The British Government is negotiating the purchase of another batch of 26 F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters, bringing the number of aircraft purchased to 74. The Royal Air Force (RAF) currently has 26 of these aircraft in service.
Delivery of the first batch of 48 stealth fighters will not be finalized until 2025, but the British government is already in talks with the F-35 Joint Projects Office (JPO) to purchase the 26 new aircraft.
According to Navy Lookout, in an Integrated Review of the British Ministry of Defense published in March 2021, there was a vague mention of the intention to buy “more than 48” F-35s. In his speech at the Parliamentary Defense Committee session, Air Marshal Richard Knighton, Deputy Chief of the Defense Staff, specified the exact number for the first time in public.
According to Knighton, the Ministry of Defense now has the funds to purchase another 26 aircraft, including personnel and support costs. It must be remembered that the RAF already lost one of its F-35Bs in an accident aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth last year.
“We are negotiating this additional purchase with the Joint Program Office and Lockheed Martin,” Knighton says. Funding for the acquisition has been consigned to the Defense Ministry’s equipment programme, he added.
In negotiations with Lockheed and the JPO, the Defense Secretary stated that the contractor must demonstrate reductions in support costs and apply more urgency to the integration of British weapons.
Work on integrating the Meteor and SPEAR-3 missiles has begun, but there is no definite date for their entry into service, which largely depends on how quickly Lockheed can deliver the Block IV software update for the aircraft.
The acquisition cost of an F-35B is currently around £85m, so the MoD has considerable leeway when negotiating what is potentially a £2.2bn deal. . It is not clear when the UK can expect delivery of this second batch, but it will have to book aircraft from the production runs which are divided into ‘batches.’
Lockheed’s goal is to build 156 aircraft a year for customers around the world. However, COVID, inflation, and supply chain issues have complicated negotiations for lots 15-17 and the price may start to rise, reversing the downward trend as production increases.
As a Tier 1 partner in the F-35 program, the UK has a long-term total need to procure up to 138 units of the 5th generation fighter.
“The decision on a further purchase beyond the [combined] 74 will be made in the middle of the decade, in the context of what we decided to do in our Future Combat Air System program,” Knighton says, referring to BAE’s Tempest. This 6th Generation fighter could be discontinued for the benefit of GCAP in collaboration with Italy and Japan.
“It’s perfectly plausible to imagine a situation where we could have a fleet of 138 F-35s, which is what we originally described in the early 2000s,” Knighton adds.