British demand better access to fighter jet program

British military officials threatened Tuesday to reconsider buying the high-priced Joint Strike Fighter if the United States and Great Britain cannot resolve lingering technology transfer and information-sharing issues that are impeding Britain's involvement in the program.

The technology transfer issue arose at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Pentagon's decision to cancel a potentially lucrative alternate engine, developed by General Electric and the British firm Rolls Royce, for the international fighter program.

Lord Peter Drayson, Britain's top military procurement official, said he would not sign a memorandum of understanding -- essentially, a pact governing the fighter's production -- unless the Pentagon can revise its technology-transfer policies to give the British military greater "operational sovereignty" over its fleet of next-generation fighter jets.

Without knowledge of the specifications for the engine and other pieces of the plane, Drayson said he feared the British military would be unable to tailor the fighter to its needs and incorporate the new fleet into its strategic and operational plans.

"It is not about industrial politics," said Drayson, who added he is "optimistic that we can find a way through."

Drayson and Sir Jock Stirrup, chief of the Air Staff, are in Washington this week to discuss the technology transfer issue, as well as the engine decision, with lawmakers and Bush administration officials. Great Britain is the largest international partner on the $250 billion development and production effort, with $2 billion already invested in the program.

The Pentagon's recent decision on the engine would make Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney the fighter jet's sole engine developer and producer. According to Defense Department officials, the move to one engine would save $1.8 billion on the program.

British officials said they fear that eliminating competition would drive up costs -- and possibly delay the schedule -- on the Pratt & Whitney engine. The Rolls Royce alternate engine may have provided increased power for the fighter, Stirrup added.

Their arguments were largely backed by Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., who aired concerns that the British military and other foreign partners were not included in the decision. The partner countries deserve "not only a stake, but a voice, in the successful management of the program," Warner said.

But Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., whose state is home to the Pratt & Whitney engine manufacturing plant, countered that the original engine contract had already been competed. "I don't understand how much more is to be gained," he said.

The broader technology transfer issue, meanwhile, is not "inextricably linked" to the engine decision, Lieberman said, adding that U.S. policy on sharing information on military technology with allies is a "policy that has to mature with the world."

A GAO report released Tuesday concluded that the United States and Lockheed Martin Corp., the plane's prime contractor, already are expediting responses to technology transfer requests for the fighter, the largest international military program in history.

Military officials from Italy and Australia, who also intend to buy the fighter, appeared to support the Pentagon's engine decision. If it keeps the program on track and reduces costs, "then we understand that decision," said Rear Adm. Raydon Gates, head of the Australian Defence Staff.

The Senate panel will consider the issue again this morning, with testimony from Pentagon officials and representatives from Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and Rolls Royce.

The U.S. military intends to buy the Joint Strike Fighter for the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. Other foreign buyers are expected to include Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey.

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