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UK expertise in F-35B programme

Published: 29 Mar 2014

This article is reproduced from the Daily Mail article by Ben Griffiths.

The visceral howl of jet fighters can be heard from miles away on the drive to Eglin Air Force Base on Florida’s Emerald Coast. 

Behind the security fence, pilots flying Lockheed Martin’s new F-35 Lightning II practise take-offs and landings, gliding down to the runway every few minutes before roaring back into the sky.

It is the epitome of American airpower. And yet, standing by the flight line in the Sunshine State, British accents can be heard all around.

Eglin may be a historic American airfield – here Doolittle’s Raiders rehearsed their 1942 mission to bomb Tokyo in revenge for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. 

But today the cream of Britain’s military flyers and maintainers, hand-picked as the pioneers of the UK’s F-35 training programme, are working hand-in-hand with their US allies.

Embedded with the US Marine Corps in a purpose built headquarters, the British contingent are finally putting into practise what has for so long been just hot air in Whitehall corridors. The F-35 is billed as Britain’s fifth generation combat jet and the nation’s first stealth aircraft. 

Labelled the Joint Strike Fighter, it is also the world’s largest defence programme – and frequently the most controversial. Each jet, including its sophisticated engine and servicing contracts, will eventually cost UK taxpayers up to £100million.

Britain is scheduled to buy 138 of the ‘B’ version of the aircraft, which is capable of taking off and landing vertically like the iconic Harrier jump jet that it replaces. 

The RAF’s famous 617 Squadron – the Dambusters – will be the first to receive the F-35, which will also be flown by the Royal Navy from the decks of their new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. 

So far three UK-owned jets are being used for training in America, with an order for another 14 imminent. In the entrance to the F-35 training centre a massive emblem describes the jet as: ‘Lethal. Survivable. Supportable. Affordable.’ 

It is this last description which catches the eye, amid fears the aircraft has become too expensive. Privately, analysts speculate Britain will not take up its full allocation, and could eventually buy fewer than 100 jets. 

However, RAF Group Captain Willy Hackett, the UK national deputy in the F-35 joint programme office, says the aircraft will be ‘cost-neutral’ to HM Treasury because the Exchequer will get back in taxes from UK companies’ involvement what the government spends on purchasing.

While Lockheed Martin is prime contractor on the F-35, some 15 per cent of each of the 3,200 aircraft ordered will be made by British industry. 

Francis Tusa of Defence Analysis reckons a 15 per cent share of the production equates to $12-16million (£7.3-9.7million) per aircraft – or $1.5billion (£900million) of sales for UK companies every year for 25 years. 

Crucially for the Britain’s manufacturing renaissance, the F-35 is a huge opportunity to maintain critical skills for the defence aerospace sector, the world’s second largest after America. 

FTSE 100-listed BAE Systems makes the rear end of the jet including tail planes. The special aero-engine, which gives the ‘B’ model of the fighter its ability to take off vertically, is an ingenious power-plant made by Rolls-Royce. 

All the ejection seats will be built by Uxbridge-based Martin Baker. GE Aviation makes the electrical power management system and fuel system components come from Cobham. 

Besides today’s commitments, British industry is expecting more work in future if, as is hoped, more countries buy the F-35. South Korea yesterday signed up for 40 jets. Upgrade programmes to keep the aircraft flying for its 50-plus year lifespan should also benefit UK companies.

Independent analyst Howard Wheeldon says: ‘This is a massive long term programme by any standards that you choose to look at it. 

‘In terms of skills retention and UK economic benefit, with 15 per cent by value of each F-35 aircraft produced by UK-based companies, the decision to invest in the programme at inception makes this one of the best industrial decisions taken by our government over the past 20 years.’ 

Besides the aircraft’s stealth shape and special radar-absorbent coatings – together designed to reduce its appearance on enemy radars – the key selling point of the F-35 is its array of digital sensors and ease of operation for the pilot. 

Much of this technology in the B model aircraft is British. At Fort Worth in Texas, where Lockheed Martin pieces together F-35s, lines of aircraft in various stages of construction dominate the mile-long factory floor. 

Where once Second World War-era B-24 Liberator bombers rolled off the production line, lasers help technicians precisely align F-35 components that have been manufactured thousands of miles apart. 

Crates from BAE’s works at Samlesbury in Lancashire are prised open up by Texan workers in baseball caps. Outside the giant factory, brand new F-35s made from the latest high-tech British materials are test flown in preparation for delivery. 

‘Without British companies’ involvement the jet would not be in existence,’ explains Lockheed Martin’s Mike Rein. ‘Everywhere the pilot touches is British.’

Other news

Press release from Program Executive officer on F-35 progress


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