How to Make Sense of the U.K.'s F-35 Buy: Hire Better Sub Editors

September 15, 2013

Two F-35Bs during ship-board testing on the USS Wasp, August 2013. All photos on this page (c) Lockheed Martin, taken from this Flickr set.

Anyone who's taken even a cursory interest in Britain's procurement of the Joint Strike Fighter is likely to have had their head in a spin for the past few years. But one aspect of The World's Biggest Defense Program... Ever! (TM) has been gnawing away at me above all others. Finally, during the death throes of the 2013 edition of the huge bi-annual defence equipment exhibition/arms fair DSEI, I had my epiphany: in the space of one phone conversation, the mists cleared, and it all makes sense. Well, sense of the kind that prevails in the middle of the convoluted Venn diagram connecting the defence industry to government policy, and the requirements of all concerned to stay on-message at all times.

For me, one of the clearest takeaways from the Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) of 2010 was that the UK was no longer planning to buy their previously announced 138 copies of the F-35. This news was overshadowed at the time by the much more fundamental SDSR announcement concerning F-35 - the change of the UK order from the Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) B variant to the carrier-based C model. But there it was, in black and white, in a section of the Review that began at the foot of page 26 and ended at the top of page 27: "Accordingly we will..." - and then, second in a string of bullet points that otherwise need not detain us - "reduce our planned number of Joint Strike Fighter aircraft."

The size of the UK buy isn't just an issue that affects British military capability - the impact on British industry would, in theory, be considerable. The F-35 supply chain is as complicated and lengthy as the program itself, and the balance of work has been delicately calibrated. A key factor in deciding how much work is carried out in each different customer nation is the size of that country's order. 

In November of 2011, during a visit to the production line at Fort Worth which resulted in this piece for the Mail on Sunday's Live supplement, I asked F-35 business development vice-president Steve O'Bryan what effect the reduced UK order was going to have on British manufacturing, and what work prime contractor Lockheed Martin were doing to take account of this. His answer took me by surprise.

"We have an industrial plan for each country based on the number of airplanes they tell us," O'Bryan said then. "The UK gave us an official profile, and they've always had 138 in the profile. And so far there's no reason to think otherwise, so we haven't done any planning associated with if the UK reduces its numbers."

It turns out that while the SDSR said the UK would not be buying 138 aircraft, the UK government hadn't officially communicated this to the company designing, building and project-managing the decades-long aircraft development programme. Subsequent follow-up enquiries to the Ministry of Defence yielded only the additional information that no new figure would be announced until the next SDSR, due in 2015, by which time a general election will have taken place and a new government is likely to be in power. (Since then, suggestions have been made that a new figure could arrive sooner - with the Main Gate decision, due later this year - but we'll not get into that here.)

An F-35B performs a vertical landing at night on the deck of the USS Wasp, August 2013. Photo (c) Lockheed Martin

So last Thursday, when there was a briefing at DSEI by O'Bryan and Philip Dunne MP, the minister for defence equipment, support and technology, I felt I'd have my best chance yet to get to the bottom of this. How, I wanted to ask, can the UK's position simultaneously be to tell the public, through the SDSR, that the country would be saving money by buying fewer jets, but not inform Lockheed Martin? And how would this affect the hundreds of small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK F-35 supply chain - over 500 British companies are involved in the programme - who would presumably have to bear the brunt if the UK work-share is reduced?

This might seem an arcane and inconsequential point to stress, but it's an issue I feel has to be examined carefully. And, given how the other key F-35 decision in the SDSR - the switch from B to C - was adjudged to have been based on flawed assumptions and fundamental misunderstandings, it's not like the British government's handling of the programme has been characterised by standard-setting decision-making and in-depth appreciation of the knock-on impact of the choices being made.

Back in November 2011, O'Bryan explained what would happen if, in a hypothetical situation, a purchasing nation - Lockheed Martin refer to them as "partners" - were to dramatically reduce the number of F-35s it has on order. "Let's take the extremes of it," O'Bryan said then. "If somebody went from buying X amount to one airplane, would the [international] partners want them to have the same industrial plan? No. So we need to put the F-35 work into countries that are buying the airplane, and the rest of the partnership would insist that we do that as well."

If the UK order is reduced, and Lockheed rearrange the project's international work-share to reflect that, then British industry will no longer be making the widely-quoted 15% of every jet that the country's companies stand to build at the moment. The issue isn't so much that the programme as a whole will be smaller because fewer aircraft in total are being bought, though that is a concern too - it's that the UK's 15% of each plane will drop.

