A recent test success aboard a US Marine Corps vessel involving the Lockheed Martin F-35B and expected price reductions for the Joint Strike Fighter mean the UK is holding firm with its procurement plans for the type, says minister for defence equipment, support and technology Philip Dunne.
"We intend within the next few months to sign an order for a first squadron of operational aircraft," Dunne says. Previously detailed as being likely to cover 12-14 short take-off and vertical landing strike aircraft, this will be followed by a substantial additional contract to be placed following the conclusion of the Ministry of Defence's 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review process, he adds. The UK is also still considering whether to acquire a fourth example to support initial operational test and evaluation work, he confirms.
Addressing the issue of how many F-35s the UK will eventually buy, against a formal programme of record figure set for some years at 138 aircraft, Dunne says: "There are currently no changes to our plans," while noting that the three test aircraft already acquired were all delivered below MoD cost estimates.
Steve O'Bryan, Lockheed's vice-president of F-35 programme integration, notes that the type's unit price has already dropped by 55% since the first example was completed.
Asked whether the UK could consider a future split-buy strategy also involving the delivery of some conventional take-off and landing F-35As, Dunne referred to the MoD's experience in dealing with an ill-fated decision to switch allegiance to the US Navy's carrier variant F-35C. "We've had some pretty agonising discussions over variant choice in the past. I have no intention of reopening that discussion."
The MoD in early September announced that its second operational unit to fly the F-35B will be the Fleet Air Arm's 809 Naval Air Sqn. To be formed at Marham in Norfolk, this will follow the RAF's 617 Sqn, which will begin flying the JSF in the UK from 2018, after halting operations with the Panavia Tornado GR4 next year.
Lockheed says the UK's 15% production stake in the F-35 programme now involves 500 companies, and is projected to sustain 24,000 jobs until 2039, when the company expects to build its last example of the stealthy type. "The F-35 will generate significant export value for the UK for years to come, and provide a tactical advantage for its armed forces," says O'Bryan.