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Thread: F-35 in all it's Variations

  1. #1

    F-35 in all it's Variations

    NavAir Offers F-​​18 Ammo Amid JSF Woes

    By Colin Clark

    Tuesday, January 12th, 2010 2:17 pm

    Congressional aides are beginning to wonder if the Navy should buy the carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter, in light of the program’s rising price tag and its higher flight costs.

    “I’m growing more and more convinced that the Navy variant of the F-​​35 might not be worth buying. The program is sliding further and further to the right, as costs increase. When we have an 80 percent solution in active production, and significantly cheaper, the F-​​35C looks like a great candidate for cancellation,” said one congressional aide. “Gates has talked about choosing 75 percent solutions over expensive ‘exquisite’ systems and this is a perfect candidate.”

    For its part, the Navy, already worried it won’t have enough planes for its carrier fleet, has briefed senior Pentagon leaders that the Joint Strike Fighter program “will have a significant impact on naval aviation affordability in the FYDP and beyond.”

    A source who follows JSF closely quoted portions of the NavAir study, “Joint Programs TOC Affordability.” A congressional aide who has seen the report confirmed the information. The study was briefed to DoD leaders earlier this month;

    The source said that the study finds “the cost to operate and support the F-​​35 (all variants) will be $442 billion or more depending on additional costs for integration on ships and currently unforeseen development costs. This estimate is in FY 2002 program baseline dollars; the current dollar cost will be significantly higher. The production and development costs are cited, by the JET II, to be $217 and $46 billion respectively (2002 $), thereby making total program ownership cost to be $704 billion, or more, in 2002 dollars,:” according to this source.

    That would put operating costs of the F-​​35 B and C versions some 40 percent higher “than the cost to operate the existing (larger) fleet of F-​​18A-​​Ds and AV-​​8s. Cost per flight hour of the combined F-​​18A-​​D and AV-​​8 fleets is estimated to be about $19,000 per hour; F-​​35B/​C cost per flight hour is estimated to be about $31,000,” the source said. “These higher and growing operating costs are certainly typical for a new generation aircraft, but the revelation of these estimates at this relatively early point in the program would seem to demonstrate some real and growing concern that the highly complex F-​​35 is anything but ‘affordable.’”

    An industry source noted that the chief of Naval operations “has been very interested across the force in terms of total operating costs. It is significant that this study addresses this.” The industry source said that Super Hornet flying hour costs are about $5,000 an hour.

    A second congressional aide raised some questions about the study’s methodology, saying that “the worker level people, when asked about the assumptions by an assistant secretary in the Navy, didn’t have real good answers to that question. So while some of the numbers are very specific, the assumptions are not.” But this aide, who follows both programs, agreed that the NavAir study was a good argument for the F-​​18. “But yes, if they are looking for tails versus presumed better capability for more money and given the budget crunch and need for more ships they have HUGE problems,” the aide said.

    The source who provided the study results noted that it “shows nothing for F-​​18E/​F flight hour costs, which makes me suspicious.”

    While Congress may not be ready to cancel the carrier version of the F-​​35, the industry source noted that support for the F-​​18 “has been gaining momentum in the Congress really over the last three years,” largely to address what has been identified as a shortfall in the number of planes available. “Each year more and more language has been written noting Congress’ concern with the shortfall as well as questioning what the Navy and DoD are going to do about it.”

    Most interestingly, this source said the Navy is looking over the long term for a sixth generation aircraft, one with “increased range, increased persistence, increased speed and increased payload.” The F-​​35 is, of course, a fifth generation fighter.

  2. #2

    I agree. I think the USN SHOULD sh*can the F-35C and allow L-M to concentrate on F-35A and F-35B.

    To cover this loss, allow Navy to buy updated F/A-18E/F aircraft (Boeing would love to do a Block III variant with the right funding to fix the fundamental range and performance issues of the design over the longer term) to fill the majority of their air combat aircraft needs. This would allow GE to remain in the fighter engine market with evolved F414 designs, Boeing to remain in the fighter market with an improved product and would allow the program to kill the "alternate engine" once and for all and devote these funds to ramping up the development program and getting to the operational Block variants of the aircraft (Block IV/V and beyond) quicker.

