The British Armed Forces’ F-35 fifth generation fighters are scheduled to move fully past the limitations of their Initial Operating Capability to reach Full Operating Capability in 2025, with the delay from 2023 having been confirmed by Minister of State for the Ministry of Defence James Heappeyon on September 14. This follows multiple delays in the United States certifying the troubled fighter for full scale production due to its lack of readiness and multiple persisting performance issues, with defects counted at around 800 and more continuing to be discovered. First flying in 2006, the F-35 only entered service nine years later with the program’s problematic nature having been harshly criticised by both military and civilian officials, followed recently by the Pentagon cutting orders for 2023 by 35 percent. The British fleet which relies on the complex and more costly F-35B variant, an aircraft with an estimated flyaway cost over 50% higher than the U.S. Air Force’s F-35A, has received fighters at a relatively slow rate and faced more issues with their performances. One of the fighters fell into the Mediterranean Sea during exercises in November.
Britain was initially expected to field 138 F-35Bs, although only 48 have been purchased and 26 more planned with the fleet’s future beyond that remaining highly uncertain. This would be insufficient to fill the air wings of the country’s two Queen Elizabeth Class carriers, which were designed to optimally deploy around 40 each, particularly when taking into account that much of the fleet would be used for training or under maintenance at any one time. Air Marshal Sir Richard Knighton observed to this effect: ““All 74 aircraft would be operational, but inevitably you will have a number that are in the operational conversion unit, teaching pilots to fly for the first time on the aircraft, and a number that will be going through routine maintenance. We are talking about a relatively new aircraft that will evolve, in terms of its maintenance cycle, over the next decade, but we would expect, for a fleet of that size, probably about 20% of them—something like that—to be in maintenance at any one time. If you want rough numbers, about 15 of them will be in maintenance, but as I said, that will evolve as we understand more about how we maintain this thing and how long it takes. That would leave you with 60-odd in the forward fleet.”
The F-35B is the least capable F-35 variant in terms of combat performance, having a much shorter range, lower manoeuvrability, higher maintenance needs, and a missile payload one third smaller than the A and C models. A benefit of such fighters, however, is their ability to deploy from makeshift runways using short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities. The class has been favoured due to British aircraft carriers’ lack of catapult launch systems or arresting gear, meaning unlike French, American, Russian, Chinese or Indian carriers they are unable to deploy standard fixed wing aircraft such as the F-35C or F-18E/F. It remains uncertain whether the British order will expand beyond 48 F-35Bs, but even if 74 are ordered it would bring the fleet to under 55 percent of the initially planned numbers and leave the utility of a dual carrier fleet in question.