I am delighted to be here this evening to celebrate the F-35 programme.
There are many in this room that have been more involved than I have but I am particularly pleased that Lockheed Martin have invited me here this evening. I had the opportunity last month to visit their Fort Worth facility and see the third aircraft we’re taking delivery of.
You’ll understand that I have not yet been up in the aircraft and also have not yet had the chance to beat my record of crashing a simulator, which currently stands at 8 seconds. I’m sure the opportunity will arise in the future.
As Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, it is my privilege to have the Joint Strike Fighter F-35 programme as one of the most significant projects for which I have a responsibility.
But I know that my role is just one small cog in a huge and complex machine.
The F-35 programme is the largest defence programme in the world.
It involves many countries: their governments, their industries and of course their armed forces.
All of the stakeholders have slightly different needs and requirements, and the F-35 itself is also an incredibly sophisticated piece of technology, the most advanced jet fighter on earth.
It is a testament to the skill, ingenuity and dedication of all those involved in the programme that it is successfully delivering aircraft to the current partners, I am pleased to confirm that we shall, as I’ve just said, soon be receiving its third aircraft, which I saw in the US recently after it had just landed following a test flight.
The success of this programme is important to Britain.
It is important to defence, because it provides our armed forces with the cutting edge military capability that underpins our security.
And it is important to our economy, creating investment, profit and jobs.
In no sense are these things mutually exclusive, nor do they represent a nil-sum gain.
In the case of the F-35 programme, the security benefits and the economic benefits go hand in hand.
The UK aerospace industry is making a significant contribution to the whole global programme.
UK industry is responsible for manufacturing 15% by value of each and every F-35 aircraft. That’s not just for those aircraft manufactured for UK defence, but the entire global fleet.
The global Lightning II fleet is set to comprise at least 3,000 aircraft and will operate until at least the middle of this century.
This is the most valuable defence programme in the world at present, quite possibly of any peacetime period.
The UK’s share of this production run in itself will generate billions of pounds and tens of thousands of jobs for the British economy.
To date, we estimate that almost £5 billion of contracted work has already been placed with the UK supply chain.
So make no mistake, UK industry has won its place in this programme, providing world beating capability and value for money, some evidence of that can be seen in the exhibition downstairs.
Backed by this government’s new strategic vision for UK aerospace, the F-35 programme allows us to continue to build on the strengths of our nation’s avionics, systems and sensors industry.
I saw for myself first hand the extraordinarily impressive precision manufacturing processes being undertaken here in the UK on this programme when I visited BAE Systems’ F-35 facility at Samlesbury a few weeks ago, where every Aft Fuselage for every Lightning II aircraft is being produced.
What struck me from this visit was not just the first class production facilities, but also the vibrancy and enthusiasm which abounds around this programme.
It is sometimes easy just to focus on the involvement of large suppliers.
But the UK supply chain supporting F-35 runs long and deep, with at least 100 British companies in the primary supply chain and hundreds more across the extended chain, as you will hear more of later.
Many of these companies provide unique capabilities to the F-35, demonstrating the innovative and creative nature of the UK aerospace sector.
For example Hypertac, based in London, have developed a high performance connector to handle 270 volt DC power, this will be a connector for the future of aviation and not just this aircraft, eXception PCB in Tewkesbury, quite near my constituency, has developed a multi-layer, high density printed circuit board, which has opportunities for further exploitation in the aerospace sector, and Rolls Royce has designed and developed the innovative propulsion aircraft lift system that enables the Lightning aircraft to perform short take off and vertical landing operations.
From their military engines site in Bristol, Rolls Royce manage the development and integration of the lift system.
I saw the engine in assembly when I visited Rolls Royce in Filton a few weeks ago, and the Secretary of State saw the aircraft performing STOVL landings on his recent visit to the US.
You will be hearing more later about UK success stories from BAE Systems and GE Aviation.
So the economic benefits of the programme will not just be felt during the initial build of these aircraft.
Over the next few decades, this huge fleet will require support, technological upgrades and refitting; the supporting infrastructure all around the world will need to be developed and maintained; and other platforms, current and future, will have to be configured to make them interoperable with the F-35.
UK industry is in a strong position to bid for this support and sustainment work, which should also provide opportunities for future inward investment and export markets, as other European F-35 users seek cost effective sustainment through collaboration.
International collaboration of course has been at the heart of the development and production of the F-35.
Principally, from the 9 current partners, but also increasingly from other nations that are looking to procure the F-35 through foreign military sales.
Working in this close international partnership has made the programme complex to manage, but I am clear that we could not have achieved similar capabilities on our own.
Collaboration will enable all F-35 users to enjoy economies of scale, shared costs and a truly global footprint that would be unobtainable to individual nations’ fleets.
We will all be able to draw on the support that will be available to the worldwide fleet of 3,000 aircraft.
The UK is a Tier 1 Partner in this important programme and we are proud to be the first non US operator of the Joint Strike Fighter.
The MOD invested $2 billion in the development of the aircraft at an early stage of the programme, and we are now seeing the benefits.
The UK is fully committed to the JSF programme.
If anything, our commitment deepens as we build towards introducing the aircraft to operational service with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, where they will operate from land bases and from our new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier.
We expect to order a further aircraft this year in the next JSF annual production contract and, subject to approval at ‘Main Gate 4’, later this year we intend to start procuring the aircraft for our first operational squadron.
Today we already have British pilots and aircraft maintainers training with their US Marine Corps colleagues at Eglin Air Force base, emphasising the particularly close UK-US collaboration on F-35.
And as you know this close collaboration also involves many UK and US companies working side by side on the programme.
So it is understandable that US sequestration is causing some uncertainty.
I was in Washington last month, where I met Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, as well as General Bogdan the JSF Program Executive Officer.
They reassured me that the programme remains of the highest priority for the DoD.
It is their single largest procurement programme, at $420 billion over the next 10 years.
I also had the opportunity to discuss with senior Lockheed Martin executives the need to achieve efficiencies that will drive down aircraft costs in production and through life sustainment.
One thing that came through clearly from my trip to Washington, in particular, is that the F-35 is a very important programme for the US and I took considerable reassurance that the development programme should remain on track.
So in conclusion, we are here today to recognise the value of the F-35 programme to this country.
From government’s perspective the benefits are obvious.
Our armed forces will be equipped with the best next generation jet fighter machine, giving them the operational advantage they will need to protect our citizens for decades to come.
The taxpayer gets value for money from the efficiencies that derive from international collaboration and the subsequent economies of scale.
And our world leading defence industry, represented so well here today, benefits from its enduring involvement in a significant portion of the production work, creating jobs and promoting growth in our economy.
That is why I believe the F-35 is “Great for Britain”.
And that is why this government remains so committed to the programme.