Home / Robert Farley / Back to the F-35B!

Back to the F-35B!


The Royal Navy, after deciding last year to switch from the STOVL F-35B (short take off vertical landing) to the CATOBAR (catapult assisted takeoff barrier assisted recovery) F-35C, has now switched back to the F-35B. There are three apparent reasons; first, the F-35B has been doing relatively well in testing, making the British more confident that it will actually be built in numbers; second, the process of converting one of the new British carriers to fly CATOBAR aircraft would have been enormously expensive; third, the F-35B will be able to fly off both RN carriers (the British only ever considered modifying one for CATOBAR).

Advantages of going STOVL:

  • Cheap (not the planes, but the carriers)!
  • Flexiblish (F-35B could also potentially operate from other RN platforms, like HMS Ocean or HMS Illustrious)!
  • Experience (F-35B kinda like the Harrier, only much better)!
  • Interoperability (maybe with the Spanish or Italians or Australians)!

Disadvantages of going STOVL:

  • Can’t fly heavier AEW planes like the E-2 Hawkeye, which cuts down on overall airgroup capability.
  • F-35B is range and payload deficient compared to CATOBAR aircraft.
  • Can’t decide to go with an alternative aircraft (unless you want to convince Russians to restart Yak-38 line).
  • Slower pace of carrier ops.
  • No interoperability with the French.

For my part, I think that if you’re going to build a couple of 65000 ton carriers that’ll be the centerpiece of your navy for 75 years, you might as well do it right. I’d have shelled out the cash for the CATOBAR conversion and tried to save money by buying F/A-18s, or some other appropriate CATOBAR plane. But then I’m no David Cameron.

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  • Dave

    And the odds of this actually being a personal decision of the PM are what, exactly?

    Meanwhile I see the F-35C still can’t trap a wire… http://www.navytimes.com/news/2012/01/dn-design-blamed-for-f35c-tailhook-issues-011712/

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      That seems like a much more trivial problem than getting the F-35B to work. The only reason the F-35B line exists is because USMC aviation needs a raison d’etre to exist. I say fold the USMC into the Army, they do nothing but duplicate pre-existing Army roles.

      • Alan Tomlinson

        With all due respect to the people who have served in the Marines, the navy does not need its own army. One unified military service has the potential to save huge amounts of money.

        I know it will never, ever happen. Conservatism is like that.


        Alan Tomlinson

        • Amanda in the South Bay

          Marines are tough, rawr!

          I think that pretty much boils down the pro-Marine side, even among liberals who seemingly have much to admire in the supposed ethic of the Marines. Since the USAF is the perennial punching bag here, it feels nice to turn the tables.

          • NBarnes

            This is one of those times that I think there’s a lot of room between the abstract and ideal on the one hand and the practical and realistic on the other. In theory, the Navy doesn’t need its own army. In practice, the Army does a terrible job of lots of the things that the Marines do well. And established traditions and institutional history matter. If you uproot the Marines, you lose important connections to the history of the US Armed Forces and lose important institutional expertise. That’s a lot to give up in exchange for the somewhat abstract benefit of simplifying the service structure.

            I’m not trying to run you or the idea down here. It’s more a matter of working within the confines of the institutions and resources one is given when one comes into a position where this sort of thing is legitimately within the job’s portfolio.

            • John F

              In theory, the Navy doesn’t need its own army. In practice, the Army does a terrible job of lots of the things that the Marines do well.


          • Medrawt

            My ignorant civilian take is that it makes sense for the Marines to exist so that the Navy, as the forward arm of American military power, have integrated ground soldiers (and airpower) so that it can be prepared for and tailored to the missions for which its intended. Then the Army does the “homeland defense / OK, we’re gearing up for a major land invasion” stuff, with its own integrated and properly tailored airpower elements, and the Air Force goes into the history books, or gets downgraded to satellite/ballistic missile stuff.

            And then, for no good reason whatsoever, the Navy transfers to control of spacefaring vessels so that we can have Space Admirals and Space Marines.

            • Anonymous

              You question The Emperor’s finest? Heretic!

            • Lurker

              In addition, having a number of armed services, none of which has actual capability to wage war on its own, is very good for democracy. It reduces the possibility of a successful coup. Even if you had the Marines secured for a plot to take the power, it would be quite difficult to subver also the Army.