    Allow the Navy to get into the LO fighter game by operating a smaller number of F-35B aircraft off their carriers, in tandem with USMC, to provide USN with LO strike and air defence capabilities and replace the remainder of their legacy Hornets in the meantime. The USN could then devote it's energies towards UCAV long ranged LO strike aircraft and a 6th Gen fighter to completely replace the Hornet/Super Hornet series over time.

  3. #3

    MoD to slash jet fighter orders as it struggles to save aircraft programme

    • Defence chiefs decide UK cannot afford current plan
    • Cost of 140 US-built planes has risen by £25m each

    Richard Norton-Taylor guardian.co.uk,

    Tuesday 12 January 2010 22.30 GMT

    The F35 Joint Strike Fighters' price has risen from £37m each four years ago to £62m now.

    Defence chiefs are preparing drastic cuts to the number of American stealth aircraft planned for the RAF and the Royal Navy's proposed new carriers, the Guardian has learned.

    They will be among the first casualties, with existing squadrons of Harrier and Tornado jets, of a huge shift in military spending being considered by ministers, officials and military advisers.

    As they head towards their biggest and most painful shakeup since the second world war, a consensus has emerged among the top brass that they can not afford the 140 American Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) they have been seeking.

    The JSF, or F35 as it is now called, has been subject to costly delays and the estimated price has soared from £37m each four years ago to more than £62m today.

    One compromise would be for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to halve its order from 140 planes to 70.

    There is also a growing view that Britain will not be able to afford to build the two large aircraft carriers, already delayed, let alone the planes due to fly from them.

    "The carriers are under real threat. There will certainly be a big reduction in JSF numbers," a well-placed military source told the Guardian.

    "The carriers are about more fast jets. They are very hard to justify," added a defence official, referring to a growing consensus that the RAF already has too many fast jets.

    If the order was halved, it would probably be split so that there was a short take-off and vertical landing (Stovl) version for the carriers, and a conventional version based at RAF ground stations.

    Among other options being considered are: downsizing the second carrier to a much cheaper platform for helicopters, marine commandos, and unmanned drones; building both carriers but selling one, perhaps to India; and equipping them with cheaper catapult-launched aircraft.

    No decisions will be made until after the general election. However, there is a consensus developing in the MoD that Britain simply cannot afford existing plans to build two large carriers in a project which, if the JSF planes are included, would cost an estimated £25bn.

    The view is that it is extremely difficult to justify at a time when troops in Afghanistan are being deprived of helicopters and surveillance systems – including unmanned drones – which provide badly needed intelligence about what insurgents and suspected terrorists are up to.

    The two proposed carriers, the Queen Elizabeth, due to go into service in 2016, and the Prince of Wales, due to follow in 2018, are already £1bn over the original estimated cost of £3.9bn. This excludes the cost of any aircraft flying from them.

    The money spent on carriers and their jets is even more difficult to justify, say critics, at a time when the navy is getting six new frigates at £1bn apiece and a replacement for the Trident nuclear ballistic missile system, which ministers say could cost £20bn while admitting they do not know what the final figure will be.

    A decision on the proposed new Trident submarine's basic design contract – due last September – has been put back. "Further time has been required to ensure that we take decisions based on robust information," the defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth, told MPs before Christmas.

    The final cost of Trident could amount to £97bn over the system's 30-year life, according to Greenpeace. The MoD has not challenged the figures.

    What is likely to be a debate with much blood on the carpet was triggered last autumn by General Sir David Richards, soon after he became head of the army. "We cannot go back to operating as we might have done even 10 years ago when it was still tanks, fast jets, and fleet escorts that dominated the doctrine of our three services," he said. "The lexicon of today is non-kinetic effects teams [carrying out 'hearts and minds' operations], counter-IED [improvised explosive devices], information dominance, counter-piracy, and cyber attack and defence."

