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Lockheed Martin X-35 (Future Joint Combat Aircraft) during a test flight
Lockheed Martin X-35 (Future Joint Combat Aircraft) with wheels down ready to land
Lockheed Martin X-35 (Future Joint Combat Aircraft) leaving the hangar for a test flight

Future Joint Combat Aircraft

The Future Aircraft Carrier (CVF) design will be greatly determined by the selection of aircraft to fly from the vessel. That process is now well underway; in 1996, the UK began the formal procurement process to examine options for a Future Joint Combat Aircraft (FJCA). This project is required to provide the fleet with a fighter/ attack aircraft to succeed the Harrier which is currently in service flying from the Invincible class carriers.

The FJCA will be required to operate in all weathers, with an ability to fly day and night missions, for air defence of the fleet and of ground forces. It must also be capable of providing offensive air action and to be able to support long range air interdiction, as well as anti-surface warfare and tactical reconnaissance. Key attributes of the FJCA in comparison to the Sea Harrier and Harrier GR7 include the need for it to be supersonic and to have improved survivability and supportability. The aircraft is also required to have increased range relative to the current Sea Harrier and is to be able to support internal and external weapon carriage.

The aircraft to form the strike force of the Navy's new aircraft carriers is the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and Britain has signed a £1.3 billion deal with America to procure this aircraft. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) will replace the Navy's Sea Harrier FA2 and the RAF's Harrier GR7 with 150 of the new single-seat supersonic aircraft which will then take their place on the flight decks of the Navy's new aircraft carriers that are due in service by 2012. Though Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said: "The Joint Strike Fighter will not simply replace the Harrier. It will give the UK an aircraft that can take off from an aircraft carrier and provide the agility of a light fighter with the punch of a bomber. Put simply, it will be the best aircraft of its type in the world."

On 26 October 2001 Lockheed Martin was selected for the contract to build the US-UK JSF. The deal signed with America ensures that British companies will be closely involved in the building of the aircraft. Production of the United Kingdom JSF is planned to start in 2008 with the first due to enter UK operational service in 2012, a date that will coincide with the arrival of the first of the Navy's new aircraft carriers.

The MOD considered all other options very carefully before selecting the JSF as the preferred aircraft for its new aircraft carriers. The other options included a marinised version of the Eurofighter (232 Eurofighters are ordered for the RAF) the American F18E, the French Rafale and an updated Harrier. But the Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant JSF emerged as the best option.

Maritime Airborne Surveillance Capability
The Maritime Airborne Surveillance Capability (MASC) aircraft will be the replacement for the Seaking Mk7 Helicopter. The Seaking Mk7 is the present Royal Navy Airborne Early Warning Aircraft which operates from the Invincible class carriers. It provides the command with extended air and surface surveillance, interception and attack control, together with Over-the-Horizon-Targeting for surface launched weapon systems. The MASC contenders, under consideration, include a derivative of the Anglo-Italian Merlin ASW Platform, a V22 Osprey derivative or the US E2C Hawkeye.