Following the Times report that the UK is looking seriously at Boeing's upgraded international F/A-18E as a substitute for the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, the Daily Telegraph now reports that the UK will acquire the catapult-arrest F-35C instead, as part of the current defense review. According to the Telegraph, the F-35C is expected to cost less than the F-35B.
Update: Meanwhile, as Robert reports, it is also being leaked that UK and France may agree to operate their carriers collaboratively, with AFP reporting that an announcement could come this week - preempting the UK defense review.
It's an intriguing story for many reasons. First of all, it has to be borne in mind that the "leaks" from the defense review are in many cases attempts to promote or sabotage specific actions within the scope of the review. Second, the pivotal fact alleged in the story - that the F-35C is much less costly than the F-35B, offsetting the costs of modifying the ships with catapults - is at odds with everything the program has said so far: the F-35B and F-35C have always been described as similar in price and more costly than the F-35A.
So what's really going on? Here is my take: The RN's primary goal is to save its two new carriers - already under construction - from the blowtorch.
If the ships are built, they will be around for decades after the 2010 defense review has been forgotten. The leaks that have appeared - the F/A-18 plan, a proposal to complete one ship (initially) as a large helicopter carrier, and the F-35C idea - all have in common the idea that both ships get built.
Politically, though, the F-35C and F/A-18 are two different things. The F-35C decision will be less annoying to the US (or at least the 49 US states that are not Missouri), but more importantly it is a joint-service deal for the UK. The RAF could even prefer the F-35C to the F-35B because of its greater range and payload. An F-35C choice would mean that the cost of the aircraft would be borne by both RAF and RN budgets, as planned.
Conversely, the F/A-18E would be mainly a Royal Navy jet, with the RN bonding closely with the US Navy. And because RN pilots are already flying F/A-18s on exchange tours with the USN, the path to full operational capability is much shorter with the Hornet. Meanwhile, the RAF could get to keep more of its precious Typhoons and even let its Tornado bombers live out their natural lifespan, using money saved by buying the less costly Super Hornet.
So I wonder if what we are seeing is two alternative ways of funding two carriers being floated, to see which gathers broader support.
Update 2: On further reflection, all of the options aired recently - Super Hornet, F-35C and collaboration with the French - have one thing in common: they are cat-arrest solutions, because linking with the French would hardly make sense if it wasn't possible to cross-deck.
Next question: would France's Charles de Gaulle be able to handle the F-35C, which has a maximum take-off weight that is around 20,000 pounds greater than Rafale?
Also, note the comment late in the Telegraph story:
A source said: “Labour chose the wrong type of aircraft and the wrong configuration of carrier, and they wasted a lot of money doing it. What’s going on now is about trying to fix that mess.”
It's always easier to take a decision when you can blame it on your predecessor.