Defence chiefs are preparing drastic cuts to the number of American stealth aircraft planned for the RAF and the Royal Navy’s proposed new carriers, the Guardian has learned.
They will be among the first casualties, with existing squadrons of Harrier and Tornado jets, of a huge shift in military spending being considered by ministers, officials and military advisers.
As they head towards their biggest and most painful shakeup since the second world war, a consensus has emerged among the top brass that they can not afford the 140 American Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) they have been seeking.
The JSF, or F35 as it is now called, has been subject to costly delays and the estimated price has soared from £37m each four years ago to more than £62m today.
One compromise would be for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to halve its order from 140 planes to 70.
There is also a growing view that Britain will not be able to afford to build the two large aircraft carriers, already delayed, let alone the planes due to fly from them.
“The carriers are under real threat. There will certainly be a big reduction in JSF numbers,” a well-placed military source told the Guardian.
“The carriers are about more fast jets. They are very hard to justify,” added a defence official, referring to a growing consensus that the RAF already has too many fast jets.
If the order was halved, it would probably be split so that there was a short take-off and vertical landing (Stovl) version for the carriers, and a conventional version based at RAF ground stations.
Among other options being considered are: downsizing the second carrier to a much cheaper platform for helicopters, marine commandos, and unmanned drones; building both carriers but selling one, perhaps to India; and equipping them with cheaper catapult-launched aircraft.
No decisions will be made until after the general election. However, there is a consensus developing in the MoD that Britain simply cannot afford existing plans to build two large carriers in a project which, if the JSF planes are included, would cost an estimated £25bn.
The view is that it is extremely difficult to justify at a time when troops in Afghanistan are being deprived of helicopters and surveillance systems – including unmanned drones – which provide badly needed intelligence about what insurgents and suspected terrorists are up to.
The two proposed carriers, the Queen Elizabeth, due to go into service in 2016, and the Prince of Wales, due to follow in 2018, are already £1bn over the original estimated cost of £3.9bn. This excludes the cost of any aircraft flying from them.
The money spent on carriers and their jets is even more difficult to justify, say critics, at a time when the navy is getting six new frigates at £1bn apiece and a replacement for the Trident nuclear ballistic missile system, which ministers say could cost £20bn while admitting they do not know what the final figure will be.
A decision on the proposed new Trident submarine’s basic design contract – due last September – has been put back. “Further time has been required to ensure that we take decisions based on robust information,” the defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth, told MPs before Christmas.
The final cost of Trident could amount to £97bn over the system’s 30-year life, according to Greenpeace. The MoD has not challenged the figures.
What is likely to be a debate with much blood on the carpet was triggered last autumn by General Sir David Richards, soon after he became head of the army. “We cannot go back to operating as we might have done even 10 years ago when it was still tanks, fast jets, and fleet escorts that dominated the doctrine of our three services,” he said. “The lexicon of today is non-kinetic effects teams [carrying out 'hearts and minds' operations], counter-IED [improvised explosive devices], information dominance, counter-piracy, and cyber attack and defence.”
Richards warned that even large states such as China and Russia could adopt unconventional tactics rather than preparing for fighting with missiles and fixed formations of troops and armour. “Attacks are likely to be delivered semi-anonymously through cyberspace or the use of guerrillas and Hezbollah-style proxies,” he said.
The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, and Sir Stephen Dalton, the head of the RAF, have publicly challenged Richards’s argument, saying it is dangerous to assume the days of “state against state” warfare are over.
However, all agree that the defence budget is under unprecedented pressure. Malcolm Chalmers, professorial fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, estimates the MoD will have to cut its budget by up to 15%, and possibly more, by 2016. If future cuts fall disproportionately on capital projects then the MoD could be one of the hardest-hit departments after the general election, whoever wins it.
The annual defence budget is about £35bn, not including the cost of operations in Afghanistan, which are running at about £4bn a year and are paid for out of the Treasury’s contingency fund.
The Air Force is spending hundreds of billions of dollars on two fighter jets that probably will never be used to support troops on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Congress has decided to cap production of the F-22, removing funding for the fifth-generation fighter from the 2010 military budget. And the F-35 — also known as the Joint Strike Fighter — won’t be ready for prime time before 2013, according to the latest estimates.
