Unclear for take-off? F-35 Procurement Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Reported communications and software issues

1.We are pleased that the Government acknowledges the potential value of using the Multifunctional Advanced Data Link (MADL) for secure communications between the F-35 and our older aircraft. We note both that it is the MoD’s ambition to have MADL-type capabilities across the carrier group and that trials of a gateway communications node have been undertaken involving the F-35 and Typhoon. (Paragraph 46)

2.We agree with Justin Bronk from RUSI that, without an advanced data link and translation node, the UK will be underusing one of the key capabilities of the F-35—its ability to interact with older aircraft and greatly augment their potency. In the light of the successful Babel Fish III trial, which saw a gateway node used to translate MADL messages to Link 16 format between F-35s and Typhoons, earlier this year, and ahead of the UK receiving its first squadron of F-35 fighters next year, 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. (Paragraph 47)

3.If the potential benefits of the F-35 to the UK’s future carrier strike capabilities are to be realised then the Queen Elizabeth carriers will require a broadband capacity beyond 8 megabits. While we note that the MoD claims that there is scope for the current bandwidth to be enlarged, it is seems highly likely that a capacity in excess of the 32 megabits currently available on the USS America will be required for an effective carrier strike capability. (Paragraph 57)

4.The F-35 probably relies more on software than any other defence programme in history and ALIS is of particular importance. This software plays a key role in the day-to-day operation and management of the F-35 and it is unsurprising, then, that concerns have been raised about potential vulnerability to hacking. We were, therefore, glad to hear from Lockheed Martin and the MoD that there has been rigorous cyber-testing of ALIS and that software bugs have mostly been rectified. (Paragraph 71)

5.We are aware that concerns were raised about the intellectual property rights of ALIS and the potential implications for the MoD’s long-term management of the UK’s F-35 fleet. While we were pleased that Lockheed Martin confirmed in oral evidence that the UK will have complete and unfettered use of ALIS and its technical data for the sovereign operation of our fleet, we note that Lockheed Martin’s supplementary evidence weakened this guarantee by claiming that the US Government had an ‘unlimited rights license’ for this software, including the right to distribute technical data to other nations and to industry competitors. We ask that Lockheed Martin provide clarity on the level of protection in place for the technical data gathered by ALIS software concerning UK F-35s—including whether this data falls within the US Government’s ‘unlimited rights license’. (Paragraph 72)

Hidden costs?

6.The Committee views the MoD’s failure to provide adequate cost estimates, either on an overall programme basis or on a per-aircraft basis, as wholly unsatisfactory. It amounts to an open-ended financial commitment which can be quantified only in retrospect. (Paragraph 92)

7.We understand that the Lot-by-Lot procurement process for the aircraft, allied with the separate processes for procuring parts and spares and logistical support, make it difficult to calculate the total cost whether on a per-aircraft or on a programme-as-a-whole basis. However, it is simply not acceptable for the Ministry of Defence to refuse to disclose to Parliament and the public its estimates for the total cost of the programme, and to suggest instead that we must wait until the mid-2030s (when all 138 F-35 have been procured) to be able to work out a full unit cost for each aircraft, once spares and upgrades are included. (Paragraph 93)

8.The lack of transparency over the costs of the F-35 is unacceptable and risks undermining public confidence in the programme. The Department should provide us with the ‘rough orders of magnitude’ it claims to possess for the total costs of the F-35 programme beyond 2026/7. (Paragraph 94)

General observations

9.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. (Paragraph 115)

10.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. (Paragraph 116)

11.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. (Paragraph 117)

12.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. (Paragraph 118)

13.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. (Paragraph 119)

14.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. (Paragraph 120)

15.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. (Paragraph 121)

18 December 2017