ITAR Fallout: Britain to Pull Out of F-35 JSF Program?
“UK Warns USA Over ITAR Arms Restrictions” covered the ITAR technology waiver crisis in British-American defense relations, and noted that serious trouble was brewing. We also pointed to a series of pointed questions from the House of Commons Defence Committee to Lord Drayson about the CVF carrier program and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
Now senior UK Ministry of Defence officials have confirmed to The Sunday Times of London that Britain is considering its options and contemplating a pullout from the multinational, multi-billion dollar JSF program. According to these officials, instructions have been given for alternative strategies for projects affected by American technology-transfer problems – and JSF was included in that list. It was time, one said, to “think the unthinkable.”
Technology Transfer and the JSF
As the only other “Tier One” partner, Britain is the most significant U.S. partner in the 10-nation program, and has invested approximately $2 billion in the F-35B’s development as its future carrier aircraft.
ITAR has already played a role in the JSF, as this August 2004 National Defense Magazine article noted:
“With JSF, “we had a difficult start to exchanging the necessary data and technical information on this vital program,” said Lord William Bach of Lutterworth, U.K. undersecretary of state and minister of state for defense procurement… Cooperation was reached on the system design and development phase, but the transfer of data and technical information has been way behind, he said.
A senior Pentagon official speaking to a defense industry conference in London said that some of these problems can be blamed on the U.S. bureaucracy. “The vast majority of acquisition PMs [program managers] were not cognizant of export control requirements until they were informed that a certain license application had not been approved, thereby delaying the next step of a critical international armaments cooperation program,” said the official.
As the article notes, organizational workarounds were found for many of those initial problems. Nevertheless, the same issues will replicate themselves across the defense cooperation spectrum.
Other issues remain live. For example, Britain is seeking full independent maintainability and control over its F-35 fighters – and one of the most critical and contested areas lies in the plane’s massive software source code. Since software will run so many aspects of the F-35’s operations, access to the source code is necessary in order to debug many flaws, and may be required to integrate new weapons.
At the same time, the plane’s dependence on software makes protecting the securtity of that source code an absolute must. To have even parts of it fall into hostile hands could be a disaster of the first magnitude. On the American side, there is also the quasi-protectionist angle of not wishing to have others copy the software and develop spin-off products in future that are based on US work. Even attempting to scrutinize that would be a challenge, however, and creates intrusiveness, approval, and friction problems of its own.
On the other hand, with $2 billion invested as a “Tier One” partner, Britain may justly feel that a full partner should not have to go hat in hand to the USA every time a change is required.
The issue of technology transfers within a specific program is separable in principle from the issue of ITAR. Nevertheless, in practice the two issues are merging into one broad politico-industrial complaint whose ramifications could be seismic.
Britain: So What’s “Plan B”?
According to the Times of London, negotiations regarding Britain’s 88 Tranche-3 Eurofighters are apparently contemplating the possibility of a carrier-suitable variant.
Ironically, it was France’s unique insistence on a carrier role for their future fighter, with the accompanying design and specification requirements, that contributed to French negotiating rigidity and broke up the original Eurofighter consortium in 1985. France would go on to develop the Dassault Rafale independently, including a Rafale M carrier version.
Creating a matching “Eurofighter CV” could be done, but contra the breezy confidence displayed in the Sunday Times, it would be a major undertaking. Many of the aircraft’s original design decisions vs. the Rafale (increased weight, for instance) diverged precisely because designers were free to ignore the carrier requirement. Dr. Richard North is generally correct about the design and cost implications that a retrofit would create, extending not only to redesign of the Eurofighter but of the CVF future carriers as well.
Opinions vary concerning Britain’s F-35 JSF bombshell. Is it just a negotiating tactic meant to show seriousness and communicate the stakes? A dead-earnest intention, backed by those who wish to align Britain more closely with the EU? Anglosphere proponents and Atlanticists, meanwhile, would argue that it doesn’t matter – just getting to this point is a failure of sorts, and could put issues in play that were better left as unspoken matters of trust.
