US–UK fighter project attacks Euro entente

On 17 January, the UK government signed up to the next phase of the $200–300bn US Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the world’s biggest aerospace and defence programme. UK industry could gain up to £34.4bn in JSF-related work over the next three decades. But questions about the deal’s long-term implications for UK-based companies are mounting, both here and in the rest of Europe.

The main question, as ever, relates to the UK’s mid-Atlantic position on defence and security, and where our real loyalties lie. This time, the focus is on stealth or ‘low observables’ (LO), a technology which is central to JSF and a number of emerging projects in Europe.

BAE Systems, which will soak up most of the UK’s JSF work, battled for most of last year to try to convince the Ministry of Defence that it was the quality, as well as the quantity, of UK work on JSF that was important. The US in the end agreed and BAE, Rolls-Royce and a host of UK sub-contractors will ultimately gain access to some of the Pentagon’s most sensitive technologies as a result.

But there was another — still unresolved — critical thrust to the BAE-led negotiations with the MoD. For much of the past decade the MoD has banned UK companies from discussing any aspect of UK stealth technology with its continental European counterparts.

The real impetus for this MoD directive comes from Washington. A senior BAE source said: ‘The MoD has a desire to draw its LO technology from the US because there are areas where America is significantly ahead of us. But it is taking the policy to extremes. If you don’t share anything outside the US-UK relationship, it forces you into a Draconian position in which you’ll only ever be able to carry out co-development projects with the US.’

BAE fought hard for the ban to be overturned, but so far it remains in place.

With decision dates approaching for crucial stealth-related demonstrator work for European combat aircraft programmes — in which BAE and other UK companies desperately want to be involved — the continental Europeans are finally losing their patience and threaten to leave the UK out in the cold.

The US-UK agreement over JSF has merely stiffened their resolve. ‘The decision deadline is fast approaching,’ said a senior German industry official. ‘If there is no solution on the LO issue, then we will have to continue without BAE.’

Small wonder, then, that industry’s celebrations over JSF here have been somewhat mute. Thirty years of pan-European collaboration have produced two fine combat aircraft, but unless the MoD changes its tune, the Eurofighter could mark the end of the line.