Page 1 of
drones rise, a manned fighter
falls By Phil Radford
SYDNEY - The world's biggest international
defense project, the United States-designed F-35
strike-fighter aircraft, was put on probation by
international partners at a formal meeting held
this month in Sydney, Australia.
Responding to the latest in a series of
cost increases and delivery delays,
representatives from the Australia, Canada,
Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and
the United Kingdom have all threatened to pull out
of the project unless the Pentagon and lead
private contractor Lockheed Martin can deliver the
fighter plane more quickly and cheaply.
The trouble started on February 13 when
the US Department of Defense's Comptroller
released detailed projections of future Pentagon
spending which revealed cuts in planned US purchases
of the F-35 fighter as
well as related cost increases in the fiscal
period spanning 2013- 17.
The 2012 price
of the US Air Force version of the F-35 aircraft
is almost US$197 million, three times the plane's
original projected cost. By postponing the ramp up
to mass production, the Pentagon in effect
confirmed that the F-35 will not be available in
the near-term at a cost allies are willing to pay.
Within days, the Canadian government
called an unprecedented meeting of F-35 partners
at its embassy in Washington to organize a
collective response. The aircraft is the most
expensive procurement project on the defense
budget books of most project participants.
Together the eight countries had committed to
purchase over 700 of the fighter planes.
Delivery delays, meanwhile, mean the
countries' air forces will face yawning gaps in
combat capability. Canada needs new aircraft by
2016, while Australia wanted its first 14 of the
fighter planes by 2014. The United Kingdom
desperately needs a naval version of the F-35 for
its two 60,000 ton aircraft carriers due to enter
service in 2016 and 2018.
Sydney meeting, Canadian Associate Defence
Minister Julian Fantino underscored the allies'
bottom line. "We have not as yet discounted the
possibility of backing out of the program," he
said, adding in case the point of the meeting was
missed, "none of the partners have".
plane's wider export prospects are also under
threat. The F-35's first Asian customer, Japan,
warned on February 29 that cost increases or
delays might force Tokyo to cancel its contract
for 42 aircraft. The multi-billion dollar deal was
signed just three months previously.
broadly, the US's ability to turn its pre-eminence
in military technology into lucrative, long-term
exports and diplomatic leverage is also at stake.
Faced with cost increases, continued delays and
technology risks, US strategic allies have started
to investigate cheaper, more reliable
alternatives, and there is little the
cash-strapped US government can do to stop them.
Arm in arm Back in 2001- 2, the
allure of the F-35 "fifth-generation" fighter
proved irresistible to many US allies. It would
possess high resolution sensors and secure
high-capacity data links so pilots could fight
armed with an exceptional awareness of the
situation around them, while "data fusion"
features would make that information easy to
comprehend. The plane's stealthy look would
produce a tiny radar signature that increased
survivability in combat situations.
air force chiefs, almost all of them ex-fast-jet
pilots, pronounced the F-35 the best fighter of
the future. Prospective customers were promised
the F-35 would also be economical, with lower
maintenance costs than existing aircraft.
For the US, inviting allies to collaborate
on F-35 development looked like a neat way to
cement its position at the apex of the global
defense industry. The collaborative arrangement
would help the US to defray development costs,
increase export orders and ultimately make allied
air forces more useful in US-led operations. It
would also subtly make those air forces dependent
on the US for support and upgrades because the US
would retain the source code required to upgrade
the software the plane needed to fly.
hooked allies most apparently was the commercial
opportunity. The Canadian government, for example,
which joined the F-35 project in 2002, estimated
that by 2010 its C$168 million development
contribution had led to C$350 million of contracts
from Lockheed Martin. This 2:1 return on
investment boosted national capabilities in
advanced composites and helped fund research
laboratories and universities. (The US and
Canadian dollars are currently at parity; all
amounts here are in US dollars unless otherwise
With the US committing to
purchasing 2,443 aircraft, plus 700 from the
allies and perhaps another 2,000 in exports to
non-partner countries, allies eyed a commercial
bonanza that would simultaneously propel local
technology firms into world-class players once
full-scale production began.
profits Flash forward 10 years, and the
plane is still six years away from full-scale
production. In its latest report, released last
week, the US Government Accountability Office
(GAO) identified deficiencies in the plane's
fifth-generation capabilities, including the
helmet-mounted display which cannot "fuse" data.
More worrying is the backlog in software
coding. The F-35 needs an estimated 24 million
lines of code to become operational, including 9.5
million on-board the aircraft. This is six times
as much software as on the F/A-18 Hornet, and
three times more than the F-22. The GAO reports
that "testing of the most complex software and
advanced capabilities [is] still in the future,"
while only "four percent of the aircraft mission
system for full combat capability has been
Partly as a result, the flight
tests are approximately five years behind
schedule. A fully integrated F-35 won't now begin
testing until 2015 at the earliest, coinciding
with when allies had expected deliveries to have
already commenced. Moreover, a Department of
Defense (DOD) presentation that accompanied the
release of budget figures shows that F-35 funding
for testing will now continue up to 2018, which
implies full-rate aircraft production will only
ramp up at the end of the decade.
has the allies more trapped is the cost. Last
month, the US DOD's fiscal year 2013 figures
showed it will purchase 19 fighters for its air
force this year at a unit cost of $197 million,
nearly three times higher than the 2001 projected
cost of $69 million per plane. This makes the F-35
hopelessly expensive compared to the only
practical alternatives available on the
international market: $67 million for an F/A-18
Super Hornet; $87-90 million for a Dassault
Rafale; and approximately $110-120 million for a
Eurofighter Typhoon. 
Pentagon projects a decline in F-35 unit costs as
production ramps up and economies of scale kick
in: $171 million for each fighter next year, $140
million the year after, and $121 million in 2016,
when it plans to buy 70 aircraft.