DESIGN problems with the Royal Navy’s new jets have led to fears the service could be left without any planes until well beyond 2020.
The US-led Joint Strike Fighter programme, which is developing F-35C jets for two new Portsmouth-based aircraft carriers, has hit the buffers after tests found the aircraft is currently unable to land on ships.
The catapult-launched jets are supposed to land when a hook built into the airframe catches a wire on a ship’s flight deck.
But a leaked report by the US Department of Defense has revealed this failed to happen during eight land-based tests held at Lakehurst US Navy base, New Jersey, in August.
A spokesman for defence firm Lockheed Martin said design changes are being made to the F-35Cs and the project ‘remains on schedule’ to be delivered by 2018.
But there are concerns that delays, at a time of sweeping US defence cuts, could mean the planes may not be ready by the time the navy’s first aircraft carrier comes into service in 2020.
It’s a nightmare prospect for the navy, which lost its fixed-wing aircraft when its Harrier jump jets were axed in the 2010 defence review.
Defence expert Rear Admiral Chris Parry said: ‘Technical problems always occur with new aircraft.
‘It’s something that’s totally foreseeable and we need to be looking at an interim solution. My suggestion is to lease two squadrons of F-18 Super Hornets which we can use until the F-35s are ready.’
The Royal Navy was not originally going to have F-35Cs on its new £6bn aircraft carriers. It was first designed to take F-35Bs – a jump jet variant that takes off and lands vertically like the Harrier.
The MoD dropped the F-35Bs in the last defence review in favour of F-35Cs because they are ‘cheaper to run and more capable’.
The change requires at least one of the new carriers to be fitted with catapults and arrestor gear at an estimated extra cost of £1.2bn.
Last night, an MoD spokesman stressed that is Britain is ‘100 per cent committed’ to the F-35 project.
US defence cuts could cause more uncertainty
AT £300bn, the Joint Strike Fighter F-35 programme is the most expensive defence contract in history.
Lockheed Martin is building 3,500 F-35 jets for the United States and eight partner countries, including Britain, Australia, Norway, Denmark, Turkey, the Netherlands, Italy and Canada.
Britain has so far pledged £1.4bn to the project in return for 138 of the state-of-the-art fighter jets.
But the price per plane has been rising steadily since 2002 and more delays and extra costs could come as the US cuts its military spending.
Defence secretary Philip Hammond has said he’s been assured the cuts won’t affect the UK’s deal to buy F-35s.
But time will tell whether the cash Britain has already invested will represent value for money in the end.