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Citing carrier mod costs, UK switches back to F-35B

Britain's defence secretary said Thursday it's switching back to its onetime plan to buy the F-35B Lightning II, instead of the C, to save the cost of modifying its new aircraft carriers with catapults and arresting wires to handle the naval version of Lockheed Martin's super-jet.

Ministry of Defence chief Philip Hammond laid it all out: Modifying the Royal Navy's carriers to accommodate the C would delay Britain's "carrier strike" capability until 2023; cost double the initial estimate -- from £1 billion to £2 billion, or about $3.2 billion -- and let the UK fly fast jets from both its ships, instead of just one.

"Carrier strike with 'cats and traps' using the carrier variant jet no longer represents the best way of delivering carrier strike and I am not prepared to tolerate a three-year further delay to reintroducing our carrier strike capability," Hammond said in a statement. The new timeline, per MoD, goes as follows:

The STOVL aircraft has made significant progress ... and the US Marine Corps has conducted successful STOVL flights from their ships. The UK will receive the first STOVL aircraft this summer and, as HMS Queen Elizabeth is due to arrive for sea trials in early 2017, UK STOVL flight trials will begin off the carrier from 2018.
Critics in the opposition Labour party blasted what they called the expensive dithering by Prime Minister David Cameron's government. The ongoing indecision about the ships and the jets had "squandered" £250 million, said Jim Murphy, the "shadow" defence secretary, per the Financial Times. Still more criticism could come from Britain's frenemy France, which liked the idea of the Royal Navy flying Cs because it meant British and French aircraft could cross-deck between their carriers. Now, although the UK's F-35Bs will probably be able to take off and land on France's carrier in a pinch, the French navy's Dassault Rafale won't be able to do the same with Britain's CVFs.

But Lockheed and the U.S. Marine Corps have got to be breathing quiet sighs of relief over Hammond's announcement. The Royal Navy makes three customers for the B, along with the Marines and the Italian navy, and more airplanes could theoretically mean lower costs, theoretically lower odds for cancellation, and theoretically more opportunities for cross-training. The jury is still out about whether any of that theory could be come reality.

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