This year is a milestone in British military aviation. It marks both 80 years since the first Spitfire rolled off the production line, as well as 100 years since the RAF was established. But more than that – 2018 also marks the start of a new era of British excellence in aerial warfare.
Last week, the first four of Britain’s new F-35B fighter jets touched down at RAF Marham two months ahead of schedule. This was the culmination of a journey which started nearly two decades ago. In 2001, Britain joined America on the Lightning II programme – the most ambitious programme the United States has ever undertaken to build the joint strike fighter jets of the future.
The United Kingdom is what we call a “Tier 1” partner – the only other country allowed to influence the F-35 design. We have always been natural partners. After 100 years of fighting side by side, we are the closest of allies. We are also countries which excel in innovation and advanced engineering. And the result of our collaboration is truly impressive.
The F-35 is the most sophisticated fighter jet ever built. Nothing our enemies have developed comes close. To be frank, nothing we have ever developed comes close either. That is not to say our previous generation of fighters aren’t exceptional aircraft. Fighters like the British Typhoon or the American F-15 will still play a critical role, without doubt. But the problem is that our enemies can see them coming.
The F-35 is a game changer. It combines supersonic speed with the stealth needed in 21st century air combat. Only the F-35 can evade modern detection systems effectively to penetrate deep into enemy territory. It is also the most intelligent jet of all time. A flying super computer, it has incredibly advanced capabilities in data fusion. It can collect a huge amount of information, build a complete picture of the battle situation and broadcast this securely to other aircraft on the mission. One F-35 can raise everybody else’s game.
That is the fundamental reason why the F-35 is such an important step forward. It has been designed to work inter-operably – both with other planes and carriers, and with other allies. This is crucial. The F-35 enables NATO partners to pool resources in a lethal and agile combined force.
Is it expensive? Of course it is – as you would expect of something which is at the absolute cutting edge of modern aerospace engineering. We are working hard to reduce “sustainment” costs. But the military capacity the F-35 brings is critical. We cannot expect to win against our most advanced adversaries if we build our entire strategy around old technology and ageing weapons systems.
It may not always be an easy choice to prioritise defence spending, but a nation’s security cannot be taken for granted. We cannot afford to leave the West vulnerable. We have seen the emergence of clear threats to our collective security. Now, as before, we must be ready to defend ourselves.
President Donald Trump has been clear that America will indeed be ready and we will stand by any NATO partner who is threatened. But we will not bear this responsibility alone. Everybody must play their part and we welcome the leadership the UK has always shown in Europe’s defence.
Not only have you honoured your 2 per cent defence spending commitment, where others have not, you have also invested strategically in your long-term defensive capabilities. Britain has committed to buying 138 F-35s – more than any other country in Europe. This is a clear reflection of a global Britain continuing in its role as a strong leader in NATO.
Yet the UK’s purchase of F-35s was more than a way to enhance European security. It was also a way to enhance the UK’s prosperity. It was a clever investment on Britain’s part. To date, 3,500 jets have been ordered and 15 per cent of every single one of these will be made right here in the UK. For every dollar your Government invested in the programme, over three times that amount will flow back into your economy. More than 500 British companies and 20,000 British workers will be better off as a result.
With greater security comes greater prosperity. It has always been the case and it always will be. So the F-35 may not be cheap, but it is a great deal. The UK has added fuel to its economy, and fire to its defence. Now Britain is ready to continue doing what it has done since the Battle of Britain – protecting a free and strong Europe. And as always, we will be right by your side.