The UK has taken the first formal step towards participating in the full-scale development phase of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), but is waiting for the incoming Bush Administration to reaffirm US support for the programme before committing its $2.05 billion funding.

London's signature on the memorandum of understanding (MoU) was needed for it to play a role in the final selection of either the Boeing or Lockheed Martin aircraft, a process due to start in February. It provides a framework for the UK to join the engineering and manufacturing development phase due to start in September.

It is uncertain how high a priority JSF will command from a new Republican administration intent on funding ballistic missile defence and modernising the US bomber fleet. "We recognise that a number of key decisions remain to be taken about the JSF programme," says Baroness Symons, UK defence procurement minister.

The MoU allows any participant to pull out of the programme with 90 days' notice and each partner will have to cover their own costs arising from a withdrawal. While the document spells out that termination be done on the most "economical and equitable basis", Symons concedes that costs are "not recoverable".

Terms of the MoU reveal a development cost target of $25.7 billion and a ceiling of $28.3 billion. The UK's share is around 8%, slightly less than the 10% originally envisioned. The UK will spend another £600 million ($887 million) "integrating the JSF into the UK armed forces", says Symons, and around £10 billion over the life of the programme to 2040.

The agreement gives London 15 days from final selection to quit the programme, if the chosen aircraft does not meet UK requirements or the ongoing acquisition strategy study conducted by independent consultant Rand indicates a "negative impact on UK participation in the programme".

While the UK has stated its preference for JSF as a replacement for its BAE Systems Harrier GR7 and Sea Harrier FA2, it has not selected between the short take-off vertical landing or the US Navy's longer-range carrier versions, says Capt Simon Henle, JSF UK project manager. This will hinge on what type of aircraft carrier the UK decides next year to build.

Source: Flight International