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British-US Dogfight Over Next-Gen Fighter Intensifies

Tug-of-war: The F-35 JSF.
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Mar 30, 2006
Britain is locked in a dogfight with the United States over the Pentagon's next-generation Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), with a French aircraft maker reportedly throwing a new twist into the tussle.

Dassault has denied reports that Britain, angry at US budget cuts and reluctance to share technology secrets, might be preparing to pull out of the project and buy instead into its Rafale fighter.

The US Congress has held several hearings on the JSF in recent weeks after the Pentagon, in a little-noticed budget change, cut funding for the project by notably excluding the F136 engine being made partly by Britain's Rolls-Royce.

Even before the Pentagon cut, Britain's minister for defence procurement, Paul Drayson, made clear London's displeasure at the prospect of being shut out of a programme with its closest military ally.

"Cancelling this (engine) programme would not only be a blow to such cooperation, but could also damage the commercial and military robustness of the JSF programme," Lord Drayson told the Senate armed services committee two weeks ago.

"This is of crucial strategic importance to the future defence, we believe, of our two nations," he said.

More generally, Drayson underlined a long-running rift with Washington by warning that Britain would be unable to buy the JSF unless the Pentagon agrees to transfer secret technology from the project.

Rolls-Royce, together with US conglomerate General Electric, won a 2.4-billion-dollar contract in August to build the F136, one of two engines envisioned for the JSF.

The international uncertainty over the project has led to speculation in the specialist military press that Britain might pull out and invest instead in the Rafale, a rival to the US plane being developed by Dassault Aviation.

A British Ministry of Defence spokesman dismissed the speculation.

"We remain committed to the JSF programme. Our common planning assumption is that we will be up buying 150 JSFs. We're not considering buying French jets," the spokesman told AFP in London.

"However, we've consistently said that we remain committed to JSF programme but that we will need contingency plans in place should the technology transfer issue not be resolved. But we've got no reason to think they wouldn't be."

The French company also denied the speculation.

"We are not in any talks with Great Britain," Dassault spokesman Gerard David said in a statement received here Wednesday.

"The British have never bought European or French and will probably never do so," he said.

However, complicating matters is that Britain is the biggest stakeholder in the Eurofighter project being developed jointly with Germany, Italy and Spain. France pulled out of Eurofighter to concentrate on the Rafale.

The F-35 JSF, which is being manufactured by Lockheed Martin, is jointly funded by the US air force, navy and marines together with international partners.

Aside from Britain, the foreign partners are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore and Turkey.

The first five aircraft are supposed to roll off production lines next year. The Pentagon already plans to buy 424 JSFs at a cost of more than 49 billion dollars even before the fighter has been fully flight-tested.

The plane is being developed in three variants -- one designed for conventional take-offs and landings for the US air force; another for carrier landings and takeoffs for the US navy; and a third for short take-offs and vertical landings for the US marines and Britain.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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