Photo: Lockheed Martin
The U.S. has just scored a small victory in its F-35 Lightning II program. And we’re going to break down what it means here because it may not be a total win after all.For context, the F-35 one of the most expensive and ambitious aircraft acquisition projects ever, and it’s been fraught with major delays and rising costs, so quiet developments can say quite a bit.
The news? Norway’s government has just authorised the purchase of — wait for it — two aircraft. They’ve gone for a couple F-35A variant fighters.
Norwegian defence minister Espen Barth Eide says the two planes ordered this week will be followed by another pair in 2016, plus 48 more from 2017 onwards. Buying into the F-35 program marks “the largest public procurement in Norwegian history,” he said. It’s been 30 years since Norway ordered new combat aircraft.
But Norway’s big announcement comes just a day after a harsh report about the F-35 from the U.S.’ own Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, is supposed to be the 5th generation allied fighter of the century. But, as critics have been pointing out, the program isn’t on track and the GAO is telling Congress the same thing. Among the findings:
- To date, only 4 per cent of the mission systems required for full capability have been verified.
- Full rate production is now planned for 2019, a delay of 6 years from the 2007 baseline.
- Unit costs per aircraft have doubled since start of development in 2001.
- Developing and integrating the more than 24 million lines of software code continues to be of concern. Development of critical mission systems providing core combat capabilities remains behind schedule and risky.
- Joint Strike Fighter restructuring continued throughout 2011 and into 2012, adding to cost and schedule. The new program baseline projects total acquisition costs of $395.7 billion, an increase of $117.2 billion (42 per cent) from the prior 2007 baseline.
- While the total number of aircraft DOD plans to buy has not changed, it has for 3 straight years reduced near-term production quantities, deferring aircraft and costs to future years. Since 2002, the total quantity through 2017 has been reduced by three-fourths, from 1,591 to 365.
- While flight testing is now about 21% complete, the most challenging tasks are still ahead.
We’ve started to wonder how the F-35 program is still attracting buyers. Norway’s recent order could shed some light:
“The decision to move forward was reached following an extended dialogue with the US Department of defence aimed at securing opportunities for Norwegian industry,” said the country’s ministry of defence.
That suggests the only way the U.S. can secure global partnerships is to make sure partner nations are getting a lot out of the program.
So what is Norway scoring?
The Pentagon has agreed to integrate a big Norwegian missile system into the F-35.
Norway has developed a Joint Strike Missile (JSM) which it hopes friendly foreign militaries will invest in. But Norway’s partner nations were reluctant to support the JSM unless it could be integrated into the aircraft that everyone supposedly wants to fly — the F-35.
So it looks like the Norwegian missile became the perfect bargaining chip. If the U.S. wanted to see Norway to put down money on the F-35, then the Pentagon had to support the JSM and integrate it into the strike fighter program.
Total market potential for the JSM is estimated to be between 3.3 and 4.2 billion USD, says Norway. Its ministry of defence must be whooping in victory.
“Confirmation of JSM integration support was provided in a letter from US Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta to Norwegian Minister of Defence Espen Barth Eide earlier this week.
“With such support finally in place there is now a significant potential for the missile among future operators of the F-35.”
It’s a telling example of you scratch our back, we scratch yours — but can the U.S. afford to do this for every time it makes an F-35 sale? Maybe it can.
But getting allies invested in the program by making foreign weapon integration deals could come at the cost of making the F-35’s future more unstable.
The GAO report does point out: “Most of the instability in the program has been and continues to be the result of highly concurrent development, testing, and production activities” — meaning there are just too many things happening at the same time.
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