The Strange Story of Britain's Joint Strike Fighter

January 29, 2012

The cockpit of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter: photo - Lockheed Martin

In November, I had the chance to travel to Texas and Maryland to see the factory where Lockheed Martin are assembling the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and to meet some of the British team who are testing the aircraft as part of the 700-strong US Navy and Marine Corps Integrated Test Force at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. A piece written from this access is published today, in the Live section of the Mail on Sunday.

The piece went to press before a story was published in The Times last week (link here - subscription required) suggesting that the delays and cost overruns with the F-35 are now getting so severe that Britain may be looking to buy another aircraft type as a stopgap. While the supposed source of the story was quick to deny that the comments attributed by The Times to a particular senior Naval officer were ever actually said by him at the event the Times' report was based on, the sensation is hardly one of a programme going from strength to strength. 

For what it's worth - and hopefully this comes out loud and strong in my Live piece, but apologies to everyone reading it if it doesn't - I think that the F-35 will be a great aircraft when it's properly finished and all the problems have been ironed out. And I have the utmost respect and admiration for the men and women of the ITF - both the Brits and their American colleagues - who are doing what test flight staff always do: pushing a new machine gently but purposefully through its paces, assessing what works well and what needs refinement, taking the risk out of the aircraft for the people who are going to operate it, and professionally, capably, and safely ensuring that what emerges at the end is a better, more effective machine than it was when it was a gleam in its designers' eyes.

However, the history of changed minds among those in the UK whose job is to procure defence systems for the nation does not appear to be helping the test team, or Lockheed, to get the aircraft ready. Britain has gone from a position that was clear and, while the aircraft was always likely to cost more and arrive later than hoped, made strategic sense. The Coalition government's change of the order from the B to the C appeared rushed; and as the true costs of re-engineering the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers to fit catapults become clearer, and are added to the costs that will be caused by the work lost to British industry if the government sticks to their Strategic Defence and Security Review's promised reduction in the size of its F-35 order, the idea that much money is going to be saved seems to be disappearing before our eyes.

These are complex and difficult questions, and I don't wish to pretend that there are any easy answers. But the people putting in the hard and often dangerous hours to make this aeroplane work deserve stronger and more decisive direction than they have had over the past 18 months.


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