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UK Keeps Mum on F-35 Contract Announcement

F-35C

FARNBOROUGH, England -- A day after the Pentagon confirmed the F-35 will miss its highly anticipated international debut in the United Kingdom, the British Ministry of Defense said it has no plans to announce a contract buy more of the fighter jets.

Notice of the agreement "is definitely not happening" at the Farnborough International Air Show, a spokeswoman for the ministry said in an interview with Military.com. "We'll look to do it at some point in the future."

The Pentagon's stealthy new fighter was scheduled to appear at multiple events this month in the United Kingdom. The transatlantic trip was to have culminated with the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made jet taking to the skies at Farnborough, one of the world's largest air shows held every other year outside London.

Those plans changed after a June 23 engine fire in a U.S. Air Force model during takeoff at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida led to a July 3 fleet-wide grounding of the aircraft to investigate the incident.

While U.S. officials on Tuesday cleared the planes to fly, flight restrictions prevented four jump-jet variants – including three Marine Corps and one Royal Air Force F-35B aircraft – from making the roughly 7-hour trip from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland to Royal Air Force Fairford outside London.

Then-defense minister Philip Hammond was expected to sign the F-35 contract on Friday at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, though he postponed inking the deal, presumably after it became clear the planes wouldn't be appearing at the show, according to news reports.

The defense ministry spokeswoman rejected such a suggestion, saying there was never an expectation that a contract announcement would occur either at RIAT or Farnborough. She also pointed to Tuesday's cabinet reshuffling, as Hammond was appointed secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs and succeeded by Michael Fallon.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is the world's most expensive weapons acquisition effort. The U.S. plans to spend almost $400 billion buying more than 2,400 of the single-engine fighters to replace such aircraft as the F-16, A-10, F/A-18 and AV-8B. International partners such as the U.K. expect to purchase another 600 jets, for a total of more than 3,000 aircraft.

Eight countries have committed to help develop the F-35, including the U.K., Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway. Also, Israel, Japan and South Korea plan to buy production models of the aircraft.

To date, Lockheed Martin – the world's largest defense contractor – has built more than 100 F-35s, including three for the U.K., two for the Netherlands and one for Australia. The latter is expected to be delivered in the next week or so.

The U.K. appearances – including a July 4 fly-by of the new British aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, in Scotland – were designed in part to send a message to international partners and potential buyers that the jet has rounded the corner in terms of development. The program, which began development in the 1990s, has been plagued by design challenges, cost overruns and schedule delays.

"Air shows are all about showing confidence in the product," Richard Aboulafia, a vice president at Teal Group, a consulting company in Fairfax, Virginia, said in a recent interview. "And frankly, confidence has been in short supply with the F-35."

The fire was traced to excessive rubbing a component in the fan section of the Pratt & Whitney-made F135 engine known as the integrally bladed rotor. While subsequent inspections revealed similar rubbing in several other engines, the phenomenon was far milder than in the engine that caught fire, leading Kendall and others to conclude the problem is not systemic.

"There is a growing body of evidence that this is not a systemic, major design problem," Frank Kendall, the Defense Department's top weapons buyer, said during a news conference on Monday at the show.

The F-35 no-show at Farnborough didn't stop aviation enthusiasts from lining up to climb into the cockpit of a full-scale model of the aircraft on the flight line.

"Of course, it's a disappointment," attendee Paul Schuller said. "But as they say, c'est la vie." He added, "safety first."

Father-son duo Simon and Sam Carter from Preston, England, said they came to the show hoping to see the F-35 fly.

 "We were watching the news very closely," Simon said. "The mock-up is some form of compensation."

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@monster.com

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Joint Strike Fighter Farnborough International Airshow United Kingdom Brendan McGarry
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