The UK has kept its commitment to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme despite massive pressure on its procurement budget, today signing for its first three production aircraft to support initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) of the fifth-generation fighter.

Signed during a visit to Washington DC by defence secretary John Hutton, the deal will see the UK take delivery of its first short take-off and vertical landing F-35Bs in 2011, with the aircraft to be drawn from the JSF programme's third low-rate initial production batch.

© Team JSF

To be delivered in 2011-12, the UK aircraft will be assigned to a joint test team for the F-35 in the USA, with the Netherlands also expected to acquire two conventional take-off and landing F-35As to support IOT&E activities.

Describing the JSF as "an essential part of our Future Combat Air Capability", Hutton says: "Working alongside their US colleagues, our pilots will gain an unrivalled understanding of this awesome aircraft and its capabilities."

As the USA's lone Level 1 partner to the JSF programme, the UK expects to spend £2 billion ($2.79 billion) during the design's ongoing system development and demonstration phase. More than £1.1 billion of this total had been spent by 31 March 2008, according to the UK National Audit Office's Major Projects 2008 report.

The MoD declines to reveal the value of its 18 March contract, citing "commercial sensitivity", but confirms that the sum is in addition to its previously identified £2 billion investment in the programme.

To be acquired under its Joint Combat Aircraft project, the UK's future F-35Bs will replace its current BAE Systems Harrier GR7/9s, operated by the Royal Air Force/Royal Navy Joint Force Harrier organisation. Up to 138 of the aircraft are expected to be purchased.

Up to 32 of the aircraft will be deployed aboard each of the RN's two 65,000t Future Aircraft Carrier vessels, and today's IOT&E acquisition "will enable the MoD to move forward in developing the Carrier Strike capability", Hutton says.

Source: Flight International