Analysis- F35B in the future of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy

INTRODUCTION

The F-35 is a very controversial 5th gen stealthy fighter which is being developed by Lockheed Martin in partnership with several major European firms. Out of these firms, the British aerospace giant BAE has the second largest involvement (about 15%) along with other firms like Rolls-Royce and Martin-Baker. Their involvement has brought the F-35 program to British soil and created several thousand jobs. But how exactly is the purchase of the F-35 going to affect the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Navy (RN)? This will be examined in this article along with several alternate theories and what ifs. I won’t go into the technical aspects of the F-35, but will be doing an analysis on the logic and practicality of the aircraft in British military service.

INITIAL DREAMS

The UK has made it clear that they eventually intend to acquire 138 F-35s to augment their fleet of 160 Eurofighter Typhoons. Since the Tornado will be retired in the coming years, the Royal Air Force will be made up of 138 F-35 + 160 Eurofighter Typhoon (EFT) for a total of around 300 modern combat aircraft and the perfect mix of 4+ and 5th gen fighters. However this is an unlikely scenario as the current budget cuts in the UK is making them trim their armed forces. The budget cuts will surely affect the RAF acquisitions as well and the number of F-35s acquired could eventually end up at 72. This equates to a 50% reduction of their proposed F-35 fleet. Moreover, this number is a total of the F-35s to be operated by the RAF and the RN combined. So if 72 F-35s are procured, the RAF will likely receive only 48 and 24 would go to the RN to operate it from their future carrier fleet. So unless the defense budget of the UK magically rises and the budget cuts are stopped, the 48-24 aircraft scenario looks likely. But considering the worst possible scenario, only 48 F-35s will be procured of which 32 will be operated by the RAF and 16 by the RN. Let’s hope it doesn’t come down to that.

SITUATION CONSIDERING F-35A AND C

The F-35 term cannot be used without the proper suffix as it would be technically meaningless. There are 3 variants, the F35 A, B and C which are designed for the US Air Force, Marines and Navy respectively. For a balanced fleet, the RAF logically needs to procure the F-35A and the RN needs to procure the F-35C. Let us consider a situation where the original amount of 138 envisaged F-35s are procured. Since the RN will deploy only 1 Queen Elizabeth class carrier at a time, it needs an air wing of 32 F-35C to carry out effective operations. The RAF will end up with 106 F-35A to complement the EFT. This would make the RN and RAF extremely capable as they would be operating high performance fighters. The F-35 A and C possess long range and a large weapons load. The F-35C operating from the QE class would give the RN long range power projection ability and the capability to match the US Navy and they could carry out combat missions side by side without any shortcomings. The F-35A would be based around the UK in RAF bases and the large number of 106 jets would make up for the relatively low availability of these stealthy aircraft.

F-35C during trials

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A CGI showing the actual potential of a CATOBAR Queen Elizabeth class carrier carrying F-35C Photo © Unknown  via ¹

THE NEW F-35B PLAN AND ITS SHORTCOMINGS

However all this wasn’t meant to be. The RAF and RN had to agree upon a common variant to reduce procurement and operating costs. The RAF couldn’t procure the F-35C as the RNs carrier design was changed to STOVL which made the F-35B as the only option. So the RAF had to ditch the F-35A which was optimized for performance and had to switch to the F-35B which sacrificed performance (range and payload) for stealth. The RN similarly had to switch from the F-35C to the B variant and similar sacrifices were made. The RAF has a small advantage as they will operate the Short Takeoff F-35B from regular runways which will enable them to carry more payload externally.

The small internal bay is and low internal fuel capacity of the B variant is not going to be much of a problem for the US Marines. They will be getting 350+ aircraft and will have aerial tanking support from MV-22 Ospreys and KC-130s. They will also use the F-35B as an aircraft for defending their Amphibious Assault Group and to provide fire support for marines. But all this doesn’t happen more than 200-300 km from the carriers on which they are based. Each LHD of the US Navy can carry up to 30 F-35Bs if needed. Now when we equate this situation to the Royal Navy, it is clear that the Royal Navy ‘supercarriers’ will have the same power projection ability as a US Navy ‘helicopter carrier’ which displaces 20,000 tons lesser.  So the point I’m trying to make is that the Royal Navy will have a very limited carrier force which could be a thorn in the future.

