WASHINGTON (GDC) — The UK’s new military modernization plan includes a proposed increase in the number of nuclear warheads, sets ambitious targets for new warships but is silent on the whether the country should buy more F-35s.
“We’ve committed to 48; we’ll buy 48,” UK Minister for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, told reporters on a call this afternoon. The original plan was to buy 138 fifth-generation fighters, but British officials in recent months have declined to say if that is still the plan.
The new UK defense paper calls for a 2 billion pound investment in the developmental Tempest Future Combat Air System over the next four years, while the current F-35 buy wraps up in 2025.
Overall, the new strategy would see the UK spend 85 billion pounds more on equipment over the next four years, while also adding more nuclear warheads to its inventory, capped at 260 warheads. That decision reverses the decade-old decision to reduce the stockpile to 180.
Part of the reason for capping the number of F-35s appears to be the pending arrival of the Tempest. “We’ve invested heavily in our own Future Combat Air System,” Heappey said, “I think that there’s a discussion ongoing over what the exact shape of the fast air force looks like in the future, but the 48 that were signed up for the check’s in the post.”
The UK’s two new aircraft carriers were built specifically to operate the F-35, so there’s little chance of the Royal Navy moving away from the aircraft any time soon. HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to make its first deployment to the Indo-Pacific later this year, with a US Marine Corps F-35B air wing aboard, and the two nations are expected to work closely together, flying F-35s from aircraft carriers and amphibious ships in coming decades.
“I think that there is going to be a community of F-35 nations that we would be mad to ignore,” Heappey added. “We think that our carrier capability is something that we can develop alongside not just the US, but the Italians, the Japanese, and the Australians and many others who are looking at that highly capable aircraft.”
That buildup comes alongside the early retirement of two Type 23 frigates, an early scuttling of survey ships to be replaced by a new ocean survey ship more adept at monitoring subsea cables, and reducing the size of the armed forces by 10,000.
In an ambitious plan, those ships will be replaced by new Type 31 and Type 32 frigates, and the Type 26 anti-submarine frigate. The plan is for these ships to be able to swap out mission packages for the type of deployment they are tasked with, along with new ship-to-ship missiles. “For the first time since the Cold War, we are growing the size of fleet, but actually these are sort of general purpose frigates that can compete, day after day after day, rather than sort of high-end niche, billion dollar” ships that the US Navy has struggled with.
The UK is also planning on getting rid of dozens of tanks, its C-130J aircraft, about 24 of the oldest Typhoon combat aircraft, and a variety of helicopters.
The Ministry of Defence appears to be looking at the future of conflict in much the same way as the Pentagon, as a standoff fight with long-range precision weapons in which ground armor is less important.
“We’ve looked at what happened when the Turkish army went into northeast Syria with armed drones, and we’ve looked at what happened in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Heappey said. “And what we can see there is that the nature of the close battle in the land domain has changed, and it’s really deprioritized [armor] in favor of precision deep fires.”
On a distributed battlefield, “having lots of mass doesn’t feel entirely relevant to the way that the world’s going,” he added.
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