Britain may be cutting its order for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jets. While the UK has agreed to buy forty-eight of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighters—the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the jet, which is designed for use on aircraft carriers—it may only buy half its initial target of 138 of the stealth aircraft.
The Times reported that the British military will still acquire the forty-eight multirole fighters by the end of 2025 in a deal for £9.1 billion—and the F-35Bs will be deployed on the Royal Navy's new HMS Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, which could deploy with between twelve and thirty-six of the aircraft on board depending on the operation.
However, the British goal of acquiring a total of 138 aircraft over the lifespan of the U.S.-led program now seems unlikely to be fulfilled, a defense source told the newspaper of record. While the 138 figure was confirmed as an ambition in the UK defense review in 2015, the British military is not contractually obliged to buy more than forty-eight of the aircraft.
The Joint Strike Fighter, has been touted as the most lethal and versatile aircraft of the modern era—but with a price tag well over $1.5 trillion for the program, it is one of the most expensive. The UK, along with Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States is one of the only operators or planned operators of the F-35B variant.
To date the UK has received eighteen of the fighters with fifteen actually based in the UK while the other three are being used for training. The UK's aircraft were declared combat-ready in January 2019.
Cut the Order
Instead, Britain could buy only half of its initial target goal of F-35B fighters and acquire around seventy of the stealth aircraft, which would enable it to have sixty in service and keep an additional ten as back-ups in case of damage or malfunction.
The money saved from this scaled back acquisition of the F-35Bs could be directed towards the UK-led Tempest Jet, The Daily Mail reported. That sixth-generation fighter aircraft, which is expected to enter production in the mid 2030s could be "optionally manned" and operate without a human pilot and moreover could be capable to control a swarm of unmanned drones that have been dubbed "loyal wingmen."
A Tempest mockup, which was shown at last year's Farnborough Air Show, suggested a relatively large single-seat, twin-engine delta-wing fighter with a cranked trailing edge and two vertical stabilizers (tail fins) canted inwards as on the F-22 stealth fighter.
One advantage of the Tempest program is that it could also create more jobs in the UK, but it has been questioned whether the aircraft could in fact be as successful as the F-35s.
"We can't keep eroding out spectrum of capability in this way," Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, reported to have told his fellow ministers and urged them to consider the options of scaling back on the F-35 program.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.