After years of prevarication, promises and confusion the United States has finally made the decision the UK thought had been settled years ago.
Without access to the source code the UK will be totally reliant and dependant on the US for any changes or modifications to the aircraft. Of enormous complexity the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, or Joint Combat Aircraft in UK terms, uses millions of lines of code to control and manage everything from the engine to the way it flies to how it fires its weapons.
The Second Commons Select Committe Report, published on the 13th of December 2005 (yes that date is correct) highlighted concerns about this exact issue.
We fully support MoD’s position that the ability to maintain and upgrade the JSF independently is vital. We would consider it unacceptable for the UK to get substantially into the JSF programme and then find out that it was not going to get all the technology and information transfer it required to ensure ‘sovereign capability’. This needs to be sorted out before further contracts are signed and we expect MoD to set a deadline by which the assurances need to be obtained. If the UK does not receive assurances that it will get all it requires to ensure sovereign capability, we would question whether the UK should continue to participate in the JSF programme
In 2006, Lord Drayson, the then minister for defence procurement told US officials that the UK commitment was absolutely contingent on having access to the source code.
Subsequently Tony Blair issued this statement
The UK will have the ability to successfully operate, upgrade, employ, and maintain the Joint Strike Fighter such that the UK retains operational sovereignty over the aircraft.
Flight Global, reported on the 12th of December 2006 that.
The UK has cleared a major hurdle over its purchase of Lockheed martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) after years of dispute over the ability to support and maintain the aircraft in the UK
Operational sovereignty is defined as the UK having control over essential aspects of the aircraft so that it can be operated through life at the time of the UK’s choosing, says the Ministry of Defence. Lord Drayson said.
We need to be able to integrate the JSF into the UK operating environment; operate, maintain, repair and upgrade the UK fleet to meet evolving through-life requirements; and certificate the aircraft as safe to fly. After an excellent meeting with Gordon England, I am delighted to be able to sign this MoU which will take the UK into the next phase of the JSF programme. I have always been clear that the UK would only sign if we were satisfied that we would have operational sovereignty over our aircraft. I have today received the necessary assurances from the US on technology transfer to allow me to sign the MoU.”
In a Ministerial Statement on the 12th of December 2006 from Lord Drayson this was confirmed.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement. Today in Washington DC the Minister for Defence Procurement has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the US Government on the next phase of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme: production, sustainment and follow-on development (PSFD).
This is an important step forward for both the Armed Forces and British industry. The MoU sets out the framework for purchasing JSF and supporting and upgrading it through life. It also provides for the pooling of the nine partner nations’ collective buying power in a common support solution, and of their resources and technology in follow-on development. It does not, however, formally commit the UK to buying any aircraft. Our associated increase in financial commitment at this stage is £34 million.
We have always been clear that the UK would sign the MoU only if we were satisfied that we would have operational sovereignty of our aircraft. We have today received the necessary assurances from the US on technology transfer, which we would require to operate the aircraft safely and maintain, repair and upgrade it over its operational life.
The US seems to have now gone back on this, so much for the special relationship and a signed memorandum of understanding (Production, Sustainment and Follow-on Development, called PSFD MOU)
No partner nation is getting the so-called source code, the key to the plane’s electronic brains, Jon Schreiber, who heads the program’s international affairs, told Reuters in an interview Monday.
That includes everybody,” he said, acknowledging this was not entirely popular among core partners — Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway
Instead, the United States plans to set up a “reprogramming facility,” probably at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, to further develop F-35-related software and distribute upgrades, Schreiber said.
The UK is a Tier 1 Partner and have already invested $2billion in the programme, more than any other partner and have significant industrial benefits as part of this.
At the root of the decision to withold source code are industrial issues, the US simply does not trust other nations, nations with their own aerospace industries, to not use the code in a manner which gives them an advantage over the US.
There are wider issues at stake, a technology transfer agreement could deliver many benefits and is currently being discussed so as usual with these issues, there is more to it than meets the eye.
The F35B is the preferred aircraft to fulfil the RAF and Royal Navy Joint Combat Aircraft Programme to replace Harriers but although this was still the case and absolutely contingent on having sovereign control over the system there still exists a number of other options.
No doubt Dassault and Boeing are dusting off their sales proposals for the F18 and Rafale M.
So do we fold and take it or grow a backbone, any takers for a prediction?