By Giovanni de Briganti
PARIS --- Industrial concessions made by Lockheed Martin last week appear to have persuaded two European partners to remain in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program for the time being, but looming delays in the program’s schedule could prove an insurmountable obstacle for two other partners, Australia and Britain.
The armed services committees of both the US House and Senate cut JSF funds in the Pentagon’s FY 07 budget request to ensure initial production is not launched before the aircraft demonstrates its development maturity. Although the mark-ups must now be reconciled in House-Senate conference before they become effective, their similarity virtually ensures that they will be enacted, delaying JSF’s production launch and deliveries by at least one year.
These delays are likely to prove critical for Australia and for Britain. Australia needs to receive its JSFs by 2012 to replace its 33 F-111 strike aircraft, and any slippage would force an expensive life-extension program for those F-111s.
Britain has also voiced its dismay about possible delivery delays. The House of Commons Defence Committee cautioned in a Dec. 21 report that “there is a risk that the Royal Navy will have a new carrier but no new aircraft to operate from it” if JSF deliveries slip further. Initially planned for 2010, deliveries to Britain are now planned to begin in 2011, allowing an in-service date of 2014 at the earliest.
The bad news from Washington was partially compensated by Dutch and Norwegian announcements last week that they would remain in the program for the time being, although Norway cautioned it had still not decided if it will buy the JSF.
Norway, which had complained of insufficient JSF work for its industry, said May 8 that it had decided to continue its participation in the program after Lockheed Martin offered an improved package with potential contracts of up to 20 billion Norwegian kroner (NOK) for Norwegian industry. However, Oslo cautioned this does not mean it will buy JSF.
“I want to emphasize that this decision does not mean that we have decided which aircraft Norway will procure,” Minister of Defence Anne-Grete Strøm- Erichsen said. Norway will evaluate the three other competitors (Eurofighter, Dassault Rafale and Saab Gripen) before making a final decision, she added.
With fortunate timing, Dutch aerospace manufacturer Stork Aerospace said May 11 that it had been awarded a further contract related to JSF, this time for the production of flaperons, with a potential value of $170 million. Stork added that this brings to over $500 million the amount of work it has won on JSF to date.
The next day, in a report to Parliament’s Lower House, Dutch State Secretary for Defence Cees van der Knaap said the Cabinet saw no reason to reconsider its preference for the JSF, adding that Dutch taxpayers would not be better off if the Netherlands pulled out of the development program and instead bought the aircraft “off the shelf.” The report said that the Netherlands expect to pay about 4.5 billion euros for the 85 JSFs they plan to buy, and that deliveries are to place between 2010 and 2020.
By reducing FY07 funding for JSF, the two US Congressional committees appear to have heeded repeated warnings by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the program, as currently scheduled, is too risky and could lead to cost overruns and expensive re-design down the road.
The House Armed Services Committee on May 3 cut $241 million from the Pentagon’s FY 2007 request of $390 million in long-lead funding for the JSF’s Navy and Air Force versions, leaving just $149 million to procure five aircraft in 2008 instead of 16. The committee said it “believes that an increased amount of testing and development should be conducted before the DoD procures additional aircraft” beyond those five, thus implying a substantial postponement of initial deliveries.
In a similar decision announced May 4, the Senate Armed services Committee cut $1.2 billion from JSF funding “due to a program delay,” and showed its fear of future price escalations by directing the Pentagon “to use a fixed price contract for each increment of production aircraft.”
Both committees also restored $408 million in funding for the JSF’s alternate engine, to be developed by General Electric and Rolls-Royce.
The United States and its partners are due to sign a Memorandum of Understanding committing to the JSF Production, Sustainment and Follow-On Development phase by year-end. The foreign partners are Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, Australia, Denmark and Canada.