U.S., U.K. Deadlock Over Stealth Project By DAVID HAMMER, Associated Press Writer
Sat Mar 25, 3:43 AM ET
WASHINGTON - The U.S. and Britain remain deadlocked over sharing stealth technology, more than a week after a top British official threatened to pull out of the multinational, $256 billion Joint Strike Fighter project.
British defense officials are reporting some progress in negotiations, while maintaining their demand for access to specific software codes and weapons systems and threatening to go elsewhere to upgrade their warplanes.
"We have a backup plan if we do not get a deal that's sufficiently workable," a Ministry of Defense spokesman said Friday. The spokesman declined to offer more details about backup plans but noted that the British press has speculated that the Rafale, the latest fighter by French-based Dassault Aviation, is one alternative.
From the point of view of the Joint Program Office in Washington, where the U.S. military and representatives of eight other partner nations manage the Joint Strike Fighter project, the U.S. government has already been generous with its technology.
"The British have been provided more information than ever before due to their 'Level 1' partner status in JSF development, but not everything," said spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin. More than 1,000 requests from all allied partners for details about U.S. technology on the project have been approved, and only a few are still being negotiated, she said.
The British say they remain committed to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for which they've already spent $2 billion and plan to buy 150 of the jets when they are ready some time next decade. But for the first time, Britain is asserting its right to use and maintain joint weapons systems on its own terms, said Lee Willett, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London.
"This is not just hot air. The U.K. are actually backing themselves into a very tight corner and challenging the U.S. to call their bluff," Willett said. A recent agreement between Britain and France to build a new fleet of aircraft carriers showed "it's not outside the realm of possibility that the U.K. has a serious Plan B," he said.
Two top British officials, arms procurement Minister Lord Peter Drayson and Defense Secretary John Reid, have talked about a Plan B for more than a month, fueling almost daily attention in the British media.
The conflict has turned the "special relationship" between the two countries into the "rancid relationship," said a headline in Thursday's edition of The Guardian newspaper. A headline in Tuesday's Evening Standard called the current negotiations "peace talks."
Willett said Britain's fight to control weapons technology has a bearing on many future partnerships with the U.S. military, not just the F-35. The psychological impact in Britain is significant, said Loren Thompson, defense and security industry analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank.
"The British are going to spend billions on this and they're concerned they won't really understand the technology of what they're buying," Thompson said. "They don't want to be treated like a Third World arms dealer. They're saying, if you can't trust us, how can we trust you?"
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Drayson made it clear that Britain's allegiance in the global war on terror entitled it to better treatment.
"Our aim is to ensure that future generations of U.K. and U.S. servicemen and women can continue to stand shoulder to shoulder in pursuit of common goals," Drayson said. He went on to say that without direct knowledge of the plane's high-tech components, his military would not be able to determine if the aircraft were "fit to fight."
Drayson also expressed dismay at the Bush administration's plans to eliminate a contract with General Electric and British-based Rolls-Royce to make an alternate engine for the plane. The British leadership should have been consulted because the second engine saves money and would protect the fleet from costly groundings, Drayson said.
He has some allies in Congress who are upset about Bush administration plans to eliminate a backup engine for the jet.
About 800 jobs near Cincinnati and hundreds of others in Massachusetts and Indiana would be affected by such a move. But Congress is split on the issue and the Pentagon is not backing down. Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England said there would be no savings in continuing to have a backup engine.
Since 2001, Congress has expressed concern more than once about third parties getting access to U.S. arms and technology through British sources.
In 2003, two powerful House committee chairmen, Reps. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., blocked a waiver that would have made it easier for U.S. companies to sell weapons to Britain and Australia.
Now, Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., said he's struggling to get information about a secret Bush administration review of the proposed sale of British-based Doncasters Ltd., a company that makes parts for the Joint Strike Fighter, to a government-owned firm in the United Arab Emirates. He has a Doncasters plant in his district and wants greater congressional oversight of such deals.
"More stuff is being sold by the good guys to bad guys posing as good guys than ever before," Barrow said.