If anything symbolises the English state, as opposed to the now fractured British state, it is the fighter aircraft. A heady mixture of power projection and technological sophistication feeds into the mythologies of a country ‘punching above its weight’ on the world stage. But the F35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) that the MoD is purchasing represents the final phase of post-imperial delusion. Only the United States can afford its development and production, further exposing the UK’s role as a military subordinate to a global superpower. The JSF is the ultimate baroque weapons system that, far from contributing to our security, is part of a military-industrial complex undermining it.
Since the Second World War, when the RAF defeated the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, fighter aircraft have held a special status as the epitome of individual heroism aligned to national technological genius. The much larger allied aerial bombing campaign against Germany, an industrialised warfare that rained down millions of tonnes of explosives on the civilian populations of cities like Hamburg and Dresden, continues to be controversial and rather less celebrated.
Spitfire imagery has been carefully crafted over the post-war years but the RAF’s primary role remains the bombing of overseas targets. For example, during the first Gulf war in 1991, the UK was part of the US-led attacks on Iraqi military and civilian infrastructure, the latter including power stations, dams, oil refineries, railroads and bridges. An estimated 3,000 civilians were killed as a result of those raids.i
Attempting to maintain a high-technology fighter aircraft capability has proved to be one of the most expensive commitments that a nation-state can make, on a par with nuclear weapons production. When a medium-sized country like the UK combines both, the inevitable result is an historically unprecedented burden of high, peace-time military expenditure, diverting scarce resources from civil R&D and manufacturing that could have directly benefited the economy and generated socially-useful production and employment.
Escalating costs were recognised as a major problem by successive governments and led to international, collaborative projects like the Tornado aircraft in the 1960s and 1970s, which became the mainstay of European air forces. Participation in development and production involved the major aerospace corporations, British Aerospace (now BAE Systems), MBB in Germany, and Aer Italia. The essential argument was that larger production runs reduced unit costs through economies of scale and through national specialisms in the overall programme. Also, joint production encouraged inter-operability between alliance airforces.ii
In reality, Tornado was beset with technical problems, centred on the requirement to develop different variants of the main design around air-to-air combat and ground-attack bombing. The term ‘baroque arsenal’ was coined to describe this new phenomenon of taking traditional military platforms like fighter aircraft and attempting to incorporate greater and greater levels of technological complexity into their capabilities. These included higher speed and manouverability while, at the same time, deploying larger and more powerful bombs and missiles and an array of defensive counter-measures.
As costs rose, the only way to stay within an already bloated arms budget was to reduce the volume of orders. The baroque arsenal, with ever-spiralling costs and smaller fleets of planes, ships and submarines, developed and manufactured by giant arms corporations with embedded power at the heart of the state, became the defining feature of the modern military-industrial complex.iii
The special status of the fighter aircraft was also reflected in the strenous efforts to maintain the indigenous capability for short take-off and vertical-landing fighters (STOVL), originally developed by Hawker-Siddley for the Harrier ‘jump jet’. Of all the fighter aircraft, perhaps the Harrier had a special place in post-imperial sensibilities. Yet, even this ultimate symbol of English technological superiority had to be ceded to the United States as the sheer cost of what would be fifth-generation fighter aircraft became clear in the 1990s. Essentially, any new fighter, albeit ground attack, air combat, or STOVL, had to incorporate supersonic flight with stealth capabilities to avoid detection, alongside an array of missiles, bombs, defensive measures and advanced avionics.
The F35 JSF was intended as a platform for all these roles, and not surprisingly, will be the most expensive aircraft ever developed. The United States’ original commitment was to purchase 1,760 attack variants, 340 carrier variants and 340 STOVL from the biggest arms corporation in the world, Lockheed Martin, at an estimated cost of $1.5 trillion over the lifetime of the programme. Other countries intending to buy the F35 included Canada, Australia, Norway and Denmark, although only the UK and Italy are purchasing the STOVL variant as a replacement for Harriers.iv
But the programme has been plagued with horrendous technological problems, cost increases and delays. The STOVL is the most technologically demanding and has been badly affected. Taking just one major example from a catalogue of issues, the engine was found to be too heavy in testing and had to be substantially redesigned. According to recent figures, the JSF’s unit costs are in the region of $105 million per plane but even this estimate excluded engine costs which will add at least another $20 million. Also, the estimate is across all the variants, suggesting that the STOVL unit costs could be much higher.v
Simply put, the English state’s image of itself as a world power would be in tatters without a fifth-generation fighter deployable from aircraft carriers. But the cost of this post-imperial delusion will be excrutiatingly high. The initial commitment was to purchase 150 aircraft, designated Lightning II, although the government has only released limited information on the first tranche, comprising 18 for testing and initial deployment, at a cost of £5 billion. The final number and cost have not been disclosed, the government deploying the catch-all excuse of ‘commercial confidentiality’ to deny any form of public accountability or transparancy for what will be the most expensive conventional programme ever. A final decision is expected in 2017.vi
By way of contrast, the Canadian government produced a detailed report on its JSF programme in 2011. Using historical date on fighter aircraft costs that demonstrated a 4% increase per year in real terms, effectively a doubling every 18 years, the report estimated that the procurement costs would be $9.7 billion for 65 aircraft, with ongoing upgrades and maintenance of $19.6 billion, for a total cost of $29.3 billion.vii
Assuming the figure of 150 aircraft is correct, and taking into account the increased cost of the STOVL variant, we can estimate a unit cost for UK Lightning II’s of between £125 million and £150 million; total procurement between £18.75 billion and £22.5 billion; and total operational costs between £37.5 billon and £45 billion. Combined procurement and operational costs are between £56.25 billion and £67.5 billion. (These figures are provisional and depend on the final number of aircraft to be ordered, which may well be lower if the historical pattern is repeated, and will also have to factor in currency fluctuations between the dollar and the pound.)
