Britain is paying hundreds of millions of dollars for Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets—but defense cuts and controversial strategic choices mean the U.K. may not be able to use them to their full potential.
According to an investigation by The Times of London, Lockheed Martin, the American manufacturer of the 138 F-35 Lightning II jets Britain will commission, said that the aircraft would cost Britain between £77 million ($100 million) and £100 million ($130 million) each.
Instead, the paper reported, extras being added to the basic model mean that the actual bill for the taxpayer could be over £150 million ($196 million) per aircraft.
The cost of the extras—including spare parts and software upgrades—was “buried in U.S. defense contracts,” the paper said.
Lockheed Martin disputes the paper’s estimates of the plane’s overall cost, and also says that the costs it initially published were never intended to include extras such as spare parts.
Meanwhile, British commissioning choices mean that the aircraft will not be able to use all of its potential functions.
For example, the paper says, Britain has failed to purchase a key system that would allow the fighters to communicate with other aircraft while also being able to strike.
“A lot of the value of the F-35 is its potential capability to share situational awareness with older platforms,” Justin Bronk, a defense analyst at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, told The Times.
But the British planes will have to switch to an unsecured wavelength called Link 16, which Bronk said was “quite easy for adversaries to detect.”
Sources also told the paper that a lack of investment in military communications will hamper the plane’s performance.
The first squadron of the planes will be deployed from the HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s vast new aircraft carrier. But the ship’s broadband connection is just eight megabits, four times less powerful than the average British household. This could damage the planes’ ability to share information with the carrier.
U.S. President Donald Trump has been one of the F-35 program’s most high-profile critics. In April, he claimed responsibility for Lockheed Martin’s decision to lower costs on an order of 90 of the planes in February.
"This was a thing that was out of control and now it's great," Trump told the Associated Press in April.
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