By Giovanni de Briganti
PARIS --- While Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson is putting up a spirited defense of his government’s selection of the Joint Strike Fighter, despite having to spend an unexpected A$ 6 billion to buy 24 F-18F Super Hornets as stop-gap solution, other JSF partner countries appear far more measured in their support.
All foreign partners of JSF have now signed the Memorandum of Understanding for the program’s follow-on Production, Sustainment, and Follow-on Development (PSFD) phase. Several, however, say they will not commit to actually buy the JSF until late 2008 at the earliest while others, like Canada and Norway, are keeping their options open and others still – including Australia – say they have still not committed to purchasing the aircraft.
This falls far short of earlier expectations that the foreign partners would make final commitments to the program by late 2006. Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon and the US Air Force have not publicly acknowledged these uncertainties, and indeed the Pentagon press releases accompanying each country’s PSFD signature adopted a bullish tone.
Foreign partners, however, have made their positions very clear.
Announcing the signature of the PSFD agreement on Dec. 12, 2006, Canada’s Department of National Defence noted that “…participation in this next phase does not commit the Department to purchasing the multi-role aircraft….”
Britain’s Ministry of Defence said that the PSFD agreement it signed on Dec. 12, 2006 “does not formally commit the UK to buying any aircraft,” adding that “the UK's increase in financial commitment at this stage is £34 million,” which is an insignificant amount compared to the $2 billion it is spending on the previous phase.
The Australian Department of Defence statement on the Dec. 13 signature of the PSFD agreement says that “Australia will not make an acquisition decision for the JSF until after Second Pass, scheduled for late 2008.”
The Jan. 22 statement by the Norwegian Ministry of Defence noted that “The signature entails that Norway will continue the participation in the JSF programme while maintaining competition between the three contenders [JSF, Eurofighter and Gripen-Ed.] to the potential new combat aircraft acquisition.”
Australia’s Brendan said purchasing the 24 Super Hornets was needed to fill the gap between the retirement of the Royal Australian Air Force’s F-111 strike aircraft in 2010 and the arrival of the first JSFs in 2014-2016.
But Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin's JSF executive vice president, says he was surprised by Australia’s decision to buy the 24 Super Hornets, and denied reports the JSF had fallen behind schedule and was suffering from cost “blowouts,” the Australian Associated Press reported March 21.
Despite Burbage’s denials, criticism of the JSF continues unabated in the United States precisely because of continued cost overruns and development delays.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), in its latest annual report on the program released March 15, noted that “total JSF program acquisition costs (through 2027) have increased by $31.6 billion, and now DOD will pay 12 percent more per aircraft than expected in 2004. The program has also experienced delays in several key events, including the start of the flight test program, delivery of the first production representative development aircraft, and testing of critical missions systems.”
According to the GAO, “DOD currently estimates it will spend $623 billion to develop, procure, and operate and support the JSF fleet,” and that it will require “unprecedented” funding of “more than $12.6 billion a year on average through 2027.”
This does not address the JSF’s development schedule, which the GAO finds so risky that it wants to Pentagon to “limit annual production quantities to no more than 24 aircraft per year until each variant’s basic flying qualities have been demonstrated in flight testing now scheduled in the 2010 time frame.”
Other recent developments regarding the JSF program include:
- In Congress the new Democratic majority is less inclined than its predecessor to allow the Administration to get away with funding shenanigans, as it demonstrated by deleting funds to buy two additional F-35s from the President’s supplementary 2007 request, which had creatively billed them as replacements for two F-16s lost in Iraq.
- The White House, long a firm supporter of the JSF, now wants to shift $389 million in JSF funds for FY08 to pay for urgently-needed equipment in Iraq, according to a letter to Congress by the Office of Management and Budget, made public by InsideDefense.com.
- On the budget front, the Pentagon has again deleted funds for the JSF’s alternative F136 engine, which had also been deleted from the FY07 budget request before being reinstated by Congress after strong lobbying by the U.K. Congress appropriators believe that having an alternate engine would provide operational advantages while ensuring Pratt & Whitney, maker of the main F135 engine, is not tempted to profit from its monopoly situation. The F136 engine is jointly developed by GE and the UK’s Rolls-Royce, and its continuation was considered by the British government as a pre-condition for its participation in the PFSD phase.
- Lord Paul Drayson, the newly-promoted British Minister of State for Defence Equipment and Support who had refused to sign the PSFD MoU unless the alternate engine was reinstated, on March 14 cancelled a two-day trip to the US that was to include a visit to Lockheed Martin’s JSF plant in Ft. Worth, Defense News reported March 15. The cancellation is ostensibly due to his need to prepare for a March 22 meeting with British Defence Secretary Des Browne, which sounds rather lame.
- Last year, Britain had also held out for guarantees it would have access to all of the JSF’s technology, including software source codes. An agreement in principle was announced by US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in May 2006, and on Dec. 12 Drayson said “I have today received the necessary assurances from the US on technology transfer to allow me to sign the MoU.” No details were provided, however, even though they were to have been made public before Britain signed the PSFD agreement.