The origins of the Joint Combat Aircraft (JCA) programme can be found in plans developed in the 1990s to replace our carrier-borne aircraft. The aircraft selected to meet the JCA requirement is the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The JSF is an exceptionally capable fifth generation, multi-role, supersonic, stealthy aircraft containing cutting-edge technologies. It is the largest single aviation programme in US history.
JCA capabilities will enable the UK to contribute, from the outset of a campaign, to a variety of missions against a high-threat integrated air defence system. Having emerged from the same Lockheed Martin stable as the F-117 Nighthawk and the F-22 Raptor, JSF’s technological pedigree is strong. Designed to penetrate high threat airspace – and detect, identify, locate and attack targets – JSF utilises a powerful combination of survivability, lethality and multi-spectral sensors.
These capabilities extend JCA’s utility into areas not traditionally seen as the domain of combat aircraft. The advanced sensor fusion developed from the F-22 provides the pilot with an unrivalled picture of the battlespace across multiple spectrums. This information can be utilised immediately by the pilot or transmitted in real- or near-real-time directly to the ‘man on the ground.’ While the endurance and on-board processing power of strategic ISTAR platforms cannot be replaced by a single-seat manned fighter, the sensor performance and access afforded by JSF, in addition to its capability to deliver precision ordnance, make it a formidable Combat ISTAR platform and will significantly increase the probability of mission success.
From 2018, the JCA force will operate alongside Tornado GR4 and Typhoon. Greater JCA numbers may be required to satisfy the manned element of the UK Combat Airforce mix beyond 2030.
Economies of scale
The complexities inherent in creating a true multi-role aircraft in three distinct variants are significant, and the JSF programme is not without its challenges. However, there are real advantages to be found in the economies of scale and the UK continues to play an important role in influencing the programme to capitalise on through-life support efficiencies delivered through a single global solution.
The JSF programme reaches across all three fast jet operators in the US Military, and will replace a plethora of aircraft types. The joint support and political will behind it ensures the requisite pressure to control cost growth is maintained, although affordability will continue to be the greatest challenge as governments grapple with the weakened global economy. The total build when combined with the other partner nations, of which Britain is at the vanguard, is predicted to be in excess of 3,000 through-life. This will require a production capability until 2034, which at its peak will produce approximately 250 aircraft per year. This mass drives costs down, and allows nations such as the UK the ability to radically change the way fast jet capability is delivered.
Indeed, in the past the UK has had to procure fleets of aircraft, including through life attrition spares, over a short period to match relatively small production runs, inevitably resulting in large upfront costs. Such an approach has not allowed for the easy insertion of upgrades through-life; and attrition assumptions and force structure implications remain tied to decisions taken at a single moment in time. The long production run of JSF not only gives the UK government flexibility in overall procurement numbers: it also allows a bespoke build-up of capability to best manage introduction to and withdrawal from service, and a spend profile that can flex for fiscal or other reasons.
The ability to maintain valuable industrial skills is vital to industry, and strategically important to governments that wish to employ their military capabilities at a time and place of their choosing. Deciding to participate in a US programme would, at first sight, appear to be incongruous with this philosophy – meeting the desire for value for money at the expense of onshore capability and operational sovereignty. However, while Lockheed Martin is the largest defence contractor in the world, there are areas where the UK can provide considerable expertise. A significant number of contracts have been awarded to more than 100 UK companies on a best athlete basis, accounting for approximately 15 percent of the entire programme and assessed to be worth an estimated £35bn in production alone.
JCA will deliver an affordable, sustainable, expeditionary airpower capability for the UK and allow us to be interoperable with our key allies well into the future.