    Richards warned that even large states such as China and Russia could adopt unconventional tactics rather than preparing for fighting with missiles and fixed formations of troops and armour. "Attacks are likely to be delivered semi-anonymously through cyberspace or the use of guerrillas and Hezbollah-style proxies," he said.

    The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, and Sir Stephen Dalton, the head of the RAF, have publicly challenged Richards's argument, saying it is dangerous to assume the days of "state against state" warfare are over.

    However, all agree that the defence budget is under unprecedented pressure. Malcolm Chalmers, professorial fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, estimates the MoD will have to cut its budget by up to 15%, and possibly more, by 2016. If future cuts fall disproportionately on capital projects then the MoD could be one of the hardest-hit departments after the general election, whoever wins it.

    The annual defence budget is about £35bn, not including the cost of operations in Afghanistan, which are running at about £4bn a year and are paid for out of the Treasury's contingency fund.

  4. #4

    Gates Sacks Stealth Jet Chief, Blasts ‘Troubling Record’ of Crucial Plane

    By Noah Shachtman February 1, 2010 | 1:45 pm

    If the Pentagon doesn’t get its Joint Strike Fighter just right, the U.S. military is screwed. Which is why its a such serious, serious problem this stealthy, all-purpose jet has had such a “troubling performance record,” according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Things have gone so wrong that Gates just announced he’s sacking the head of the star-crossed, nearly $350 billion program and is withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in performance fees to JSF-maker Lockheed Martin. “When things go wrong, people will be held accountable,” Gates told reporters.

    The Air Force, the Marines, and the Navy are all counting on the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to serve as its aircraft of the future, replacing everything from the A-10 to the F-16 to the F/A-18. It’s meant to knock out the most advanced missile sites, spot the most elusive terrorists, and win dogfights with the most sophisticated jets from Russia or China — all at a fraction of the price of the much-ballyhooed F-22 Raptor. Gates calls it the “backbone” of “American air superiority.” Without the promise of the JSF, Gates would’ve never convinced Congress to stop production of the Raptor, the Air Force’s most advanced dogfighter. By the time the program ends, there are supposed to be more than 2,400 of the planes in the American inventory, flying off of aircraft carriers, taking off from a conventional runway, or zipping straight up into the sky.

    That is, if the JSF program works as planned. So far, that performance has “not been what it should” Gates said. Total costs have ballooned by more than 45% since the program’s inception. According to some reports, the stealth jet isn’t even that stealthy. Its engines run the risk of burning holes in the decks of the ships its supposed to lift off from. Final tests for the plane could be pushed back until as late as 2016, a two-year delay.

    For all these troubles — and more — Gates has fired the JSF program manager, two-star Major General David Heinz. In his place, he’ll install a three-star officer. Gates will hold back $614 million in performance awards to Lockheed Martin — a withholding the defense contractor won’t fight.

    The Pentagon will spend $11 billion on the JSF next year, buying 43 planes. That’s about as much as this year’s F-35 purchase. But the program will be restructured, adding 13 more months of research and testing. Gates told the Pentagon press corps that he’s now confident the program will be able to go forward. “There are no insurmountable problems, technological or otherwise,” he said. But such assurances have been made before.

  5. #5

    Here's a more of an actual report about the change at F-35 HQ rather than the opinion piece above:

    F-35 Chief Fired, Money Withheld From Lockheed
    By michael hoffman , defensenews.com
    Published: 1 Feb 2010 15:22

    U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program manager Feb. 1, saying someone must be held accountable for the program's delays and cost overruns.

    News of the dismissal of U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David R. Heinz came at the beginning of a media briefing about the fiscal 2011 defense budget, released a short time earlier. The proposed budget, which must be approved by Congress, includes $10.7 billion for 43 F-35s.

    "To now move forward in this program in a realistic way, one cannot absorb the additional costs that we have in this program and the delays without people being held accountable," Gates told reporters at the briefing, televised live on The Pentagon Channel. "If I have set one tone here at the Department of Defense - when things go wrong, people will be held accountable."

