NAVAL SUBMARINE BASE KINGS BAY and LONDON — The United Kingdom plans to bid for the rights to be the avionics sustainment hub in Europe for the F-35 joint strike fighter program, according to Philip Dunne, UK defense procurement minister.

"We will be making a proposition to the JPO [F-35 Joint Program Office] for the avionics hub for Europe utilising a UK MoD facility, working with industry, and that's going to be decision for the JPO and ultimately of the DoD," Dunne said during an April 15 trip to the US. "We're putting forward, we think, a highly competitive proposition and we hope to get a conclusion to that later this year."

The JPO has made competing sustainment amongst the partner nations of the F-35 program a key part of its global sustainment plan. As part of that strategy, the office divided the world into three zones — North America, Europe and the Pacific — with the intent of creating specific hubs for parts of the sustainment portfolio.

The first wave of those sustainment contracts were awarded in 2014, with a focus on maintenance for heavy airframe and engines sustainment. However, no sustainment contracts have been given out since those announcements.

Italy will provide heavy airframe maintenance for Europe, with the UK potentially gaining extra business in the future if Italy cannot handle the workload. Turkey will be the first of three European heavy engine maintenance facilities to come online, to be followed by Norway and the Netherlands.

In the Pacific, Japan and Australia will be responsible for heavy airframe maintenance for the northern and southern Pacific regions. Australia will be the center of heavy engine maintenance starting in 2018; Japan will follow as an engine maintainer three to five years later.

The JPO is now gearing up for the next wave of sustainment competition, and the UK has zeroed in on avionics as an area where it can secure ownership for Europe — a move that the Tory government likely believes would provide a boost in job opportunities.

A spokesperson for the UK MoD said the avionics proposal will meet an Aug. 2016 timetable for response set by the JPO, but that the "precise shape of the UK entity has not yet been determined."

Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said securing the avionics repair and maintenance work would be a big plus for the UK

"It's a lucrative area to be involved in both financially and in terms of local capability," Barrie said. "It's also attractive as it helps to better understand how the aircraft operates. Another element of this is sustaining sovereign capability.The question is who in industry would be involved."

UK Proposal Could Grow

Whatever the final shape of the proposal it's likely the MoD-owned Defence Electronics and Components Agency (DECA) will play a leading role.

The agency already provides support on Royal Air Force platforms like the Tornado strike jet and Chinook helicopter. In a news release dated Apr 19 DECA said it was considering how it could expand its capabilities to reduce costs on the F-35.

Speaking at the official launch of DECA last October Dunne said it was the intention to grow capability "to become the UK's avionics hub in Europe."

DECA, based at Sealand, North Wales, became a standalone MoD entity last year after the Government opted not to include the avionics maintenance and upgrade business in the sale of its Defence Support Group to Babcock International.

The spokeswoman said that the MoD would make sure all the proper licensing agreements are in place to ensure that UK companies could handle the maintenance aspect of non-UK jets.

And London may have its eye on a further expansion of it's role in the sustainment program, based around the recent decision to invest in a UK training center at RAF F-35 base at Marham, eastern England.

That could become a training center for other European users of the fifth-generation fighter, as the spokeswoman said the UK is "engaged in active discussions with other F-35 users and  the JPO about how they might utilise the UK training facility for mutual benefit."

Industry executives said the British have also set their sights on securing other specific areas of work locally on the F-35. These include minor airframe repairs and mission reprogramming capabilities.

The British have ordered a handful of the F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the aircraft to date for use by the RAF and the Royal Navy but said in the November strategic defence and security review that it remained committed to buying 138 of the jets over the life of the program. Not all of those will necessarily be the STOVL variant.

Twitter: @AaronMehta