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Times Online UK: Britain considers 9bn JSF project pullout

29th September 2008


From Times Online
September 28, 2008

Britain considers 9bn JSF project pullout

Michael Smith

BRITAIN is considering pulling out of a 9 billion project with America to produce the new Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft, intended to fly off the Royal Navy's forthcoming aircraft carriers.

The move is part of an increasingly desperate attempt to plug a 1.5 billion shortfall in the defence budget. The RAF's 25 new Airbus A400 transport aircraft could also be at risk.

Studies have now been commissioned to analyse whether Eurofighters could be adapted to fly off the carriers.

If Britain abandons the JSF, it will be seen as a further snub to the Americans following Gordon Brown's decision last week not to send 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

Only a week earlier, during a visit to London, Robert Gates, the American defence secretary, had said he understood Britain would be sending more troops to meet what commanders say is a 10,000 shortfall.

The possible ditching of the JSF results in part from spiralling costs that have seen the price of the planned 150 British aircraft rise from the original 9 billion estimate to 15 billion.

Britain has already paid out 2.5 billion in preliminary costs but next spring must start paying for actual aircraft. At that point it is committed to the entire project whatever the price.

Once full production begins, Britain will be paying more than 1 billion a year for the aircraft, exacerbating the already dire state of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) budget.

"That has really concentrated minds at the MoD," said Francis Tusa, editor of Defence Analysis. "Put simply no-one has the faintest idea how much this project will cost."

The cost is only part of the problem. There is serious concern over the aircraft's lack of firepower as it can only carry three 500lb bombs, compared with as many as eight on the Eurofighter.

There is also increasing frustration over the continued American refusal to share information on the technology involved.

President George Bush signed a deal with Tony Blair shortly before the former prime minister handed over to Gordon Brown, promising to share top secret technology with Britain.
The deal has still to be ratified by Congress and the Senate foreign relations committee has written to Bush warning him it will not now be ratified until the new president takes office.

There is consternation over the lack of information Britain is receiving on the aircraft and this country's lack of input into designing its capability.

BAE Systems, manufacturer of the RAF's Eurofighter, has been asked to produce a study into whether it could be flown from the carriers, which are due to enter service in 2014 and 2016.

The JSF is a short-take-off-and-vertical-landing (STOVL) aircraft similar to the Harrier aircraft that are currently being flown off the Royal Navy's two old carriers.

Flying Eurofighter from the new carriers would require pilots to learn a completely new skill of landing conventionally at sea a task likened by experts to a "controlled crash".

It would also require the Eurofighter fuselage to be strengthened, the attachment of an arrestor hook to stop the aircraft on landing, and protection against saltwater erosion.

The BAE Systems study, carried out earlier this year, determined that the aircraft could be built to land on carriers without major difficulty.

A company spokesman would only confirm that the study had been carried out and that the MoD had seen the results which confirmed the aircraft could be adapted to fly off carriers.

Replacing JSF with some of the 232 Eurofighters the RAF is committed to buying would be attractive for the Treasury, which has always wanted to find ways to cut its 16 billion cost.

The deal committed all four major partners Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain to paying for all the aircraft they originally ordered even if they later decided to cut the numbers they needed.

The cost of the project, now running at close to 1.2 billion a year, is the biggest single contributor to the 1.5 billion shortfall in the defence budget.

Efforts to stave off the payments dragged the government into the controversy over the decision to call off a Serious Fraud Office investigation into alleged bribes paid by BAE Systems.

The probe into the company's 43 billion al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia was expected to examine the bank accounts of members of the Saudi royal family.

A 6 billion deal under which Saudi Arabia agreed to take 72 Eurofighters from Britain earning the MoD a two-year payments holiday on its own aircraft was dependent on the probe being called off.

That has only served to focus attention on the fact that when the payments holiday ends, Britain will be committed to a decade of paying well in excess of 2 billion a year for two different strike aircraft.

The additional measure of cancelling the military version of the Airbus A400 would only save a total of 1.5 billion but is attractive to the Treasury because it would cost nothing.

The aircraft has consistently failed to meet deadlines with manufacturer EADS admitting last week that it could not meet the deadline for the first test flight.

"The RAF and the MoD would prefer to enforce penalty clauses providing compensation for delays while continuing with the project," said defence sources. "But the Treasury would happily bin it."

The MoD said "marinising" Eurofighter had been looked at as an option but "JSF remains our optimum solution to fly off the carriers".

A spokesman said Britain remained "fully committed to the defence trade cooperation treaty and we are working closely with the American administration to find a way forward."

Dr Carlo Kopp, MIEEE, SMAIAA, PEng
Defence Analyst and Consulting Engineer
Editor: Air Power Australia @ http://www.ausairpower.net