Britain signalled for the first time yesterday that it may shrink an ambition to buy 138 F-35 next-generation warplanes because of budget constraints
By Deborah Haynes, Defence Editor
The Times – 22 November 2017
Top officials at the Ministry of Defence also refused to give an estimate for the total cost of the multi-billion-pound F-35 Lighting II programme, which Britain has been committed to alongside the United States since 2001.
Lieutenant-General Mark Poffley, who oversees UK military capability, indicated some sympathy with a suspicion voiced by MPs that the aircraft order would replicate plans to buy 12 Type 45 warships, which ended up at half that number because of funding shortfalls. However any decision on reducing the fast-jet fleet, a move that would go down badly with the US, would not be taken until a better understanding of the cost to support and operate the fifth generation, supersonic aircraft, General Poffley told the defence select committee.
Asked by Julian Lewis, the committee chairman, whether it was “highly likely” the F-35 purchase would follow a similar course to the Royal Navy’s Type 45 destroyers, General Poffley said:
“I would think if you were to follow your logic through I might be sympathetic to it.”
He said that the MoD was committed to the first tranche of 48 F-35s, which are due to be bought by 2025 for a total of £9.1 billion, including the cost of infrastructure at RAF Marham, in Norfolk, and pilot training. Pressed on whether there was uncertainty beyond that batch, General Poffley said:
“I am afraid that is the reality of the world that we are living in.”
He said that the military would consider keeping legacy aircraft running for longer if it transpired that plans for the full purchase of F-35 jets no longer matched the ambitions of the day, but said that such a decision was
“some way off, probably about ten years”.
The comments marked a departure from all previous public statements about the F-35 programme by British defence officials and ministers, who stuck to the line that the UK will buy the full contingent of 138 aircraft, made by Lockheed Martin, over the coming decades.
Stephen Lovegrove, the top civil servant at the MoD, was also grilled on the programme – the most expensive for defence after the nuclear deterrent. The questioning followed an investigation in The Times over the summer that revealed hundreds of millions of pounds in hidden costs.
At a previous session, Mr Lovegrove had promised to produce a note for the MPs that offered to the best of his ability an estimate on the full cost of F-35 procurement. The committee revealed yesterday, however, that the subsequent note only offered a breakdown on the first 48, which are estimated to cost a total of £13 billion out to 2048. This included the first £9.1 billion out to 2025.
The remaining £3.9 billion over the next 23 years appeared to represent an estimate of the cost of support and upgrades for the 48 jets, although Mr Lovegrove did not go into specifics. If correct, that works out at an annual running cost per jet of about £3.5 million, which one defence expert said sounded “very optimistic”.
“They are living in cloud cuckoo land,”
Francis Tusa, the editor of Defence Analysis, said.
Mark Francois, a committee member, told Mr Lovegrove that he thought the public would be shocked the MoD was unable to produce an estimate of the through-life cost for 138 jets. Mr Lovegrove said that after consultation with the US-led joint programme office (JPO), the ministry had decided it was “very much difficult, if not impossible” to release such a figure.
In contrast the Government Accountability Office, the US watchdog, using JPO data has produced estimates for the full-life support cost of the much larger US F-35 programme. It is estimated to cost $1.06 trillion over 60 years to operate a total of 2,457 jets. Britain at present owns 13 F-35s.
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'IMPOSSIBLE TO PREDICT COSTS OF F-35 AND NUMBERS MAY FALL, MPs HEAR'
By Ben Farmer, Defence Correspondent
Daily Telegraph – 22 November 2017
Rising costs may force the Ministry of Defence to cut its planned order of 138 stealth jets, officials have suggested for the first time. MPs on the Commons Defence Committee heard it was impossible to accurately forecast the costs of the F-35 programme. As costs become clearer as they enter service, the MoD would “make adjustments in our programme accordingly”.
The plan to buy the new jets is the MoD’s second biggest weapons programme, after replacing the nuclear deterrent. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review declared Britain would
“maintain our plan to buy 138 F35 Lightning aircraft”
over the coming decades. The plane is considered the most advanced combat jet ever and will fly from the new aircraft carriers as well as from RAF bases.
Britain has already signed a contract for the first batch of 48, which are estimated to cost £9.1bn by 2025, including support such as training and maintenance. But Stephen Lovegrove, Permanent Secretary, said it would be “imprudent” and “misleading” to give an estimate for the cost of the rest.
Mark Francois MP, a former Defence Minister, said the failure to give a figure for costs was “extraordinary” and the public would be “pretty shocked”. He said:
“Is it any wonder people have some skepticism about budgeting in the Ministry of Defence?”
Lt Gen Stephen Poffley, Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, said once the jets become operational, there would be an annual review of their costs to help forecasts.
Julian Lewis MP, committee chairman, suggested that meant the order was likely to be “on a similar course” to previous large defence buys, such as the plan to originally buy 12 Type 45 destroyers, that was then cut to eight and finally six. If later batches were delayed, or costs went up then
“we are going to have to adjust the numbers of these aircraft that we order”.
Lt Gen Poffley said he was “sympathetic” to that logic. Mr Lewis went on:
“What’s clear then is that the 48 are safe, secure, done and dusted as it were as far as the financial cost is concerned, but after that there is inevitable uncertainty: that’s what you are telling us?”
Lt Gen Poffley said:
“I am afraid that is the reality of the world we are living in.”
If a decision to scale back purchases was made, then the MOD would have to consider keeping older jets the F-35 is due to replace. Lt Gen Poffley said:
“We would consider exactly that dynamic at the point at which it was evident that we weren’t able to pursue our original plan of 138, but that is some way off.”