    Gates did not name a replacement for Heinz but did say he will upgrade the position from a two-star billet to a three-star billet. A Pentagon spokesman did not know if the program's deputy manager, U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. C.D. Moore, will take over in an acting role.

    In addition to firing Hines, Gates announced the Defense Department is withholding $614 million in performance fees from the F-35's lead maker, Lockheed Martin. The company will not oppose the action, he said.

    Late last year, an internal Pentagon report showed the new stealth fighter was so far behind schedule that DoD would have to spend as much as $16.6 billion to get its largest weapons program back on track. At that time, Pentagon acquisitions chief Ashton Carter told Lockheed Martin officials that the company would have to help pay the cost overruns.

    The Annual Report of the Pentagon's Director of Operation Test and Evaluation, released in January, showed the F-35 program flew only 16 of the 168 test flights scheduled for 2009. The test flights could not be flown due to delays in aircraft deliveries, which set the program back another year.

    ENDS

    Its unfortunate for Heinz who before a year ago was only running the F-35 production line side and not the development program. But moving the PEO from a newly minted 2 star position to a 3 star is good news for the program.

  6. #6

    DATE:02/02/10

    SOURCE:Flight InternationalSINGAPORE 2010: Lockheed may deliver more F-35s than DOD buys

    By Stephen Trimble

    Although the Department of Defense has announced slashing four F-35 jets and firing the government's programme manager, Lockheed Martin says it could deliver more aircraft in 2013 than the military pays for to keep unit costs from spiralling upwards.

    The DOD may allow Lockheed the "opportunity" to deliver more F-35s than specifically on contract, says George Standridge, Lockheed vice president for business development, told Flightglobal at the Singapore airshow.

    Under this scenario, Lockheed would continue to build jets based on prices set in the 2007 selected acquisition report. Meanwhile, the DOD has decided to fund the programme based on higher cost projections set by the second annual review by the Joint Estimating Team. For the same price, Lockheed may be able to deliver more than 43 jets.

    Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that possibility when he announced the budget cuts in a briefing at the Pentagon on 1 February. Gates described the Fiscal 2011 budget request as seeking a "buy of 43 aircraft and possibly more, depending on contractor performance".

    Gates also announced that F-35 programme executive officer Brig Gen David Heinz will be replaced by three-star general. Before his dismissal, Heinz had actually been selected for promotion to major general, so Gates' move elevates the position's standing from two-star rank to three-star rank.

    Asked if Lockheed also anticipates a change of leadership, Standridge did not give a direct reply. But he acknowledged that Lockheed accepts that the DOD will hold the company accountable for its performance. For his part, Gates announced that he will withhold $614 million in performance fees from Lockheed. "The taxpayers should not have to bear the entire burden of getting the [F-35] programme back on track," Gates says.

    The procurement cuts increase the pressure on Lockheed to keep reducing unit costs for the F-35, especially as foreign partners are expected to start buying jets within the next two years.

    Meanwhile, Lockheed also confirms that Singapore has started receiving classified briefings on the F-35. Singapore and Israel are both security cooperation partners on the programme.

  7. #7

    Ares

    A Defense Technology Blog

    New F-35 Manager Undecided -- USAF and Navy Battle


    Posted by David A. Fulghum at 2/2/2010 9:00 AM CST

    A major surprise to come out of the Fiscal 2011 budget request was a change in the Pentagon’s management of the delay-plagued F-35 program.

    Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the change but not the new executive. That’s because it has yet to be picked. The naming has been delayed while the Air Force and Navy battle over the new three-star slot.

    The post was originally a one-star slot, the current program executive is Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Gary Heinz and his so-far unnamed replacement will be a three-star.

    A battle went on over the last week to see if the replacement would again be from the Navy or if the Air Force would move into the new three-star slot. Two USAF names in circulation were Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford, Military. Dep to the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for acquisition chief, a former program lead on the F-22 program; and Maj. Gen. C.D. Moore, the JSF program’s current deputy who is also an F-22 veteran.

