Paris Air Show

Paris 2011: F-35 Will Be Affordable, Says USAF Program Officer

 - June 22, 2011, 1:30 AM

The deputy program officer of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program office said Tuesday that predictions over escalating costs of the next-generation multi-role fighter will be proven wrong because of built-in reliability and maintainability aspects. With the program facing renewed scrutiny by the U.S. Congress and Department of Defense (DOD), Air Force Maj. Gen. C.D. Moore described long-term cost projections as uncertain, and said the program is making progress in its tenth year of development.

Moore was followed on stage during a Paris Air Show press briefing by a representative of the defense ministry of Norway, the latest partner nation to order F-35s, who said the ministry “expects the (F-35) price will be close to the price we anticipated and forwarded to Parliament.”

Rear Adm. Arne Roksund, head of the department for defense policy and long-term planning, linked further procurement of F-35s by Norway to support of that nation’s Joint Strike Missile (JSM) development.

Looking to stem cost and schedule overruns, the U.S. DOD earlier this year restructured the F-35 production timeline, adding 13 months and $4.6 billion to the development phase. Yet another restructuring is planned this year, reportedly this fall, after the Pentagon projected a near doubling of the F-35 unit cost to $133 million, a cost trajectory called “unacceptable” by Ashton Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition.

And most recently on Friday last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved language in the fiscal 2012 Defense Authorization Bill requiring that low-rate initial production (LRIP) Lot 5 aircraft funded in FY2011 be procured by fixed-price contract, and that the contractor, Lockheed Martin, “absorb 100 percent of costs above the target cost.”

Asked if the F-35 is affordable over the long term, given the assessment by DOD acquisition executives and another analyses, Moore said, “There’s a lot of uncertainty in what goes into those levels of predictions. We’ve been challenged by our leadership to understand what we call the ‘ground rules and assumptions’ and the estimating process, and to aggressively go after those areas that we know we can affect, so that what was called an unaffordable cost estimate is not a reality.

“When we look at repair estimates that run out for 50 years, manpower estimates for 50 years, we have to, in working closely with the contractor, ensure that this weapons system is reliable, and it’s maintainable,” Moore added. “The predictions that are put in place now could be changed based on the reality of what we demonstrate.”

No More Surprises

The Norwegian parliament on June 16 authorized the acquisition of four F-35s for training purposes, with delivery in 2016. Roksund said the restructuring of the F-35 program under U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this year convinced the Norwegian defense ministry the program has stabilized, although he expressed hope of “no more surprises in the coming years.”

But Roksund also linked further F-35 procurement–the defense ministry has expressed a requirement for 56 aircraft–selection of the precision-guided, high subsonic JSM, under development by Kongsberg of Norway, as well as to next-generation “armor-piercing explosive” ammunition, another development funded by the ministry.

The JSM is designed to fit into the internal weapons bay of the F-35A and C versions, and can also be carried on external stations. The missile passed preliminary design review last year and further development has begun since the parliamentary decision last week, Roksund said. The aim is to pass a critical design review in mid-2013.

 “The Norwegian political objective to achieve an industrial return of value equal to the purchase” of F-35s, Roksund said. “The size and complexity of the process to complete development and integration of the weapon on the F-35 is a major undertaking for a small nation. Active support from relevant F-35 partner nations in this matter is therefore vital.”

Moore said the F-35 program is conducting a technical evaluation of missile candidates and “JSM will be one of those candidates.”

Eight Partner Countries

The F-35 is the Pentagon’s largest international cooperative program. Eight partner countries are collectively contributing $4.9 billion to the system design and development phase (SDD). They have projected a total buy of 705 aircraft as follows: Australia 100, Canada 65, Denmark 30, Italy 131, the Netherlands 85, Norway 56, Turkey 100 and the UK 138. Those totals likely won’t survive defense budget pressures, especially in the UK.

Only Denmark has yet to confirm its choice of the F-35. It will decide next year, after holding a competition in which the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is the main challenger. In Australia, the Netherlands, Norway and especially Canada, there has been political controversy over the choice of the F-35, especially while the final acquisition cost is still uncertain.

In theory, the international partners will pay the same price for their aircraft as negotiated by the U.S. services for each lot, whether it is in low-rate initial production or in the subsequently planned multi-year procurement. In previously published schedules, the partners were due to buy 223 LRIP aircraft costing an expensive $24.1 billion, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. However, Lockheed Martin admits that plan is now defunct.

To date, the partners have ordered just nine production aircraft: four for Norway in LRIP 8 (Fiscal 2014); two for the UK and one for the Netherlands in LRIP Lot 3, and one more for each country in LRIP 4.

Australia and Turkey are expected to be the next to commit, taking two and four aircraft, respectively, from LRIP 6 in fiscal 2012. Turkey plans to take seven aircraft in LRIP 7 (Fiscal 2013) with a further seven for the UK and five for Italy in this lot. Italy last year committed to a final assembly and checkout facility at Cemeri airbase. That facility may also assemble F-35s for the Netherlands.

Israel could eventually take 75 F-35s, and negotiations continue with Singapore, the other second-level F-35 partner country.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin expects the U.S. government to respond to a request for proposals from Japan in September, and for that country to take a decision on the F-35 versus competing fighters as early as December. South Korea could follow in 2012. Spain has given Lockheed Martin a contract to explore how the F-35B might be integrated with its small aircraft carriers, as an AV-8B replacement.