The government is changing the type of fighter jets to be used with the Royal Navy's new aircraft carriers in the face of “unacceptable cost growth and project delays”.
In a major U-turn, defence secretary Philip Hammond told the Commons today that ministers were reverting to plans by the former Labour government to buy the jump-jet version of the US-built F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Under the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010, the coalition had intended to switch to the more capable F-35C carrier variant of the jet.
Hammond said that the costs of fitting the necessary catapults and arrestor gear – “cats and traps” – had more than doubled to £2 billion, and that the delays to the F-35C programme meant that the planes would have not been operational until 2023 – three years later than planned.
He said that abandoning the plan to fit cats and traps to one of the aircraft carriers while mothballing the other vessel opened up the possibility that both ships could eventually become operational.
He added: “The 2010 strategic defence review decision on carriers was right at the time, but the facts have changed and therefore so too must our approach. This government will not blindly pursue projects and ignore cost growth and delays.
“Carrier strike with cats and traps using the carrier-variant jet no longer represents the best way of delivering carrier strike, and I am not prepared to tolerate a three-year further delay to reintroducing our carrier strike capability.
“This announcement means we remain on course to deliver carrier strike in 2020.”
In response to today's announcement, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said the “chaotic carrier programme” was the “biggest blow to this government's defence credibility”.
He said that the U-turn decision has left the UK open to “international ridicule,” with no jets to fly from aircraft carriers for a decade and £250 million “squandered”.
Hammond rejected the claim that the U-turn had cost £250 million. He said: “There has been expenditure incurred in appraising the option of fitting a carrier with cats and traps. But it has been nowhere near £250 million.
“We think the cost of the design work that has been carried out is going to be between £40 million and £50 million.”
Hammond stated that detailed costs will be published as soon as they are available.