Alex Massie

Obama Breaks A Promise to Britain

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Perhaps there's more to this than meets the eye, but on the face of it the Obama administration has not only broken a promise made to Britain but reneged upon a vital agreement that would have given the UK full "operational sovereignty" over the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters we're supposed to be buying for our new aircraft carriers.

Back in December 2006 Lord Drayson, minister for Defence Procurement, travelled to Washington for urgent talks to save Britain's participation in the programme. Crucial to this was the signing of a memorandum of Understanding that would give Britain, the only "Tier 1" partner, full access to software codes that would allow UK personnel to upgrade the JSF as and when needed. Without this "technology transfer" the UK would be dependent upon the US for maintaining the aircraft and, consequently, would not actually have "operational sovereignty" despite committing billions to the development of the plane. This was, Drayson, insisted, "non-negotiable" and it was a matter raised repeatedly by Tony Blair in his regular discussions with George W Bush.

The American objection to these "technology transfers" is, essentially, that they don't trust the British not to sell or leak the codes to someone else. So much for that much-vaunted Special Relationship, eh? But Bush, to his credit, faced down opposition from his own party in Congress (most notably from the egregiously awful Henry Hyde) and gave Britain the assurances it sought.

That was then, however, and this is now. Obama appears to have reneged on the deal. According to Reuters:

The United States will keep to itself sensitive software code that controls Lockheed Martin Corp's new radar-evading F-35 fighter jet despite requests from partner countries, a senior Pentagon program official said. 

Access to the technology had been publicly sought by Britain, which had threatened to scrub plans to buy as many as 138 F-35s if it were unable to maintain and upgrade its fleet without U.S. involvement.

No other country is getting the so-called source code, the key to the plane's electronic brains, Jon Schreiber, who heads the program's international affairs, told Reuters in an interview Monday.

"That includes everybody," he said, acknowledging this was not overly popular among the eight that have co-financed F-35 development -- Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway.

Instead, apparently, there will a "reprogramming facility" in Florida where the US will hand out and monitor upgrades. This is not what we were promised, not what we signed on for and not, frankly, what we paid for. 

So what next? Do we remain committed to the JSF despite this slap in the face? Or do we switch to Dassault's Rafale or even, god help us, some re-engineered, adapted Typhoon? It seems improbable that we will but given that British support for American foreign policy has ended one Prime Ministerial career and helped wound another you might think it time to ask what's really in it for us? Or are "non-negotiable" matters of operational sovereignty actually all-too-negotiable after all?

This is one area in which, at matters seem to stand, Barack Obama is worse than George W Bush.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticsdefence