RAF Marham could become an international hub for next generation fighter jet engineering
European nations could Make it Marham, the defence secretary has revealed as he disclosed talks are taking place to make Norfolk an international engineering hub for the next generation of fighter jet.
Philip Hammond said the new Lightening II F-35 jets would be on the tarmac at RAF Marham in 2018, dismissing fears of delays to the programme amid reports of software, reliability and radar problems.
Norway, Holland and Italy are also set to get the joint strike fighters and the pooling of maintenance between the European nations is being seen by defence bosses as a way of keeping down the costs of the high-tech jets.
With the UK set to have the biggest fleet of the F-35s in Europe, the Ministry of Defence would want to have the maintenance hub here.
At a Westminster lunch Mr Hammond said: “We are talking to the Norwegians, the Dutch and others European countries who will operate this aircraft because it is a complicated system, and there could be some cost savings in collaborating together, and it could be at Marham,” he said.
A Ministry of Defence source said the base near Downham Market is viewed as the “ideal location”.
South-West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss said; “This is extremely positive news and could utilise the fantastic expertise already in place at RAF Marham, but also mean more high quality engineering jobs locally.
“I am pleased that the aircraft are still on schedule to arrive in Norfolk in 2018. On a recent visit to the base the station commander spoke of the planning that is already well underway in preparation for Lightning II.”
The news comes after years of campaigning to secure the future of RAF Marham.
Last month more than 600 engineering jobs were secured across the country by a £125 million MoD contract to maintain, repair and upgrade the RAF’s Tornado fast jets.
The MoD said its contract with BAE Systems would also deliver savings of up to £90m for the taxpayer compared to the original agreement, after the two organisations identified more efficient ways of working.
Earlier this year it emerged a report to the US government contained sharp criticism of the F-35 fighter jet project, pointing to the “unacceptable” performance of the plane software.
And last week it was reported that the stealth jet could be seen by the radar of potential enemies.
But Mr Hammond said: “I can tell you when it (the F-35) will be on the tarmac at RAF Marham, in 2018. We are standing up our first squadron in the US and training them in the US so they will return to Marham as a fully formed operational squadron in 2018.
“The stories about glitches in the development of software, if you look back at the development of previous aircraft – the F18, the F15, the F16, the Typhoon, the Tornado - you will find this happens with every single aircraft.
“Of course there are development issues, that is what a development programme is all about. But there are plans and work programmes to deal with them, and I am confident in this aircraft, and you will see it flying.
“We are not anticipating any delay at all.”
The said that the US was planning to fly the aircraft from its carriers in 2015.
“We are three years behind them and I don’t see any reason why we won’t be able to deliver on that,” he added.
F-35s will fly from the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and also be based at the Norfolk air base.
Mr Hammond said: “I think there are some people still think the idea of aircraft carriers and jets flying off them are a nebulous concept. The aircraft carrier will be floated out on the 4th July as it happens and the F35 jets, some of which we own and are operating in the UK and will be coming to the UK. British jets flown by British pilots this summer to show off what they can do at Farnborough and Fairford turning this long running saga into a reality. We have of course renegotiated the contract with the industrial consortium that is building the carriers from one which allowed the industrial partners 90pc of any cost overrun paid for by the taxpayer to one which is a 50-50 gain share, pain share. Aligning the taxpayers interest with the manufacturers interest in a way which will get this job done.”