115.In July 2017, The Times conducted an investigation into the F-35 programme. This investigation resulted in a number of serious allegations being levelled at the most expensive international defence programme in history—the linch-pin of our future carrier strike capability. Our short inquiry has sought to weigh the claims made by The Times against expert commentary, technical reports and the evidence of Lockheed Martin and the Ministry of Defence.
116.The F-35 has clearly experienced a number of software and hardware problems during its development phase, and it is important to acknowledge that it would have been unusual for a project of the size, scale and technological complexity of the F-35 not to encounter any during its design and development process. Nevertheless, The Times’s investigation has provided cause for concern.
117.Such concern has not been alleviated by the Department’s and Lockheed Martin’s initial response to the issues raised by The Times. The F-35 is set to be one of the biggest defence investments ever made by a UK Government and a programme that supports thousands of British manufacturing jobs. The newspaper’s investigation provided the Government and Lockheed Martin with an opportunity to reassure the public and build support for a vital defence project. It is disappointing that neither invested in a serious media and public relations effort to refute the claims made by The Times, relying instead on a letter to the editor of the paper (in the case of Lockheed Martin) and a rather dismissive letter and briefing circulated by the Government to Conservative MPs.
118.We were surprised, given the cross-party nature of defence issues, that the letter from Harriett Baldwin and accompanying briefing document were sent by the Government only to Members on its own side. In future, where the Government is responding to claims made in public about defence projects, it should ensure that both sides of the House, rather than just Members on its own side, are kept informed. In this instance, the Government, as a matter of course, should have sent the letter and briefing to the Defence Committee and deposited the documents in the Library of the House of Commons.
119.We have received a number of assurances from the Government and Lockheed Martin that problems identified in The Times’s investigation and the report of the DOT&E have been, or are in the process of being, tackled. For the time being, we are willing to accept the assurances that have been given by Lockheed Martin and the MoD. Nevertheless, we will continue to pay close attention to the delivery of this programme and will hold both Lockheed Martin and the Government to each of the assurances made during the course of our inquiry.
120.The F-35 could be a transformative capability for the UK and our allies. It is the duty of Lockheed Martin, the MoD and the Joint Programme Office to ensure this potential is realised. The MoD should, therefore, agree to provide this Committee with six-monthly updates on the F-35 programme. These updates must detail the progress made in addressing each of the issues identified in this report and any additional problems. These updates should also include details of the ongoing cost of the programme, including on sustainment, spares and logistics, software upgrades and the unit recurring flyaway costs. Furthermore, following any future trials of communications between F-35s and older aircraft, via MADL systems, such as Babel Fish III, the MoD should produce a memorandum informing the Committee of the progress made.
121.The F-35 is a major investment in defence capability for the UK. We want it to succeed and to become the cornerstone of a new and effective carrier strike capability for this country. However, it is precisely because of the significance of this project that it must be subjected to the closest possible scrutiny, so that the public can have confidence in its affordability and deliverability. We thank The Times for its investigation and for focusing attention upon the procurement of this vital military capability.
18 December 2017