International Partners Come and Go
Canada, which has had a checkered relationship with the F-35 program, looked towards Holland, who were ahead of them in the process. This clip from the August 29, 2017 issue of the Ottowa Citizen gives an insight into the incentives the F-35 program offers its partners.
Every F-35 contains components manufactured by Dutch companies, Lockheed Martin has noted. On Aug. 16, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the overseas warehouse and distribution centre for parts for F-35s in Europe would be located in the Netherlands.
Luyt said one of the other main attractions of the F-35 is that it will be constantly upgraded. “It will be state of the art for decades,” he added.
“Constantly upgraded…” does that mean they’ll constantly be tinkering with it in an effort to get it right? That’s the situation currently.
“Partners” in the F-35 program may not realize they’re being lured into a dense web woven of money (The UK paid $2.4 billion to become a Level 1 partner.) Newer clients choose between Level 2 and Level 3. The Level 2 partners are Italy and the Netherlands, and Level 3 includes Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Turkey. Payments are incremental as the program advances. Long before delivery time the client country has spent so much money already that it’s not practical for them to back out of the deal. The nine major partner nations, including the U.S., plan to acquire over 3,100 F-35s through 2035, which, if delivered will make the F-35 one of the most numerous jet fighters. “If delivered,” indeed. This is what the Spanish call “la cuenta de la lechera,” “the tale of the milkmaid.” She is so concentrated on all the money she is going to make selling her milk in the marketplace that she drops her buckets and spills the milk.
One is tempted to ask, considering all the F-35’s bad press in most of the world’s media (search “F-35” on YouTube and Google and you’ll find the whole gamut of cheerleaders and detractors) why would any country’s military procurement experts opt for the overbloated, overpriced, can’t-turn-can’t-climb-can’t-run F-35? This is a major mystery and the answer is buried somewhere in “The Program.” Some countries like the boost that parts manufacture would give to their industry. Others, like the UK, want to stay on the good side of the Americans. That said, there is a discussion afoot in the Parliament regarding buying F-35C (with longer range and more space for ordnance) instead of the F-35B, but buying fewer planes. Others, not being aircraft experts, may be inclined to believe the hype. But there’s got to be more to it. A cynic might suggest a dabbling in the black arts of arm twisting. A lively F-35 controversy flowered in Canada and they actually took the decision to annul the contract. Then in May of 2018 they paid $54 million to return to The Program. The headline on globalnews.ca at the time said,
Canada adds another $54M to F-35 fighter jet project, bringing cost to $500M over 2 decades
What happened to turn the Canadians around? We will never know.
Twenty Years of Bumps and Cost Overruns
In the decade following 2003, the F-35 program faced more than a dozen major glitches. In 2004, the F-35B was more than 2,000 pounds overweight, unable to meet its performance goals. In 2006, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that, as a result of the policy of concurrent development, retrofitting aircraft with systems that were not fully functional could be expensive. By 2013, the cost of retrofitting was put at $1.7 billion.
Starting in 2007, suspected Chinese cyber intrusions resulted in the theft of several terabytes of data related to the F-35’s design and electronics systems. This attack and another 2012 hack of BAE Systems (which makes the F-35’s flight control software, electronic warfare systems, aft fuselage, as well as its horizontal and vertical tails) forced hardware and software redesigns, adding more cost and delays. From a troublesome helmet-mounted cueing system to inadequate ejection seats and logistics software, the F-35 has continued to face challenges.
The situation got so bad that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates removed JSF program manager Maj. Gen. David Heinz (USMC) in 2010, delaying development even more. Problems assembling the F-35’s four-piece wing and structural fatigue in one of the bulkheads supporting the wing on the F-35B, combined with a strike at Lockheed Martin, led to reduced initial production buys. The cascade of woes nearly resulted in the cancellation of the F-35B in 2010-11. To avoid further delays resulting from design changes, in 2012 the Pentagon accepted a reduced combat radius for the F-35A and a longer takeoff run for the F-35B. The F-35B’s estimated combat radius was reduced by 15 percent. F-35Bs had to refuel 15 times on the recent transatlantic flight. (We can only imagine the cost of 15 refuelings over the Atlantic.)
A RAND study the same year found the three F-35 variants had drifted so far apart during development that having a single base design may prove to be more expensive than if services had just built separate aircraft tailored to their own requirements from the outset.
“Price Tag Is the Only Thing Stealthy about the F-35”
In a March 2017 article in Business Insider, Alex Lockie reports that, “Cost estimates for the F-35 have changed yearly over the past 15 years. It’s safe to say, though, that the program is the most expensive in U.S. history, pegged at more than $320 billion in 2012. In 2014, the GAO found that the F-35 fleet would have operating costs 79 percent higher than the aircraft it was to replace.”
A 2015 Pentagon Selected Acquisition Report said that program costs had increased 43 percent from 2001, including unit cost (up 68 percent). The best guess at the current unit price is in the neighborhood of $120 million. But the price will depend upon the number of aircraft sold. The report added that the F-35A’s cost per flying hour is $32,500 while the F-16C/D is $25,500. Private analysts have called the F-35 a “money pit,” and argued that the purpose of Lockheed’s extensive national and global supplier base—which includes 1,300 suppliers in the United States and abroad—was not so much to realize logistics efficiency and security, but to make sure the Joint Strike Fighter was too big to fail.
The Fighter Plane that Came Out of a Pork Barrel
It’s not clear whether the Defense Department’s marketing geniuses went to Congress or Congress got wind of the project and contacted the Pentagon. In any case, it was decided to contract the manufacturing process among companies in 45 states and nine foreign countries. What possible competitive advantage would this extravagant strategy contribute? The answer is simple, if hard to believe. This way almost all the members of the U.S. House of Representatives could boast of having created jobs and prosperity in their respective districts, thus contributing to their re-election possibilities. This clumsy and devious process has a long tradition in United States politics. It’s called the “pork barrel,” by which funds for projects are “earmarked” for specific Congressional districts. It’s great for the careers of incumbent Congress members but less so for everyone else. In the case of the F-35 the pork-barrel approach made the project infinitely more complicated and expensive. Many of the ill-fitting components of the aircraft from far-flung parts of the country and farther afield had to be redone and refitted, with the concomitant cost and schedule overruns.
Update on F-35 progress, February. 2021.