In their first overseas deployment, the RAF plans to relocate its F-35B Lightning fighter jets to Cyprus later this year.

In a press release, the Ministry of Defence provided further details:

“The Lightning, as the aircraft is known in the UK, is the first to combine radar-evading stealth technology with supersonic speeds and the ability to conduct short take-offs and vertical landings. With the ability to operate from land and sea, the F-35 forms a vital part of delivering a ‘carrier strike’ capability to the UK when combined with Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers.[…]

“The UK currently owns 17 F-35B aircraft with the reformed 617 Sqn having arrived back in the UK last year, with RAF Voyager aircraft providing air-to-air refuelling on their trans-Atlantic journey. More jets are due in Britain over the coming years, and there is an overall plan to procure 138 aircraft over the life of the Programme.”1

The enormous cost of the F-35 fighter jet programme, which at over $1.3 trillion is currently “the world’s largest defence programme” has led to criticism from some quarters.2 The Ministry has justified its participation in the programme by pointing out that “UK industry [provides] 15% by value of every one of over 3,000 jets set for the global order book. That makes the economic impact greater than if we were building 100% of all 138 aircraft which we intend to buy. The programme has already generated $12.9 billion worth of orders and at peak production will support thousands of British manufacturing and engineering jobs.”3

The projected total expenditure on combat aircraft over the period 2018-27 is £18 billion according MOD estimates published in October 2018.4 However, an investigation by Alexi Mostrous for The Times as reported to the House of Commons Select Committee for Defence determined that “the real price [including the upgrades and retrofits mentioned above] of an “average” F-35 delivered this year is going to be much higher—between £130 million and £155 million each”. According to The Times, these figures have been “buried in US defense contracts and have not been included in the published figures”.5 Given that the UK has committed to purchasing 138 F-35s over the lifetime of the programme, were this estimate to prove correct, it would imply a total expenditure of over £20 billion, were there to be no increases in the unit cost of the fighter jets.

In responding to questions over their inability to provide concrete figures on the unit cost of the F-35s, Lockheed Martin and the Ministry of Defence provided the Select Committee with ‘unit recurring flyaway costs’ showing that the per aircraft unit price had declined from $161 million for Unit 3 to $131 million for Unit 9. The Committee noted that “the figures, however, do not include the cost of retrofits, add-ons or software upgrades.”6 There is also no guarantee that prices will continue to decrease.

Even more concerningly, “Rather than there being one overall negotiation for the entire purchase of the 138 jets, each of the lots is negotiated independently between the manufacturers and the Joint Programme Office.”7 So in effect, the Ministry of Defence has committed to purchasing a set number of jets with no guarantee of being able to attain the target price.

In concluding its report on this question in 2017, the Select Committee was duly scathing:

92.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.

93.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.

94.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 2026/7.8

According to various sources, the F-35 has been flown in combat by the Israeli Air Force, and in two attacks by the US Marines and US Air Force.

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

Footnotes

  1. Ministry of Defence, ‘UK’s most advanced jets deploy overseas for the first time’, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uks-most-advanced-jets-deploy-overseas-for-the-first-time. Accessed 8 May 2019.
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
  4. Ministry of Defence, ‘UK Defence in Numbers, October 2018’, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/754740/20181107_CH_Defence_in_Numbers_2018_Final_Revised.pdf. Accessed 8 May 2019.
  5. House of Commons, ‘Unclear for take-off? F-35 Procurement’, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmdfence/326/32607.htm. Accessed 8 May 2019.
  6. ibid
  7. ibid
  8. ibid
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