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U.K. To Buy 138 F-35s, Will Boost Fighter Squadrons

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AeroBD | The AERO news Company…LONDON, December 07, 2015 : The U.K. has committed to buy its full complement of 138 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and will also boost the number of front-line fighter squadrons as part of a £12 billion ($18 billion) increase in spending on defense equipment over the next decade. The U.K. now plans to spend £178 billion over the next 10 years on defense equipment following its blueprint to keep defense spending at the NATO target of 2% of gross domestic product announced by the government in July. The increase reflects the growing concerns of ministers about the spread of Islamic extremism destabilizing parts of the Middle East and aggression by Russia. After years of cuts, this year’s Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR), published on Nov. 23, made more comfortable reading for the U.K. military and particularly for the Royal Air Force, which has seen a decade of cuts decimate its combat aircraft capability.

As part of the plans, the government pledged to purchase nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft to fill the gap left open by the retirement of the Nimrod in 2009 and the cancellation of its replacement in 2010 as part of the last SDSR. The U.K.’s Eurofighter Typhoon force will be expanded with an additional two front-line squadrons to be formed using the Tranche 1 aircraft that had been due to exit service in 2017. The exact mix of Tranche 1, 2 and 3 aircraft is yet to be confirmed. Some reports say 24 aircraft, others say 36 of the 50 or so Tranche 1 jets delivered will be retained. The Typhoon’s out-of-service date will also be extended from 2030 to 2040. The U.K. also plans to fit the Tranche 3 Typhoons with the active electronically scanned array radar currently in development.

The Typhoon, along with enhancements to carry air-to-ground weapons, will still replace the Panavia Tornado GR4 in 2019, although the Tornado fleet will not begin to shrink until 2018. “It is anticipated that the [Tornado] force will start to draw down from 2018, allowing us to make a smooth transition of personnel to support the introduction of our Lightning II Force into service in 2019,” a defense ministry spokesman said. The report says the U.K. will maintain its plan to purchase 138 F-35s aircraft over the life of the program. But it does not detail whether the U.K. will look at variants beyond the F-35B model planned for use on the U.K.’s two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. This will be decided in the next SDSR planned for 2020.

In the meantime, orders for the F-35B will be accelerated in order to put up to 24 of the aircraft onto the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. A further 18 aircraft will support training, test and evaluation, and periodic servicing and upgrade activity, defense officials have told Aviation Week. The U.K. has already signed up to purchase 14 F-35s over the next five years, on top of the three already in service and the fourth due to be delivered late this year. Six more F-35Bs were ordered by the U.K. in early November.

Until now, U.K. ministers had only confirmed plans to purchase 48 F-35s. The new P-8s will be based in Scotland and dedicated to the protection of the nuclear deterrent, the new aircraft carriers. They will also fulfill search-and-rescue missions and be used for overland reconnaissance. The first of the aircraft are due to arrive before the end of the decade, most likely through a U.S. Navy Foreign Military Sale. The U.K. defense ministry sees the P-8 buy as a key element in its ever-closer defense relationship with the U.S. The report says the use of the P-8 will provide protection for each other’s aircraft carriers and further improve interoperability in anti-submarine warfare, while also providing efficiencies in basing and support. The order for nine P-8s comes just three weeks after reports in the Sunday Times that the U.K. decided to cancel a planned order for the patrol aircraft.

Somewhat embarrassingly, the order is being announced at the same time that French and Canadian maritime patrol aircraft have been deployed to Scotland to support the hunt for a probable Russian submarine, the third such operation in 12 months. A decision on whether the aircraft will have U.K. weapons and sonobuoys, believed to a major sticking point, has yet to be made, defense officials say. The government has also announced plans to create two deployable army Strike Brigades, each with 5,500 personnel. These brigades will be able to “self-deploy thousands of kilometers, and with a much lower logistic footprint,” officials say. The government has pledged not to cut any more personnel from the army’s current 82,000 complement, following significant cuts in 2010.

The Royal Navy was perhaps the biggest loser in this year’s review. Although both of the new carriers will be retained, the government has decided to only build eight of the new Type 26 Global Combat Ships rather than the expected 13. The defense ministry says it is studying lighter, flexible and potentially more exportable general purpose frigates for the 2030s. Other key aerospace elements in SDSR 2015 include:

• The Raytheon Sentinel reconnaissance aircraft will remain in service into the 2020s, but will exit service before 2025.

• The U.K.’s six Boeing E-3D Sentry airborne early warning platforms will be upgraded, and along with the U.K.’s three newly purchased RC-135 Rivet Joints will be in service until 2035.

• Fourteen of the 24 Lockheed C-130J Hercules will be retained until 2030, partly to support Special Forces activities. These are likely to be the “more useful” long fuselage aircraft.

• One of the RAF’s Airbus A330-200 Multi-Role Tanker Transports (MRTT) will be fitted out for VIP missions for use by senior government officials and the Royal Family.

• The Panavia Tornado GR4 fleet will still exit service in 2019, replaced by the Typhoon with the majority of Tornado air-to-ground capabilities.

• The Beechcraft Shadow intelligence and special forces support aircraft fleet will be enlarged from the current five to eight and will exit service in 2030.

• The U.K. will invest further to pursue a joint development of an unmanned combat air vehicle with France.

• The U.K. will buy 20 new-build MQ-9 Reapers as part of the Protector program to replace the existing fleet of 10 MQ-9s. The platform will be based on the Certifiable Reaper currently being worked on by General Atomics.

• The U.K. will invest in an unknown number of Airbus Defense and Space Zephyr 8 high-altitude pseudo-satellites capable of monitoring areas for months.

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Rajowan Syed

Rajowan Syed

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