Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Crown jewels, family silver etc

It's been reasonably widely reported that the British and US governments have fallen out about the terms of British participation in the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35 or JSF) project. The RAF and Royal Navy are planning to buy a considerable number of the aircraft's STOVL (Short Take-Off Vertical Landing) variant as the eventual replacement for the Harrier family, and British companies - specifically BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and various others – have significant workshare in the project.

Recently, this has been complicated by the US government's reversal of an earlier decision to develop two competing engines for the aircraft, one at Pratt & Whitney and one at Rolls, in a fairly risible effort at saving money. Two new jet engines may sound like a waste of money, but in the context of current Pentagon spending it's a drop in the bucket - but crucially, a drop that's mostly made in the UK and hence doesn't have a noisy fat-arse Congressman From Rolls to lobby for it.

That's bad news, especially for Rolls Royce workers. It's also galling because Rolls has a significant part of the project anyway - they are doing the separate lift-fan that powers the forward pair of nozzles on the STOVL version, whatever the engine behind it is. What's worse is that the Americans are cutting up rough about that modern burning issue, intellectual property rights.

If they don't permit the RAF and Navy full access to the source code of the computers, we can't service, modify or upgrade the planes ourselves, nor develop anything that needs to work with them. This would be an especially nasty version of the restrictive contracts that apply to the UK stockpile of Tomahawk cruise missiles - they can only be serviced by the manufacturer, Raytheon, and the contract is invalidated if we fiddle with them - and could have far-reaching consequences for British and European defence. Their argument is that if we have the source code, we might use it in a joint Anglo-French project, and then the French might...

The French, eh. What is this bizarre US obsession? It's as if they've forgotten the last time one of their allies let a hostile power have a peek at their kit. It wasn't us, and it wasn't the French...I'll give you a clue. Starts with "I". No, it's not India.

It's also slightly ridiculous to think that these restrictions are enforceable. After all, they are selling us the complete aeroplanes, and they include quite a lot of stuff made here in Britain. It wouldn't be impossible to reverse-engineer the fucker. I'm sure the "I"s waited, what, 15 minutes after the handover ceremony before they got started doing that with their F-16s...although, being the country we still just are, probably would respect the EULA form. You know, like the one you have to accept to run Windows - the bit that says you musn't decompile or reverse engineer anything on this CD-ROM or they'll sue.

What no-one has mentioned yet is that much of the STOVL variant's flight control system was developed in the UK at the taxpayer's expense, by organisations that were part of the UK public sector at the time, with the skills of British scientists, engineers and test pilots. Starting back in the 90s, the old Aircraft & Armaments Experimental Establishment at RAF Boscombe Down in Wiltshire, along with DERA (now QinetiQ and privatised) at RAE Farnborough, began a project to develop a radically new method to control a VTOL/STOVL aircraft in flight and in the hover on the same flight control system. What became of this was something called VAACS.

VAACS was a Harrier testbed equipped with the new electronics and software, tested at Boscombe by (among others) the lead Harrier test pilot John Farley. It permitted a highly intuitive form of flight control in the hover - you essentially push the stick in the direction you want to go and the necessary thrust and nozzle deflections are calculated for you - and a seamless transition from aerodynamic to jetborne flight.

The VAACS system is the basis for the Unified Flight Control system in the STOVL F-35s on order for the RAF, RN and US Marine Corps. It's our software. But, if the Americans get their way, we won't be able to do anything with it. And Lockheed-Martin, the F-35 prime contractor, can use it for - well - anything they like, even if it's directly contrary to British interests. They're not even paying us a penny, as far as I know.

Remember, we can always trust the Americans. Keep saying it and it might be true.

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