Announcement expected on u-turn on new aircraft carrier jets

DECISION The Joint Strike Fighter will fly from the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales
DECISION The Joint Strike Fighter will fly from the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales
Picture: Malcolm Wells

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THE government is expected to make an embarrassing u-turn on which fighter jets to buy for the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers today.

Defence secretary Philip Hammond will revert to Labour’s original order for the F-35B jump-jet version of the US-built Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

In the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), David Cameron said Labour had got it ‘badly wrong’ and ordered a switch from F-35Bs to the longer-ranged carrier variant of the JSF - the F-35C - which needs catapults and arrestor gear to be fitted to a ship’s flight deck to take off an land.

He said fitting ‘cats and traps’ to one of the carriers would make it easier for the navy to work with France and the US aircraft. But it came at a cost of mothballing the first carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Now the Prime Minister faces embarrassment after a Whitehall study found cats and traps would cost an extra £2bn to fit to the second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales.

Mr Hammond is expected to announce the reversion to F-35B this morning.

This means the navy - which lost HMS Ark Royal and its Harrier jets in the SDSR - could have carrier strike capability back as soon as 2018.

It also could see the navy bring both of its new 65,000-tonne carriers into operational service, providing a global at-sea presence 365 days a year.

But critics argue getting rid of cats and traps is a short-term move and negates the need for building such huge warships in the first place.

They say it damages Britain’s defence interoperability with France and America because those countries’ jets would not be able land on Britain’s new warships.

There are also warnings that F-35Bs will cost more to maintain in the long term.

Also, it appears 138 of the shorter-range F-35B jump jets would have to be bought to match the capability of 97 F-35Cs which were due to be ordered.