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Armed Forces: F35 Aircraft

Volume 706: debated on Thursday 18 December 2008


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will purchase two F-35 Lightning II aircraft in January for evaluation and training as anticipated.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Lieutenant Aaron Lewis, who was killed on operations in Afghanistan this week.

The JSF is currently in the system development and demonstration phase. A decision will be made early in the new year on the purchase of aircraft to allow the UK to participate in the joint operational test and evaluation of JSF with the US services.

My Lords, first, I enjoin these Benches in the tribute to Lieutenant Lewis.

I am grateful for the Answer. When the Secretary of State made his recent announcement to defer the carriers, he made great play of aligning the timing of their introduction with that of the joint combat aircraft. Is the intention to equip the carriers with new aircraft from the outset, all other things being equal and the evaluation being satisfactory, or is it to run the Harriers on and involve them with the new carriers?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lee, raises an interesting question. The JSF aircraft were never going to be ready in time for the aircraft carriers on the old timescale, and it is unlikely that they will be ready on the new timescale. It has always been the intention that the Harriers would be deployed on the aircraft carriers when they first came into service.

My Lords, does the Minister recall the pinch-point data recorded in the MoD’s recent autumn performance report? It showed shortfalls approaching 49 per cent in junior Fleet Air Arm Harrier pilots and over 57 per cent in experienced RN Harrier instructors. Will this not seriously jeopardise the Fleet Air Arm’s ability to provide the fast jet command and leadership required to operate the full fleet of F35s in the coming decade? Has not the time come to be realistic, to halve the number of these aircraft to be procured for the Fleet Air Arm and to limit the carrier order to just one vessel?

No, my Lords, we intend to have two carriers. There is pressure on the Harriers at present, which is one of the reasons why they will be replaced by Tornadoes in Afghanistan, to try to relieve the burden of continuous operational activity there.

My Lords, we, too, send our condolences to the family and friends of Lieutenant Lewis, who was tragically killed in Afghanistan. Is the Minister aware of the Joint Strike Fighter joint estimate team’s conclusion that the project is underfunded by up to $15 billion? In the light of that, can she confirm that the Government are urgently dusting off their plan B?

My Lords, the forecasts of the costs of the programme to date have been pretty accurate. This country was asked to make an extra contribution to system design, but it was possible simply to reschedule our allocation and to reprofile the way in which we spent the money. Therefore, the UK contribution has not gone up, and that is a reason why it is right to have an incremental approach to this programme, and to many others, so that we are in command of all the facts when we decide to go to the next stage of investment.

My Lords, in view of the announced delays to the carrier programme and the uncertainties still surrounding the JSF programme, to which the Minister has referred, would this not provide an opportunity for a more fundamental reassessment of the air equipment to be assigned to the carriers, for example, to include the French Rafale?

My Lords, the French Rafale was looked at as a possibility in the early days and ruled out. I do not think that there are uncertainties per se about JSF. So far it is on track. As I say, we are taking an incremental approach to investment. It will be a very significant step forward, because JSF will be fifth generation aircraft, which will have low observability, and in that respect it could provide a very important role.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us regarding the concerns raised that US arms export controls will not allow sufficient transfer of technological information to allow us to use American aircraft independently? Can the Government assure us that this is not the case, and that if we take on these aircraft we will have the correct technical back-up to use them independently?

Yes, my Lords. When we were in the process of agreeing the production, sustainment and follow-on development memorandum of understanding, these issues were taken into account. So far, we have had access to all the information that we need on this programme, so that we can have operational sovereignty in respect of JSF once it comes into force. I should perhaps remind your Lordships that operational sovereignty and technological independence work both ways, and parts of British industry are actually critical to this programme. So this can be good news for British industry as well as for the Americans.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness address the question that was implicit in the substantive question of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley? What will be done about the evident shortage of experienced pilots for these aeroplanes?

My Lords, we have a programme for training pilots. We have made some significant progress, and the recent contract is being discussed to extend training. I think we can be confident that we will be using the best pilots possible in all of our fleet.