The UK is expected to sign a deal "within the next few weeks" to participate in the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter's initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) phase, says minister for defence equipment and support Quentin Davies.
Davies and representatives from the UK Ministry of Defence's Joint Combat Aircraft integrated project team visited Lockheed's Fort Worth manufacturing site in Texas in February. During the visit they held discussions with officials from the company and the US armed services.
Topics covered in the talks spanned issues such as operational sovereignty, in-service support, the integration of UK-specific equipment and programme costs, says Davies, who adds that the visit "helped answer some questions".
The minister told a launch event for the UK Royal Navy's "Fly Navy 100" celebrations in London on 16 February that he believes the programme is "well under control, and there are already indications on price schedules that we are talking about. I hope that there will be a very positive announcement within the next few weeks."
As the USA's lone Level 1 partner on the JSF project, the UK has long planned to acquire three short take-off and vertical landing F-35Bs during the IOT&E phase to participate in development testing of the fifth-generation type as part of a joint test team. This will inform the MoD's long-term acquisition plans for the type, and enable it "to make suggestions early enough in the programme where it is possible to improve some systems or performances," Davies says.
"The operational testing and evaluation phase is essential," he says. "Some of the other [JSF] customers are prepared to simply buy the aircraft and take it on trust, but I don't think that's a responsible way [for the UK] to act."
Lockheed requires the UK to sign a contract for its IOT&E aircraft by the end of February, but the investment had recently been rumoured as potentially being at risk under the MoD's ongoing financial planning round. However, Davies says: "I have a smile on my face, and I'm confident we shall be able to move forward."
© Aircraft Carrier Alliance
Industry sources suggest that the UK could eventually purchase up to 138 production F-35s to meet its Joint Combat Aircraft requirement, which will deliver new fighters for use by Royal Air Force and RN squadrons, including from two 65,000t Future Aircraft Carriers (artist's impression above).
The RN will mark the centenary of its manned aviation activities on 7 May.