The F35 should not be seen in isolation, but in the context of other major procurement programmes including the new aircraft carriers and frigates for protective cover. Collectively, the blue-water capability will cost more than Trident, both in procurement over the next ten years and in overall maintenance costs through the lifetime of the programme. Only by increasing arms expenditure in real terms can England afford to continue with this delusional form of baroque security. Also, of course, there will be the usual perverse incentives to continue with the despicable arms trade to countries like Saudi Arabia.
The difference between nuclear weapons and conventional ones is that while Trident can’t be used, the JSF fighters must be. The UK is required to provide support to the United States in power projection. Bombing raids will be carried out and innocent civilians will be killed as a result. That is the inevitable consequence of being subordinate to a regime with overwhelming military superiority, enforcing access to global resources for Western corporations.
Having seen its technological leadership disappear, the English state is at pains to stress how it remains a primary partner in the JSF programme, and how UK-based companies will benefit from high-technology production providing skilled work. BAE Systems is responsible for airframe development and production at its manuracturing site in Samelsbury, Lancashire, while Rolls Royce is the main sub-contractor to the US corporation, Pratt and Whitney, on engine work at its Derby site.
Industry sources estimate around 25,000 jobs will be directly generated by the JSF programme, stressing its contribution to high-technology manufacturing. In reality, this is the final tightening of the baroque-arsenal noose, a smaller industrial enclave generating fewer and fewer jobs. But the English state and the military-industrial complex will cynically play the employment card to legitimise this extraordinary waste of resources, when far more jobs could be generated through public investment in the civil sector.viii
Sooner, rather than later, we have to get off this military-technology treadmill. The Canadian government’s decision to review its participation suggests that the sheer cost of the baroque arsenal is becoming unsustainabl; although intense pressure will be applied by the United States to continue the programme, including the threat of large cancellation penalties and of technology boycotts against Canadian companies on future aerospace contracts. Even if the JSF is cancelled, the government remains committed to funding a cheaper alternative.
The challenge is a much deeper and profound one. Countries like England may have the symbolic status provided by the JSF but its true significance is to further embed a technological and strategic subordination to the United States in power projection, deploying bombs, missiles and drones in a seemingly permanent war for control of the world’s resources that has left such a terrible legacy of destruction and economic and social collapse. Only by dismantling the whole military-industrial complex can we end this self-defeating disaster and address the real security issues around climate change.
Will England ever be comfortable without the illusion of global power provided by the fighter aircraft? These chariots of the gods fly the azure skies spewing carbon emissions like confetti, while below them the planet burns up and billions live in poverty and environmental degredation. Perhaps the country needs a new symbolism for a new era. Instead of celebrating armed forces day with all its ersatz imperialism, we could have a Z-day, celebrating England’s success in achieving targets towards a zero-carbon economy. Let the occasion be honoured, not by fighter aircraft screaming over Westminster, but by hang-gliders flying in close formation (with, or without multi-coloured smoke vapours). Maybe then we can say that we live in a truly civilised society.
iBeth Osborne Daponte, Needless Deaths in the Gulf War:Civlian Casualties During the Air Campaign and Violations of the Laws of War (Human Rights Watch, New York, 1991)
iiKeith Hartley, Nato Arms Co-operation – A Study in Economics and Politics (George Allen and Unwin, 1983)
iiiMary Kaldor, The Baroque Arsenal (Abacus, 1983)
ivJeremiah Gertler, The F35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program (US Congressional Research Service, 2014)
viLouise Brooke-Holland, The UK’s F35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (House of Commons Library, 2015)
viiOffice of the Parliamentary Budget Office, An Estimate of the Fiscal Impact of Canada’s Proposed Acquisition of the F35 Lightning II, Joint Strike Fighter (Canadian Parliament, 2011)
viii Louise Brooke-Holland, op.cit.