The global F-35 complex

It helps considerably that many of these customers have more than just a few tonnes of precision-engineered titanium to gain from any deal: the beauty of the JSF project is that everyone can bring something to the party. In a Lancashire workshop, for instance, BAE Systems is building a section of the aft fuselage, including the tail, for every F-35; along with other contributions from all over the world, these pieces are then shipped to Texas for final assembly. This means that every F-35 sale is a boost to the coffers of Britain’s own largest arms company. (BAE has also been allowed to do the foldy bits at the end of the wings.) And the opportunities are everywhere. There are aluminium sheets from Milton Keynes, electronic modules from Billingstad, circuit boards from Ankara, hydraulics from Melbourne, wiring systems from Rotterdam, manifolds from Adelaide, wing parts from Turin and actuators from New York. So when Trump threatened to slash the cost of the F-35 programme, or divert some of the custom to cheaper competitors, it wasn’t only American defence contractors who were in the firing line. Everyone had something to lose. On 30 January, ten days after taking office, Trump announced that he had negotiated $600 million off the price tag of the next batch of F-35s. Lockheed’s CEO chose not to shatter his illusion, but it turned out that the next ninety planes were always going to be cheaper anyway – by between 6 and 7 per cent, or $550 and $650 million. The more you build the cheaper they get, thanks to economies of scale. Happily for everyone involved, this also means that more get sold. The ‘military-industrial complex’ turns out to be very simple: the juggernaut has its own momentum. Once it’s rolling it can’t be stopped, even if you’re Donald Trump, something he finally came to acknowledge on 16 March, when his budget plan for the next fiscal year allowed for the ramping-up of F-35 production as part of a proposed 10 per cent increase in overall military spending.

The Most Expensive Weapon Ever Built