|JSF Office Makes Buyers an Offer They Cannot Refuse
Aug 1, 2008
Within a year, Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter team expects to make firm offers to its eight partner nations: the U.K., Italy, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Turkey. In exchange for a commitment by all eight to aircraft numbers and delivery dates, they will get a firm price, several years before that would normally be possible under U.S. procurement rules.
Commonality has diminished during the development of JSF. The F-35C has a takeoff weight of 70,000 lb.—almost as heavy as an F-14D—and a 668-sq.-ft. wing.Credit: LOCKHEED MARTIN CONCEPT
The move is necessary because competitors are offering fixed prices, and because some partners need many of their aircraft from early production batches, which normally carry a high price.
Those commitments will be backed up by sanctions. “Partners who do not buy according to the program of record will cover the costs incurred by other partners,” says the Program Office director, Maj. Gen. Charles Davis.
Davis says the final price is the subject of intense discussions within the team, but numbers in the $58-63-million realm—flyaway prices in current dollars—have been mentioned. Given that total acquisition unit costs in export sales tend to be about twice the flyaway cost, this places the JSF unit cost close to that of Typhoon.
The partners should be clear about what they are getting for the money. At the inception of the JSF program, in 1995, then-project director George Muellner described the aircraft as “70% air-to-ground, 30% air-to-air.”
The F-35 is not optimized for air-to-air combat. JSF is neither fast nor agile enough to choose whether to shoot or scoot against an adversary like the Su-30. It either carries a maximum of four AIM-120 missiles—the capability is little publicized, although Davis confirms that it will be part of the systems development and demonstration program—or operates with compromised stealth. (A reduced-signature pylon for the outboard wing stations, designed to carry AIM-9X or Asraam missiles, is being developed.) Success in air combat depends on stealth, but although the F-35 should detect targets at long range before being detected, it will have to close to shorter distances to achieve an acceptable kill probability with the AIM-120C7, particularly against an agile target using jamming and decoys. The U.S. acknowledged this by developing the AIM-120D, designed to be compatible with new active electronically scanned array radars, but it will not be available for export in the foreseeable future.
Moreover, there is no longer any serious doubt that not all F-35s will be equal in stealth. Asked earlier this year to confirm that all would have the same signatures, George Standridge, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for business development, responded: “That is a matter for the U.S. government. I cannot and will not answer that question.”
The partner countries so far show signs of being able to live with the aircraft’s performance and the stealth capabilities they have been offered. The main exceptions are the U.K. and Italy, which will use the Typhoon as their primary air-to-air fighter.
Another major advantage of the JSF is the potential for spreading through-life upgrade and support costs over a large fleet of aircraft. This depends, however, on keeping numbers at their planned level, including 730 aircraft for partner nations, which means overcoming three obstacles.
The first is direct competition. Norway and Denmark are evaluating the JSF against other aircraft, mainly Saab’s Gripen Next Generation (NG). In May, the Netherlands government, under pressure from its Labor coalition partner, agreed to carry out a final assessment of other aircraft, including Gripen NG, Typhoon and Rafale, before making a commitment. Canada also intends to conduct a competition.
The second is budget concerns in the U.K. and Italy, where JSF procurement will be weighed against the final batch of Typhoon fighters unless money can be found for both types.
Doors, serrated and edge-treated to maintain stealth, open so the F-35B’s powered lift system can operate.Credit: LOCKHEED MARTIN
Third, U.S. numbers are shaky. Senior Air Force officers have stated that the service can afford only 48 JSFs per year rather than the 80 that the current program envisions, unless it gets more topline funding in the defense budget. The Navy and Marine Corps told the Government Accountability Office that they expect to buy 35 JSFs per year, versus 50 in the current plan. Davis says the JSF office “is waiting for the POM (program objective memorandum) process to see those numbers get adjusted.”
Technical risk is another factor. Later this year, the project office is expected to confirm a slip of 9-12 months in the completion of operational testing, with a consequent increase in development costs.
Davis minimizes its i