The UK's new defense (or should I say defence) secretary, Philip Hammond, today acknowledged that he is worried that further cuts or slowdowns to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program will hurt Britain's ability to rebuild its aircraft carrier fighter force later this decade.
Remember, the UK decided to buy nearly 100 F-35C carrier variant JSFs for its new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. However, it recently retired its fleet of Harrier jump jets, leaving the Royal Navy without carrier strike aircraft for the first time since before World War II. (As Hammond acknowledged today, a Royal Navy with aircraft carriers but no jets to fly from them is "a caricaturists dream.") Britain plans to by the F-35Cs by the end of the decade. The problem is, the Pentagon is slowing the F-35 program yet again and will likely delay the delivery of 120 or more jets.
Hammond, on his first official visit to Washington, said he would be signing an agreement today on how the UK will rebuild its naval strike fighter fleet in the face of budget cuts and an F-35 slowdown.
"One of things I'll begin to understand later on today in the meetings I'm having will be what, if any, impact the announcements being made today will have on the Joint Strike Fighter program," said Hammond. The announcements he was referring to are the Pentagon's unveiling of its 21st Century security strategy, a document that will guide weapons buys and cuts going forward.
He then gave a clue as to what the future of European defense will look like as the U.S. withdraws more troops from the continent and refocuses on Asia. Basically, Britain and France are going to have to field aircraft carriers to ensure the continent has that kind of power-projection capability at the ready since America will be focused elsewhere.
(Keep in mind that the UK and France have signed an agreement that calls for interoperability and even some joint-manning among France's carrier, the De Gaulle and the Royal Navy's two new Queen Elizabeth class ships.)
"We are committed to purchasing the carrier-variant and the regeneration of our carrier strike force is at the heart of our defense strategy. We believe it will bring a big gain for NATO and potentially be a big relief to U.S. efforts in the European sphere. We've worked with the French to ensure that we will have a European carrier capability [that's] always available. But of course, we are concerned that any slippage in production or any reduction in U.S. numbers will have an impact [on cost] and with budgets very tight, we'll be watching very close any movement in the predicted unit costs."