x ac), there is obviously the OCU, and ac required for T&E. I think the OCU has 12x ac, but am not sure how many are used for T&E – as a worst case scenario, let’s say 12x ac as well. 108x ac total!

    Following this logic and commitment to a lifetime buy of 138x F-35B airframes could see a peak number of available jets at 96x ac. Again, with 12x ac for the OCU and 12x ac for T&E, which would leave 72x airframes for 6x ‘frontline’ sqns – 3x sqns each for the RAF and FAA. This is plenty enough to rotate through the carriers, surge as necessary, and have land based options concurrently.

    13x ‘frontline’ sqns / 156x fast jets, of nearly which half are 5th gen, wouldn’t be an awful place to be. It also means a near 2 : 1 ratio of Typhoon to (potentially) land-based F-35B, opening up the potential for a range of new (to the U.K.) COMAO TTPs. Of course, this is only truly effective if it is achieved with the first few points of this post being addressed.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. The RAF is running true to form. In 1918 the RFC and RNAS was combined into the RAF who utterly neglected their role in providing aircraft for the fleet’s carriers. Just before WW2 the Fleet Air Arm was created and took back control of carrier aviation, but not Maritime Recon. Thus the FAA entered the war in obsolete biplanes. Lack of MRR also almost lost the Battle of the Atlantic until Harris was forced to divert long range bombers to close the air gap in 1943.

    We lost Nimrod and have been borrowing MRR from our NATO allies to force Russian subs out of UK waters ever since. They have now bought some P8’s at long last.

    The RAF has always been better at selling it’s case to the politicians outmaneuvered the RN again and regained control of the fixed wing aircraft on the demise of the Harrier force. Now they are diverting money to the F35A which takes aircraft away from the RN. So much for a joint services approach. Surely the F35B with the dual RAF/RN capability is best. If forced I’m sure the carriers could fit in 100 F35B’s if needed. Nominal capacity is 40 planes per carrier.. If the RAF commit to 80-100 F35B’s first and then get the F35A’s afterwards then fine.

    The RN’s F35B’s will at least be able to reach many more targets globally than the land based RAF F35A’s. The F35A has half the range of the Tornado. The F35A will probably only be used on Black Buck style missions, and let’s be honest the FAA’s Harriers could have achieved much of what the Vulcans did. Those missions were a very expensive way to deliver 21 bombs (which all missed) and a few Shrike ARM’s which missed the main target.

    The RAF loves deep strike missions in reality it can do much more in supporting ground and naval forces rather than going it alone. Deep strike is best done by cruise missiles these days., launched from submarines. The Yanks got it right in the war with a separate USAAF and USN air forces. But the fly boys talk a great game!


  14. The article under review, though a plausible argument for the acquisition of the F35A by the RAF, doesn’t address the fundamental issue of the right aircraft for the Fleet Air Arm.
    The F35B lacks range and air combat capability as compared with the F35C naval fighter, which the USN has, quite rightly, focused on.
    This is because tbe British MoD wouldn’t face up to the cost of electromagnetic CATOBAR capability for the British carriers.
    In the end, a cynic would say, the RAF will get its F35As through effective lobbying and the Fleet Air Arm will be left with the F35Bs. Spitfire versus Swordfish once again, in a context where the UK wants to project global reach.


  15. “The F-35 succeeded not only in long-range encounters, but also in close-range dog-fighting versus the F-16, F/A-18 and other 4th Generation aircraft.” Interesting, in that earlier “The F-35 was also found to be “substantially inferior” to a 40-year-old F-15 fighter jet with which it had skirmished, according to an unclassified document written by an F-35 test pilot.” (That report also talks about inferiority, in a turning engagement, to an F-16 ‘wearing’ drop tanks!)

    But the Elephant in the room is not mentioned at all – operating cost! At a reported $40,000 per hour this not only adds substantial additional cost to lifetime costs, but also makes it vulnerable to later cuts due to political cost saving? The most expensive ‘hangar queen’ ever?

    Like one of your earlier respondents, I too am nervous with non-ownership of the software that is an intrinsic part of the aircraft. The political future is only consistent in it’s unpredictability: Could the UK once again be ‘blackmailed’ aka the Chinook programme?


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