'MPs DEMAND ANSWERS OVER HIDDEN COSTS OF WARPLANE'

By Deborah Haynes, Defence Editor, and Alexi Mostrous, Head of Investigations

The Times – 18 July 2017

Defence officials will be called before MPs to explain why taxpayers face hundreds of millions of pounds in hidden costs for a new warplane beset by technical shortfalls. Julian Lewis, chairman-elect of the Defence Select Committee, said last night that he would recommend a special hearing after an investigation by The Times disclosed that the F-35 Lightning II will be unable to function properly because of defence cuts.

Two former military chiefs and three ex-defence ministers have also called for a full-scale inquiry into the cost and capabilities of the jet. Each of the aircraft delivered this year is likely to cost up to £50 million more than the price stated by its US manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, once extras are included, an investigation by this newspaper revealed yesterday. Britain has committed to buy a total of 138 F-35s over the lifetime of the programme.

Mr Lewis said that the hearing would be added to an inquiry by his committee into the Ministry of Defence’s record on equipment procurement.

“It would seem sensible in the light of the extensive concerns raised by the Times investigation that we should, before moving to publish that almost complete report, have a further hearing in which we will be able to see what answers the MoD has to the main concerns expressed in the story,”

he said. In the latest setback, defence sources revealed that the aircraft carrier from which the F-35B jets are due to fly next year has run into difficulty during trials.

It can also be revealed that the “stealth” aircraft, billed as the “most powerful and comprehensive” warplane in history, has the ability to store only about ten gigabytes of data, less than an average iPhone. This, like many of the other technology shortfalls, can be easily fixed with additional investment but the defence budget is overstretched.

A former minister bemoaned last night the lack of transparency over Britain’s planned purchase of the jets.

“We had absolutely no idea what the unit costs would be of the F-35,”

Sir Nick Harvey, the Lib Dem Armed Forces Minister from 2010-12, said.

“We would all smile sweetly and sustain this idea that 138 would be the size of the order but the honest truth is nobody had the slightest idea how many we would end up with or how many we would be able to afford.”

British officials have released almost no detailed information about the F-35 project, despite being the US’s only “tier-one” partner. In contrast, Pentagon officials, government auditors and legislators ensure that the project is scrutinised for the US taxpayer. The Australian senate held an inquiry last year that came out in support of the aircraft but warned of the need for “healthy scepticism”. Canada also reviewed the programme and decided to withdraw from it.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, a former head of the Royal Air Force; General Sir Richard Barrons, in charge of all technology for the military until last year; Sir Julian Brazier, a former Tory defence minister; and Sir Nick said that a proper inquiry was needed. A third former defence minister agreed, though asked to remain anonymous.

Sir Michael, Chief of the Air Staff from 1992-97, said:

“A review may not be comfortable but if there is nothing to hide then there shouldn’t be a problem.”

The Times understands that HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier, which began her maiden voyage with great fanfare last month, has had to moor for longer than expected off Invergordon in Scotland after a problem was discovered with the £3 billion warship’s propeller shaft. The glitch is “not a show-stopper” and is what should be expected during a test-phase, one source said.

It is understood that the “engineering” problem was discovered last week after a piece of debris became caught in the shaft. The unplanned lull in activity meant that members of the 1,000-strong crew were able to take time off the ship to enjoy the Highland Games in Inverness. Asked about sea trials, the MoD said:

“We fully anticipate this will identify areas for improvement that will be addressed at sea, during a number of routine port stops or as part of the planned engineering period … The UK F-35 programme is on time, on budget, offers the best capability for our armed forces who have praised the fighter’s ability and is already fully accountable to parliament. You don’t need a costly inquiry to prove this.”