Armed Forces: Joint Strike Fighter

– in the House of Lords at 3:14 pm on 24th May 2006.

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Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour 3:14 pm, 24th May 2006

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What representations they have made to the Government of the United States on their decision to deny the United Kingdom access to stealth technology used in the F-35 and to cancel plans for a second engine for the fighter to be built by Rolls-Royce and General Electric.

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State for Defence and I have both explained to our US opposite numbers our requirement for appropriate assurances on information exchange prior to signing the production, support and follow-on development MoU for the Joint Strike Fighter. We remain optimistic that we will receive the information that we require. We have also explained our views on the advantages of pursuing an alternative engine for the aircraft.

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

My Lords, I am disappointed at the Americans' attitude. Here we are, the most loyal and staunchest ally, yet when we go to them and ask for technology and benefits, they do not reciprocate and offer them to us. Why is that? Why are they dragging their feet in that way? I understand that talks have taken place, but what measures are we taking to get the Americans to change their minds and to realise that it cannot all be one-way traffic?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, we should recognise that we have been successful over many years in working with the Americans on technology transfer relating to highly sensitive defence matters. However, matters relating to the Joint Strike Fighter are complex, and we are clear what specific areas of technology transfer we will require to use, operate and fight the aircraft in the way that we as a sovereign nation wish. These matters are receiving the highest level of attention in the Ministry of Defence, and we remain optimistic that by the end of this year we will receive the information that we require to be able to sign the MoU.

Photo of Lord Boyce Lord Boyce Crossbench

My Lords, will the Minister be more specific in answer to the previous question and say whether we have been unsuccessful in areas other than that referred to on the Order Paper, where we cannot get the Americans to pass across the technology for use in equipment that is either in use or about to be put to use in our Armed Forces?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord is correct that we have had difficulties; they have arisen because of the bureaucratic nature, in some cases, of the process by which technology transfer takes place. We have a simpler system of transferring technology to the United States, and it has worked more efficiently. It is clear that we have to improve the process; however, I am pleased at how the matter is receiving attention at the highest levels in the American Administration, and I remain optimistic that the Joint Strike Fighter problem can be resolved and that that can indicate an improved bilateral relationship on technology transfer.

Photo of Lord Garden Lord Garden Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence

My Lords, I assume that the Minister receives copies of the United States Government Accountability Office reports, of which there have been two recently on the Joint Strike Fighter. The first, on 22 May, criticises the US Department of Defense for increasing costs through not competing the engine—in other words, the GAO supports the Rolls-Royce solution. Does the Minister agree that that is a case to be made? The second report of 15 March is more worrying. Does the Minister share the GAO's concerns about the risks of cost-price inflation for the JSF, given that the Americans are going into production before they have finished development?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

Yes, my Lords, there is a strong case to be made for having two engines. The later technology in the Rolls-Royce engine provides potential advantages in terms of fatigue, life and power, and in the procurement approach, where we see that as an option. We have been making that case strongly. I have read the reports to which the noble Lord referred, and we share those concerns. The costs for the system development phase of the JSF have increased from $28 billion to $41 billion. Our contribution to that is fixed at $2 billion through the agreement that we signed. We have to look at this carefully as we go forward. We have not committed yet to the programme. We have not gone through a main investment decision. We need to look closely at the development of the cost and timescale.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that, if he failed to achieve what the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, indicated in his Question, it would be enormously damaging to the defence relationship between our two countries? I think that he fully understands that, and I hope that his new Secretary of State is fully aware of it as well. This is of such significance that I hope that he has made the Prime Minister fully aware of it and that the Prime Minister, despite the relationship that he has with the president of the United States, makes it absolutely clear that it is vital for our country that the transfer is achieved.

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I am absolutely crystal clear about the importance of the matter. Recently, when I was in Washington, I said to the Senate Committee on Armed Services that, if we were not able to receive the information that we required to have the operational sovereignty to fight this aircraft, we will not be able to buy the aircraft.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, do her Majesty's Government recognise that the commitment to build and to commission two new large aircraft carriers could not be sustained unless there were suitable combat aircraft to embark on them?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord is absolutely right: our carrier strike capability, which is a fundamental plank of our strategic defence posture, requires there to be appropriate aircraft to go on the two new aircraft carriers. Therefore, the Joint Strike Fighter is an important aircraft for us. None the less, we have contingency plans.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative Independent

My Lords, would it not be understandable for the Pentagon to be nervous of sharing stealth and other sophisticated technology with us, if it feared that we, under our EU commitments, might have to share it with the French and, through them, more widely? If that is so, does it not mean that the special relationship is pretty well over?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising the issue because it gives me the opportunity to be crystal clear on this point also. There is absolutely no requirement on us, under British law or any EU treaty, to share technology related to this or any other defence-related project. Where we have received information, we are under no requirement to pass it on to any of our EU member state partners.

Photo of Lord Russell-Johnston Lord Russell-Johnston Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does the Minister see any relationship between this matter and the reported intention of BAe to withdraw from the Airbus project in order to invest in American defence projects?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

No, my Lords. I have spent considerable time studying the BAe strategy, and I do not believe that there is any connection between the sale of the Airbus stake and the Joint Strike Fighter project.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Defence, Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Shadow Minister, International Development

My Lords, further to the second part of the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Garden, the Senate Committee on Armed Services has voted to delay JSF production by a year. What consequences will that have for our STOVLs, and is there still a weight problem?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, there is no weight problem, although we have to watch the development of the aircraft carefully to ensure that the STOVL weight problem does not come back. On progress, the project is going through an important development stage: we are seeing the first flights of the aircraft. As such, we need to recognise the procurement risks in such a complex project, particularly one that depends on international collaboration. We should not forget that a significant contribution of British technology has gone into the project. We need to monitor it carefully and make commitments in a staged way as the project progresses.