Photo: Lockheed Martin
Via one of the Pentagon’s official Twitter feeds, this week marks a “milestone” in the development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with its first international delivery.Officially announced via a joint briefing by defence Secretary Leon Panetta and his British counterpart Philip Hammond, the short takeoff F-35C variant is ready to be delivered to the first country to join in the development partnership with the U.S.
The British government had at one point sought to purchase the F-35B carrier variant JSFs, though the plan was scrapped once the cash-strapped nation saw the costs of outfitting its Queen Elizabeth class carriers balloon upwards.
The F-35 program, envisioned as a cheaper single engined alternative to the too-hot-for-export F-22, has been marked by cost overruns (though, really, what Pentagon program hasn’t been), which have caused headaches for would-be foreign buyers that seek to justify not only per unit purchase price, but also the operational costs of maintaining the aircraft.
The Joint Strike Fighter currently counts on partnerships with eight nations, including the UK, Canada, Turkey and Denmark–a framework that ostensibly offers offset development costs for the aircraft, along with potential purchases.
The Netherlands, which has already ordered two test planes, is currently mulling whether to scrap plans to purchase the F-35 altogether in light of new austerity measures, with a proposal by its leading party (Labour) likely to be submitted prior to September elections to end the country’s JSF participation.
Japan, which had originally wanted to purchase the twin engined F-22, is slated to procure an initial delivery of four F-35s, though the deal had to be massaged by the U.S. as the aircraft’s price tag rose to $120 million from the initial $110 million.
As the scale of the project has shifted due to postponed production in the U.S., this has in turn impacted per unit price. Still, despite these hurdles the program has seen success, such as Israel’s planned purchase of 20 F-35 fighters for its air force, a deal valued at $2.7 billion. In addition, Norway has finalised its first “firm” order for two of the aircraft, and plans to eventually order 50 – the $10 billion deal would mark that country’s largest ever public purchase.
These deals help, though as Battleland’s Winslow Wheeler recently pointed out in his own excellent piece, the GAO’s recent oversight report on the aircraft seems to suffer from a startling amount of creative optimism. Despite the aircraft’s ever fluctuating price tag, the F-35 remains the only fifth-generation stealth game in town, and the U.S. has thus far managed to keep the program moving forward, albeit at a slower pace than it first imagined. The future of the program now seems to hinge on maintaining the current production outlook stable, thus preventing future unit price increases as international buyers seek to replace their ageing aircraft fleets.
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