    But multiple officials with insight into the selection process say that while there is no selectee yet, it will be someone from the Navy or Marine Corps.

    David A. Fulghum wrote:
    Early word this morning is that the Navy is vetting Rear Adm. Venlet for the F-35 three-star job. Here's some bio material on the ex-Marine.
    Rear Admiral Douglas J. Venlet is a former enlisted Marine. He graduated from Michigan State University in 1982 receiving a bachelors degree in Political Science. He also attended the U.S. Naval War College earning a masters degree in national security and strategic studies, and is a graduate of the Armed Forces Staff College. Venlet served at sea in USS Clifton Sprague (FFG-16), USS Stark (FFG-31) and USS Fox (CG-33). He was executive officer aboard USS Mobile Bay (CG-53), and commanded USS Wadsworth (FFG-9) and USS Chosin (CG-65). Both ships under his command were awarded a total of three Battle Efficiency awards, and Chosin was awarded the Spokane Trophy for warfighting excellence.

    Ashore, he was assigned as a cryptologic officer at the Naval Communication Station Rota, Spain; as an instructor of Combat Systems at Surface Warfare Division Officer School; as speechwriter and executive assistant to Commander, Naval Surface Force Pacific Fleet; as the Asia/Pacific regional manager at the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization; as an executive assistant to the Director of the Navy Staff; as deputy executive secretary of the National Security Council in the Executive Office of the President; as a fellow with the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group; and as the branch head for Strategic Concepts, Strategy and Policy Division (N5SP), Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

    2/2/2010 9:51 AM CST

  8. #8



    Graham Thompson of MBDA talks about ASRAAM/Meteor integration for the F-35. Originally posted on the DEW line, many thanks to SpudmanWP for uploading the video to youtube (does he post here?)

  9. #9

    Pentagon Official Confirms 1-Year Delay For JSF

    By JOHN REED

    Published: 16 Feb 2010 16:10

    Pentagon officials on Feb. 16 confirmed Deputy Defense Secretary Bill Lynn's announcement one day prior that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program will be delayed by about one year.


    The Pentagon confirmed delay of the F-35, shown above, one day after a noteworthy speech in Australia by its No. 2 official. (CHERIE CULLEN / U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE)

    The Pentagon's No. 2 official said this week that the jet's development schedule would slip between 12 months and 13 months despite an aggressive restructuring of the program that was announced earlier this month.

    "The development was originally projected to last an additional 30 months; we think with the additional test aircraft it will be closer to a delay of about 12 or 13 months, but I can't give you the cost numbers," The Australian newspaper quoted Lynn as saying during a speech at a shipyard in South Australia. He did not say if this would affect the delivery timeline for the JSF.

    The delay is due to the integration of additional test aircraft that were mandated under the restructuring, which also extended system development and design (SDD) until 2015, according to a Pentagon official.

    "That is a true statement, the driver on this is the test aircraft," the official said Feb. 16. "The driver on this whole thing, about a year, is due to the additional test aircraft."

    Like Lynn, the official would not comment on how this will affect the delivery schedule for the plane. The U.S. Marine Corps is set to get its first F-35s in 2012, with the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy scheduled to receive their jets in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

    On Feb. 1, Steve O'Bryan, Lockheed's vice president for F-35 business development, told reporters that while the jet's flight tests are roughly six months behind schedule, the company will deliver the plane in time to meet the Marines' initial operating capability date of 2012.

    "I think you'll see that we're going to deliver all the SDD jets by the end of this year and get them in flight test," O'Bryan said.

    Under the Pentagon's restructuring that was announced Feb. 1, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered an additional test jet and $2.8 billion be put into the extended F-35 SDD, withheld more than $600 million in performance fees from Lockheed, cut planes from F-35 acquisition coffers and fired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David Heinz, the Pentagon's F-35 program manager.

    The Defense Department is requesting $10.7 billion in its 2011 budget to continue development on the F-35 and purchase 43 of the planes.

