Dutch parliament’s standing committee for defence was on a working visit to the United States to take a peek at the plant where the Joint Strike Fighter is being built. This aircraft may replace the Dutch military’s current fighter jets.
The production halls of Air Force Plant 4 in Fort Worth, Texas are immense. The assembly line is more than a mile long. Fighter jets have been built here for more than 60 years. General Dynamics (one of the forerunners of Lockheed Martin) built F-16s here for the Dutch air force. Even these days three new Fighting Falcons come off the assembly line each month, says Richard Royer.
In the meantime, production of the successor to the F-16 has already started. Throughout the hall its components can be seen, painted in a striking fluorescent green primer. Towards the end of the line it is almost complete: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). One JSF per month will be built this year already, and that number is to increase rapidly in the coming years.
Critics say that it is much too early. While the assembly line has already started up in the plant hall, the testing programme for the F-35 at the adjoining airport has only just begun. A risky strategy, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned last year. If it should emerge that the JSF does not meet the requirements, hundreds of aircraft may have already been built.
The programme is already struggling with many problems, the GAO pointed out. Drafts are not yet ready. The construction of test aircraft is lagging behind schedule. The costs of the programme have increased drastically. As a result the price of the JSF is rising steadily.
Lockheed executive vice-president Tom Burbage, general manager of the JSF programme, is familiar with the criticism. “We could have waited until the testing programme was entirely completed before starting production. That indeed would have been entirely without risk. But also much more expensive.’’
But it is doubtful whether this message has gotten through to the parliament’s standing committee for defence, which visited Fort Worth on Friday. Tom Burbage looks tired. “We have had to answer questions from your members of parliament since eight this morning.”
The visit to Fort Worth is the final leg of a working visit of just over a week entirely dedicated to the JSF. In Washington the members of parliament spoke with representatives from the Pentagon, but also with the GAO and with independent experts, some of whom are outspoken critics of the JSF programme.
Although the government will not make a final decision on the JSF until 2010, parliament does have to make a decision by the end of April on purchasing two test aircraft. One of the governing parties, the Labour party (PvdA), still has major reservations. And defence spokesperson Joël Voordewind of the orthodox Christian party (ChristenUnie) proposed last week that just one test aircraft be purchased this year. “Deciding now means that we would be writing a blank check,” Voordewind said in Washington.
Three weeks ago the parliamentary committee visited Lockheed Martin’s only remaining competitor: Swedish aircraft manufacturer Saab. During that visit the Swedes said that they could deliver 85 Gripen fighter jets for a guaranteed price of 4.8 billion euros, just over a billion less than the defence department’s allotted budget for the replacement of the F-16. The parliamentary committee subsequently asked deputy minister Jack de Vries to ask Lockheed Martin for a fixed price as well.
But it becomes clear in Fort Worth on Friday that the Americans cannot yet grant parliament’s request at the moment. Burbage says there are still too many uncertainties in the programme: “We ourselves don’t know what the exact price will be.” Burbage says it will not be until 2012 that Lockheed will agree with the Pentagon on a fixed price – and then only for the delivery of the series of JSFs that are ordered in that year.(Emphasis added—Ed.) Even the price of the two test aircraft on which the Netherlands must decide is not yet fixed.
Burbage draws a diagram on the whiteboard of the meeting room. The price of an aircraft goes through a so-called ‘learning curve,’ he explains. The first planes are expensive, but the price falls once the production line is up and running. Burbage says that the price curve of the JSF is going according to expectations. And although the margin of error in the prediction is now still quite large, uncertainty is quickly diminishing as more JSFs are built. “You don’t have a thing to worry about.”
But just like parliament, the Dutch defence ministry also wants more certainty about the price of the JSF. At the moment Lockheed Martin is working on a proposal for a consortium buy, whereby all the partners in the JSF project would have to place an order at once for a total of 335 aircraft – 38 of which on the part of the Netherlands. Burbage expects that it will be clear in April of next year whether everyone will participate.
CU member of parliament Voordewind is positively inclined towards the consortium buy. “For the final decision we will know what we are getting into.”