LONDON — The government confirmed Thursday it has reversed its choice of fighter jets for future aircraft carriers, ditching the preferred conventional take-off version of the US-built F-35 for a jump-jet model.
The latest turnaround by the coalition government deals a blow to a defence deal between Britain and France as it means that planned Royal Navy aircraft carriers will no longer be equipped to handle French aircraft.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told parliament that delays and spiralling costs caused by the need to fit carriers with catapults to launch the planes and special arrester gear to trap them when they land were unacceptable.
The government was therefore ditching the conventional take-off and landing F-35C joint strike fighter (JSF), reportedly preferred by Prime Minister David Cameron, in favour of the shorter-range jump-jet F-35B model.
"I can announce to the House today that the National Security Council has decided not to proceed with the cats (catapults) and traps conversion but to complete both carriers in the STOVL (short take-off vertical landing) configuration," Hammond said.
"When the facts change, the responsible thing to do is to examine the decisions you have made and to be willing to change your mind, however inconvenient that may be," Hammond said.
Britain is currently without any aircraft carriers following a strategic review unveiled by the coalition government in 2010 as part of wide-ranging austerity measures aimed at cutting a record deficit.
Hammond said the decision on the F-35s meant that Britain would now have its two new planned carriers in service sooner and that it would be able to keep both in operation, instead of mothballing one as had been anticipated.
He said the cost of fitting catapults and arrester wires to the carriers had doubled in the last 17 months from initial estimates of £950 million ($1.53 billion, 1.18 billion euros) to around £2 billion.
But it risks being seen as yet another gaffe for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, which has made a series of recent policy U-turns and faces growing pressure over its dogged adherence to austerity over growth.
The change is also an awkward start to Britain's relationship with French president-elect Francois Hollande, as it goes back on an Anglo-French pact signed in 2010 that involved sharing aircraft carriers.
Without catapults and arrester wires, French naval Rafale jets will not be able to operate from the new British carriers.
Hammond said however that after work with "allies" the government had decided that "emphasis on carrier availability, rather than cross-deck operations, is the more appropriate route to optimising alliance capabilities."
The F-35 Lightning II, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, is touted as the backbone of America's future air fleet and and 11 other allied countries, but has been dogged by technical problems.
At an estimated $385 billion, the F-35 is the Pentagon's most expensive weapons programme.
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