For a stealth plane, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) certainly seems to cop a lot of flak.
It was the future weapon system that promised so much — enough for the United States and its allies to draw up wide-eyed plans for over 3,100 JSFs while the plane was still little more than an idea. The JSF was going to guarantee air superiority for the U.S. and its partners well into the middle of this century. But ever since rising costs, technical complexities, and missed deadlines have badly hurt the machine’s credibility, to the point where some critics advocate freighting the F-35 straight to the museum before it ever enters active service.
Of all the program’s setbacks, this month’s announcement that Canada was hitting the “reset” button on its procurement of 65 aircraft is probably the most serious. Ottawa, one of eight international partners working with the U.S. on the program, had been staunchly pro-JSF until an independent audit found that the fleet would cost $45.8bn over its 42-year life span — almost double initial government estimates. The reset doesn’t mean that Canada has dumped the F-35 entirely, but it would now look politically clumsy for the government to do another 180 degree turn and buy the jet after all. At any rate, Ottawa is examining cheaper alternatives.
Other partner nations are also wavering, but the biggest threat to the program could be in the U.S. itself, where up to $500 billion may need to be shed from the defense budget over the coming decade, in addition to cuts already agreed too. As the Pentagon’s most expensive program — currently pegged at $396bn for basic procurement and $1.45 trillion for total through-life costs — it is hard to see how the JSF could emerge unscathed, and for the U.S. to buy the 2,400 models the military desires, if huge savings from the defense budget must be found.
Despite all these uncertainties, a number of Asian customers and potential customers are still keenly tracking the JSF’s progress in the hope that it will eventually live up to its original promise. Australia and Japan have already ordered F-35s, though, like Canada, both have expressed misgivings about rising costs. South Korea is in the process of selecting a new fighter jet, with the F-35 one of three main contenders. Singapore is currently evaluating the aircraft. And India has been tapped by Washington as a future customer, in particular for the JSF’s naval variant.
Lockheed Martin, the JSF program’s main contractor, is naturally more interested in trumpeting the aircraft’s progress, rather than dwelling on its missteps. And the program is undeniably moving forward. “The F-35 is making very substantial progress in its test program,” explains Dave Scott, the director of F-35 International Customer Engagement at Lockheed. With 16 aircraft now undergoing flight tests, Lockheed has “a high degree of confidence that [the testing program] will complete in 2016,” Scott says. Production aircraft are now rolling out of the factory. The DoD and Lockheed reached an agreement in November — after testy and prolonged negotiations — on the cost of the latest batch of 32 aircraft. The U.S. Air Force is preparing to begin pilot training in January. And down the line, the Marine Corps is planning to deploy F-35s to Japan in 2017.
This forward momentum strongly suggests that the F-35 program will endure, not least because the U.S. has hundreds of ageing aircraft that it needs to retire and nothing else to replace them with. It would also be unthinkable for the U.S. to dump its stealth fighter as China and Russia forge ahead with their own. But is the original goal of building over 3,100 aircraft still realistic? “Absolutely, that target is achievable,” Scott insists.
If Lockheed is to have any hope of building that many F-35s, it needs to encourage partners in Asia and elsewhere to keep faith with the project. But cost is the Catch-22: Lockheed needs more buyers to drive down the price, but concern over cost is what’s keeping those would-be buyers at arm’s length.
Locating the actual cost of an F-35 is perhaps trickier than spotting one on radar. The latest batch may be costing the Pentagon over $200m per copy, according to some estimates, though once in full production the unit cost could fall to under $100m. The information on price in the public domain may be ambiguous, but Scott says that potential customers are fully briefed on costs and receive assurances that they will not pay more than the U.S. itself. Costs are steadily falling, he adds, expressing Lockheed’s continuing “confidence that this will be a very affordable airplane along the lines of an F-16 or an F-18”. He admits, however, that the unit cost will partly depend on the number of aircraft being built.
As the F-35’s principal cheerleader, Lockheed of course subscribes to the most optimistic of the program’s many possible fates. Not everyone follows suit. “In my opinion only the foolhardy or clairvoyant would risk saying anything definitive about a program like the F-35, as there are too many unknowns still to play out,” argues Simon Michell, the editor of RUSI Defense Systems at the Royal United Services Institute. But while cautioning against over-optimism, Michell agrees that, “if you are a nation that can afford it and is willing to wait, the F-35 is the best aircraft”. For Asian customers, “buying F-35 is also a political statement [as] it ties them closely to the U.S.,” he adds. “The looming presence of China is focusing minds on future strategic alliances.”
Japan ordered 42 F-35s back in December 2011. It remains contractually committed only to the first four aircraft, but it seems unlikely in the context of rising tensions with China that Tokyo would choose to back out, despite some alarm over the aircraft’s price tag. The Japanese are developing their own stealth aircraft, but its future is even less certain than the F-35’s. Lockheed’s Scott says that the company is on track to deliver Japan’s first four JSFs in 2016, adding that work is currently underway to set up an assembly line in Japan so that deliveries of the remaining 38 aircraft can begin in 2017.
