By Mohammed Abbas and Rhys Jones
LONDON May 10 Britain said it was to buy
vertical take-off fighter jets for its future aircraft carriers,
a policy shift on a key weapons purchase that risks being seen
as another government gaffe and further evidence of defence
Britain said on Thursday it will buy the F-35B variant of
the Lockheed Martin-built Joint Strike Fighter, the
model David Cameron said was too expensive, following a defence
review after he became prime minister in 2010.
That review, criticised by many as being rushed, set the
course for defence for five years. A key move was to order the
F-35C, which requires catapult and arrester wires, or "cats and
traps", on one of Britain's two new aircraft carriers to help
the fighters take off and land.
The cost of the system has doubled to 2 billion pounds ($3.2
billion) since first estimates, the defence ministry (MoD) said.
The F-35B does not need cats and traps. The cash cost
savings have an operational price - a reduced range and smaller
weapons payload than the F-35C.
Also, cats and traps would have delayed carrier strike
capability by three years to 2023, the MoD said, adding it had
spent 40 million pounds on the system.
"This government will not blindly pursue projects and ignore
cost growth and delays," defence secretary Philip Hammond said.
Cameron told parliament two years ago cats and traps were
necessary to "allow our allies to operate from our operational
carrier and it will allow us to buy the carrier version of the
JSF which is more capable, less expensive, has a longer range
and carries more weapons."
Reverting to the F-35B planned by the previous Labour
government will likely be embarrassing for Cameron.
The switch came at a bad time for the government, which has
lurched from one blunder to another in recent weeks, and is also
difficult for the MoD, which watchdogs have criticised over
botched procurement programmes.
Senior defence officials said facts had changed since 2010,
and Britain's allies were "completely relaxed" about the
diminished interoperability of Britain's planned carriers.
Senior defence officials also said the F-35B would give
Britain the option to use its two new aircraft carriers.
"It demonstrates what a terribly bad exercise the SDSR was,"
said Eric Grove, defence analyst at the University of Salford,
referring to the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.
Lockheed is developing the multirole stealth F-35 for the
U.S. military and eight international partners at a projected
cost of around $396 billion.
Britain committed in 2001 to buy 138 of the aircraft, mostly
the F-35A conventional fighter, to replace Harrier and Tornado
jets. In 2010, the current government said it would cut the
number of F-35s.
The MoD said it would not make a decision on the number of
JSFs it will order before the next defence review in 2015.
British group BAE Systems is a key contractor on
the project. Other British contractors named by Lockheed include
Cobham, Rolls-Royce, Ultra Electronics,
and Martin-Baker Aircraft Company.