Royal Navy’s new F-35 jets are ready to swoop, says defence secretary

HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier leaves Portsmouth Naval Base for the first time on October 30.   Picture: Malcolm Wells
HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier leaves Portsmouth Naval Base for the first time on October 30. Picture: Malcolm Wells
Picture: Malcolm Wells

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I t’s been almost a month since fearful MPs scolded the Ministry of Defence for a ‘lack of transparency’ over the cost of one of Britain’s most expensive defence programmes ever.

The defence select committee hit out at government for not issuing detailed costs of the F-35 procurement, following damning claims by The Times that the project’s funding was spiralling out of control.

Lockheed Martin F-35b Lightning jet in flight

Lockheed Martin F-35b Lightning jet in flight

Now the head of the defence firm behind the effort to build the UK’s new fleet of stealth fighter jets has pledged to ‘drive down costs’ and produce one of the world’s most lethal warplanes.

Andy Linstead, UK director of American-based Lockheed Martin, said the new aircraft would be a ‘gamechanger’ for the RAF and the Royal Navy.

But Mr Linstead admitted there had been challenges in the 16-year development programme of the space-aged jet – hurdles which he has now claimed to have overcome.

Speaking to The News at an event celebrating the F-35 in London, he said the project was ramping up and set for its biggest year yet.

‘This is a very, very big year,’ he says. ‘We are reaching initial operational capability at the end of this year, there’s the start of the carrier trials at the end of quarter three of this year.

‘For the first time we will have aircraft on the Queen Elizabeth (aircraft) carrier.

‘But our focus, primarily, has to be on delivering initial operational capability. That’s our number one priority.’

Britain already has 14 of the new warplanes out of an initial order of 48, with the government pledging to buy 138 eventually.

The F-35b variant of the hi-tech jet will be part of the Royal Navy’s carrierstrike group, flying off the Senior Service’s two aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales — both of which will be based in Portsmouth.

So far, the order of 48 fifth- generation jets has cost the taxpayer about £9.2bn — £110m per jet.

However, Mr Linstead said he hoped that efficiency improvements and larger, bulk orders would help slash costs significantly.

‘We’re absolutely determined to drive down costs for our customers,’ he says.

‘For example with the F-35a, which has the most numbers, we have driven down costs by 60 per cent since the first production lot.

‘With the F-35b there are lower numbers so lower cost reductions but we have reduced the costs down by 40 per cent.

‘So we are driving down these prices all the time because it’s in everyone’s interests to do that.

‘It is absolutely our aim to deliver a fifth generation fighter jet at a fourth generation cost.

‘That’s when this argument will go away because you’re getting all the capability benefits that a fifth generation fighter aircraft but you’re paying the same as you would pay for an inferior aircraft.’

Defence secretary Gavin Williamson said the new jets would be vital in protecting British lives.

Speaking after flying in the simulator, at the event at the Institute for Engineering and Technology in London, Mr Williamson said: ‘These pioneering stealth jets will protect British lives as we face intensifying and evolving threats at home and abroad.

‘The F-35 is the most advanced and dynamic fighter aircraft in our history, and will defend this country from terrorists, collect crucial intelligence, and safeguard our national interests from those who seek to do us harm.’

RAF test pilots have been putting the jets through their paces in the US.

The first of the new warplanes are due to touch down at RAF Marham, in Norfolk, in the summer.

It’s understood flight trials of the F-35b – a naval variant capable of landing vertically on an aircraft carrier – will begin in October off the east coast of the US.

The aim is to have the first land-based fighter squadrons fully operational by 2020.

It is expected to take 809 Squadron, which will fly from the carriers, a further three years to reach operational strength.

Meanwhile, HMS Queen is due to deploy in the early 2020s, supported by a joint US task force.

The leviathan was commissioned in Portsmouth last month by the Queen following a successful batch of tests last year.

She is the biggest ship the Royal Navy has ever built, weighing in at 65,000 tonne.

Her sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales recently left dry dock for the first time late last year and is on schedule to arrive in Portsmouth in 2019.