F-35B demonstrates VTOL capability
CGI of F-35B operating from Queen Elizabeth Class carriers

The QE class carriers were to be fitted with EMALS and arrestor gear, but the Royal budget cuts royally thwarted that dream. A former US Navy aviator told me that the RN always dreamed of a carrier and a fighter fleet which would enable them to be on par with the US Navy and operate side by side without embarrassing shortcomings. They viewed the QE class + F-35C as the answer to their prayers, but their dream wasn’t meant to be. They had to again make do with a 5th gen jump jet one and a STOVL carrier. Although the QE class + F-35B combo is no way weak, it puts them way behind the US Navy’s next gen carrier + F-35C combo. They won’t be able to conduct side by side ops on the same scale with the USN. The older Sea Harriers had massive range and payload differences compared to the USN Super Hornets. The situation will repeat again in the future, but with different aircraft.

F-35B with external weapons load

Let me make this clearer with an example. In 1982, the Sea Harriers and Harriers operating from RN carriers had a range of a few hundred km with a combat load. This meant that they couldn’t attack mainland Argentina unless they planned to not return. The Invincible class carriers and the Hermes had to be based close to the Falklands so that the Sea Harriers could provide air cover and ground fire support. If they had a CATOBAR carrier with long range fighters (like F-14 of USN and Nimitz class carriers), they could have parked their carriers 1000 km off the Falklands and carried out air superiority missions ad bombing missions with ease. The short range of their fighters and the STOVL nature of their carriers proved to be a major drawback. But more than 30 years on, the RN is keen to do the same mistake. Despite the F-35 packing state of the art sensors, the QE class carriers will have to be stationed close to enemy territory to allow the F-35B to takeoff with a decent fuel and weapons load. And since they don’t have buddy refueling capability like USN aircraft, the combat radius of the F-35B will be tiny. If they decide to trade stealth and carry external fuel tanks and weapons stores, it may make up for the short range and small payload. But a fully armed F-35B (externally and internally) cannot take off from the ski jump of the QE class itself! So they are again stuck with the same drawbacks after 30 years. If they had F-35C and buddy refueling capability, then these shortcomings would be addressed.

CGI of F-35B doing VTOL on a QE class carrier

If you know in depth about the Falkland’s war, RN based Sea Harriers on merchant ships and operated them off their decks. This allowed them to dispatch fighters from multiple and unexpected areas. This was done using vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) which limited the amount of fuel carried and burned an immense amount of fuel during VTOL. If the RN thinks they can fly their F-35Bs off other ships with flat decks, then they are mistaken (which I’m sure they have considered). The Sea Harrier could take off from any flat piece of deck which was big enough to accommodate it. But the F-35Bs engines are so powerful, they generate an immense amount of heat which would melt unprepared or un-reinforced deck surfaces. Taking off from a destroyer deck or a merchant ship is practically impossible although theoretically it is. So even though VTOL offers a lot of flexibility, it is greatly limited as well.

Harriers and Sea Harriers on the SS Atlantic Conveyor. They took off and landed from the helipad which is visible at the aft
RAF Harriers were ferried and transported to their carriers

The RAF also has the advantage of being able to launch the F-35B from short runways and helicopter landing zones. But again the helicopter LZs must have reinforced coatings to prevent it from getting damaged during an F35B takes off. The RAF could base Harriers in urban areas, forest clearings, countryside or wherever a flat piece of land was available. They could be parked out in the open with a camo cloth covering and spring into action when necessary. They had no problem with the elements of nature when kept outside in varying weather conditions. But try doing that with a 100 million $ fighter with delicate stealth coatings and you’ll be spending additional millions of $ on maintenance. So the flexibility offered by the VTOL capability is very limited and the RAF will stick to using it in Conventional Take-off and Landing (CTOL) mode from fixed bases with permanent hangar facilities.

