THE Ministry of Defence is facing internal pressure to pull out of buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets for the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers, The News can reveal.
A number of MoD officials are understood to be calling for Britain to withdraw from the under-fire Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme, which has faced criticism in America and Australia as costs run into hundreds of billions of pounds.
A ‘Plan B’ has emerged for the UK to equip HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales with a fleet of older, less-capable F-18 jets, rather than buying 138 state-of-the-art F-35 planes.
An MoD source said: ‘F-35s will cost millions more than we thought and may not even be ready when we need them in 2020. F-18s already exist and will cost us peanuts, so why should we take the risk?’
Britain has already sunk £1.4bn into the US-led JSF programme since it began in 2002 and an MoD spokesman said the ministry was ‘100 per cent committed’ to the F-35s.
But insiders say F-18s, which have been around since 1978, are a reliable, cheaper option as Britain attempts to plug a £38bn black hole in the defence budget.
‘The argument is like saying: “I haven’t got enough money to buy a Porsche 911 right now so I’ll buy an Audi TT instead,’” said a source.
Since last year’s defence cuts left the Royal Navy without its Harrier jump jets, three navy pilots have been out in America training with F-18s and are understood to be singing the aircraft’s praises.
More navy pilots are set to go to the US ahead of the new carriers coming into service in Portsmouth in 2020.
At an estimated total cost exceeding £300bn, JSF is the most expensive military-industrial programme ever.
The F-35 jets built by global defence firm Lockheed Martin promise to do everything from stealth missions to aerial combat, with variants tailored to ground or sea-based operations. But costs have soared by more than 40 per cent from US estimates of $80m per plane in 2002 to $113m per jet today.
A ‘risk management’ programme is ongoing between the US Defense Department and Lockheed Martin to drive costs down amid criticism of the project, which was blasted as a ‘train wreck’ by former US presidential candidate John McCain.
Just last week, the Australian government – which is looking to buy 100 F-35 jets – said it may withdraw from JSF if it does not get on track.
However, Paul Livingston, the UK aero director of Lockheed Martin, told The News JSF has turned a corner.
He said: ‘Last year was a bit of a shambles financially and we had some issues. But testing is going really well now and I’m confident we will come out of probation soon.’
He said JSF creates thousands of British jobs and the MoD should stick with F-35 as F-18s are becoming outdated.
He said: ‘There are people within the MoD, particularly the navy, who have been out and flown on exchange programmes flying on F-18s who say they would like them instead but it is not something that stands the financial test or the test of time.
‘Whilst we understand some people wanting to be financially conservative and think about F-18, it really is the right answer for a whole bunch of reasons, politically and financially, to have F-35.’