The question is whether resolution of this impasse is possible in the near-term, and sustainable in the longer term.
On the one hand, recent news about EADS and its “strategic relationship” with China, wherein it will take an “active part in Chinese aeronautic and space sector growth and development”, is not likely to dampen Congressional concern across the pond re: the possible secondary effects of lifting ITAR restrictions on British firms.
On the other hand, 2006 is shaping up as a key year for European fighter decisions, and weakness or schism within the program could easily lead other countries to bolt. Norway, who is a minor member in both the JSF and Eurofighter consortia, recently invited submissions from the Eurofighter consortium regarding its future combat aircraft. Denmark, who belongs only to the JSF consortium, recently did the same with Gripen International.
A British pullout from the JSF at this crucial juncture could have seismic ramifications. These could certainly extend to the cohesion of the F-35 JSF consortium, sharply escalating aircraft unit costs in the face of declining buys… and last but certainly not least, to the health of the special defense relationship and alliance between Britain and the USA.
Additional Readings & Updates
- UK ITAR DISPUTE RESOLVED In August 2006, a technology transfer agreement in principle was reached between the USA and UK over the F-35 Lightning II program. Agreements were eventually reached with all allies, and the UK signed on the F-35’s production phase. A more comprehensive ITAR-related agreement followed with Britain, and then with Australia.
- US Department of State – Defense Trade Controls – The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) [HTTPS connection]. See the official version, and an unofficial consolidated version that integrates recently-introduced amendments. Note that all documents here are in PDF format.
- USA’s International Trafficking in Arms Restrictions – excerpts in HTML. Warning: older version.
- DID (Sept 10/07) – Australia Signs Defense Trade Agreement With USA. The agreement framework is similar to Britain’s.
- AW Aerospace Daily & Defense (Sept 6/07) – Now Is Best Chance To Remake U.S. Export Controls
- DID (July 31/07) – US Industry Associations Pushing to Reform Export Controls. But for whose benefit?
- US GAO (July 26/07, #GAO-07-1135T) – Export Controls: Vulnerabilities and Inefficiencies Undermine System’s Ability to Protect U.S. Interests.
- Aviation Week’s Ares (June 5/07) – US Technology? No Thanks! “The only way to resolve technology access and U.S. government export restrictions imposed by ITAR is by “not including any U.S.-sourced technology into our products,” [Dassault CEO Charles Edelstenne] the President of the Aerospace and Defense Industries Association of Europe (ASD) said yesterday… In the context of space programs, steps are already being made towards completely excluding U.S. input in order to stay clear of the ITAR restrictions, adds Francois Gayet, the permanent Secretary-General of the ASD…”
- DID (Nov 9/06) – US Export Restrictions Hand Korean E-X Competition to US Firm. It only takes one or two incidents like this to generate a lot of mistrust, and strong counter-reactions. DID lays out the situation, and explains the policy problem.
- DID (Dec 1/05) – UK Warns USA Over ITAR Arms Restrictions.
- DID (Feb 14/06) – Love on the Rocks: CASA’s $600M Venezuelan Plane Sale In Heavy Turbulence. A good example of export controls at work – but even when the security concerns are legitimate, they can generate unwanted backlash unless they’re handled carefully. This case illustrates both sides of that coin.
- DID (Apr 19/05) – EU Stymied, Conflicted on Lifting China Weapons Embargo
- National Defense Magazine (August 2004) – Multinational Aircraft Program Tests Transatlantic Cooperation. They’re speaking of the F-35 JSF, and some of its ITAR-related snags and teething problems. Also addresses additional efforts to add restrictions contained in various US appropriations bills
fn1. Dr. North’s insistence that the USA would be happy to cancel the F-35B STOVL version, however, is grievously in error. The F-35B STOVL (Short Take-off, Vertical Landing) version is also required by the US Marines and by the USA’s substantial set of LHA/LHD amphibious assault ships; the F-35A (standard) and F-35C (carrier) versions have had cancellation discussed, but even excluding foreign sales opportunities, the F-35B has both a substantial US constituency and no plausible substitute.