The Unit­ed King­dom is edg­ing ever clos­er to buy­ing F‑35As, instead of the B mod­el need­ed to fly from the Navy’s new air­craft car­ri­ers, as a senior offi­cer once again refused to rule out a future F‑35A pur­chase.

Lieu­tenant Gen­er­al Mark Pof­fley, deputy chief of the defence staff for mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ty, told MPs “I don’t think we can rule that out” when asked if the British armed forces would buy F‑35As as well as F‑35Bs.

Last year defence pro­cure­ment min­is­ter Har­ri­ett Bald­win MP sim­i­lar­ly refused to rule out an F‑35A pur­chase.

This mat­ters because if the Roy­al Air Force secures a pur­chase of the non-navalised F‑35A vari­ant, it could leave Britain’s future flag­ships with­out enough fight­er jets to deliv­er their intend­ed effect.

Squadrons, numbers, deployments

To ever so slight­ly over­sim­pli­fy things, the basic idea behind the two new Queen Eliz­a­beth-class air­craft car­ri­ers is that they can rock up off a hos­tile country’s coast and use their F‑35B air wings to impress, scare, shoot down and poten­tial­ly even bomb the uppi­ty natives into sub­mis­sion. For non-hos­tile coun­tries, the car­ri­ers rock up and become one of the world’s great­est float­ing cock­tail bars with an awe­some (and move­able) view, com­plete with a hangar that eas­i­ly beats most Lon­don night­clubs for floor­space. In the British mil­i­tary argot, all of this is called “car­ri­er enabled pow­er pro­jec­tion”.

The astute read­er will rapid­ly realise that the entire thing is based around there being enough F‑35Bs aboard the car­ri­ers to project the pow­er, in a warfight­ing sce­nario.

The basic F‑35B deploy­ment aboard the car­ri­er will con­sist of one squadron, pos­si­bly two at a pinch. One squadron is 12 jets. Unlike the RAF’s ground-based oper­at­ing mod­el where small detach­ments from squadrons fly to a near­by air­field for com­bat oper­a­tions, an entire F‑35B squadron will have to deploy onto the car­ri­er (sin­gu­lar – the rough idea is that one car­ri­er will be deployed at sea while the oth­er is along­side at home for crew train­ing).

Rough­ly, you need around four squadrons in total to sus­tain one squadron at sea: one squadron aboard the Big Grey War Canoe™; one squadron that has just come off the Big Grey War Canoe™; one squadron at home on leave; and one squadron work­ing up ready to take its turn aboard the air­craft car­ri­er. The maths is not pre­cise; in the mod­ern armed forces, air­craft are pooled instead of being issued to par­tic­u­lar squadrons for their exclu­sive use, while expe­ri­enced per­son­nel whose skills are in short sup­ply may be unlucky and end up with back-to-back deploy­ments.

Inci­den­tal­ly, the same four-owned-for-one-oper­a­tional is the same mod­el used for Britain’s nuclear deter­rent sub­marines.

What has this got to do with the RAF turn­ing some of Britain’s planned pur­chase of F‑35Bs into F‑35As, then?

Break out the abacus

The UK has long pub­licly com­mit­ted itself to buy­ing 138 F‑35Bs. We know that the UK intends to use around 63 air­craft in its oper­a­tional fleet at any one time, leav­ing the rest in reserve. That gives you five usable squadrons, not count­ing the per­ma­nent R&D jets based in Amer­i­ca, which will nev­er leave that coun­try.

Of those five squadrons, one will be the oper­a­tional con­ver­sion unit (ie, the train­ing squadron). That leaves four squadrons … see where this is going?

Work­ing on the assump­tion that the MoD has decid­ed it will have no more than those 63 air­craft to fly at any one point, a pur­chase of F‑35As would eat into the num­ber of air­craft avail­able for work­ing up the car­ri­er air wing. To make an RAF F‑35A unit viable you’d need about 20 or so air­craft, allow­ing for test­bed jets in Amer­i­ca, oper­a­tional con­ver­sion air­craft, and the 12 actu­al­ly need­ed by the front­line squadron.

That would leave the F‑35B fleet short by two squadrons’ worth of air­craft. Sud­den­ly, absent a mas­sive­ly unlike­ly cash injec­tion to oper­ate anoth­er two squadrons of F‑35Bs, your neat and pre­dictable four-squadron mod­el drops to a two-squadron one. You also need lots more trained and skilled per­son­nel to fly two sep­a­rate fleets; the F‑35B is the ver­ti­cal take­off mod­el, opti­mised for short field (and car­ri­er) fly­ing, where­as the F‑35A is a con­ven­tion­al land-based air­craft.

In terms of what the F‑35A can do, it’s not a mil­lion miles from the Eurofight­er Typhoon, though its com­mu­ni­ca­tions fit is far more advanced and, being 20 years new­er, it’ll be around for longer. Per­haps the MoD’s inten­tion is to buy F‑35As at the very end of the F‑35 pur­chase run, though this is pure guess­work.

In short, then, buy­ing F‑35As would lead to increased costs and less even­tu­al capa­bil­i­ty. Which rais­es the obvi­ous ques­tion: why on Earth is the MoD repeat­ed­ly not rul­ing this out? ®

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