The future of the Royal Air Force’s tactical aircraft fleet has been a particularly hot topic in the days preceding the release of the Defence Command Paper. In particular, the relationship of the Tempest Future Air Combat System program with the F-35 program has been subject to much speculation, with the rumor mill suggesting that further F-35B procurement beyond the 48 currently on order would be significantly curtailed or outright abandoned in favor of Tempest.
While the Command Paper released yesterday was light on details for future F-35B procurement, it did confirm that more F-35Bs will be ordered as the RAF seeks to grow its Combat Air capabilities over the years to come, “increasing the fleet size beyond the 48 aircraft that we have already ordered”. The F-35Bs will be joined by the full establishment of the seven operational Typhoon squadrons, making for a “formidable capability” according to the Ministry of Defence.
The two aircraft fleets will be continually upgraded to ensure their relevance on the battlefield as well. The RAF will be adopting a spiral development model for Typhoon capability upgrades, with investments in SPEAR 3 and the Radar 2 AESA among the current priorities. Similarly, more UK-made weapons will be integrated onto F-35, with continued investments to ensure that the RAF F-35B fleet will be kept up to date with those of other operators.
However, the RAF’s Tranche 1 Typhoons are to be retired by 2025, with the rationale given that it has “increasingly limited utility in the digital and future operating environment”. Also to be retired in the name of improved efficiency is the Hawk T1 trainer jet, with the introduction of a new military flying training system that will hopefully deliver “more capable pilots more quickly and more efficiently” through investments in synthetic training.
The 48 F-35B figure had become a sticking point for discussions prior to the release of the Command Paper. Previous Ministry of Defence planning had called for the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers to be equipped with two squadrons of 12 F-35Bs each when deployed, with an ability to surge to three squadrons for a total of 36 embarked aircraft. The current order of 48 is seen to leave little margin for spare aircraft, be it for maintenance downtime or attrition replacements, and even then would mean that the near-entirety of the RAF’s F-35 fleet would be dedicated to Carrier Strike. While the signing of a trilateral agreement between the UK, Japan and the US during WESTLANT 19 hints at cross-decking of USMC, RAF and JASDF F-35Bs in the future, those plans are still a long way from being realized.
The Command Paper also reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to investing over £2 billion in its Future Combat Air System program over the next four years. Interestingly, the paper chose to highlight the program’s “innovative mix of crewed, uncrewed and autonomous platforms including swarming drones”, as opposed to how the Tempest crewed aircraft headlined previous discussions of the program.