COSTS need to be reined in on Britain’s £9.2bn fleet of futuristic warplanes to avoid a national ‘embarrassment’ for the Ministry of Defence (MoD), a decorated fighter pilot has warned.
Harrier hero Commander Nigel ‘Sharkey’ Ward was the commanding officer of 801 Naval Air Squadron during the Falklands War, based on aircraft carrier HMS Invincible.
Flying more than 60 missions, with three air-to-air kills, he was the campaign’s leading night pilot.
But now the war hero has written to the UK’s defence committee over fears the US Air Force could cut its number order of F-35 Lightning IIs – causing costs to soar for Britain’s own fleet of the stealth jets.
His comments come as the MoD accepted the 15th order of the new warplane – which will one day fly off the flight deck of the Royal Navy’s two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.
The US Defence Department has said it might need to cut 590 jets from its 1,763 order if manufacturing giant Lockheed Martin can’t find a way to slash operational and support costs.
The MoD said the UK’s programme was still ‘on track and within budget’.
But Cdr Ward said such a ‘major reduction’ would lead to a surge in costs for other nations purchasing the F-35.
He said: ‘This would in turn lead to severe financial embarrassment for the defence budget.’
Cdr Ward said the UK now needed to focus on ensuring to ‘guarantee the procurement of just enough jets to provide effective air groups’ for the carriers – a figure he said needed to be at least 60.
He also urged military chiefs to consider cutting back on Britain’s current £80bn land-based fleet of 160 Typhoon jets, reducing them to 60, in a bid to make a dent in the MoD’s £21bn budget blackhole.
Britain has ordered 48 F-35bs at a price of about £191m per jet – which includes the cost of spares, maintenance and training. The jets will begin flight trials from HMS Queen Elizabeth later this year.
An MoD spokesman said: ‘The F-35 programme remains on track and within budget, providing a game-changing capability for our armed forces. We continue to drive down costs with every purchase, while British industry benefits from an orderbook of over 3,000 jets.’
The MoD added the Typhoons were ‘world-class fighter jets’ that ‘continued to be ordered by nations across the world’,
A Lockheed Martin spokeswoman said: ‘F-35 unit costs have declined by more than 60 per cent since the first production lot and through efficiencies, economies of scale, systems improvements and cost-reduction projects, we expect to significantly enhance readiness and lower sustainment costs.’