PARIS --- How much of a premium is Britain prepared to pay to give its future combat aircraft a short take-off/vertical landing (VSTOL) capability it may not really need?
This, as much as the recent controversies about access to closely-guarded US technology or alternate engine programs, is what should ultimately decide whether Britain commits to the Joint Strike Fighter by year-end, or pulls out.
The British perfected the Harrier “jump-jet,” the world’s first operational VTOL fighter, from which they then derived the Sea Harrier (and the AV-8 for the US Marine Corps). In the 1960s, when it was designed, the operational rationale behind the Harrier was to allow the Royal Air Force to disperse its German-based units away from vulnerable air bases and runways, and thus to survive Soviet air strikes.
The same technology later allowed the Royal Navy to build small, and comparatively inexpensive, Invincible-class aircraft carriers, thanks to which Britain was able to defeat Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War. The Sea Harrier also allowed other countries, such as Italy and Spain, to deploy sea-based jet fighters from even smaller aircraft carriers, acquiring a capability that would have otherwise been inaccessible to them.
However, the case for STOVL is much less persuasive in today’s strategic environment. Dispersing air force units away from heavily protected air bases is no longer necessary absent the credible threat of massive air attacks. On the contrary, it would be more dangerous to disperse air and ground crews as this would expose them to direct attack from the irregular forces and terrorists they are likely encounter during future operations.
The argument in favour of STOVL capability for the Royal Navy also has faded, if not disappeared altogether: while it was crucial to fit jet fighters to small carriers displacing 20,000 tonnes, it is far less necessary for the RN’s future carriers, which will displace around 60,000 tonnes.
Consequently, there is no longer an absolute British need for a STOVL capability, even though it is one of the main reasons Britain opted for the Joint Strike Fighter in the first place. It is to acquire this capability that it would pay over $100 million for each JSF it buys, compared to about $60 million for the Dassault Rafale and about $80 million for the F-18E Super Hornet, the only two other Western carrier fighters in production.
Thus, the “STOVL Premium” is about $40 million per aircraft, which adds up to as much as $6 billion for Britain’s planned buy of 150 JSFs. In addition, Britain is expected to contribute another $2 billion in development costs, bringing this premium to $8 billion.
Another option is to develop a carrier-based version of the Eurofighter Typhoon, and Mike Turner, CEO of BAE Systems, recently said this option remains on the table. Its cost remains to be determined, however, and it is questionable whether a naval Eurofighter could be ready by 2012-2103, when the new carriers are due to enter service. Even if development of a naval Typhoon were to cost $1 billion, the JSF’s “STOVL Premium” would still amount to a hefty $7 billion.
Buying the F-18E makes little sense, as it is the latest upgrade of a design dating back to the 1970s and thus offers limited growth potential. Furthermore, its performance has been often questioned, notably by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Buying the Rafale, on the other hand, would lower the acquisition and life-cycle costs of the future British carrier force because they would be shared with France across the board, and not simply on part of the ship design as is now the case. And with their main naval ports and air bases so close together, support would be far simpler than with JSF.
And, given the status of the Rafale program, Britain should be able to obtain very significant price concessions and offsets for a 150-aircraft buy. Best of all, from a British point of view Rafale is at an ideal phase for such a deal: naval Rafales have been operational long enough to iron out its kinks, yet production is not so far advanced as to make integration of a new partner impossible.
BAE Systems’ involvement and work-load would be assured by both Typhoon and Rafale options, while Rolls-Royce would no doubt obtain far more production and maintenance work than from the JSF, now that the alternate engine it was to develop has been cancelled.
The JSF has been described as an economically inefficient way for participating governments to transfer public funds to their own industries, via the US and Lockheed Martin, both of which take a slice of that money as it passes through their hands.
Apart from obvious operational and industrial advantages, buying either Typhoon or Rafale instead of JSF would at least do away with this US “tax,” as well as with the operationally useless STOVL price premium.
Britain, the STOVL Premium and the US “Tax”