(EDITOR’S NOTE: The material below is excerpted from the Minutes of Evidence before the House of Commons Defence Committee on Tuesday 11 July 2006 by senior Ministry of Defence officials regarding British participation in the Joint Strike Fighter program. A link to the full transcript is provided at bottom.)
--Rt Hon Des Browne, a Member of Parliament, Secretary of State for Defence,
--Brigadier Stephen Andrews CBE, Director, Service Personnel Policy Strategy, and
--Mr David Gould CB, Deputy Chief Executive, Defence Procurement Agency.
Chairman (Mr James Arbuthnot, MP):
There are some questions I would like to ask you about the Defence Industrial Strategy, but before I get on to that I would like to go on to the issue of the Joint Strike Fighter and technology transfer. David Borrow.
Q56 Mr Borrow:
Minister, the Committee went to the United States in May and one of the issues that we discussed was the issue of technology transfer in relation to the JSF and we were reassured by the Deputy US Defence Secretary that discussions were at an advanced stage and he was optimistic that there would be agreement that would be satisfactory both to the UK and to the US.
Where are we up to now in relation to those discussions?
I just say that the new aircraft carriers and the aircraft that we will deploy will represent a significant step in relation to our ability to be able to deliver a force package to the specific requirements of each mission from land and from sea, and consequently the Joint Strike Fighter is an important element of that.
Much has been made of the technology transfer issue. We in the UK require operational sovereignty of the aircraft and we have made that clear to the United States that we will not be able to buy the Joint Strike Fighter without the necessary transfer of technology and the information to give, as I say, operational sovereignty.
Whenever we source equipment it is crucial that we are able to operate and maintain that equipment and the transfer of this information is important to that. We are presently continuing to work closely with the United States.
As you have advised us, your own Committee here, what progress was being made when you visited the United States we are presently optimistic that these discussions will be successful, but I am not in a position here publicly to put a time limit on when they will be successful, but we are confident that they will be successful.
Q57 Mr Borrow:
Certainly Lord Drayson has been very robust in his discussions with the Committee on this issue and the one thing we have not really been able to explore is that if we are not able to reach satisfactory agreement in line with the comments of both yourself and Lord Drayson in the past, is there a plan B and, if so, what is the plan B?
I just say to the Committee with some confidence that we are not anticipating we will not be able to resolve this. We have made it clear to the United States, who are of course our ally, that we will not be able to buy these fighters without the necessary transfer of technology and information to give us the operational sovereignty that we need.
It may be that Mr Gould would want to add to that?
No, we made it quite clear to the US both at a high level and at a very detailed level what we mean by operational sovereignty, and this is not industrial sovereignty, this is our ability to operate the aircraft safely for our pilots and aircrew; to maintain, repair and upgrade and to integrate into the UK operating environment some of the centres of communications so that the enhancements you have to do for each operational deployment and each mission plan can be done, as we would for other aircraft in the Royal Air Force and in the Royal Navy, and we are very encouraged both at the general level - the Prime Minister and the US President, the US President made it quite clear he wants this to happen - and that the confidential talks that have been going on between ourselves between the DoD and the Joint Project Office are encouraging.
The Secretary of State said that we cannot give a date right now but we will need to resolve this before we move to the next stage of the programme.
Q58 Mr Borrow:
Is there agreement between the MoD and the main company in the UK involved in this project on the technologies that need to be transferred?
To fulfil the operational sovereignty role?
Q59 Mr Borrow:
Yes, at a detailed level there is that agreement.
Q60 Mr Borrow:
That would also assume that even if you do not feel able to put into the public arena plan B that there is a plan B of some sort because otherwise we would have no leverage in this discussion with the US?
You would expect us to have thought about that but what we do not want to be is diverted from what looks like a very encouraging position with the US at the moment.
That is the most interesting reply we have had on that issue for a very long time.
Q61 Mr Jones:
You have just told the Committee that you do not put a timescale on this but I have to say that when we were in the United States the then Secretary of State was quite clear that July was the deadline to meet. When we met the Senate on Armed Forces Committee they were quite clear, and in their report they even put July - it is in their reports - so they put a timescale on these discussions.
When are we going to get to a point where we say that if this drags on for another six months, for example, we do not buy JSF?
The next stage, the early commitment to production investment for the programme, is scheduled to take place around the end of this year. The first development aircraft is planned to fly in between now and that time so that the programme is progressing. So we will have to know before the end of this year that we actually have the agreement in place which we need to proceed to the next stage.
Q62 Mr Jones:
I accept all that you are saying, but it was quite clearly July, and they have set this idea of getting this by July. Lord Drayson, with credit to him, in terms of the evidence he gave to the Senate Armed Forces Committee, the hard ball approach he took is starting to work, so are we just going to let this drift on or are we going to start saying to them, like Lord Drayson, I think, did, "Come on, you have to make a decision on this or we are going to take that crucial decision" because I think that had an effect both in the Senate in terms of galvanising support for our case but also I think in terms of understanding the position.
We are not letting it drift at all. In terms of highlighting the intention it is quite clear. Discussions that Lord Drayson had with the Senate have actually moved this along, but what we need to be absolutely clear about, before we get to the production stage of this programme, is that we have in great detail an understanding with the US that is well understood both at the US DoD and UK government level, and also at the industrial level between BAE Systems and other companies and Lockheed Martin, who are the prime contractor.
Q63 Mr Jones:
Yes, but are we going to start rattling their cage, for example, on 1 August to say, "Why have you not come up with this?" because I can suggest that if you do not do that it will drift?
We are working in great detail with them and we are moving in the right direction and we are moving at the right pace and it is very encouraging. The crucial point - and I come back to it - is that we must have that in place before a production investment decision is taken, otherwise we cannot proceed with the programme, and that is a pretty good way of rattling their cage, actually. (ends)
NOTE: USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
--This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
--Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
Click here for the full transcript, on the House of Commons website