Neighborhood rivalry means that South Korea is more likely to procure F-35s in light of the Japanese program. Seoul is currently evaluating three aircraft — the F-35, the Boeing F-15SE, and the Eurofighter Typhoon — with a view to ordering 60 of the winning design, probably in 2013 (Scott says that Lockheed is unaware of when a decision might come). With a potential need to engage targets in North Korea, Seoul arguably also has more of a need for the JSF’s stealthy strike capabilities than most, although the F-15, which South Korea already operates, would be a safe fallback option if Seoul feels that too many “ifs” and “buts” still surround the JSF program.
Australia is the Asia-Pacific market where the JSF program could be in the most trouble. Having originally outlined plans to procure 100 JSFs, Canberra has only placed a firm order for two planes so far, and a serious internal debate is underway ahead of the publication of a new defense White Paper as to whether Australia should emulate Canada’s decision. An ongoing round of defense spending cuts certainly makes the JSF vulnerable. “There are two major areas where the government can cut defense funding,” explains James Brown, a military fellow at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. “The JSF and submarines are the obvious targets.” While the Australian military continues to make its case for the F-35, “the arguments for saying that we need 100 are looking a bit spurious,” Brown reasons.
With funding in short supply, “the most likely option now is a small additional order of [Boeing F/A-18] Super Hornets,” Brown continues. A reduced F-35 procurement could then follow later in the decade, allowing Australia to save money in the medium term and remain on the sidelines while the JSF program matures.
Singapore, another potential buyer, could be arriving at a similar conclusion, with little news on JSF procurement emerging from the Ministry of Defense. “The key from Singapore’s point of view is the need to maintain a technological edge over its adversaries, and that’s what makes the F-35 attractive,” explains Tim Huxley, executive director of the Singapore-based International Institute for Strategic Studies – Asia. “Having said that, the decision from Canada and perhaps also Australia [to back out] suggests that MINDEF will be looking at this very closely indeed,” Huxley continues. “Rumors of 100 F-35 certainly seem to be unrealistic. They will buy, but they’ll be looking at a smallish buy, perhaps 20 aircraft.” As with the Australian option of acquiring more F/A-18s as a stopgap measure, Singapore could add to its F-15 fleet in the medium term, and buy itself more time to evaluate the JSF program as it gathers pace. “There’s no reason for Singapore to rush into a decision,” Huxley adds.
Lockheed Martin’s Scott also acknowledges some potential partners may want to soft-pedal. “In all my conversations [with potential customers] there’s a growing recognition that the F-35 is the plane that will provide security and stability,” he says. “The question now is, when is the right time to buy?”
India, the other likely Asian buyer, also has the luxury of time. New Delhi is still in the process of procuring the Dassault Rafale, and will only then begin to think about what might come next. That being said, there is already speculation that India is reducing its participation in Russia’s stealth fighter program with a view to instead joining the F-35 camp later in the decade.
For all Lockheed’s boundless optimism that it can still break the 3,000 aircraft threshold, there is a real risk that if too many partners reduce the size of their orders and defer their procurements, the JSF program will never reach that critical mass — the point where the unit cost becomes truly affordable. The window of opportunity in which the F-35 can succeed would then be narrow indeed.
Procuring the most advanced 4th generation aircraft, armed with the latest weaponry, could be a viable near-term alternative for many countries, argues RUSI’s Michell, while stealthy unmanned platforms may be capable of fulfilling most or all of the F-35’s anticipated roles sometime in the 2020s. “Their time is coming,” Michell believes, though even then he expects a mix of manned and unmanned platforms to be retained by most air forces.
The attractiveness of the unmanned option will also be a cultural issue for the country in question. “Stealthy UCAVs are at least a decade away, but given the timescale for inducting the F-35s it would make sense to look at substituting UCAVs for the later phases of the F-35 program,” says Huxley. “Singapore has a particular affinity with unmanned platforms of all types, and they will be acutely aware of that option.” Australia, on the other hand, is more likely to see the manned F-35 as the long-term answer to its future air power needs. The Lowy’s Brown points out, “Our approach to air combat is very conservative; our air force is opposed to the widespread use of unmanned technology. And there’s now enough momentum in the F-35 program to give you the sense that it will get through to its conclusion.”
There is little doubt that as Western partners scale back their ambitions for the F-35, the U.S. is looking to new Asian partners to pick up the slack. With their participation, the F-35 program can still succeed. However, the program cannot afford any more stumbles if it hopes to convince Asian buyers that the F-35 is worth the money — and the risk — before newer, and perhaps cheaper, technologies take its place in the skies.