Britain Demonstrates the Flexibility Inherent in the F-35 Program


2012-07-16 by Robbin Laird

This week the UK government will officially accept its first F-35B. There are a total of 4 under contract, which includes the first operational aircraft to be received in LRIP 7.

This is a re-affirmation of the importance of the F-35 and the B version for the future of UK military operations.  After a period of uncertainty over whether the British carrier would be re-designed to carry a tailhook version, the British determined the cost not worth the effort, and remained with the B.

Lost in the public coverage of this debate was a fundamental element of the F-35 program – once you are in the program, you have the opportunity to switch variants or mix and match planes.

It could well turn out over the life of the F-35 program that the UK ends up with a mix of F-35Bs and F-35As.  Or Australia, which is now focused on the F-35As, may decide that Bs would be a nice addition, both for the new projection ship and for the flexibility of basing which the B provides.

This decision does not have to be made now but can be made in the future, as requirements, demands and the strategic environment changes.  In other words, not only is this a very upgradeable platform, but the fleet buy can change as the partner nation determines and shapes its needs.

Ironically, the choice process, which Britain demonstrated, underscored a core strength of a global program with multiple variants of the baseline aircraft.

We wrote earlier prior to the official announcement of the continued commitment to the B variant – for the UK had not changed its basic order for Bs to Cs – the B will in time be understood as not simply a USMC aircraft.

Ed Timperlake wrote at the time of the decision:

No longer should the F-35B be considered a boutique niche aircraft only essential for Marine combat con-ops. With vision and commitment on numbers it can become a tactical aircraft that sends a strategic signal.

The reason is simple, an F-35B can stand strip alert on any long runway, U.S. or Allied. From a strategic point of view think of Guam, South Korea or in the Middle East on all long runways. As a crisis situation develops, the F-35Bs can be remotely placed in secret hardened bunkers and revetments and thus become a significant deterrence asset that can instantly sortie into combat and return to gas and go again and again.

The F-35C, Navy version, is tied to large deck “cat and trap” angle decks, whereas the F-35B is a flexible tool able to deploy on many ships, working concurrently with helo and MV-22 flight ops and on many airfields, fixed, long, short, or not even today’s operational airfields but just hard surface roads.

The F-35B reverses the relationship between pre-defined operational bases and the aircraft. The aircraft no longer constrains the definition of an airfield.

The sortie rate of an F-35 aircraft is more than just rearm and “gas and go.” It is continuity of operations with each aircraft linking in and out as they turn and burn without losing situational awareness.

This can all be done in locations that can come as a complete tactical surprise –the F-35B sortie rate action reaction cycle has an add dimension of unique and unexpected basing thus getting inside an opponent’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) loop.

First Flight of UK F-35B from on Vimeo.

And I wrote at the time of the decision that the flexibility of the B was part of the emergence of a focus on expeditionary strike groups, not the carrier battle groups.

At the heart of the inherent flexibility is the emergence of a new approach to the Expeditionary Strike Group or ESG presaged in Bold Alligator 2012.  In the exercise, the migration from the ARG-MEU already underway under the influence of the Osprey to a much larger strike formation operating from a distributed seabase was evident.  The Osprey was at the heart of the tactical mobility, which has strategic consequences for how a distributed seabase can operate.

And the B operating off of the large deck amphibs will add what we have called the honeycombed air system providing air cover and close combat support to the insertion and strike force…..

The large deck amphibious ship is more analogous to the Queen Elizabeth class carriers than either the Nimitz or the Gerald Ford.  And what the large deck amphibs with 22 F-35Bs aboard (if so desired) can do is to tie together an Expeditionary Strike group and tie in other air assets, whether land-based or large deck carrier based.

The deck space on the amphibs or the Queen Elizabeth class carriers can be configured to the mission and evolve what is appropriate to the tasks.  The cats and traps built into a Queen Elizabeth will limit the ability to have the flexibility of deck spotting which a V/TOL aircraft can provide.

The Brits are not likely in any case to follow the con-ops of the Carrier Battle Group; they will be evolving the con-ops of the ESG.  Whether with their own ships and air assets, or those of allies – American or not – the Queen Elizabeth with F-35Bs on board can operate as an ESG focal point.  And because of the deck flexibility, they will be able to mix and match helos with airplanes, unmanned and manned or whatever evolves over the next 40 years of the life of the ship.

The RAF buying F-35As makes inherently good sense because it will be the cheapest of the F-35s and be produced in large numbers over the course of the program.  And the shared combat systems means that the F-35Bs operating off of the carrier can work inseparably with the RAF or ANY other land-based F-35s which the Brits will need to work with.

The flexibility inherent in the F-35 program can allow the UK at a later point to add As to Bs in shaping their variant of an F-35 fleet.  And they simply need to get started with the Bs to determine later the proper mix for their national security needs.

Another element of flexibility inherent in the program is the ability to adjust up or down annual production buys from a baseline number to higher number in a given year. The program – as a global program — can absorb the fluctuations in quantity that other production programs cannot.