Critics of the new fighters say they are too expensive and not needed in today’s warfare, while proponents argue that the current aircraft are not as advanced as the F-22 and F-35, both of which would help the U.S. maintain air superiority for decades to come.
The programs have come under heavy criticism, mainly for cost overruns.
Each F-22 — there are about 140 of them assigned to six stateside bases — will have cost about $350 million under current estimates. The U.S. is awaiting delivery of roughly 50 more of them.
Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information and a vocal critic of both programs, predicts each F-35 might eventually cost almost $200 million.
Guy Ben-Ari, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the costs are "raising eyebrows left and right. At the end of the day, it comes down to resources, and they’re not endless."
Despite those concerns, the fighters’ advantages cannot be ignored, some officials say.
Maj. John Peterson, requirements officer for the F-35A at Air Force headquarters, said each fifth-generation fighter has four features that make it superior to fourth-generation models such as the F-16, F-15 and F/A-18. Some fourth-generation models might have some of the capabilities, but none has all four, he said.
Those four are the ability to evade enemy radar; maneuverability; the ability to take on varied tasks; and the ability to translate more data into usable information for the pilot.
A look at each aircraft:
Christopher Preble, writing on the blog he maintains for the Cato Institute, said he believes the F-22 "likely never will" participate in actions over Iraq or Afghanistan. But Preble, director of foreign policy studies for the institute, said that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad aircraft.
"I have no reason to question the F-22’s capability," he said in a recent telephone interview.
Ben-Ari, a member of CSIS’ Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group, agreed with that assessment.
He said the F-22 might be able to carry out missions to support ground troops, but said that other aircraft such as the F-16 and A-10 are better designed to do so. The F-22 is thought to be better suited for taking on enemy aircraft and anti-aircraft positions as opposed to enemy forces engaged with friendly troops on the ground.
But there is the cost factor.
Preble cited a Washington Post article that stated that the cost of flying an F-22 is about $40,000 per hour.
So using the F-22 for a mission that other aircraft could handle, Ben-Ari said, "would be in the same manner as a Lamborghini used to bring your kids to school. You could do it, but do you really need to?"
Maj. Clay Bartels, F-22 requirements officer for Air Force headquarters at the Pentagon, said he believes the F-22 could take on ground-support missions today if called upon. But he said its primary role — ensuring U.S. superiority in the skies — isn’t needed in today’s wars.
"Air superiority is achieved already," he said in a phone interview.
Supporters say the F-22 is so technologically superior to other fighters that it will use advanced detecting and targeting systems to take out enemy planes from miles away. In such cases, enemy planes might not have even known they were in a fight until it was too late.
F-35A Joint Strike Fighter
The Air Force expects to receive the first of its 1,763 aircraft in 2013 — if testing goes according to plan.
The Marine Corps recently took possession of the first versions of the F-35 from Lockheed Martin and has begun its own testing. Congress overrode Pentagon misgivings and decided to spend an additional $465 million on an alternative engine for the F-35.
The Air Force, which projects that the F-35 will make up half its fleet in 2025, is involved in a system development and demonstration phase that Peterson said is set to last until 2014.
Wheeler, who once worked for the General Accounting Office, said that means the service will have purchased a significant number of aircraft that haven’t been fully tested. And he said he believes too much of the current testing is in the form of simulated models and table-top theories. He said more tests must involve actually flying the F-35.
Peterson and Bartels said the F-35 and F-22 are designed to provide specific, complementary roles for the service. But they’re only part of the picture. The service projects that some of the current generation of fighters will be used for decades to come.
Ben-Ari said the Air Force needs to not only deal with conflicts today, but also plan for future ones. "For the missions we’re conducting today, the current fleet is capable," he said. "For future ones … I’m not so sure.
"You can’t just draw up a design for a new aircraft and produce it in six months," he said. "You’re hedging against future risk. No politician or military officer wants to be the one who, looking back through history, canceled a project or ignored a risk."
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