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Britain's Defense Budget Continues to Suffer Austerity Pains; Defence Ministry Considers Cutting Orders for F-35B

November 24th - 2017

The capabilities of Britain's armed forces have suffered substantially as a result of budget cuts, and these continue to affect several major acquisition programs. The most recent case has been a potential reneging on the plan to acquire 138 F-35B jets fifth generation light multirole fighters for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. These fighters will be by far the most expensive the country has ever operated, with costs continuing to rise as more updates to software are required and more bugs in need of fixing emerge. The operational cost per hour of the F-35 meanwhile is higher than that of any light multirole platform - second only to the F-22. Maintenance requirements are extreme with fighters spending well over forty hours on the ground for every hour in the air. Deputy chief of Britain's defence staff Lieutenant General Mark Poffley told members of the country's parliament in mid November 2017 that he was "sympathetic" to the idea that the overall number of fighters in order could decrease. This came as Stephen Lovegrove, a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defense, revealed that the cost of the first set of 48 fighters could rise from £9bn in 2025 to £13bn in 2048. The depreciation of the Sterling pound relative to the U.S. dollar was another key factor which led to a considerable increase in the cost of the F-35 acquisition - as the fighters are designed primarily for the U.S. Marine Corps and mostly manufactured in the United States.

There were indications that only 48 of the fighters, only 35% of the planned orders, were confirmed - with the rest facing potential cancellation due to budgetary constraints. One member of the British Parliament, Julian Lewis, stated regarding potential cuts to the acquisition: "we are going to have to adjust the numbers of these aircraft that we order. What's clear then is that the 48 are safe, secure, done and dusted as it were as far as the financial cost is concerned, but after that there is inevitable uncertainty, that's what you are telling us." General Pofley confirmed: "That's the reality of the world we are living in."

F-35B fighters were ordered primarily for the Royal Navy's two Queen Elizabeth class carriers, each of which is expected to carry 40-48 fighters. The remaining fighters are set to be operated by the Royal Air Force. The F-35B variant, though it is the least combat capable variant of the F-35 and the most complex to maintain, was chosen for its ability to carry out vertical takeoff and landings. Unlike the U.S. Nimitz class and French Charles De Gualle Class carriers the British carriers cannot accommodate conventional fighters with takeoffs and landings such as the F-35C or Rafale M. While the 138 F-35B fighters on order were expected to be operated jointly by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force - even if the number of fighters obtained rises from 35% to 60% of the initial order it would only be enough to outfit two carriers - not to modernize the RAF. A likely result of budget cuts therefore, considering the perceived importance of a carrier fleet to British power, is that the F-35B will be acquired in sufficient numbers to outfit the Queen Elizabeth carriers only - while the Air Force will continue to rely on the fourth generation Eurofighter Typhoon as the mainstay of its capabilities. Alternatively, the Royal Navy could find itself operating a single aircraft carrier and using the second Queen Elizabeth Class warship as a helicopter carrying platform.


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