March 12, 2009 (by Eric L. Palmer) - The people trying to sell the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter live in an alternate reality. It must be difficult selling a product without a full working example to show off. Yet that is where the people in this program are at right now.
F-35A - CTOL
The sellers have to try and generate interest in a product that only has two percent of its flight test discovery done. This will remain so until at least the end of 2009. How then are so many politicians willing to spend other peoples money when all the seller has to show off are computer simulations, a few airframes that have the appearance of a fighter aircraft that can perform an equal number of take-offs and landings and a lot of spin and sophistry?
Some politicians still believe the early gravy train selling point of the jet that it would bring their voters lots of jobs. How close is this promise to reality? Not very if the sales numbers don’t appear. This is difficult to do when you are pitching a product with no realistic price to quote.
Even if it has no other technical problems, (unknown this early in the program), the F-35 will have to be labeled with some kind of value. That is, a price. Lockheed Martin can not quote a stable price this early because of the vicious circle that includes having so much yet to appear in flight test discovery. Platitudes that state “retiring risk early” still need a mountain of real live flight testing to back them up.
It hasn’t been decided yet if Australia will agree to purchase the F-35. Yet there are plenty of people in Defence circles that are acting otherwise. Defence even has a webpage showing off the F-35 as the only possible solution for Australia. This is an outrageous claim of capability given that there isn’t any proof to back it up.
A product that will map out Australia’s defence policy called the Defence White Paper is due to be released soon. If the leaks in the news media are to believed, it should be a pretty open-ended piece of tripe that won’t chart out much because some of the crafters of the product are unqualified. When one of the leaks states that Australia needs twelve submarines, then you know it is a product of delusion. Australia has yet to prove it can manage its six and only two to three of those can be put to sea for lack of crew.
With all of this, Australia acquiring any new big defence toys is cart-before-the-horse. Unless the Defence bureaucracy is reformed, its notorious reputation for crashing program management of big dollar weapons projects in a most spectacular way will continue. Added to all this, Australia is facing an $8 billion dollar shortfall for future weapons procurement.
Finally, the economy will play big. Before the latest economic unpleasantness, Australia was doing well digging up stuff out of the ground and selling it to China. Government budget surplus has been the norm. That is now gone. With the government tossing billions blindly in the form of “stimulus” packages trying to plug up holes in the economic dyke, gold plated weapons systems will be a huge inconvenience.
There is one maker of fighter aircraft that can take advantage of all of this uncertainty. Boeing. With the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Boeing may be holding all the cards. They already have one order secured with Australia for 24 two-seat F models in the advanced “Block II” form. It is this aircraft that has the biggest chance to populate all of the RAAF fast moving fighter jet force. Politicians will easily swallow all of the sales talk that is fed to them on this product for the following reasons.
The Super Hornet has a known price. It has known performance. It is even more safe to fly than older Hornets in the RAAF fleet. It has two engine safety over water. Proven yet again just the other day when a U.S. Super Hornet went to an alternate base near San Diego minus one engine because of problems. The Super Hornet has excellent landing performance even with one engine off. The aircraft is overloaded with good safe handling and improved emergency back up appliances that better ward off battle damage and fire. The Super Hornet is a buddy-refuel tanker when needed. If one wants, it can carry the SHARP reconnaissance pod. The Block II Super Hornet has an advanced radar system that will be the equal of anything on the F-35. Super Hornet can take advantage of two aircrew attack. This is something that the most experienced user of the Super Hornet, the U.S. Navy, is deeply committed on with around half of their Supers being the two-seat variety. If there is an aircraft that speaks of low risk on the PowerPoint slides it is the Super Hornet.
So while everyone is gathered at Avalon’s Australian International Air Show this week, what was shown as the future of RAAF fighter inventory, the Super Hornet, flew a demo, just like previous years. There are some Defence officials that are trying to sell unproven and wildly expensive hope in the form of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the public. Until the F-35 is more mature, any hard sell effort today is nothing more than a charade that Australia can not afford.