A senior ministry official said the conversion schedule had been equally optimistic and that the first modified ship would not have been delivered until 2023, not by 2019-20 as had been planned. This gap in carrier-borne aviation was deemed unacceptable—the current lack of carrier air capability in the U.K. is a politically fraught issue, highlighted by the Libya operation in 2011.
One reason that the cost and time for the conversion had been so badly underestimated was a miscalculation of the impact of the modifications on the ships. At first it was hoped to confine the changes to 80 compartments (out of about 1,200), but real engineering work showed that major modifications to over 290 compartments would be required, with 250 more needing smaller modifications.
On top of this, assumptions about the cost of Emals turned out to be wide of the mark. U.K. planners had assumed that since the Emals used on the Ford-class carriers includes four catapults, and the U.K. would only need two, the cost would be half the U.S. Navy's. But as a senior ministry official said, “the cost of breaking out common systems [from Emals] turned out to be more expensive than had been thought.”
One issue little noticed, but mentioned by senior ministry officials, was the negative influence of the U.S. Defense Department. Their reported insistence that the Emals hardware had to be procured via the Foreign Military Sales system added a 7% surcharge—some £150 million—to the planned costs, which a senior ministry official indicated was not favorable. Further, according to the same official, the U.S. agency wanted to have control over the integration of Emals into HMS Prince of Wales—“they would have had control of the process, not us”—and this was deemed utterly unacceptable, as it could have led to program overruns which the U.K. could not control.
The story gets stranger when it comes to the switch of aircraft variant, as one senior military official said that, “the weapons carried [by the F-35C] would be no different to those carried by the Stovl version.” This suggests that the argument 18 months earlier —that the F-35C's bigger weapons bay would be useful—might not have been as well thought-out as should have been the case. A senior officer with aviation experience added that the shorter range of the F-35B was “a marginal compromise,” and he said that since many—if not most—U.K. operations were conducted with inflight refueling support, this was not really an issue.
The newer estimates show that the cost of building, equipping and supporting even one CV-equipped ship would have been high enough to outweigh the costs of running the more expensive F-35B. The costs of keeping F-35C pilots trained and carrier-capable were deemed to be higher than for the F-35B, which is easier to land.
Another key justification for the 2010 decision to opt for the F-35C had changed by 2012. It had been argued that it would make the U.K. force more interoperable with the U.S. and French navies, both of which use CV aircraft. But in May, a senior ministry officer said that, “there are some issues about the physical cross-decking [of the F-35C] with France,” and went on to explain that the F-35C is too heavy to operate from the carrier Charles de Gaulle. This in itself is not surprising —the F-35C's empty weight is almost 60% more than that of France's Rafale M. What is surprising is that nobody saw the problem in 2010.
The late-2010 argument that the F-35C posed less risk than the F-35B had changed if not been reversed by the end of 2011. While by no means out of the woods, the F-35B did complete a series of Stovl tests on the USS Wasp in October 2011. It was the F-35C that flunked one of its first carrier-qualification tests when its tailhook missed the wire on “roll-in” engagement. A new hook tip and hook damper are being tried, but if they don't fix the problem, the next solution will cost a lot more.
Overall, studies and research undertaken in 2011 and 2012 overturned practically every justification for the F-35C. This has been deeply embarrassing for Cameron, who can now expect House of Commons committees and external audit bodies to investigate whether the decision-making process was sound.
Even with the new direction for the JSF and the aircraft carriers nominally settled, there are other expensive decisions ahead. Perhaps the most crucial concerns airborne early warning (AEW) which the Royal Navy lost in the 1970s with the retirement of its last catapult-arrest carriers, and hastily recreated after its absence cost several ship losses in the Falklands war.