CONCLUSION

First RN pilot completes training on the F-35B

I have presented the scenarios which the RN and RAF could face in the future. My analysis shouldn’t be misinterpreted as an F-35 bashing. I’m merely saying that the F-35B isn’t exactly what the UK wanted. It suits the American needs perfectly and for Italy which has a light carrier, it again is the perfect choice. But for the UK  the F-35A would have been the best choice for the RAF and the F-35C for the RN. Israel is one of the the best examples of this as they have ordered 33 F-35A (I) and plan to have a fleet of 50 eventually. Australia is going to order 72 F-35A. They would have a better fleet of F-35s compared to the UK . It is a very sensible choice made by Israel and Australia. But UK is limited by budget constraints and the fact that they are going to base F-35s off their future carriers. That’s the reason that some of the performance was sacrificed for flexibility. The F-35B however will remain as the most advanced fighter in the Royal Navy inventory and will give them an edge over any of their adversaries, but with the list of limitations i mentioned. You are welcome to present your opinions, counter-arguments and theories in the comments section below.

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You may also like my take on the American logic behind the F-35

F-35 : THE GREATEST AMERICAN GAMBLE?

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40 thoughts on “Analysis- F35B in the future of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy

  1. I understand why the RN’s only choice is the F-35B following the crushing decision to revert back to a ski jump, from the proposed and designed cats and traps. What i dont understand is why the RAF has to follow suit. Surely they can opt out of the B variant in favour of the A? This then, at least, would give part of our forces the full potential of such an expensive aircraft.
    Sadly i suspect this will not happen due to our Politicians blind stubborness to what our forces really need. So in the meantime we shall continue to send Aid to India and Pakistan and fund their space and nuclear programs, respectively, whilst operating a 2nd tier, at best, Airforce and Fleet air arm.
    Our politicians bring shame and embarrassment on our forces. This trend will not be changing any time soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The logic used here is similar to what i mentioned happened in the Falklands,

      The Royal Navy did not have enough Sea Harriers for a sustained air campaign and had to use the RAF Harriers along with their aircraft to have an advantage of numbers.

      Since budget cuts made only 1 type of F-35 procurement possible and the fact that only a small number would be purchased, plus the fact that the RN would hardly get 24 F-35B. The RAF using similar aircraft makes sense as they can embark the whole RAF and RN fleet of F-35B on their carriers in a future emergency. If the RAF operated the F-35A, the RN would have a tiny air arm which would be inadequate in a war.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hey I don’t know abt pak.. But india doesn’t receive aid form uk either to fund our space explorations.. Or for nuclear research.. The only aid from uk that we receive is £160 mil for poverty eradication.. And that’s it!!and that too is in debate here in india weather to continue receiving foreign aid or not as we ourselves donate abt $1.5 billion as humanitarian aid to other countries…

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      2. N.R.P. is correct. Budget cuts are the primary reason for switching the RAF F-35 to the B version. The combination of 617 Squadron RAF and 809 NAS would embark on the QE Carriers in any emergency – leaving the land based air defence to the Typhoons.

        The Government is desperate to cut the deficit. One of the ways to do this is to cut the purchase numbers even more. Current plans suggest 64 aircraft, but this maybe reduced to 48, or even lower.

        The only way to ensure that the F-35 becomes operational on the carriers will be to divert as many RAF F-35B as they can, to show that the carriers can operate as a credible force. This means that the carriers may only have as few as 6-12 aircraft unless operational, with the RAF keeping the others at RAF Marham.

