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Report publication: Unclear for take-off? F-35 Procurement

19 December 2017

The procurement of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is designed and built by a consortium led by Lockheed Martin, is the most expensive international defence procurement programme in history.

Lack of transparency risks undermining public confidence in F-35 programme

An unacceptable lack of transparency regarding costs, and a poor initial response from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Lockheed Martin to reports in The Times, risk undermining public confidence in the F-35 programme, according to the Defence Committee in its report 'Unclear for take-off? F-35 Procurement'.

F-35 project must be subjected to the closest possible scrutiny

Chairman of the Defence Committee, Dr Julian Lewis MP, says

There has been an unacceptable lack of transparency from the MoD and Lockheed Martin which risks undermining public confidence in the programme. F-35 is a major investment for the UK and we want it to succeed for the good of this country’s security. However, it is precisely because this project is so important that it must be subjected to the closest possible scrutiny.

Failure to provide adequate cost estimates is wholly unsatisfactory

Despite repeated requests, the MoD failed to provide the Committee with the full cost of each aircraft, once spares, upgrades and retrofits are included, or its estimates of the total cost of the programme beyond 2026/7. The Committee’s report views this failure to provide adequate cost estimates, either on a per aircraft or programme-wide basis, as wholly unsatisfactory. The Committee warns that this risks undermining public confidence in the programme and calls on the MoD to publish the “rough orders of magnitude” it claims to possess for the total costs of the F-35 programme beyond 2026/7.

The report has also highlighted that the broadband capacity on the Queen Elizabeth carriers will need to be beyond the reported limit of 8 megabits, and, in all likelihood, in excess of the 32 megabits currently available even on the USS America, if the potential benefits of the F-35 to the UK’s future carrier strike capabilities are to be realised.

The MoD’s acknowledgement of the potential value of using the Multifunctional Advanced Data Link (MADL) for secure communications between the F-35 and the UK’s existing aircraft is welcome. Without such a link and translation node, the UK will be underusing one of the key capabilities of the F-35. The Committee recommends that the MoD make provision for the procurement of a gateway translation node for MADL-based F-35 to Typhoon communication in the next Equipment Plan.

Committee will continue paying close attention to F-35 programme

The Committee’s report acknowledges the assurances that it has received from Lockheed Martin and the MoD that the issues identified in The Times’s investigation and the reports of the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) have been, or are in the process of being, rectified. However, the Committee will continue to pay close attention to this programme to ensure that the promises made by Lockheed Martin and the MoD are delivered.

Updates on programme needed

As such, the Committee’s report recommends that the MoD provide them with six-monthly updates on the programme, detailing the progress made in addressing the issues they raise in this report. These updates should also include details on the ongoing cost of the programme, including on sustainment, spares and logistics, software upgrades and the ‘flyaway’ (airframe) costs.

The Committee’s inquiry was launched following a series of articles published in the Times in July 2017 on the F-35 programme. These reported a number of serious allegations, including claims that the F-35 "is way over budget, unreliable, full of software glitches and potentially unsafe".

Further information

Image: Ministry of Defence

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