Fears raised over new warplane project as 14th F-35B is delivered

A Ministry of Defence computer generated image showing a F-35B Lightning II jet landing vertically on HMS Queen Elizabeth
A Ministry of Defence computer generated image showing a F-35B Lightning II jet landing vertically on HMS Queen Elizabeth
Picture: Malcolm Wells

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  • MPs have today raised their concerns over the transparency of the F-35B programme
  • They claim the Ministry of Defence has been unable to provide detailed costs on the project’s future
  • Comments by the defence committee come as the newest F-35B arrives in America ahead of flight trials on HMS Queen Elizabeth
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DELIVERY of Britain’s 14th new stealth fighter jet – which will one day fly off the deck of the Royal Navy’s two supercarriers – has been made.

The newest F-35B Lightning II jet has flown into Beaufort, South Carolina, the Ministry of Defence has revealed.

There has been an unacceptable lack of transparency from the MoD and Lockheed Martin which risks undermining public confidence in the programme.

Dr Julian Lewis, defence committee chairman

It has now joined the rest of the UK’s F-35Bs in the States, which are being put through their paces ahead of flight trials off the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, later next year.

The latest addition is being touted as a key milestone by the government and comes little more than a week after the 65,000-tonne Queen Elizabeth was commissioned into the navy.

Defence secretary Gavin Williamson, who attended the commissioning of the Portsmouth-based flagship earlier this month, said: ‘This Christmas delivery is the 14th jet to join our fleet of fifth-generation F-35 fighters over in the US.

‘The carriers have taken centre-stage this year, and next year we look towards these aircraft joining us in Britain and taking off from HMS Queen Elizabeth’s enormous deck to undertake first of class flight trials. With our famous Royal Air Force coming into its 100th anniversary, the F-35 keeps us right at the cutting-edge of combat air power.’

Operated jointly by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, the F-35s will be able to carry out missions from land or embarked on one of Britain’s two £3.1bn aircraft carriers.

There are 200 British personnel based at Beaufort testing the aircraft and getting them ready to arrive in the UK next summer as 617 Squadron.

Armed with the latest cutting-edge stealth tech, the jets are also armed with state-of-the-art sensors and electronic warfare systems and are able to land vertically and utilise short take-off procedures.

However, fears have today been raised by a group of MPs in charge of scrutinising the government’s defence plans.

The defence committee has hit out at the MoD over an ‘unacceptable lack of transparency’ over costs for the F-35’s lifespan, following an investigation by The Times earlier this year.

The paper’s probe claimed costs on the new fighter jet programme had soared, saying ‘hidden’ fees with future repairs and replacement parts had bumped the price of each plane up from between £77m and £100m each to £150m per plane.

Other concerns were also raised about the stealth communications technology being installed in the F-35s.

The committee called in chiefs from the MoD and bosses from defence giant Lockheed Martin – responsible for building the jets – to respond to the claims.

Despite repeated requests, the committee said the MoD failed to provide the full cost of each aircraft once spares, upgrades and retrofits were included, or its estimates of the total cost of the programme beyond 2026/7.

In the committee’s latest report Unclear for take-off? F-35 Procurement, the group claimed the lack of transparency could undermine public confidence in the project.

Dr Julian Lewis, committee chairman, said: ‘There has been an unacceptable lack of transparency from the MoD and Lockheed Martin which risks undermining public confidence in the programme. F-35 is a major investment for the UK and we want it to succeed for the good of this country’s security. However, it is precisely because this project is so important that it must be subjected to the closest possible scrutiny.’

Britain has pledged to order a total of 138 F-35s. More than 500 companies are involved in the programme.

The project is on schedule to achieve initial operating capability from land next year with initial operating capability carrier strike in 2020.