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  2. The Royal Navy has the aspirations to project power far from Their mainland.. So a small range aircraft on the carrier doesn’t make sense especially if u r using a ski jump carrier.. As u can’t launch heavy refuelling planes off if.. My point is if u can’t afford to buy f35c.. Then you should go in for more eurofighter typhoons( though it would not enable them to have 5 gen stealth(??!!??) fighter but neither will F35b would do that).This would also decrease the operating costs and enable them to carry more payload.. And raf should be given around 30 F35 A to make atleast 1 full squadron of a 5gen fighter..

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    1. The only limitation is that the Eurofighter doesn’t have a carrier capable variant and will never have one. That’s the reason they had to go with the F-35B.

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  3. Thank you for that informative article. I hadn’t understood the limitations of the UK using the F 35B. It’s tough to see a proud sea faring nation be struck down by budget cuts and the need to follow the USA politically by buying the 35B. In hindsight, it might have been better to just build one carrier and use the billions for the second to buy…. well…. anything else. They could have bought a lot of F 18s or even…. gasp (!) The French Rafale, along side with another type 45 destroyer or two and a ton of missiles.

    To be honest, besides faster speed, I’m not sure what advantage the carriers have by using the 35B, instead of having attack helicopters. The range is about the same. By the time the lightning reaches It’s ceiling, It’s time to return. .imagine if they loaded the carrier with 100 helos. That’s a ton of close support.

    Anyway it’s just conjecture. The RAN is stuck now

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome Andrew.

      It was initially proposed that the UK and French operate a joint carrier fleet. The Rafale was proposed as a common carrier based fighter. But the compulsion to lean towards America made them drop this idea and build a carrier fleet with no compatability with the American carriers .

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    2. They would have been better off spending the money a CATOBAR and saved money by buying F/A18 and allowed the RAF to stay with the A variant. The QE class is a large carrier and frankly of they weren’t going to install a ski jump they would have been better with a design like the America class that they USMC use.

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  4. Excellent article. I was unaware of the decision to switch the RAF purchase to F-35B. It suggests that there will be deficit related major cuts in purchase numbers in the near future, which maybe offset by agreeing to purchase the agreed number much later on – when there are funds.

    I can easily see a future government deciding to sell the QE and POW carriers to another country already operating ski jump, such as India. Or a new customer such as Pakistan or Australia. In a similar manner to the way they decided to sell the thru-deck carriers before the Falklands War.

    That would leave the way open for them to build new carriers with Cats & Traps and then purchase the F-35C for both RAF and RN. It would also solve the AAR and AEW problem. If they don’t, then te RN will be severely handicapped as they were in 1982.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I don’t see them selling their carriers to India. Pakistan is not even on the scene.

      India wants to operate more capable carriers then the QE class. Their next carriers will have EMALS and Catapults to launch advanced fighters. So they would end up having the second best carrier fleet in the world.

      RN will use the new AEW platform which is based on the Merlin helo. It has a better loiter time compared to the Seaking AEW, but nowhere near the capability of an E-2.

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  5. Seems like the MoD is constantly doing things in half-measures. Very modern destroyers, but don’t provide complete offensive or defensive systems…or enough of them to build a suitable carrier task force and still have enough capacity for other commitments or contingencies. The major drawback to the QE class is with no cat&trap they’re incompatible with American and French carrier operations. Not good.

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  6. Good article, I fear all the countries buying the F35 of whichever variant ,will eventually pull out. Canada has pulled out and that puts pressure on other countries. If the UK builds carriers for an aircraft that is yet to be proven and ends up being ridiculously expensive to the point of not being able to afford descent numbers It will have marched itself into a seriously bad, dead end. The worst of it all is the F35 has taken so long to develop , it is being superseded by sixth generation manned aircraft and carrier capable drones already and it’s still a long way off. This is happening at a time of a resurgent Russia that has a very capable military and is not afraid to use it.

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  7. bullshit, why do they slash budget for the Royal Navy and RAF, and couldn’t the at least have built the Queen Elizabeth to be STOBAR?

