Britain is being forced to pour millions of pounds of new funds into the troubled F-35 stealth fighter programme being developed in America and considered a vital part of the UK’s future defences.
The F-35, being built by the US in partnership with countries including the UK, is the costliest weapon ever developed by the Pentagon. It is scheduled to go into service in the UK in 2018 and into full production in 2019, and is intended to be a cornerstone of UK defences for decades to come, flying off two new aircraft carriers.
But huge problems remain unresolved, in particular with the F-35’s advanced software, on which the whole project rests. The software is supposed to be the plane’s “brain”, running everything from ensuring a steady supply of parts to relaying masses of data to the pilot’s visor during combat.
President Donald Trump has twice tweeted about the F-35, saying the programme, whose cost has jumped from $233bn in 2001 to around $379bn now, was “out of control”. He has asked his defence secretary, General James Mattis, to conduct a review and has suggested looking at alternatives such as Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet.
Any such shift would leave the UK, which has invested heavily in the F-35, seriously exposed, renewing questions about British reliance on the US. However, on Friday the president approved an $8bn order for the latest batch of 90 F-35s at an improved unit cost below $100m per jet, amid competing claims about how this saving had been achieved.
The F-35 was scheduled for completion in 2012 but finally began service with the US Marines and air force only last year, flying even though the software problems remain unresolved.
The fighter jets are scheduled to fly off the UK’s two new aircraft carriers, scheduled from around 2020, and by 2018 from RAF Marham in Norfolk, which is being upgraded for their arrival at a cost of £142m. Five have been sent to the UK so far. The British government has refused to publish an estimate of the overall cost of the 138 F-35s it is to buy, as well as its contribution to development costs, but the figure will run into the tens of billions.
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