British Have Premier Industrial Position on F-35

 - September 13, 2013, 1:45 PM
The major British suppliers to the F-35 program are shown here. But there are many others acting as subcontractors – a total of 500 companies are involved, according to Lockheed Martin (Graphic: Lockheed Martin)

The premier position of the UK aerospace industry on the Lockheed Martin F-35 program was highlighted by a briefing and presentation at the Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEI) show in London this week. Some 500 British companies are involved in producing “15 percent of each of the 3,100 F-35s that will be built,” according to Steve O’Bryan, vice president for F-35 program integration at Lockheed Martin. The company has calculated that the program will secure 24,000 high-technology jobs in the UK through 2039.

BAE Systems lead for F-35 production Chris Robson said that the company is producing one F-35 rear fuselage every five days on the recently commissioned moving assembly line at Samlesbury. This rate could be increased to one per day, he added. Dave Gordon, director of the F-35B lift system program for Rolls-Royce, said the company had invested $108 million to produce the lift fan, three-bearing swivel nozzle and roll ducts that provide the F-35B’s STOVL performance. Steve Roberts, program lead for Martin Baker, said the company has delivered 130 Mk 16E ejection seats for the F-35. The program is sustaining 700 jobs at the company’s Denham, UK facility.

While the position of these big OEMs seems unassailable, there is some question about whether all the smaller UK suppliers will retain their position on then program if—as seems highly likel—the UK reduces its total planned buy from 132. As new countries become customers for the stealthy combat jet, they are bound to require some participation by their own industries. In the same DSEI presentation, Philip Dunne, British minister for defence equipment, support and technology, carefully avoided discussion of the total UK buy. One British company that might be affected is R.E. Thompson, a third-tier supplier of chassis for avionics “black boxes” on the F-35, via a subcontract from GE Aviation. But as company manager Martin Shaw said, with a payroll of only 30 people, “if we were precluded from supplying a few hundred aircraft, this would still be a massive program for us.”

O’Bryan said that the pricing arrangements for upgrades that are requested by the partner nations are advantageous. For example, the UK will pay only 2 percent of the cost for developing the Block 4 upgrade, which includes integration of the MBDA Meteor BVRAAM.

Dunne said that he had met his Italian counterpart this week, for a preliminary discussion of how the two countries could join forces to reduce F-35 in-service support costs. The UK and Norway have already signed a preliminary agreement on this. The Italian Navy will operate F-35Bs from its aircraft carrier, and this is the version now reconfirmed by the UK. But the Italian Air Force will buy F-35As, which have greater range and payload. Asked whether the UK should also do the same, the minister replied emphatically: no.