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    1. The original designs were for Stobar carriers, but then the Whitehall mandarins decided that the engines had to be non-nuclear – most probably because it would block visits to some foreign ports – and the cost of designing the power plant. So there was no steam generator for the Cats.

      One only has to visit the national debt website to visualize the problem
      http://www.debt-clock.org/
      We simply do not have the funds to afford a nuclear carrier. Maybe we could have rented one from the United States?!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I understand budget cuts, but are arrester wires that bloody expensive, I had a friend I met in a robotics competition from Britain and when I asked him about his opinion on the QE carriers he was also wondering why the Royal Navy couldn’t at least make the Queen Elizabeths STOBAR

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      2. There’s already been some discussion about the F-35 being too heavy to land vertically with stores under certain conditions. It was mooted by the pro lobby that they would carry out ‘rolling’ landings. However, experienced FAA pilots suggested that trying a rolling landing with a wet and pitching deck would be suicidal. So they may add hooks if these landings become the norm.

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      3. In my opinion there is nothing wrong with operating the F-35B as a STOBAR aircraft, and the RAF should have just pushed through with the F-35A

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      4. The U.K. Is the worlds 5th largest economy it can more than afford the cost. It’s just a choice not too. I find if you are going to commit to a national asset then comity to it and build it should be built.

        The U.K. Have nuclear propulsion experience and operates a nuclear navy to fail to incorporate nuclear in their two biggest power projection naval vessels is just short sighted.

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      1. Alas, in the end, the QE SHOULD have been a CATOBAR carrier, can a CATOBAR carrier be powered by a non-nuclear propulsion?

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      2. Yes. But if it has EMALS then there will be a lot of power required to operate them. Number of gas turbines and hence fuel consumption will increase dramatically. It can have steam cats with conventional propulsion. EMALS preferably need nuclear propulsion.

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  8. Hi NRP,

    I like your articles on here, particularly the AIP one, but I don´t think this one was up to your usual standard. You only acknowledged the justification for a single fleet in the comments, and did not mention the fact that the suggested CATOBAR conversion of the carriers was so expensive that only one of them was likely to ever have been converted. So the question is, is one CATOBAR carrier better than two STOVL carriers? Since the UK ordered two carriers to ensure the constant avalability of one carrier, the answer has to be no.

    Another thing that critics seem to have missed (or to have dismissed too quickly) are the special advantages of the B. Whilst the carrier will have to operate closer to the enemy than a CATOBAR carrier, this is only true if it is used in the traditional role. If it used instead as a ferry, as the UK used its carriers to reinforce the air defences of Malta (the unsinkable aircraft carrier) in WW1, as it did in the Falklands, and as the Marines will conceivably do in any future Pacific war, the carrier is actually at less risk than a CATOBAR one operating in the conventional manner, This ferry role is less likely to be adopted by a CATOBAR carrier, since the B can be dispersed throughout a theatre of operations in a way that the A and C cannot, which makes the idea of basing the latter two types from land close to the enemy much less attractive. The F-35B is therefore a crucial anti A2AD weapon, one that is as relevant in Eastern Europe as it is in the Western Pacific.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi

      Thank you for pointing that out. It’s true that I had ignored a few things while writing this article. I will try to update it with better and balanced information. Also, keeping in mind the points you made about the F35B.

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  9. Take your time, you seem to be doing it all yourself! If you do though, you should perhaps mention that access to the V-22 to increase the range of f-35b will be crucial in any theatre beyond the range of ground based AAR. It seems likely that USMC V-22s will be embarked, but what would happen in a Falklands-type scenario?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Reading this article, one can’t help thinking there is a lot of truth in saying the UK Royal Navy these days is a couple of big flashy toys with the lack of supporting infastructure to make good use of it.

    It’s sad, really.

    And most frustrating of all, this decline is not just down to budget cuts, but bad spending decisions too.

    Am I right in the above? I can’t help thinking that the RN should have decided to invest in one truly effective carrier gorup, rather than 2 ineffective ones.

    Like

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