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One of the UK’s most senior military chiefs has suggested that Britain may cut the number of F-35 combat jets it buys in the future as pressure grows on its defence budget.
Despite a commitment to buy 138 F-35B Lightning II fighter jets from the US manufacturer Lockheed Martin, Lieutenant General Mark Poffley, deputy chief of the UK defence staff, told MPs on Tuesday that he was “sympathetic” to the idea that the overall number could eventually fall.
“That’s the reality of the world we are living in,” added Lt Gn Poffley.
Earlier Stephen Lovegrove, the most senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, revealed that the cost of an initial tranche of 48 F-35s could rise from £9.1bn in 2025 to £13bn in 2048.
The MoD said the extra £4bn was to cover the “whole life costs” of the planes including support costs, training and maintenance. It insisted that the UK was still committed to buying its full quota. “Our plan to buy 138 F-35 jets over the life of the programme has not changed, with only the US planning to buy more aircraft,” it said.
The F-35 jets will provide the main strike force for Britain’s two new aircraft carriers, the first of which, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is due to be officially commissioned into the Royal Navy on December 7.
HMS Queen Elizabeth sails into her home port of Portsmouth in August © Getty
But the programme has been repeatedly delayed and the National Audit Office has warned that its costs may rise.
“The problem is the UK has no control over anything commercially and technically about the programme,” said Francis Tusa, a defence analyst.
The cost of the US-made planes has also been affected by the weakening of the pound. According to the NAO, the MoD estimated that the cost of its £178bn equipment plan during the next decade could rise by about £5bn if current exchange rates persist.
The uncertainty over the F-35s comes as Mark Sedwill, the UK’s national security adviser, conducts a wide ranging strategic review of Britian’s military and security priorities.
Although the government says the review was set up in response to shifting security and military threats posed by terrorists and an increasingly aggressive Russia, critics say the review’s purpose is to make further cuts to help the MoD fill a £20bn funding gap.
Former military chiefs led by General Sir Richard Barrons warned last week that any future reduction in spending risked hollowing out the UK’s armed forces.
Despite reports that Gavin Williamson, the new defence secretary, had written to chancellor Philip Hammond last week to request more money for defence in Wednesday’s Budget, Mr Lovegrove said he was “not aware of a formal request going from the MoD to the Treasury for more funds”.