PARIS --- For the first time in the F-35 program’s troubled 14-year history, media were invited by the Norwegian Ministry of Defence to cover the year’s second meeting of the JSF steering board, which took place in Oslo on Sept. 25.
In itself, this is a commendable first step towards making the program more transparent and more accountable, and contrasts starkly with the program’s habit of shirking from the media, hiding any bad news, and then pretending it was “just routine stuff, nothing to worry about” when, inevitably, it eventually leaks out.
The F-35’s program’s culture of secrecy and obfuscation was recently illustrated when, on the eve of the Labor Day weekend, Bloomberg News broke the news that Pratt & Whitney had suspended deliveries of its F-135 engines – the F-35’s power-plant – since May because of quality control issues over titanium components. Read our report here.
Although this happened barely two months after an engine fire destroyed an F-35B as it was preparing to take off, leading to a fleet-wide grounding, neither P&W nor any other program participant made the suspension public, thus making it clear that a cover-up had been decided.
Nordic Transparency Welcome But Not Enough
This is why the decision to allow the media to cover the board meeting is to be welcomed as an important step towards restoring the F-35 program’s much-dented credibility.
In this respect, it is surprising that the JSF board, the Joint Program Office and officials from partner nations still have not realized that secrecy and cover-ups are a sure-fire way to attract media attention. Stealth, they should understand, is desirable in the F-35 aircraft, not in the program’s dealings with the media and the public.
This is why Norway’s promise to make “key attendees…available for comments and interviews” was attractive, as these key attendees make a welcome change from program and industry spokesmen.
The Norwegian F-35 Program Office also did, as promised, “publish updates, information and pictures on its website, blog and on social media both prior to, during and after the JESB.” Again, this was the first time such information has been provided from a JESB meeting.
Conversely, true transparency – but not “spin” camouflaging as such - is the best way to disarm media curiosity, by showing that there is really nothing to hide. But this obviously would require accountability and responsibility, two virtues that are sorely lacking in Western defense procurement bureaucracies.
However, media access is only the first step. True transparency also requires providing quality briefings, as well as satisfactory responses to media questions, and judging by the content of the briefings that was made available on the Internet, there is still a way to go.
This is not all the program’s fault, however.
As far as can be judged from the videos, many media representatives in attendance were not program specialists, and thus probably did not have enough detailed knowledge to question briefers and board members on the latest problems, such as the June fleet grounding, the engine delivery suspension, and the latest GAO report questioning the program’s affordability, among others.
Retrospectively, it was no doubt a mistake for many media specialists not to have attended the event, even though the logistics of traveling to Oslo would have turned a one-day event into a 3-day absence from the office.
JESB Press Center on September 25th (Source: Norway MoD)
Known as the "JSF Executive Steering Board" (JESB) the summit represents the highest decision-making body within the F-35 Program. The JESB is held twice a year, and as Norway currently serves as the co-chair in the program with the United States, the 2014 fall session is held in Oslo.
In the JESB press centre pre-registered media was able to conduct interviews, background conversations and receive briefings on the program, on the development of the aircraft and on themes and topics that are being discussed at the JESB.
In addition, images and video from the JESB session itself were to be made available. (NOTE: media will not be given access to the session chambers during the meeting).
Following the conclusion of the JESB, key attendees were also to be made available for comments and interviews. The Norwegian F-35 Program Office will also be publishing regular updates, information and pictures on its website, blog and on social media both prior to, during and after the JESB.
About the JSF Executive Steering Board (JESB)
The role of the JESB is to serve as a board of directors for the program that follows up on its progress and determines its future development. The Program Executive Officer (PEO), Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, as well as various subgroups and advisory boards within the program prepare and propose several reports and proposals for presentation and deliberation at the JESB.
Based on the decisions and input from the JESB the PEO and the Joint Program Office (JPO) manage the daily operations of the program, as well as the development and production of the F-35 on behalf of the partner nations.
Click here for video of six Sept 25 media briefings in Oslo, on the Livestream website.