U.K. gets keys to first JSF

Program milestone marked with continued questions over the health of the program and the commitment to the expensive fighter.

U.K. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond will fly to Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday to pick up his country’s first F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from Lockheed Martin’s assembly plant. It marks the first country of the international coalition other than the U.S. to receive one of the fifth generation fighters.

Hammond met with his U.S. counterpart, Leon Panetta, Wednesday morning at the Pentagon to discuss the F-35 program among other topics. Panetta even awkwardly presented Hammond with a model of an F-35 to open the news conference they hosted Wednesday from the Pentagon press room.

The occasion marks a milestone for the intensely scrutinized fighter jet as international cooperation has been a hallmark of the program and could very well determine its survival. The U.S. is the largest international JSF buyer, yet, the cost of each jet jumps considerably anytime a partner nation backs out.

Italy, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands and the U.K. have all either slashed the number of F-35s they plan to buy or considered backing out of the program all together. They’re not alone.

A column written by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert for Proceedings magazine earlier this month was construed as a backpedal by the U.S. Navy in their commitment to the JSF. The U.S. Navy’s top officer questioned the need for stealth aircraft as radar technology rapidly advances.

Of course, the Navy has since made sure to tell anyone that is listening that they are completely behind the program. However, the seed of doubt was most certainly planted.

So much so that a British journalist asked Panetta at Wednesday’s news conference if the U.S. military is still committed to the Joint Strike Fighter even with the looming budget cuts to include a further $500 billion cut if sequestration is executed. Standing next to Hammond, Panetta made sure to calm those fears to include stating how each one of his services support the program.

“I’ve made very clear that this fighter plane is critical to our future defense strategy,” Panetta said. “We are committed to all of the three variants because we think each of the forces will be able to use that kind of weaponry in the future so we can effectively control the skies.”

Panetta highlighted the work his team is doing to pressure Lockheed Martin, the prime manufacturer of the plane, to keep costs down. He emphasized the strides the F-35 program has made over the past 18 months to get back on schedule and control a spiraling price tag. But the work toward that goal is not finished.

“It is something we have to continue to put pressure on, to maintain cost control on, and we are working with industry to do that because we do want it to be cost effective,” he said.

For Hammond’s part, he has had his own inner squabbles when it comes to the Joint Strike Fighter. He originally planned to switch the U.K.’s JSF order from the B-model to the C-model. Hammond has since reversed that decision once the U.K. realized how much it would cost to update their aircraft carriers to accommodate the fighter’s longer range variant.

Lockheed Martin made sure to include a British pilot when it marched out three F-35 pilots for a panel to discuss the fighter’s capabilities this month at the Farnborough International Airshow. Peter Wilson, a British Harrier pilot who is now a BAE test pilot, was one of the drivers who flew in the recent F-35 sea tests. He had one of the lines of the entire airshow when he described landing the Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing variant as “magic.”

U.S. officials hope to continue to hear rave reviews of the F-35 program because many feared the British military, which is experiencing harsher defense cuts than the U.S., could realistically back out because of JSF’s steep price tag thus putting the F-35 at further risk.