The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program – Its Ups and Downs (Update)

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It has been a while since I have written on two of the most controversial, expensive and important weapons programs in decades: The F-22 Raptor fighter and the F-35 multirole Joint Strike Fighter, or Lightning II.

As we remember, on July 21, 2009, “in a dogfight almost to the end,” as the Washington Post reported it, Congress scrapped the F-22 program.

Secretary Gates not only halted production of the F-22 (after the final four are built), but he also cut the maximum production of the F-35 multirole fighter to 80 per year for the U.S. Air Force.

Both moves drew a firestorm of criticism from Congress, the military, the military aerospace industry and the military aerospace community, and there were dire predictions of massive layoffs and of disastrous consequences for defense contractors.

(The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is one of the most ambitious aircraft programs ever. It is a huge international program involving eight international partners or participants, 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)

The sky has not fallen over Lockheed Martin or the aerospace industry, but terminations and scale-backs of other defense programs have resulted in some loss of revenue and profitability for Lockheed and have forced it to cut some jobs. Lockheed Chief Executive Robert Stevens has said that Lockheed is beginning to see the impact of the wind-down of the Raptor program—scheduled to produce the last aircraft in 2012.

In the meantime, the F-35 program has proceeded with both ups and downs for Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for both the F-22 and the F-35.

It’s hard to pin down the number of F-35s to be eventually built.

Lockheed Martin claims that it still has the administration’s strong support for acquiring more than 2,400 F-35s.

In a recent Air Force Times report, Lockheed spokesman Chris Geissel says that the U.S. still intends to buy 2,443 F-35s, and that Britain plans to buy 138 with the seven other nations participating in the F-35 program planning to buy about 700. “There are no indications from any of the partner countries that they are going to trim back,” and that in addition to those 3,281, Lockheed expects to sell F-35s to Israel, Japan, South Korea and other customers. The total “could reach 4,500 or more,” Geisel said.

Other sources put the total number lower. For example, as reported by the Air Force Times, U.S. defense analyst Barry Watts of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments says that, ultimately, it is likely that only half of the planned F-35s will be built and that history is against the F-35. He cites that in the four stealthy aircraft programs that preceded the F-35, the U.S. military declared a need for 2,378 planes, but ultimately bought only 267.

The same Air Force Times article mentions a Dutch defense analyst’s report to the Dutch Parliament warning of rising costs, changing threats, rival aircraft and, consequently, a lower number of F-35s to be built. Lockheed Martin strongly disputes such assessments and claims that international interest remains strong among partner countries, projecting international sales to be about 750 aircraft, with a potential for additional aircraft sold through Foreign Military sales (FMS).

Lockheed Martin reports that it continues to achieve objectives and operational milestones in the various phases and flight tests of the F-35 development program, including with its conventional and short takeoff and vertical landing aircraft and the first aerial refueling test.

The New York Times, however, writes this morning that an internal Pentagon report suggests that “work on the new stealth fighter, the Pentagon’s largest weapons program, had fallen so far behind that it could cost $16.6 billion more than expected over the next few years.”

And, in more bad news for Lockheed, that the company “would have to cover part of the increased costs of the huge program.”

According to the Times, Ashton B. Carter, an undersecretary of defense, delivered that message to the company’s chief executive, Robert J. Stevens, on Sunday at a meeting on how to get the program back on track. But, “Lockheed Martin has described the latest Pentagon cost estimates as a worst case. It has said it is making manufacturing improvements that could keep the costs from ballooning and help it get back on schedule by 2011.”

Finally, on the bright side, The Australian has just reported that Australia’s defense chiefs have firmly backed the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) planned $16 billion investment in the F-35. The decision still needs Australia’s national security committee’s approval. The RAAF wants to buy up to 100 F-35s to replace its F/A-18 ‘classic Hornets’ and the soon-to-be-retired F-111 strike force.

According to The Australian, “Senior government sources say the Rudd government’s budget problems remain the only serious obstacle to getting a green light for the F-35 fighter deal…Both Defence Minister John Faulkner and Defence Materiel Minister Greg Combet remain fully committed to the joint strike fighter as the best choice for Australia’s future air combat arm.”

Hopefully, good news for Lockheed Martin and its F-35 program

UPDATE:

This just in from a Dutch source (JSF Nieuws.nl) that the Australian government has approved the purchase of the first batch of 14 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for a total of A$3.2 billion (approximately $2.96 billion).

This first batch will be delivered to Australia in the U.S. in 2014 for training and testing.

Australian Minister of Defense John Faulkner said that the next batch will be considered for purchase in 2012. Australia is envisaging at least 72 F-35s for three squadrons.

Image: Courtesy Lockheed Martin

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist