Britain’s F-35B fighter jets currently cost around $123m each – and British officials are quite content that the only engine overhaul facility for the stealth aircraft’s engines is located in Turkey.
The House of Commons’ Defence Committee questioned British ministers, civil servants and senior officers on the F-35 purchase programme, revealing that Britain is still publicly committed to buying 138 F-35Bs.
Speculation had mounted that Britain may not buy its full complement of the aircraft thanks to well-publicised holes in the defence budget, which – in a break with tradition – caused Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon to publicly call for a bigger defence budget.
The committee, consisting of mostly Conservative MPs along with a smattering of Labour MPs and sole representatives from each of Scotland’s SNP and Northern Ireland’s DUP, initially questioned executives from Lockheed Martin about the F-35. This, rather predictably, resulted in the execs insisting everything was fine with the F-35 – including questions over the aircraft’s handling in the transonic region, where it goes from sub-sonic flight to supersonic flight.
“All F-35 variants display objectionable or unacceptable flying qualities at transonic speeds, where aerodynamic forces on the aircraft are rapidly changing,” we reported the Straus Military Reform Project as saying in a report earlier this year.
Peter Ruddock, Lockheed’s UK chief exec, said in reply to the commitee’s questions: “The problem here is the different parts of the aircraft become supersonic at different times and there’s always a controllability issue with that. I’ve spoken to some of the test pilots involved … the quality of the handling is more than satisfactory or better throughout the flight regime.”
Unfortunately, in his later questions, committee chairman Julian Lewis MP once again focused on the bizarre notion that the NATO-standard Link 16 data comms standard, as fitted to the F-35 for talking to older aircraft, is somehow inherently insecure. He asked, after correctly identifying that the new MADL (Multi-function Advanced Data Link) system allows talking to older aircraft such as the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoons, whether Link 16 meant using an “older system that might reveal their presence?”
Lockheed’s Steve Over, director of F-35 business development, told the committee in response: “It doesn’t affect the stealthiness of the aircraft but it’s an omnidirectional transmitter. If someone has a receiver listening for a Link 16 transmitter…”
This is what Reg readers will recognise as a basic principle of RF transmission and direction-finding. You can encode it and compress it into as short and low-powered a burst as you like, but you’ve got to light up the airwaves somehow to get your message out.
Defence procurement minister Harriet Baldwin also revealed, in response to a separate question, that the UK does not negotiate directly with Lockheed Martin over future F-35 purchases. Instead, she said, “We have an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with the Joint Programme Office who do the contracting for us.”
The F-35 Joint Programme Office is a US Department of Defense body that does not answer to the UK. Its website explains: “The F-35 Lightning II Program is a joint program with no lead service, staffed by [US] Air Force, [US] Navy, and [US] Marine Corps personnel. The Program Executive Officer position alternates between the [US] Departments of Navy and Air Force, and reports to the [US] Service Acquisition Executive (SAE) of the other service.
Engine failure before takeoff
The only other major item from the committee hearing, other than Labour MP Ruth Smeeth having a pop at DDC – the Ministry of Defence’s Directorate of Defence Communication, its spin doctor battalion – was SNP MP Martin Docherty-Hughes questioning Baldwin on engine overhauls. As El Reg reported last year, the Pratt and Whitney F135 engines of Britain’s frontline carrier fighter jets can only be overhauled in Turkey, by decree of the American Joint Project Office managing the F-35 project.
“In terms of the engine programme,” said Baldwin in response to Docherty-Hughes’ questions, “that will happen again within Turkey. I believe the warehousing [of other aircraft components] is happening in the Netherlands, and there’s a series of ongoing competitions. Turkey is a NATO country.”
“This has never happened before,” shot back Docherty-Hughes.
“The UK is doing a significant part of those repairs, overhauls and upgrade for all 3,000 planes as I understand it. Not surprisingly, if you’re Australia, Holland, one of the other partner nations, you’re keen to have that ongoing global support,” retorted Baldwin, continuing to talk about the UK’s avionics overhaul deal instead of Docherty-Hughes’ question. She emphasised that support contracts are awarded as part of a “series of competitions the JPO are running.”
Docherty-Hughes refused to be deterred. “The minister didn’t answer the question. Is it value for the UK taxpayer? Are we one step away from a disaster? This is unprecedented, it’s never happened before. It’s clearly the United States directing the MoD to put the engines in for overhaul in another country. Has this happened before?”
Baldwin spoke briefly about the “net benefit” of having a Turkey overhauling mission-critical major components of the only fast jets capable of flying from Britain’s new aircraft carriers, in exchange for avionics repairs being carried out in North Wales, and described the latter as “good for the UK industrial base”
Lewis, catching onto the general idea, prodded the minister further: “Is it the case that we’re having some of our F-35, if not all our F-35 engines, serviced by Turkey, and we will be doing things to F-35s that belong to the Turkish air force?”
A grateful Baldwin nodded: “That is the idea.” Air Commodore Lincoln Taylor, MoD senior officer in charge of military fast jet projects, sitting next to Baldwin, loyally chipped in that the avionics repair hub will be of “enormous benefit to the UK”.
Defeated in his attempt to make the minister answer a direct question about the stability of a critical British defence supply line, Docherty-Hughes said he was “not reassured” but would “take the minister and department’s answers”.