As the newly-appointed Minister for Defence Procurement, I am very pleased to have the chance to bring YEP readers up-to-date with what defence investment and the new F-35 Lightning jet are doing for Yorkshire.
I have taken on my new job in a momentous year. We are marking a century since the end of the Great War, and the RAF is celebrating 100 years of guarding our skies and our way of life. Yorkshire has always played a big part in that airborne military heritage. Fifty years ago at the height of the Cold War, supersonic interceptors defended our airspace from RAF Leconfield. Decades before that, the same base sent forth our first bombers into German airspace in the early days of the Second World War.
Now the county is adding to its illustrious aviation history by playing its part in the world’s largest military procurement programme – the awesome F-35 Lightning multi-role fighter (pictured). Nine of these state-of-the art aircraft are now in the UK, with more on the way.
The Lightning is the UK’s first combat jet to combine radar-evading stealth technology with supersonic speeds and vertical landing capability. As well as delivering a sophisticated array of British-made precision weapons, it is also a fully-networked intelligence-gathering platform, able to build and share a virtual picture of the battlefield in three dimensions. The first four arrived at their new home of RAF Marham earlier this summer two months ahead of schedule, and five more have touched down on British soil since then. Live flight trials will begin from our magnificent HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier later this year.
F-35 is the world’s largest-ever defence project, and will eventually be worth over £1 trillion. The good news is that British companies are building 15% by value of every aircraft – and 3000 are expected to be ordered. Over the life of the programme, that means the economic benefit to the UK will be greater than if we were to build 100% of the 138 aircraft we intend to buy for the RAF and the Navy.
With only around 5% of the overall fleet currently in service, BAE Systems already directly employs 2200 people on the programme here in the North. Elsewhere in the UK, MOD Sealand in Wales has been chosen as the worldwide hub for maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade services, to keep the F-35 fleets of the world’s air forces flying. As well as spares and repairs, technical support and training, our firms are contributing the engineering know-how in which Britain has always led the world.
So Lightning is great news for our fighting services, the security of our country and our national prosperity. But as an adopted Yorkshireman, proudly representing my constituents in Pudsey, I am also interested in what the project and our wider defence investment is doing for the land of the White Rose. Overall, my department’s direct defence spending in the county was a very healthy £232 million last year, with famous names like Sheffield Forgemasters and William Cook crucial to our industry’s engineering excellence.
BAE Systems spent £5 million with Yorkshire-based companies in its Lightning supply chain in 2017, including firms like Huddersfield’s Wesco Aircraft and Reliance Precision, and Wakefield’s Rhodes Interform. Over the life of the programme, more than 700 jobs are expected to be created in the County - jobs which are central to the programme. For example, BAE Systems has been testing the F-35 for several years at a unique facility in Brough, East Yorkshire, providing vital data to sustain the jet beyond 2050. An airframe spent the best part of a decade in a testing rig there, simulating the stresses and strains it would undergo in the air. By the time it went back to Texas, it had effectively flown for 24,000 hours – three times its expected service life. Which goes to show that when we do something in Yorkshire, we do it properly.
That punishing regime at Brough has greatly helped work towards declaring Initial Operating Capability for the Lightning this December. That will be a massive milestone for the programme, and another big step towards the aircraft’s introduction as the heart of our air combat capability. Yorkshire grit and Yorkshire brains are helping get it there.
I am very proud to be flying the flag for Britain’s world-leading defence industry. I am equally proud to be a part of the F-35 programme. We are giving our flyers both a beautiful aircraft and a cutting-edge weapon system which is the envy of the world. Our Lightnings are on time, on budget, and over here - and there is a little bit of the spirit of Yorkshire in each and every one of them.
Stuart Andrew is Conservative MP for Pudsey, Horsforth and Aireborough.