  10. #10

    Top-gun fighter in a spin

    Top-gun fighter in a spin Cameron Stewart, Associate editor From: The Australian February 19, 2010 12:00AM

    Cost blow-outs, delays and doubts over the Joint Strike Fighter's capabilities are causing concern in the defence community here and in the US

    MILITARY chiefs in Canberra were unamused when US Defence Secretary Robert Gates publicly savaged the performance of the Joint Strike Fighter project early this month.

    Gates's candid and unexpected outburst, in which he cited the fighter's "troubling performance record" stood in stark contrast to almost everything the Australian Defence Force and the federal government have told Australians about the new warplane.

    "[Gates] must have come as a bit of a shock to them," says Hugh White, a former deputy defence secretary and professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.

    "The project is starting to look distinctly pear-shaped. The [Australian] government and the air force have talked it up too far."

    There is no defence project in this country that enjoys such a sacred-cow status as the $16 billion plan to purchase 100 JSFs, or F-35 fighters, to form the rump of Australia's future air force.

    At the senior levels of the Defence Department, the F-35 remains the chosen aircraft and, as one military insider told The Australian this week: "To question the F-35 inside the Defence Department is a dangerous career move."

    In other words, there is a disturbing vacuum of critical analysis and alternative viewpoints.

    "I don't think they [Defence officials] are seriously contemplating any other options," says Andrew Davies, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

    Both the Defence Department and the government maintain a determined firewall of silence about setbacks in the $300bn US-led project and frequently deploy aggressive spin to portray the troubled project in the kindest possible light.

    Even when Gates sacked the head of the project this month because it was beset by cost overruns and delays, Defence tried to spin it into good news, issuing a press release saying it "welcomes the decisive action by the US government to reduce risk in the F-35 program".

    "Take a look at that press release," says Davies.

    "It welcomed the restructuring of the program. Why is the third major restructuring in eight years greeted with applause?"

    No amount of spin can hide the fact Gates believes there are serious problems with the F-35, which is already years behind schedule and nearly 50 per cent above its originally estimated cost.

    His comments raise questions about why there is not a more honest policy debate in this country about the implications for Australia of an increasingly troubled F-35 program.

    "I think the JSF will be a disappointment," White says.

    "It will be more expensive than we expected, it will perform worse that we hoped and it will be later than expected.

    " But it may still be the best plane for Australia; I am not convinced it is the wrong aeroplane."

    The Howard government controversially chose the F-35 in 2002, when the plane was still on the drawing board, with virtually no serious analysis of other warplanes. It was a gamble the government took on the basis that the promised features of the "fifth generation" F-35, including stealth, range, payload, land strike and air defence, provided a better overall capability than other existing "fourth generation" fighters already in service, such as the F-15e, Typhoon, Rafale and Gripen.

    Another attraction was the promise that the F-35 would be cheaper than the other options in the long term because the US was building about 2500 of the planes for its own military, providing an economy of scale in purchase costs and maintenance.

    As The New York Times said this month: "The Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to be the program that broke the mould, proof that the Pentagon could build something affordable, dependable and without much drama.

    "But rather than being the Chevrolet of the skies, as it was once billed, the fighter plane has turned into the Pentagon's biggest budget-buster."

    The risk for Australia is that the F-35 is an ambitious hi-tech, futuristic project that is very vulnerable to setbacks.

    Eight years on, those risks have come to haunt the project and have raised concerns that the F-35 -- which Australia initially hoped to receive in 2012 -- may not be in operational service with the RAAF until the early 2020s.

    The RAAF expects to introduce its first operational squadron of F-35s in 2018-19, with three squadrons, or 72 aircraft, in service by 2021.

    During the past eight years, White says, the Defence Department and the government have "clung to unrealistic expectations" that the JSF will somehow "defy gravity" and be better, cheaper and deadlier than all other fighters.

    Increasingly the F-35 project is looking like a re-run of the F-111 strike bomber story.

    Prime minister Robert Menzies ordered the developmental plane in 1963, only to see it delivered many years late and more than four times the original cost.

