THE first of the Royal Navy’s new stealth fighter jets has been handed over to the MoD.
Defence secretary Philip Hammond formally accepted the US-built F-35B Lightning II plane at a ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas, today.
It marks a major milestone in the £8bn project to build and arm two new 65,000-tonne navy aircraft carriers that will be based in Portsmouth from 2016 onwards.
But the handover comes amid jitters that development of the British jump jet variant of the F-35 – which has been beset with technical problems – may be axed or postponed in forthcoming US defence cuts.
Mr Hammond today reconfirmed the UK’s £2bn commitment to Lockheed Martin’s huge F-35 project, which aims to build more than 3,100 stealth jets for the US and nine partner nations.
This is despite US costs rising by 42 per cent to $400bn since 2007, and a recent report by Washington’s spending watchdog which warned full-rate production could be delayed six years, until 2019.
In Texas, Mr Hammond welcomed the delivery of the first of the three Lightning IIs to be ordered by the UK so far and announced a fourth jet.
Eventually, the UK is expected to order at least 48 of the jets, but this will not be confirmed until the next defence review in 2015.
Mr Hammond said: ‘This hugely capable combat aircraft is now officially British and in the hands of our expert pilots.
‘Highly-skilled British aerospace workers are also playing a vital role in the delivery of the plane with UK companies involved in 15 per cent of the production and 25,000 British jobs sustained as a result.’
The navy lost its jets when HMS Ark Royal and Harrier planes were axed in 2010.
The arrival of the first F-35B comes after the UK made a U-turn to stick with the jump jet variant first ordered by Labour in 2002.
This was after the estimated cost of changing the deck design to have longer-ranged F-35C jets rose to £2bn.
Mr Hammond said: ‘Having taken decisions on the final designs of our new aircraft carriers and balanced the MoD’s budget we can now proceed confidently to regenerating our carrier strike capability with these cutting-edge stealth combat aircraft.’