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MoD to bin F-35B navy jumpjets in favour of tailhook birds?

'Jobs bloodbath at Rolls', says bizarre Telegraph report

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But why on Earth is this bad news for Rolls-Royce?

What's puzzling about the article is the headline, though - "Defence jobs at risk as MoD rejects Rolls-Royce fighter engine". According to the Telegraph:

Up to 750 British defence manufacturing jobs are at risk as the Ministry of Defence is preparing to reject a Rolls-Royce fighter engine in favour of a cheaper American model.

Rolls has two main involvements in the F-35 programme. One of these is its production of vertical-lift machinery which is added to F-35B jumpjet engines. If the UK decides against jumpjets, Rolls will lose some business, but not that much: the US Marines will still buy the B model in much larger numbers, and the Spanish and Italian navies would also be likely customers. There's no real scope for job losses here.

The other thing Rolls is doing for the F-35 is developing the F136 engine, in partnership with GE. At the moment all versions of the F-35 use Pratt & Whitney's F135 engine only, but the intention is to offer an alternative to future buyers.

Argument has raged in America for years over the F136, with the Pentagon seeking to cancel it in order to avoid duplicated development costs. However, politicians in Washington have kept the programme alive, arguing that competing engines will drive down the operating expenses of the future F-35 fleet (also that jobs should be preserved at GE and Rolls' extensive US operations).

If the F136 alternate engine is axed - a decision which would be made in Washington, not London - job losses would indeed be on the cards at Rolls. But the F136 is intended for all versions of the F-35, not just the jumpjet, so a UK switch from the B to the C version wouldn't affect the matter. We spoke to a Rolls-Royce spokesman today to confirm that any such hypothetical move would have minimal effect on the company, and he said "that is completely correct".

As to whether the MoD will actually make the shift, it has always kept its options open. Hints were given at a Parliamentary panel last November that the F-35C/catapult plan remains on the table, and MoD kit minister Quentin Davies told the Beeb's Today programme this morning that "we will move to a decision over many months". He said that the Telegraph's suggestion that a decision had already been made - and of job losses at Rolls - was "complete rubbish" and "completely false".

Davies is surely telling the truth when he says he won't make his mind up until he has to - or more accurately until someone else has to, as it seems quite likely that he'll be out of a job next year.

A switch to tailhook jets would be excellent news for the Royal Navy and for British taxpayers in the long run, but it will only happen if it's also good news for the Treasury in the short run. It's perhaps just as likely that the new government - with no ties to Scottish shipbuilding towns - will scrap the carriers and the fighters altogether. ®

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