    The F-35, which is being developed by about 7000 people at Lockheed Martin's headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, has suffered serious problems with its weight, software and stealth technology, causing blow-outs in its production schedules and costs.

    Some critics fear the final result will be a warplane that is unable to match it with other new warplanes, including the Russian Sukhoi PAK FA being developed for the Russian air force to compete with the F-35.

    Only five test-flight F-35 planes have flown and the test-flight program is at least six months behind schedule.

    Less than one-third of all planned flights in the past three years have actually taken place.

    But while there is a disturbing disconnect between the Australian government's rhetoric about the F-35 program and the reality, this does not mean that the F-35, when it does finally arrive, will not be a potent and highly effective plane for Australia, just as the F-111 was.

    ASPI's Davies says that while the program is experiencing some serious setbacks, these are not yet any worse than those experienced by similar large military equipment programs in the past.

    "In terms of historical programs, it is now sitting about where you would expect it to be," he says.

    "But it is also similar in relation to costs, which is disappointing for a program which was sold as being cheaper."

    The RAAF, which has pushed the F-35 strongly for the past eight years, is concerned about the potential for further delays. The RAAF's existing frontline fighter fleet is in transition, with the F-111 ageing strike bombers due to be retired at the end of this year.

    A squadron of F/A-18 Super Hornets is due to arrive in 2010-11 to offset the loss of the F-111s. But the other half of Australia's fighter force -- the F/A-18 Hornets -- is also ageing fast and it will be an expensive struggle to keep them in the air in sufficient numbers until the F-35 arrives in 2018.

    If the F-35 is delayed further -- which is probable -- then the government will face some difficult choices about its future air force.

    One option would be to purchase a second squadron of Super Hornets, but that is unpopular with Defence chiefs who remain sunnily optimistic that the F-35 program will get back on track.

    In November last year, Australia became the first of the eight international partner countries in the F-35 project to commit to buying the fighter, ordering 14 F-35s, with a decision on the size of the second batch to be made in 2012.

    The aim of this staggered purchase was to buy most of the RAAF's F-35s later in the production cycle to drive down costs.

    But White is concerned that there is not enough flexibility in this plan and that Australia is failing to keep its options open.

    "Just because the government says it is buying the JSF does not mean it should not keep [future purchases] under review," he says.

    "The government needs to do something [that] no one has done in this entire process and that is to make a serious judgment about what it wants air combat to do in the period 2020 to 2040.

    "Given what we know about JSF now and about other options, does the JSF remain the most cost-effective solution? But nobody wants to answer these types of questions. There is no capacity or desire to undertake such a detailed, painful and potentially politically inconvenient study."

    The F-35 will be the nation's largest defence purchase, yet there is virtually no informed debate about it among decision-makers in Canberra. The Liberals, having chosen the plane back in 2002, are reluctant to question it, while Labor, which endorsed the F-35 after it won office in 2007, is also tethered to the program.

    The government's continued confidence in the F-35 program reflects the fact the US simply cannot afford for the plane to fail. Gates has already cancelled the only viable alternative -- the highly capable but highly expensive F-22 -- leaving the US Air Force heavily reliant on the F-35.

    Gates knows this, which is why he is venting his anger so openly at those responsible for failures in the F-35 program.

    "When things go wrong, people will be held accountable,' Gates said bluntly as he announced the sacking this month of the head of the F-35 program, David Heinz.

    As The New York Times editorialised: "This insistence on accountability would be considered normal in most private businesses. But it is virtually unheard of in the cosy world of military procurement."

    For Australia, the F-35 has been a bizarre love story.

    It was sold to the government off the drawing board in 2002 by slick arms salesmen from Lockheed Martin, who convinced then defence minister Robert Hill to abandon a proper tender competition to choose the RAAF's next-generation fighter.

    In the years since, the project has sputtered and puffed its way forward, missing deadlines and posting only modest achievements to date.

    Gates has recognised that this is not good enough.

    Perhaps it is time for the Australian government also to take a more critical view of the F-35 and keep studying other options, just in case.


    Cheers

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