Philip Hammond shrugs off US criticisms of Joint Strike Fighter
Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, poured scorn on concerns over the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme on Wednesday comparing an official US government audit into the embattled fighter jet to a “home buyer’s survey” that could be safely ignored.
By Peter Foster, Washington10:08PM BST 18 Jul 2012
“If you ever buy a house and you get a surveyor to do a structural survey, you will never, ever buy the house if you read the structural survey,” Mr Hammond said, dismissing a 50-page report by US Government Accountability Office (GAO) which raised profound questions about the fighter last month.
The GAO, the official watchdog of the US Congress, warned that the development of the $160m (£102m) aircraft’s high-tech software systems were “behind schedule and risky”, pointing out that only 4 per cent of its systems had yet been fully tested.
Mr Hammond will be in Texas on Thursday to take the ‘keys’ of the first British F-35B Lightning, a jump-jet version of the aircraft that was ordered in May following a major U-turn by the Coalition government which decided the F-35C catapult version was too expensive.
Re-iterating Britain’s commitment to buy 48 of the Fifth Generation planes, Mr Hammond gave assurances that that engineering problems that have bedeviled the Lockheed Martin jet were now largely resolved.
“We’ve got past the phase where the focus was getting the plane flying and proving it, and we’re now at the stage where the customer is seeking to drive the cost down,” Mr Hammond said.
The GAO report paints a very different picture, however, warning that it would be “years” before it was clear if the F-35B would work as planned. It warned that engineering changes would continue at “elevated levels into 2019” - which is three years after Britain takes delivery of its first F-35Bs
Although tests had demonstrated basic air-worthiness, the report continued, more difficult testing, including “low-altitude” and “high angle” attacks had not started, with testing of a fully operational aircraft not expected until 2015 “at the earliest”.
Britain is scheduled to take delivery of its first aircraft for land-based operations in 2016, before beginning carrier training in 2018, with a view to having a fully operational carrier-based aircraft in 2020, Mr Hammond said.
The GAO report also raises concerns about 24 million lines of software code that will needed to create a hyper-advanced, futuristic fighter aircraft where pilots will see all the information they require projected onto the inside of the visors of their helmets.
The auditors found that the helmet “continues to have significant technical deficiencies”, making it “less functional” even than existing equipment, forcing the manufacturers to supply a “less capable” helmet while spending $80 (GBP50m) trying to fix the original design.
In terms of engineering the GAO says that only two of the five structural problems - including bulkhead cracking and overheating - which forced the jump-jet F-35B version to be put on probation last year have been properly fixed, with three other issues being given only temporary solutions.
“Assessing whether the deficiencies have been resolved in ongoing and, in some cases, will not be known for years,” the report added.
Mr Hammond said such problems were to be expected with such a “fantastically complex” airplane, and that he was confident that the JSF, which is a key part of the future planning for the US Marine Corps, would eventually work.
“I’m not saying all the work’s been done, all the hitches have been ironed out – of course they haven’t - - there’s lots of development work lots still to do,” he concluded, “Maybe some of the sceptics will change their minds when they see it fly.”