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F-35 gets big vote of confidence from United Kingdom

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s unqualified support of the F-35 program came in a defense budget report that said Britain will not only stick by its plans to buy 138 airplanes, but that it will accelerate its purchases by establishing an additional fighter squadron
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s unqualified support of the F-35 program came in a defense budget report that said Britain will not only stick by its plans to buy 138 airplanes, but that it will accelerate its purchases by establishing an additional fighter squadron Courtesy photo

The F-35 joint strike fighter is flying high on news that the United Kingdom is reaffirming its commitment to the sleek and stealthy aircraft while Canada’s defense minister said it is premature to say that his country will pull out of the billion-dollar program it helped develop.

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s unqualified support of the F-35 program came in a defense budget report that said Britain will not only stick by its plans to buy 138 airplanes, but that it will accelerate its purchases by establishing an additional fighter squadron.

Cameron’s validation of the F-35 follows his promises to join airstrikes in Syria against terrorists following the deadly attacks in Paris earlier this month as well as the downing of an Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai desert by a bomb.

“This is vital at a time when the threats to our country are growing,” Cameron wrote in the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review. “From the rise of ISIL and the greater instability in the Middle East, to the crisis in the Ukraine .... the world is more dangerous and uncertain today than five years ago.”

“So while every government must choose how to spend the money it has available, every penny of which is hard-earned by taxpayers, this Government has taken a clear decision to invest in our security and safeguard our prosperity,” the prime minister wrote.

This is vital at a time when the threats to our country are growing ... the world is more dangerous and uncertain today than five years ago.

British Prime Minister David Cameron

Britain is one of eight countries that joined the United States to build and develop the F-35 joint strike fighter. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey are the other partners, with Israel, Japan and South Korea listed as foreign military customers. The $391.1 billion program makes the F-35 the most expensive U.S. military weapon system ever made.

The F-35, which has three variations including one that is designed for short takeoffs and vertical landings, is being built primarily at Lockheed Martin’s plant in Fort Worth. To meet the demand and ramp up production, the plant is undergoing a $1.2 billion reconfiguration.

Exactly how many airplanes will be included in the accelerated order is not detailed in the report, but Britain’s current contract is for 14 F-35s. British Finance Minister George Osborne told Reuters they want to have 24 to deploy on its aircraft carriers by 2023. Additional airplanes will have to be added to their early orders if they hope to have planes based at home for defense and training, people familiar with the situation said.

Exactly how many airplanes will be included in the accelerated order is not spelled out, but Britain is on tap to purchase 14 F-35’s under the current contract and British Finance Minister George Osborne said they want to have 24 to deploy on its aircraft carriers by 2023.

After dealing with recent turbulence regarding the commitment of Canada, along with Britain one of the development partners of the F-35, Lockheed Martin officials were thrilled to hear the news.

“They are a valued partner on the program and today’s announcement highlights the UK’s continued commitment to the F-35,” said Mark Johnson, a spokesman for the F-35 program in Fort Worth. “The F-35 will provide the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy with fifth generation, stealth capability that will revolutionize the UK’s combat air capability for decades to come.”

On the Canadian front, new defense chief Harjit Sajjan cautioned that it’s too soon to count the F-35 out of their military plans for the future. Sajjan told Reuters said that his agency is still determining the requirements for the competition it plans to hold for a replacement aircraft for the CF-18 fighter jet.

It is good news but it frankly is a small part of the F-35 brand

Defense analyst Richard Aboulafia

Newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ran on a platform to kill the F-35 program. The country has already spent about $309 million on the F-35, but the new Liberal government worries about the cost — about $112 million per plane in 2013.

Pentagon and Lockheed Martin officials have downplayed the impact of Canada’s backing out of the program, saying it may boost the price of each plane by about $1 million, although they plan to lower the price to $80 million to $85 million when at full production.

All Pentagon and Lockheed Martin officials will say is that Canada remains a “valued partner” and that they will support them as they seek to replace their aging CF-18 fleet.

Washington defense analyst Loren Thompson had previously predicted that after the competition, Canada might return to buying the F-35 because of its performance features. “They may rethink their opposition to the plane,” Thompson said.

Richard Aboulafia, who works for the Teal Group in the nation’s capital, said he “didn’t take a lot away” from Cameron’s statements. He said the British were thoroughly locked into building the aircraft carriers and that the F-35B is the “only thing that can operate from them.”

What is really needed is for the current customer group to stay on the same path, he said.

“It is good news and it is the first time they have accelerated something like that in years, but we’re still talking small numbers,” Aboulafia said. “These are minor fluctuations in the broader program.”

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB

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