So if the UK were to end up halving its order - a far from uncommon estimate, albeit one sourced solely from analysts and the media, not the UK government, whose present commitment is to an initial 48 aircraft - it is not unreasonable to imagine that Lockheed Martin will rearrange the contracting as much as they can, and that figure of 15% of the whole of every aircraft would drop. And if UK industry did go from getting 15% of around 3000 F-35s to, say, 10% or less of that work, the losers are unlikely to be the big defence conglomerates. It is clear that certain companies - BAE Systems, for instance, which operates the only facility in the world that makes the tail section common to all three types of F-35; or Rolls Royce, which is the sole source for the STOVL lift system - can't lose work, even if the UK order was cancelled entirely. So the burden of any lost work that arises from a lower UK order will fall on the shoulders of British companies who supply products to the programme where alternative suppliers exist.

Even a single percentage point reduction in the work allocated to Britain would have a disproportionate impact on smaller companies, some of whom may lose a majority - or perhaps even all - of their work on the aircraft. At the DSEi briefing, alongside presentations from representatives of BAE, Rolls and ejection-seat specialists Martin Baker, journalists heard from Matthew Shaw of RE Thompson, who put the contrast in scale starkly: his managing director, Shaw explained, was also present on Thursday, which meant that eight per cent of the Hampshire-based precision engineering firm's entire workforce was in the room. By January, their expanded work on the F-35 programme will mean that their staffing count will have gone up 16%; millions of pounds of their own money are invested in new plant bought specifically for this programme.

So I asked my question, addressing it to O'Bryan and the minister. O'Bryan was patient and polite, as ever, as he reiterated the position he had outlined a little under two years ago: "There's no reason to speculate that there is a change in the UK profile," he said. "We have been given no indication from from the UK government that there will be, so we have made no plans for that." He also explained how the UK's status as the sole Tier One partner - the country committed an initial £2bn to the project, which has given a number of benefits including the integration of British services personnel into the test team at Patuxent River Naval Air Station who are test-flying the B and C variants - makes a difference to workshare calculations, and he also pointed out that some companies in the UK have prime contractor status on the programme, because without their products there would be no aeroplane. He did not know, however, how many of the 500 British companies had that status, though reckoned it was the majority. 

Dunne, too, began with patient explanatory restatement. "We have a routine, regular, five-year assessment of our military needs," the minister said. "The next one's in 2015, the one after that we assume will be in 2020 unless the next government decides to change the system. And there are no changes to our plans."

I tried to press the point, but didn't get to finish my sentence. Interrupting the question, Dunne said, forcefully: "Let me put it another way: name another program from any military context anywhere in the world that has this durability and scale. Not one." End of discussion.

I began to doubt my own sanity: had I dreamed up the whole thing about the government cutting the Labour administration's order? Wasn't it all part of an SDSR that had stressed how the purse strings had to be tightened and that the profligacy and reckless over-commitment by the previous administration had to come to an end? I went back to the SDSR: but no, it's still there - page 26/7. So I called the MoD press office to ask how it's possible that the prime contractor and the minister seem to be proceeding as if the SDSR had never happened. 

"We'll get back to you," they said.

And, on Friday morning, they did.


The planned reduction in the number of aircraft was, it turns out, tied to the decision to buy the C rather than the B. The thinking - unpublished in the SDSR but known to its authors - was that the greater range of the C meant that fewer aircraft would be required to deliver the same military capability. When that decision was reversed, and the STOVL version went back on the UK's shopping list, the reduction in fleet size was also reversed, and the planned UK buy went back from the unspecified lower number to 138.

As if all of this wasn't already reading like a draft for a plot line in a future episode of Yes, Minister or The Thick of It, the reason for my confusion seals the deal. I have been confounded by a point of grammar.

The item at the top of page 27 reads, in full: "...reduce our planned number of Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. Installing a catapult on the new aircraft carrier will allow us to switch to the more capable carrier variant." Had those two sentences been rearranged and written as one - perhaps, for instance: "...Installing a catapult on the new aircraft carrier will allow us to switch to the more capable carrier variant, reducing the number of Joint Strike Fighter aircraft we need to acquire" - the meaning would have been clear.

The cut in numbers is not a separate issue from the change to cat-and-trap planes - and had those two points not been in separate sentences, everyone would have known for all this time that Britain was still buying 138 jets. My colleagues in the aerospace and defence media who have been writing those detailed editorials and speculative future-force analysis pieces for the past three years could have saved themselves all that brain hurt had a sub-editor in Whitehall managed to grasp the utility of the semicolon. Three years of everyone in the world (apart from staff at Lockheed Martin and the MoD) assuming that the spiralling financial crisis that has seen unprecedented cuts to the British armed services would not, after all, affect the amount of money the country is intending to spend on the most expensive defence equipment programme in history could have been avoided with a little more care in the presentation of two sentences in a single government publication.

