LONDON Rising costs and delays forced the government on Thursday to reverse a decision on the type of fighter jet it will buy in a multi-billion dollar weapons programme, an embarrassing U-turn for Prime Minister David Cameron after weeks of bad headlines.
Britain will now opt for the jump-jet variety of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), built by U.S. firm Lockheed Martin, the original choice of the previous Labour government and one Cameron's cabinet had once dismissed as inadequate.
The new aircraft takes off vertically, and does not require a catapult and arrester wires - "cats and traps" - to be fitted to British aircraft carriers. The government said the cost of conversion had doubled to 2 billion pounds since initial estimates in a sweeping military review in 2010.
Britain currently has no aircraft carriers and is awaiting delivery of two new ships. Defence officials say cats and traps, on which Britain has already spent 40 million pounds, would also have delayed carrier-strike capability by three years to 2023.
"The 2010 .... decision on carriers was right at the time, but the facts have changed and therefore so too must our approach," Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said in a statement.
"This government will not blindly pursue projects and ignore cost growth and delays," he added.
The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was meant to set the course for defence up to 2015, bringing order to a Defence Ministry widely lambasted by watchdogs and others for its chaotic and expensive weapons programmes.
However, critics have called the review rushed and cost-driven by a government eager to slash public spending to tackle a record budget deficit.
"It demonstrates what a terribly bad exercise the SDSR was," said Eric Grove, defence analyst at the University of Salford, referring to the change of fighter jet.
"It was ill-considered and this is something of political U-turn. I'm pleased the government's done it and not maintained its political machismo .... but the critics will pounce on it."
SHORT VS LONG TERM SAVINGS
Cameron told parliament two years ago cats and traps were necessary to "allow our allies to operate from our operational carrier and it will allow us to buy the carrier version of the JSF which is more capable, less expensive, has a longer range and carries more weapons".
The government's new choice of fighter jet, the F-35B, has a shorter range than the previous choice, the F-35C, but defence officials insist any shortcomings will be mitigated by Britain being able to use two aircraft carriers at once.
Britain plans to operate 12 jets from any one carrier.
Britain's original plan had been to mothball one of the new carriers upon completion to save money. But without the need to fit cats and traps, both could be operational, with one carrier able to host the F35-B while the other is being serviced.
Officials say allies France and the United States are "completely relaxed" about the prospect of their planes not being able to land on British carriers.
However, there are concerns that the F35-B could end up costing more in the long run.
"There's a question whether this aircraft will be more costly than the F-35C per aircraft. I think there's clearly an issue in terms of the reduced capability," said Malcolm Chalmers of Britain's Royal United Services Institute think-tank.
Senior defence officials said the cost of each aircraft had yet to be determined, but that prices would fall as production ramps up. Britain has so far placed a firm order for three F-35 test and evaluation aircraft costing $632 million, and is due to receive its first F-35 in two months.
FIGHTER NUMBERS UNCERTAIN
Lockheed is developing the multirole stealth F-35 for the U.S. military and eight international partners at a projected cost of around $396 billion.
Britain committed itself in 2001 to buy 138 of the aircraft, mostly the F-35A conventional fighter, to replace Harrier and Tornado jets. In 2010, the current government said it would cut the number of F-35s, but did not say by how many.
The Defence Ministry has said it will not make a decision on the size of the order before the next defence review in 2015.
British group BAE Systems is a key contractor on the project. Other British contractors named by Lockheed include Cobham, Rolls-Royce, Ultra Electronics, and Martin-Baker Aircraft Company.
The government's decision to pick the F35-B puts paid to last-minute efforts by the consortium building the rival Euro fighter Typhoon fighter jet to win support for its aircraft to fly off British decks as a replacement for the JSF.
($1 = 0.6212 pound)
(Additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris; editing by Andrew Roche)