PARIS --- It is not often that governments are afforded the luxury of looking into the future before they irrevocably commit to a course of action that will have momentous long-term consequences.
Yet, this is just what the debate about the future of Britain’s fleet of Apache attack helicopters provides, not just to its own government, but also to other European governments as they prepare to order, at great cost, the US-made F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Britain’s problem is that it operates the AH-64D Longbow version of Apache, while the US Army is upgrading to the AH-64E Block III version. This means that “essential technical support for the British Apache fleet will be withdrawn from 2017,” as the Daily Telegraph reported Dec. 5, leaving Britain with the choice of either upgrading all or part of its Apaches to the new version, or retiring them after 2017 as they drift into early obsolescence.
The report quotes Colonel Andrew Cash, commander of the British Army’s 16 Air Assault Brigade, as having summed up Britain’s options during a speech to the Royal Aeronautical Society thus: "Do nothing; do the minimum; technology insertion based on the current airframes; update to the US AH-64E standard, or to this standard but with UK-specific equipment; or an entirely new replacement attack helicopter.”
Left unsaid is that, whatever option Britain chooses, it will be faced with new expenditure not of its own volition, but simply as a consequence of the US upgrading to the AH-64E. And, if it decides to follow suit and also upgrade, Britain will have to pay whatever price the US Army and Boeing, who manufactures the Apache, see fit to charge. And this simply so it can continue operating a helicopter whose retirement it has not scheduled until 2040.
Whether they realize it or not when they buy a US-made weapon, that is how the system works: US forces only support the weapons they operate, so it’s either keep up or drop out, and in this case either scrap your weapons or see them fade away into technical and operational irrelevance.
The other side of the coin, obviously, is that buyers of US weapons are always assured of having access to the very latest versions, improvements and upgrades decided by the US military.
But these upgrades are not always needed by foreign buyers, and their cost is not always as affordable for them as it is for the Pentagon. This is why Col. Cash implies Britain’s 66-strong fleet of Apaches could be reduced to 50 or fewer, because that may be all the MoD can afford to upgrade.
Pay to play: a sign of things to come
This is exactly the choice that buyers of the F-35 will have to make all along the aircraft’s estimated 50-year operating life.
Each time the US military decides a modification or upgrade to its F-35s, foreign customers will have to follow suit, at whatever cost Lockheed and the Pentagon decide, or else see their aircraft become obsolete as US technical support shifts to the newer version.
In fact, the situation will be infinitely more serious in the case of the F-35, as export customers will not have access to the aircraft’s source codes, nor to its more advanced maintenance methods and equipment, because all but the most basic maintenance will be carried out by Lockheed Martin in its own facilities in the United States.
Foreign operators of the F-35 will have to pay to play. But it is probable that European governments do not fully understand this consequence of buying into a major US program.
European buyers of the F-16 in the 1970s – which now all intend to buy the F-35 - were not faced with a similar situation because they had assembled their F-16s in Europe; because software source codes were not an issue at the time; and because the United States had a vested interest in keeping allies’ fighters as effective as possible during the Cold War, when profits took a back seat. None of these circumstances exist today.
Furthermore, while the four European nations were able to upgrade their F-16s to Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) standard by themselves, in Europe, they will not even be allowed to fully maintain their F-35s. That is the degree to which national sovereignty will erode with the F-35.
Another point to consider is lifetime costs.
The Pentagon estimates that, over its entire 50-year service life, its fleet of 2,443 F-35s will cost about $1.51 trillion (as in $1,510 billion) to buy and operate. This works out, by simple division, to an average of $618 million for each and every aircraft it buys.
This figure, based on a “calculations made by the Cost Assessment Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, includes operating and maintenance costs of $1.11 trillion, including inflation, and development and procurement costs of $332 billion for the aircraft, plus $63.8 billion for the engine,” as Reuters reported in April. And this is assuming costs, which have already doubled in a decade, do not increase further.
By the same token, operating and maintenance costs work out to $454 million per aircraft ($1.11 trillion/2,443).
So, prospective European buyers, already shell-shocked by price tags of over $200 million for early production F-35s, would do well to reflect carefully on the likely cost of operating the aircraft over several decades.
The Dutch government, for example, stated in 2001 that operating and support (O&S) costs for its planned fleet of 85 F-35As would total €2.9 billion over 30 years. Yet, the latest report by the Algemene Rekenkamer, the state auditor, estimates that the Dutch F-35 fleet, now reduced to 68 aircraft, will cost €13.2 billion to operate and support for 30 years.
This figure works out to €194.1 million per aircraft, or about $254 million at today’s exchange rate. Although this is almost six times higher than the figure originally quoted in 2001, it still falls well short of the $454 million in O&S costs that the US estimates for its own F-35s.
And this is why buying into a US weapons program without fully measuring the consequences is a bit like stepping into quicksand: easy to do but difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.