Only one small issue remains unresolved. Presumably, therefore, at the time I first spoke to O'Bryan in 2011 - at which point Britain was committed to buying the F-35C - the British government's position was that it was buying fewer than 138 of them, but had not informed Lockheed Martin. Or maybe they did try to tell them, but they put a comma in the wrong place.

In the wrong hands, the English language can be a dangerous tool. At least, this time, its misuse will not - it would appear - end up costing British businesses millions. And for that, at least - and finally - I am thankful. I await Main Gate, and/or the next SDSR, with interest. 



An interesting and thought provoking piece.

Has me now searching for misplaced commas and errant semi colons in the risks embedded in the JSF Program identified and asssessed, back in 2003/04, at the High and Extreme levels of risk in the that have all now materialised into real issues and real problems, plus some others that were missed in the earlier analyses.

posted by: Peter Goon: 24 Sep, 2013 23:02:37

Cart before the horse. The F-35 development program has stacked up so much risk that it is unlikely to be a proper, working, warplane. Fly before you buy. Or more specifically: fly an actual, finished,aircraft with working mission systems to evaluate it and determine if it is worth buying. UK MOD has note done their homework in this regard.

posted by: Eric Palmer: 24 Sep, 2013 23:16:06

Angus – I'm not who is fooling here, but if we look at the experience of every other JSF customer including the US then the numbers projected at the beginning of the acquisition programme are not the numbers they are working with now. Look at what just happened in the Netherlands. The UK can't or won't admit it but the 138 number died a long time ago and no amount of MoD doublespeak will be able to conceal that, in the end.

But something that you missed in your most interesting piece was the fact that the JSF programme, as originally established, NEVER linked national workshare to aircraft offtake. Remember, suppliers were awarded work on a competitive, best-value basis that had nothing to do with the orders. That is how the programme was always framed and only recently has the language changed (and changed completely) as LM has felt the need to whip reluctant partners into line. Ask Oby about that the next time you have a chance.

PS – he has always denied being aware of the numbers cut as announced in SDSR and you’d think someone in the organisation would have mentioned it to him because, as you point out, it was kind of important.

posted by: Airpower: 25 Sep, 2013 01:53:44

But surely the current 48 are largely replacement of the Harrier fleet already retired.
As I read elsewhere an additional quantity of probably F-35As are then required to replace the Tornado strike aircraft which will be retiring in the next 10 years.

posted by: Steve: 25 Sep, 2013 09:17:37

Dear all,

Thanks for the comments, and for your interest in the article. It's greatly appreciated.

Peter: me too! You can make the written word mean what you want if people aren't careful with their punctuation. There's a lesson in there for us all, to be sure. (And also sure I'm guilty as much as anyone else from time to time.)

Eric: again, you're not wrong. The drive to make the aircraft affordable seems to have been the key driver to the concurrency goals being as demanding as they are, and the result appears to be the loss of affordability in anything like the degree everyone involved had envisaged. There's a lesson in there somewhere, too.

Airpower: thanks, good points. I hadn't known that about workshare not originally depending on order size. But you're right: there's clearly a disconnect between affordability, and the ability of the programme to select the supplier who can best deliver the piece of the project at the most competitive price, and the implicit threat of work being taken from those same suppliers for political reasons related to aircraft orders. Something will have to give. I suspect you may be heading along the right lines in your first paragraph: by the time final revised and binding order numbers are confirmed across the partner nations, I suspect everyone will have made significant cuts, with the result that no one nation will be in a very strong position to argue for more work for their own industry over others.

Steve: Dunne was asked the question about a future order for A models for the UK and emphatically denied to answer, in a vaguely jocularly but firm way. Can't recall the exact quote at this moment but it was along the lines of, "We've gone through the type-change debate too many times already so I'm not going to reopen that can of worms." On thinking about it afterwards it's possible he thought the question was suggesting that the current order of B models would be switched to As, rather than it being a suggestion that some As might additionally supplement the ordered Bs. Either way, it's not something I expect we'll hear any firm views on - never mind an actual decision - before the next election.



posted by: Angus Batey: 2 Oct, 2013 16:12:55

You would use a colon, rather than a semicolon, to introduce a qualifying or clarifying statement, surely?

posted by: Pat: 14 Jan, 2014 17:10:22

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