              Similarly, the fact that the combatant commands do not have the final say over the promotions and personnel assignments makes it much more difficult for an ambitious theater commander to form a force with wide-spread clique of senior commanders loyal to him. Because any joint assignment lasts only a limited period, the officers remain mainly loyal to their service and branch, not to the combatant command or the joint command.

              • NBarnes

                I find this case reasonable. Has it been examined academically?

                • shah8

                  I don’t find this reasonable. Militarist Japan is the classic counterexample–two or more services consistently counterflanks, politically, civilian authorities.

                  Additionally, most societies wealthy enough to have multiple services besides the Army and the Political Army, are usually wealthy enough to drop enough bezzle to keep these folks happy.

        • Paul Clarke

          the navy does not need its own army

          Quote I heard from an RAF pilot once: “Wait, you’re telling me the United States’ Navy’s Army has its own Air Force?”

          • Russiannavyblog

            Why not? The Chinese have a People’s Liberation Army Navy Airforce, which of course, is the naval aviation arm of the People’s Liberation Army.

  • cisko

    I wonder if Rolls-Royce did any lobbying on the decision; they make the LiftFan for the 35B. They have one on display (outside the plane) at Udvar-Hazy.

  • CATOBAR. Is there nothing that isn’t an acronym? Or perhaps ITNTIAA?

    • Some Guy

      But how will we know who belongs in our special club if we don’t invent passwords and jargon?

    • firefall

      IOIYADA* but IDKIYUAA** so BAOAIT***

      *Its OK If You’re A Defence Analyst
      ** I Dont Know If You Understand All Acronyms
      *** Be Aware Of All Internet Traditions

      • Robert Farley

        While I really do appreciate the concern, every field of sufficient complexity is eventually going to generate terms that require acronyms in order to convey information to a specialist audience at a reasonable length; just take a look a sabremetrics, etc. These acronyms can be exclusionary, which is why I tend to try to spell them out (or link them to a definition) unless I blog about them every day.

  • Warren Terra

    Have you covered the huge parliamentary dustup in Canada about misleading numbers from the Government (or maybe from the military, under this and the previous Government) about the cost of buying F-35s?

  • firefall

    No interoperability with the French

    You erroneously have this listed under Disadvantages not Advantages (this is the English armed forces we’re talking about, after all).

    F-35B is range and payload deficient compared to CATOBAR aircraft.

    Which is a heavily-slanted way of saying it – ‘deficient’ implies inability to provide mission capabilities, which may or may not be true.

    • asdfsdf

      There are some who say both the F-35C and F/A-18E/F are also range and payload deficient for surface strike…

  • njorl

    And ya really want to get that undercoat for your carriers, especially if they’re going to be in that salty ocean water.

  • swearyanthony

    Yeah our AU centre left govt just announced pushing back there jsf acquisition for a few years. The rigtwing opposition are whining, but that’s because they are idiots. The jsf is still not really.

    AU defence aquisition is a quite hilarious serious of adventures. The Jindalee over-the-horizon Radar project ran massively over time and budget. At one point in the mid 90s a fair amount of contractracted software engineers with the relevant skills were all working on it 6 months stints
    Whole entire books on managing projects could be written about that.

    Then of course there’s the infamous RANS Collins class submarines – i am sure you can find plenty of detail in their fairly poor development and history.

    Depressingly the recent defence white paper called for another dozen next-Gen subs, with suggestions that it should be another local design.

  • swearyanthony

    So the basic F35 doesn’t work right yet and is nowhere near finished. Regardless they are delivering them. In the meantime, they still haven’t gotten the C version working either. And the even more complicated B version will be ordered in smaller numbers and as even further behind is what the UK picked.

  • bph

    This Register (!) piece is interesting and makes a solid argument for cats + F18.

    I am not sure I buy the whole “the US will pick up all of the technology risk” argument, though….

  • wengler

    I know developing military aircraft is extremely expensive, but aren’t these NATO allies really short-sighted for going all in on the F-35?

    I suppose the US + much of Europe is all one big happy family of corporate oligarchs.

  • Jaime

    CATOBAR? CATOBAR? Really? To this total layman, I guess that means a regular aircraft carrier, the kind that have been around operating jets for more than half a century.
    I think it’s possible that cat-less skijump vessels with FLANKER class planes and/or technologically sweet but operationally impractical STOVL aircraft will prove to be a dead end for naval aviation. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose – in the long run all the CVs would be sunk by subs in a real war anyway.

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