The F-35 JSF Program—International Ramifications
As has been pointed out in previous posts, the existence of and, more important, the continuation or the cancellation of the huge F-22 fighter program, have been used as pros and cons to support or oppose another hugely important defense procurement program: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or JSF.
Opponents and proponents of each of the two programs have used respective operational capabilities, national security issues and, more recently—especially in view of our economic and budgetary crises—the cost of each or both programs as points in the debate.
The fact that the same company, Lockheed Martin, is the prime contractor for both programs, makes the debate even more real and serious for that company. A significant cutback to both programs would pose a serious problem for Lockheed Martin.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ recommendation to limit the number of F-22s produced to a total of 187, is—if accepted by Congress—of course a fatal blow to the F-22 program and a significant financial setback to Lockheed Martin.
While earlier reports claimed that, if the F-22 program is terminated, approximately 100,000 aerospace jobs would be lost at a cost of more than $12 billion in national economy activity across 44 states, Lockheed Martin has recently painted a not-so-bleak picture.
In yesterday’s New York Times article (“Lockheed Won’t Fight Pentagon on F-22 Plan”) , Lockheed Martin was both gracious and realistic about the program’s potential cancellation:
According to the article:
Bruce L. Tanner, the company’s chief financial officer, told stock analysts that the company had received “a full hearing” from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and top Air Force officials, and “we’ll accept those decisions.”
Mr. Tanner also said, according to the Times, that under previous contracts, F-22s would be assembled at Lockheed Martin’s plant in Marietta, Ga., until 2012. He added that most of the workers there would be able to shift to expanding production lines for other planes.
Some of the “other planes” are most likely the F-35 JSF, which escaped the axe under Gates’ proposed budget.
As a matter of fact, according to Secretary Gates himself, “[The] budget increased funding from $6.8 to $11.2 billion for the fifth generation F-35, accelerating the development and testing regime to fix the remaining problems and begin rolling out these aircraft in quantity – more than 500 over the next five years, and more than 2,400 total for all the services.”
This positive commitment to the F-35 program is crucial to Lockheed Martin as it comes at a time when other international partners in the program are getting ready to make crucial decisions as to the scope of their commitment to the program, or even as to whether to continue in the program. Any apparent lack of support for, or perceived lack of confidence in, the multinational program on the part of our own DoD would not have been good news for the program
There are presently eight international partners or participants in the JSF program, at various stages and “levels” (generally reflecting the financial stake in the program) of participation, each one contributing varying amounts to the development phase and cost of the program and each one intending to eventually procure a number of these aircraft, for a total of over 3,100 aircraft (including the U.S. planned procurement), making the JSF one of the biggest and most ambitious aircraft programs ever.
Again, the commitment of our own Defense Department comes at a crucial time, as there has been intense political debate in at least two of the partner nations with regard to timely and full continued participation in the program.
According to recent reports from Denmark, there are political moves there to delay the decision on the F-16 follow-up aircraft (assumed to be the F-35) by a year.
More ominously, in the Netherlands—another important JSF partner that intends to buy 85 JSFs—there has been intense political opposition to the F-35. The Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad reports today:
On Wednesday evening Labour parliamentarian Angelien Eijsink put an end to speculations about where Labour lawmakers stand on the purchase of two prototype US-built Joint Strike Fighters (JSF). “We cannot approve the purchase of JSF test planes,” Eijsink said.
Her words made clear that Labour is effectively withdrawing its support for an important part of the coalition agreement that formed the basis of the Balkenende government. The 2007 coalition agreement between the Christian Democrats, Labour and ChristenUnie said the cabinet has to take a final decision about the JSF no later than 2010. Without Labour’s approval there is no majority in parliament for the cabinet’s plan.
The newspaper makes it clear that “Even if a decision on whether to spend 6.2 billion euros [about $8.7 billion] to buy 85 JSF (or F-35) fighters for the Dutch air force does not have to be taken until 2010, the government does have to decide this year whether to buy the two prototypes.”
Deputy defence minister Jack de Vries (Christian Democrat) defended the plan to buy the two prototypes. He said it is a logical result of earlier agreements that Dutch pilots could only be trained on the JSF if the Netherlands bought two of the jets. But he added that buying two planes now won’t mean the Netherlands can’t abandon the JSF in favour of another jet to replace the existing F-16 later.
There have been serious rifts between the Dutch Labor Party and the government on the JSF program, and blustery words and threats have flown back and forth between the two, and between Parliament and Defense, before.
However, this time “Some say the discord is a greater challenge to the Dutch cabinet than the economic crisis.”
ChristianUnie faction leader Arie Slob thinks the discord is not insurmountable. “We have not deliberated over the economic crisis for three weeks only to slip over an airplane.”
We shall see where this one ends.
The Dutch newspaper, de Telegraaf, has just announced that the Dutch government and Parliament , after intense debate, have agreed to a complicated compromise whereby:
A definitive decision on Dutch participation in the operational test phase of the JSF program will not be made until 2010. However, the Dutch government can go ahead and commit to the production of the first test aircraft. However, “nothing is formally bought this year.”
A definitive decision on the replacement for the F-16 fleet will not be made until 2012, when the next government takes over.