Britain fights for larger stake in JSF
A row is brewing over Americaâ€™s reluctance to share technology for the Joint Strike Fighter project. Report by Dominic Oâ€™Connell
A FIBREGLASS MODEL in battleship grey was one of the unlikely stars of last weekâ€™s Farnborough air show. While casual visitors gawped at the fighters roaring overhead, or oohed at the sleek, sinister shapes of the latest unmanned stealth aircraft from America, those in the know trudged up through the corporate boxes to scrutinise the unprepossessing mock-up
It was a model of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) â€” or F-35, to give it its American service name â€” a combat aircraft that will not go into production for another four years and is unlikely to enter service in Britain until 2011 at the earliest.
It may be some time before it fires a shot in anger, but the JSF has already assumed monumental importance for the future of Britainâ€™s defence industry. Such are the tensions over its development and manufacture that a rift is emerging at the top level of the transatlantic defence alliance between Britain and America.
At issue is the Pentagonâ€™s perceived reluctance to share the sensitive defence technology that would allow Britain to play a bigger part in the programme. In particular, Britain wants access to the software codes that would allow it to repair and upgrade the aircraft, so it can maintain an independent fleet without recourse to America.
Mike Turner, chief executive of BAE Systems, Britainâ€™s largest defence contractor and a member of the Lockheed Martin-led consortium building the aircraft, is forthright.
â€œIt is vitally important as a nation that we are self-capable when it comes to JSF. We need the software codes to have the capability to fit new weapons on the aircraft â€” otherwise we will have to join a queue with everyone else to have the job done in America,â€ he said.
British politicians have now taken up the cudgels. Lord Bach, the defence procurement minister, has visited the Pentagon to voice his displeasure at the slow pace of technology transfer, while at Farnborough his boss, Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, confirmed he had written to Donald Rumsfeld, his American counterpart.
Hoon would not disclose the contents of his letter, but industry sources said he had reminded Rumsfeld that the two nations had signed an outline agreement on defence technology co-operation two years earlier, but that little progress appeared to have been made since then.
Turner and the politicians are playing for high stakes commercially as well as strategically. The JSF will become probably the largest military programme in history. Sales of the aircraft are expected to bring in between $200 billion and $400 billion (Â£108 billion- Â£217 billion), with service and support estimated to rake in four times that sum over the planeâ€™s life.
It will become the backbone of Americaâ€™s air force, marine corps and navy for the next 40 years, replacing several types of existing aircraft, from Harrier jump jets to out-and-out fighters such as the F-16.
The planeâ€™s promised versatility gives it enormous export potential, especially as America has decided to make its design and construction an international collaborative effort, with 11 partner nations having already signed up. Top of the heap is Britain, which will buy up to 150, and has paid Â£1.4 billion to be the sole â€œtier oneâ€ partner in the programme.
But the partner nations are not entirely happy with the way America has handled the project, claiming that stateside firms have been handed the lionâ€™s share of the work, and that the Pentagonâ€™s sensitivity to the export of defence technology has stymied plans for their involvement.
Norway, which has invested $125m, has threatened to withdraw its involvement unless more work is forthcoming, while Italy has also complained about Americaâ€™s reluctance to share defence technology.
Tom Burbage, the Lockheed Martin executive running the programme, is used to the complaints, but points out that the JSF was never intended as a work-share project along the lines of previous international defence schemes. â€œItâ€™s not about jobs. Itâ€™s about finding the best companies internationally and running a programme that is affordable,â€ he said. Burbage acknowledged that it did involve â€œsome sensitive technologyâ€, but said that so far there had been no hold-ups in obtaining Pentagon clearance for transferring technology to international partners.
Steve Briggs, the JSF vice-president at Northrop Grumman, Lockheed and BAEâ€™s consortium partner, said the size of the programme meant international involvement was inevitable.
â€œAt the peak, weâ€™re talking about making one new JSF every day. Thatâ€™s a monster to feed. Forget the (Airbus) A380 or the (Boeing) 7E7, this is a monster. We donâ€™t believe, for example, that there are enough high-tech milling machines in the entire US to keep pace with making the components for this production line.â€
Those lucky enough to clamber aboard the JSF bandwagon are happy with the results.
Mark Scherrer, managing director of Ferra, an Australian engineering company that has won several pieces of work on the project, said it had led to unforeseen benefits, such as other contracts with multinational companies involved in the programme. â€œThe flow-on effects for Australian industry will be long term,â€ he said.
One big British beneficiary will be Rolls-Royce, the aero-engine company. It will make the lift fan for the jump-jet version, a mind-boggling piece of equipment that has been described as the worldâ€™s most powerful hairdryer.
Driven by a shaft at the front of the JSFâ€™s engine, it will produce as much thrust as a Eurofighter running flat out. In partnership with General Electric, Rolls-Royce is making an alternative powerplant for the aircraft to rival the current Pratt & Whitney engine.
BAE Systems and Britain have another goal: to make sure that if another JSF production line were needed â€” the principal line will be at Lockheedâ€™s Fort Worth, Texas, headquarters â€” it would come to Britain.
For BAE in particular the need is acute. Its aircraft factories at Wharton, Lancashire, and Woodford, Cheshire, are likely to run out of work once their current programmes â€” Eurofighter and Nimrod respectively â€” have run their course. The number of Nimrods required by Britain was cut from 18 to 12 in last weekâ€™s defence review, and most analysts do not expect Britain to order its full quota of Eurofighters. Without JSF, the factories are likely to close.
Turner said Britain was pushing for a final assembly line, noting that the Dutch and Italian governments were also making strong bids.
It is unclear whether Lockheed and the Pentagon will deem a second production line necessary. Tom Fillingham, the BAE executive who is JSFâ€™s deputy programme manager, said a study had recently begun on new production methods for use at Fort Worth, and that the final decision on a second line was unlikely to be taken for another 12 to 18 months.
The British government takes the prospect of a second line seriously. Last year it commissioned Rand, the American think- tank that played a large part in the formation of the original Pentagon procurement strategy, to examine Britainâ€™s readiness for another line.
The study found that three British companies â€” BAE, Marshall Aerospace and Dara, the government-owned aircraft-repair agency, had the capability to build the new aircraft