Combat Aircraft Program Up in the Air?
(Source: Norwegian Ministry of Defence; dated Nov. 13, 2010)

(Issued in Norwegian; unofficial translation by defense-aerospace.com)
There is again speculation about increased costs of the fighter program. Paul Bjørseth, Program Director for the F-35 program, separates fact from rumor.


Norwegian media is painting a gloomy picture of the planned procurement of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This picture is based on unverified information coming from a meeting at the Pentagon last week and the draft of a report that describes the various opportunities for spending cuts throughout the U.S. economy.

Now is the time to look at the facts.

During spring and summer of 2010, changes were decided in the US-led multinational F-35 program. These changes place a stronger emphasis on testing before full-scale production begins, and this implies that the development phase be extended by 19 months. Costs associated with this extension are estimated at $2.8 billion, and are being covered by U.S. authorities.

The final tests before full-scale production commences have slipped accordingly, and are scheduled to be completed in 2016.

Furthermore, the adjusted plans shifts the procurement of up to 122 aircraft, out of a total of 483 aircraft scheduled acquired by the United States during the period 2011-2015, is shifted to later years. The planned U.S. acquisition of a total of 2,443 aircraft is maintained.

The purpose of the U.S. restructuring and subsequent recertification of the program to the Congress in June this year was to get the F-35 program on a solid, realistic foundation for the remaining development, as a basis for production and future maintenance.

The U.S. administration is now focused more on risk management, cost control, staffing of critical positions, test plans, and on even closer monitoring of the main contractor Lockheed Martin.

The recertification of the program to Congress concluded that American authorities consider that a continuation of the F-35 program is absolutely essential for national security and that there are no alternatives that provide equivalent capacity to meet the operational requirements at a lower cost.

Based on the changes that took place in the U.S., the Norwegian Government decided in autumn to make a marginal change to the Norwegian procurement process.

The Norwegian Government now intends, by the end of 2011, to obtain authorization from Parliament to acquire up to four training aircraft with deliveries to begin in 2016.

Any further changes in the US-led multinational F-35 program with consequences for the Norwegian procurement could affect the timing of the submission to Parliament.

The Government also aims to submit the procurement program in its entirety, including the number of aircraft, basing of aircraft, industrial development, planning for financing of expenses and authorization for contract negotiations, to Parliament during the spring session of 2012.

Following the reorganization and subsequent recertification of the program, and in connection with the appointment of a new program manager, the US launched a complete review of the program (The so-called Baseline Technical Review).

The findings and recommendations of this very detailed review will be presented to the Defense Acquisition Board (DAB), a high-level decision-making body in the U.S. procurement system, on November 22 of this year.

Before any binding decision is taken by the DAB, the case has naturally been reviewed at many levels of the comprehensive U.S. procurement system. The rumors circulating in the media last week are probably inaccurate and incomplete details of the startup of this process - a process that will culminate in the DAB on Nov. 22.

It is only after a decision is made in the DAB that the F-35 partner countries, including Norway, will be informed about any further changes in the program. Only then will it be possible for us to assess the potential impact on the Norwegian procurement of aircraft.

As to the cuts proposed by the US deficit commission, these are again related to the American F-35 procurement. We do not want to speculate on possible cuts in other countries, on the outcome of these and on their possible consequences for us. It is only when specific decisions are that it is possible for us to examine the impact these and make recommendations related to our acquisition process.

However, we have yet no information or evidence to suggest that U.S. authorities are going to make huge cuts in the planned procurement of F-35 to Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps - a total of 2,443 aircraft according to current plans.

We have not heard of any discussion related to a possible halt of the development of the B-version of the aircraft, an aircraft that is due to be acquired by the Marine Corps and the Italian Navy.

Finally, this week we have once again confirmed that the three services that are due to procure the F-35 are rock-solid and united behind the program, as are the various Pentagon offices involved in the program.

In a situation where a variety of media chose to focus largely on the negative aspects of the choice of the F-35 as Norway's future combat aircraft, it is easy to lose sight of all the positive events of the F-35 program: The plane is flying (since December 2006), and more and more aircraft are being produced.

The test program, especially related to the version we want of the plane, is being completed according to plan - both in terms of the number of flights and of the completed test points.

Earlier this year, the STOVL (short take off and vertical landing) version of the plane made its first vertical landing -- a challenging operation and a major milestone for the program.

The time required to produce each aircraft has been halved so far.

Completion rate of the aircraft when it comes off the production line has increased from 88 percent to 98 percent (the costly modification work off the production line is thus greatly reduced), and the cost of the first four Low Rate Initial Production lots (a total of 63 aircraft are now contracted) have all been lower than the U.S. government's budget estimates.

The U.S. Air Force plans to start the regular ground personnel and pilot training in the autumn of next year, and this personnel will form the core of the F-35 squadrons that will be gradually set up after that date.

The choice of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as Norway's next fighter jet is thus a good one.

At the same time, there will always be uncertainty associated with such a large and technologically challenging program, not least when developing, testing and manufacturing takes place simultaneously.

We also must be prepared for recurring annual reviews of the program, and for ongoing discussions about how many F-35 the individual partner countries - the U.S. included - eventually will acquire.

As procurement professionals, we know how to navigate around these issues, and are able to provide good advice to our political masters. What is not helpful is to rely on rumors and preliminary reports. We cannot afford it.


EDITOR’S NOTE: What is striking in this article is just how little input foreign partners have in the JSF program. They do not participate in the Baseline Technical Review or in the Defense Acquisition Board meetings, not even as observers, and are simply informed of any decision after the event. This is hardly a partnership, by any stretch of the imagination.

The article also puts the spotlight on the different times that news and civil servants march to. The author clearly disregards any information about the program that doesn’t come straight from the Pentagon, and dismisses everything else as rumor and speculation. While in theory this is a rational way for a bureaucrat to function, the history of the JSF has shown just how false and incomplete information from the manufacturer and the JSF Program Executive Office can be.

Given this history, it is hard to see how procurement professionals can provide “good advice” by ignoring or dismissing independent sources.)


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