Why the UK Is Going All In with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
Policy + Politics

Why the UK Is Going All In with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

Lockheed Martin

At a time when Canada is questioning its commitment to the staggeringly expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the United Kingdom this week released a national security roadmap that goes all in on the multibillion weapons program.

The “Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review” commits London to purchasing 138 of the Lockheed Martin-manufactured jets, a significant leap from the 48 fighters the U.K. previously said it would acquire.

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The increase is part of a plan by Prime Minister David Cameron to boost military equipment spending by $18 billion in the coming years in order to better combat terrorism and other security threats to Europe.

“From the rise of ISIL and greater instability in the Middle East, to the crisis in Ukraine, the threat of cyberattacks and the risk of pandemics, the world is more dangerous and uncertain today than five years ago,” Cameron said in a foreword to the strategic document.

The U.K. is also tripling of the pace of F-35 deliveries up to 2023. Originally, the military hoped to have eight jets ready for use on its two new aircraft carriers by that time; now it wants 24 of the fifth-generation aircraft ready to go.

"We are going to step up the aircraft carrier punch of the United Kingdom. We are going to make sure that when these aircraft carriers are available, they are going to have planes that can fly from them in force," Chancellor George Osborne told The Sunday Times.

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That’s quite a different story from Canada, where the newly-installed government has signaled it will continue to participate in the development of the plane, but also might look for a cheaper aircraft to replace the country’s CF-18 Hornet fleet. Ottawa had planned to spend $9 billion for 65 F-35s.

It’s unclear what the immediate impact of London’s decision will be on the F-35 program, but in all likelihood it could drive down the unit cost for the eight partner countries that are working to develop the jet.

Along with the U.K. and Canada, the U.S., Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, Australia, Denmark and Norway are working together to develop the JSF.

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Even though it has been plagued with technical and cost overruns since it launched in 2001 – causing the program’s price tag to balloon to $400 billion and making it the most expensive weapons efforts in U.S. history – the Pentagon remains committed to its goal of buying 2,440 F-35s over the coming years.

The lifetime program cost for the plane is expected to exceed $1 trillion.