- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A British Cabinet minister said this week his government will cancel its $21 billion order for the new Joint Strike Fighter unless the United States agrees to give the British military full access to the warplane’s critical computer codes.

Paul Drayson, the minister for defense procurement, issued the warning as he arrived in Washington on Tuesday to address members of Congress.

The dispute not only threatens the 150-aircraft program, but also the intimate Anglo-American military partnership.

Without full access to computer software, the next-generation aircraft would effectively remain under the control of the Americans and could be “switched off” without warning.

“I’m aware that the British can be accused of understatement on these things,” Mr. Drayson said. “We do expect this technology transfer to take place, but if it does not take place we will not be able to purchase these aircraft.”

The program is critical to Britain’s much-trumpeted “expeditionary” strategy, which is based on two new multibillion-dollar aircraft carriers.

The Royal Navy plans to equip the new 65,000-ton vessels with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, whose construction is being led by Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin.

But Mr. Drayson said Britain had a “Plan B” and would implement it if an agreement with the Americans was not signed by the end of the year.

He refused to offer details, but it is widely believed that this could involve the Royal Navy buying a new naval version of the Typhoon, or the French-built Rafale.

Mr. Drayson said that talks with the Bush administration were going well. But the problem has little to do with the Bush administration, which has been trying for five years to exempt Britain from stringent technology-transfer rules.

A Republican congressional source said the problem is with the Pentagon, not with Congress.

The U.S. rules mean that British requests for almost anything linked to American technologies can take 20 days or more to get approval. British officers say that if applied to the Joint Strike Fighter, it would severely restrict the aircraft’s operations.

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