The UK Ministry of Defence will invest funds next year to buy two Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters, giving the overall programme a needed lift for production orders.

Brig Gen Charles Davis, US programme executive officer for JSF, says the UK will purchase long-lead items for two fighters in 2008 leading to delivery in 2010 during the third year of the low-rate initial production phase (LRIP-3).

The UK's pending order will serve to partially lift the pressure on Lockheed's production rate for the US Department of Defense. The DoD originally planned to buy 32 fighters LRIP-3, but slashed that order by half to 16 aircraft in the fiscal year 2008 budget request submitted to Congress earlier this year.

Slowing the production ramp-up by half increases concerns about meeting the programme's affordability targets, as volume production helps to lower manufacturing costs. As a result, Lockheed has been seeking alternative means to increase the size of the LRIP-3 order by as many as eight aircraft, but so far only the UK purchase appears to have materialised.

The UK is entering the LRIP-3 purchase to purchase two aircraft in order to participate in the operational testing phase of the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B. The Netherlands government is also seeking to participate, but a request to purchase one F-35A in LRIP remains in the parliamentary approval process.

Both the UK and the Netherlands also plan to buy up to 230 aircraft combined after the first operational fighters are released for export, which is currently scheduled for FY2014.

Meanwhile, Italy and the US government have moved closer to establishing a second final assembly and checkout line for the F-35. Both governments agree in principle that the alternative assembly site is a feasible option, and an evaluation expected to be complete in December will determine the costs of the project. The US government's approval depends on Italy's willingness to fund the extra costs of the assembly centre in full.

Source: Flight International