Privately, U.K. Officials Worry About JSF

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Privately, U.K. Officials Worry About JSF

By ANDREW CHUTER, LONDON
Posted 24/10/05

Senior Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials connected with the JSF and carrier efforts - two of Britain's biggest military procurement programs - will soon head to Washington, where they will discuss their concerns with U.S. officials.

The British have been alarmed by speculation in Washington that the congressionally mandated review of U.S. strategy - which will shape procurement plans and force structure - could deal a blow to JSF, either by reducing the number to be purchased by the U.S. armed forces, delaying development and entry into service, or cutting the number of aircraft types being developed.

Any of those scenarios could undermine British plans to field the JSF, known here as the Joint Combat Aircraft (JCA), aboard two 65,000-metric-ton aircraft carriers currently on the drawing board.

Permanent Undersecretary Kevin Tebbit, the MoD's senior civil servant, is due in Washington at the end of this week ahead of retiring from the post at the end of November. One topic on his agenda is making British views known about possible changes to the JSF program.

Separately, other top-ranking officials, including the MoD equipment capability manager responsible for JCA, are expected in the United States in the next couple of weeks. One industry source said the MoD program manager for the CVF carrier program also was heading across the Atlantic.

The British already have invested large sums of cash in the JSF. The MoD signed up in 2001 to participate in the system development and demonstration phase of the program at a cost of $2 billion. A further $1 billion is being spent on other development activity such as U.K. weapons integration.

In 2002, Britain selected the short take-off vertical-landing (STOVL) version, the F-35B, to meet its carrier requirement, rejecting the U.S. Navy's planned F-35C carrier version.

Contractor Confidence

Tom Burbage, executive vice president and general manager of JSF program integration for prime contractor Lockheed Martin, offered soothing words about the future of the STOVL variant when he gave evidence to the British Parliamentary Defence Select Committee on Oct. 18.

"I have heard nothing about STOVL [being cut]. The other versions have been debated, but our sense is that all three types will go forward. JSF is doing quite well in the [QDR] end game," Burbage said.

Committee members did not ask Burbage about possible cuts in JSF numbers or a delay into service.

An MoD spokesman acknowledged that British officials are keeping "a watching brief on QDR and we are interested in the outcome," but denied that they were concerned about it. He declined to comment on the travel plans of senior officials.

Behind the diplomatic veneer however, there is unease that U.S. review may cut the planned U.S. purchase of JSFs, which could drive up the plane's cost. "This is a real problem," said one industry source. "The MoD is trying to decide what to do about the question of JSF and wants its voice heard in Washington." The MoD plans to spend up to 10 billion pounds ($17.7 billion) on the development and purchase of JCA. The exact budget number depends on how many of the 150 aircraft to which the British committed are actually acquired.

A significant cost increase in JSF would be painful for the British to swallow, said one leading industry executive.

"We can afford to be sanguine about cost increases so far as the British element of the development spend is fixed," the executive said. "There is no stomach for a significant cost rise in the procurement phase. That might test our stamina to stay the course on the program, particularly with the U.S. being so difficult over technology transfer issues."

There is a danger that view also could be taken by some of the international partners in JSF. Between 600 and 700 aircraft are presently expected to be acquired by the current program partners participating in the program at various levels. These include Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey. Israel has observer status.

Concerns Overstated?

Some, like Lee Willett, the head of military capability programs at the Royal United Services Institute here, think the speculation over JSF cuts is being overdone. "It's important to bear in mind that no decisions have been taken yet. I don't think the aircraft is under as much threat as some people are talking about," he said. Willett said he reckons there might be some prudent trimming in numbers and there is the risk of program delay, but he doubts the United Kingdom will be looking elsewhere for a naval combat aircraft as a result of the QDR outcome.

He said Britain's investment gives it a voice at the table when it comes to deciding the future of the JSF program. "The significant sales projected for international partners will also have an impact," Willet said.

JCAs for a joint carrier/Royal Air Force strike force are due to start entering service in 2014, giving Britain a land and sea-based expeditionary air-power capability. That's already two years behind the original schedule, due in part to problems overcoming weight issues on the STOVL variant.

Slowing down development by a further year or two, though, might even help the British. The cupboard is bare when it comes to MoD finances. Britain's equipment program plans for the next 10 years have already been cut hard to balance the books.

Delaying deliveries of the first operational test aircraft to around 2012 could be a financial bonus. One option if JCA is delayed would be to run the Harrier GR9s on the new aircraft carrier until replacements are available.

Giving evidence to the Select Committee Oct 18, John Coles, the CVF carrier program manager, said that 2012 remains the target date for the entry into service of the first of the new aircraft carriers.

Development and production go-ahead was expected around the turn of the year, but Coles declined to give a date when the project, being built by an alliance of companies including BAE SYSTEMS, KBR, Thales UK and the VT Group, would move ahead.

British defense officials are worried that the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) could affect their plans to purchase Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) for the Royal Navy's planned aircraft carrier.
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