Unclear for take-off? F-35 Procurement Contents

2The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

The F-35 Lightning II

11.Designed and manufactured by a consortium led by Lockheed Martin, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is a ‘fifth generation’4 combat aircraft that comes in three main variants:

12.Described as the “most expensive military development and procurement programme in history”, the F-35 programme will supply combat aircraft for at least nine countries, with the principal consumer being the United States. The UK is the second biggest client country and the sole ‘Tier One’ partner (i.e. the one most closely involved, with the USA) in the system design and development (SDD) phase of the programme. This status has resulted in the following advantages to the UK:

13.Following some hesitation, the UK Government confirmed in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) that it would buy 138 F-35Bs.8 The F-35Bs will fly from the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, and the previous Government decided in the 2015 SDSR to speed up the purchase so that the UK would have 24 F-35Bs available on these carriers by 2023.9 The UK has already started taking delivery of the F-35Bs and should have its first squadron in service in the UK in 2018. Flight trials from HMS Queen Elizabeth are scheduled for later that year.

The genesis of the Joint Strike Fighter programme

14.The F-35’s roots can be found in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project that was launched by the US Department of Defense (DoD) in the early 1990s. At the same time the UK began to examine how to replace the capabilities provided by the Royal Navy Sea Harrier on the Invincible class carriers (this became known as the Future Carrier-Borne Aircraft Programme, renamed as the Future Joint Combat Aircraft following the 1998 Strategic Defence Review).10

15.In 1995, the UK became a formal partner in the JSF programme, signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and agreeing to pay $200 million, or 10% of the concept demonstration phase.

16.On 17 January 2001, the UK signed a further MoU with the DoD on the engineering manufacturing development phase of the JSF. The MoU committed the UK to an investment of $2 billion towards the development costs of the aircraft and in return provided it with Tier One partner status during the SDD phase of the programme and an input into the aircraft design and the selection of the prime contractor for the project. Later that year it was announced that Lockheed Martin had been awarded the JSF contract.11

17.In 2002, the MoD announced that the Royal Navy and RAF would operate the F-35B variant, with the Government tentatively agreeing to order nearly 150 aircraft.12 This number has since been revised to 138 F-35Bs.


18.Lockheed Martin claims that, as a fifth-generation fighter, the F-35 will combine “advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment”.13 According to a House of Commons Library briefing paper in 2015, the F-35 should have the following capabilities:


19.In his 2016 report, Maximum Value from the F-35, Justin Bronk, a Research Fellow in combat air power and technology at RUSI, noted the programme had “attracted a great deal of controversy and speculation since the development contract for the aircraft was signed in 1996”. The programme has experienced a number of cost overruns and delays and it is still “not yet clear” how much the F-35 will cost the United Kingdom, with the best publicly available estimate, according to Mr Bronk, being a cost for the “first major buy of 14 aircraft for the UK” of some £2.5 billion in 2014.15 Similarly, it is not entirely certain whether the Government will stick to the F-35B variant for the remainder of the 138 fighters being bought or will instead opt for the F-35A variant.16

20.In January 2017, the US Defense Secretary, General James Mattis, ordered a review into the F-35 Programme to “determine opportunities to significantly reduce the cost” of the fighter jet and to assess whether improvements could be made to the F/A-18E/F (the Super Hornet multirole fighter) “in order to provide a competitive, cost effective, fighter aircraft alternative”.17

21.In July 2017, The Times ran a series of stories into the F-35 programme (see paras 1–5 above). These reports repeated claims that the F-35 “is way over budget, unreliable, full of software glitches and potentially unsafe” and argued that the UK was “particularly exposed because defence officials have skimped on buying critical support technology”.18

22.Our report examines the serious allegations made by The Times newspaper in its investigation into the F-35 programme. We draw on the work of other studies into the programme, including the most recent Annual Report of the US DOT&E, and the oral evidence we gathered over the course of two evidence sessions, including from both Lockheed Martin and the Ministry of Defence. The next section of this report examines the main areas of concern identified by The Times and other reports on a case-by-case basis.

4 The Fifth Generation Fighter is the current standard naming convention for ‘next-generation’ fighter aircraft. However, the precise definition of a ‘fifth-generation fighter’ is contested and ambiguous, with contrasting definitions of the concept being provided by Lockheed Martin and other manufacturers (see: B. Sweetman (24 March 2014), Is Saab’s new Gripen the future of fighters?, Aviation Week and Space Technology). Fourth-generation fighters include the Eurofighter Typhoon, the F-15 and the MiG-31.

7 Qq102, 230

9 BBC News (22 November 2015), Osborne: UK to speed up aircraft carrier jet purchase, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-34893614

10 Louisa Brooke-Holland (6 February 2015), The UK’s F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, House of Commons Library, Standard Note: SN06278, pp.4–5

11 Louisa Brooke-Holland (6 February 2015), The UK’s F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, House of Commons Library, Standard Note: SN06278, pp. 6, 21–22

12 BBC News (30 September 2002), UK to buy 150 fighter planes, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/2288747.stm

14 Louisa Brooke-Holland (6 February 2015), The UK’s F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, House of Commons Library, Standard Note: SN06278, p.12

17 Nafessa Syeed, Anthony Capaccio and Rick Clough (27 January 2017), Trump’s Pentagon Chief Orders F-35 Jet, Air Force One Review, Bloomberg Business, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017–01-27/trump-s-pentagon-chief-orders-review-of-f-35-jet-air-force-one

18 Alexi Mostrous and Deborah Haynes (17 July 2017), Jets are overbudget, unreliable and vulnerable to cyber attacks, The Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/jets-are-overbudget-unreliable-and-vulnerable-to-cyberattacks-v3gt8dcbb

18 December 2017