CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

2nd REPORT OF 2017–18: 'UNCLEAR FOR TAKE-OFF? F-35 PROCUREMENT' (HC 326)

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.

Defence Committee Press Notice – 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. 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.”

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 2026–27. 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 2026–27.

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.

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.

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".

[To read the full Report, click here.]

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REPORT SUMMARY

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. A ‘fifth-generation’ aircraft, the F-35 comes in three variants, and the UK is, at present, committed to procuring 138 aircraft. However, there is no guarantee that this total will be achieved. The F-35 programme will supply combat aircraft to nine countries, with the principal customer being the United States of America. The UK is the second biggest client and, as the sole ‘Tier One’ partner in the programme, 15% of all F-35 production will take place in this country.

In July 2017, The Times published a series of articles 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”.

Our Report has examined the allegations made by The Times in its investigation into the F-35 programme and has drawn on the work of other studies into the programme, such as the 2016 Annual Report of the US Department of Defense’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), and on the oral and written evidence we have gathered over the course of the inquiry, including from both Lockheed Martin and the Ministry of Defence.

Overall, our Report concludes that:

  • The MoD’s acknowledgement of the potential value of using the Multifunctional Advanced Data Link (MADL) for secure communications between the F-35 and legacy aircraft is welcome. Without such a link and translation node, the UK will be underusing one of the key capabilities of the F-35 and we recommend 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.
  • 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 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 assurances from Lockheed Martin and the MoD about the rigorous level of cyber-testing of the ALIS software are welcome, as is the assurance from Lockheed Martin that the UK will have complete and unfettered use of the software for the sovereign operation of our F-35 fleet. However, we ask for greater clarity from Lockheed Martin on the level of protection in place for the technical data gathered by ALIS in relation to the UK’s F-35 fleet, including whether this data falls within the US Government’s ‘unlimited rights license’.
  • The MoD’s failure to provide adequate cost estimates for its procurement of the F-35, either on an overall programme basis or on a per-aircraft basis, is wholly unsatisfactory and this unacceptable lack of transparency risks undermining public confidence in the programme. We recommend that the Department provides us with the ‘rough orders of magnitude’ it claims to possess for the total costs of the programme beyond 2026/7.
  • The F-35 has clearly experienced a number of software and hardware problems during its development phase, as might be expected from a project of this scale and technical complexity. However, The Times’s investigation has provided cause for concern and these concerns were not alleviated by the disappointing nature of the initial responses from Lockheed Martin and the MoD.

During our inquiry, we received a number of assurances from the Government and Lockheed Martin that the issues with the programme that have been previously identified either have been, or are in the process of being, resolved. For the time being, we are willing to accept these assurances. The F-35 is a major investment in defence capability for the UK and we want it to succeed and become the cornerstone of a new and effective strike capability for this country. However, it is precisely because this project is so important that it must be subjected to the closest possible scrutiny.

We, therefore, recommend that the MoD provide the Committee with six-monthly updates on the programme, detailing the progress made in addressing the issues that have been previously identified, as well as any future problems. We also believe that these updates should include information on the ongoing cost of the programme.