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Decisions loom for Joint Strike Fighter Program

January 21, 2009 (by Donna Miles) - Decisions about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F-22 Raptor aircraft programs are expected early in President Barack Obama's administration.

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, marked AA-1, lands at an Edwards runway on October 23rd, 2008.

The F-35 program manager said Jan. 15 he sees strong support for the F-35 from the services, allied partners and, so far, on Capitol Hill.

Based on initial indications and inquiries from President Obama's administration, Maj. Gen. Charles R. Davis said he's confident the F-35 program begun during the Clinton administration will continue, even if budget restraints force scale-backs. General Davis made the comments here as keynote speaker at a Brookings Institution forum, "The Joint Strike Fighter and Beyond."

"Support throughout what appears to be three administrations has been relatively consistent," he said. "As of yet, we see no reason that that support is going to change. There is nobody on Capitol Hill who has said they want to cancel the Joint Strike Fighter."

That doesn't mean, he acknowledged, that the program to develop the next-generation strike aircraft weapon system for the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and allied countries might not get scaled back.

General Davis conceded he gets many questions about the F-35's cost -- expected to be $80 million to $90 million, depending on the variant -- and delivery schedule. And if fewer aircraft are built, each will cost even more.

"We lose two airplanes in our [fiscal 2009] appropriation, and every other one of the airplanes being bought in that year goes up $3 million," he said.

Another consideration, he said, is the cost of maintaining the aging legacy fleets the F-35 would replace if production is cut.

Earlier yesterday, William Lynn, President Obama's deputy defense secretary nominee, told the Senate Armed Services Committee it would be "very difficult" for the Defense Department to keep all its weapons systems development programs on track in tight budget times.

Mr. Lynn said at his confirmation hearing he'll push for a speedy Quadrennial Defense Review to set priorities through fiscal 2015, and expects the tactical aviation force modernization issue to play heavily in those considerations.

In written responses submitted to the committee, Mr. Lynn recognized the capabilities of both the F-22 and F-35 aircraft -- particularly when considered together.

"The F-22 is the most advanced tactical fighter in the world and, when combined with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will provide the nation with the most capable mix of fifth-generation aircraft available for the foreseeable future," he said.

The F-22, to replace the legacy F-15 fleet, brings "tremendous capability" and is a critical element of the department's overall tactical aircraft force structure, Mr. Lynn said. The F-35, on the other hand, "will provide the foundation for the department's tactical air force structure."

The F-35 is the first aircraft to be developed within the Defense Department to meet the needs of three services, with three variants being developed simultaneously.

It will replace the legacy F-16 aircraft for the Air Force and the F/A-18 and AV-8 aircraft for the Navy and Marine Corps, as well as numerous legacy aircraft for the international partners participating in the F-35 program, Mr. Lynn told the Senate committee.

So the big question, he said, is determining the appropriate mix between the two aircraft. "If confirmed, I would expect this to be a key issue for the early strategy and program-budget reviews that the department will conduct over the next few months," he said.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has made no secret of his interest in reaching a decision and moving forward. During a June visit to Langley Air Force Base, Va., he told Airmen at Air Combat Command the new administration will have to determine the proper balance between the two aircraft.

"End the debate, make a decision and move on," Secretary Gates said. "'Start getting stuff built' is just so important.'"

Secretary Gates told the Airmen he had allocated enough money to keep the F-22 production lines open so the next administration could make its decision. He did not know at the time that he would be part of that decision-making process.

General Davis told the Brooking Institution audience Jan. 15, "support from all three services has never been stronger" for the F-35 program.

The Marine Corps, slated to receive the "B" variant that has a vertical-lift capability, has been "the most vocal, avid and fervent customer," General Davis said. The Marine Corps leadership expects the F-35 to become "the most effective air platform they have ever had," he said. "Looking at their history of how they have used airplanes, that is quite a bold statement."

Similarly, the Navy, to receive the aircraft's "C" variant designed for carrier launches, "has never been more supportive of the program," General Davis said. He noted that the Navy has been "fighting aggressively" to keep its aircraft carriers fully outfitted.

In addition, the Air Force recognizes the need for a complementary mix of aircraft to meet its mission requirements, he said. Its "A" variant of the F-35 will provide conventional take-off and landing capabilities.

Meanwhile, nine partner nations continue to support the program, with other countries considering signing on, too, General Davis said. The F-35 program represents the first time in military procurement history that the United States has partnered with another nation to build an aircraft from the ground up.

"We believe that the coalition that was put in place when they signed up for this program is probably stronger than ever now," General Davis said.

This partnership, he said, brings the concept of coalition integration to a whole new level. In addition to funding and developing the F-35 together, the partners plan to use a single system to sustain it -- sharing spares and repair capabilities to reduce costs.

"There is something very unique that Joint Strike Fighter offers that other programs I have seen do not," he said.

The big challenge for now, General Davis said, is to take advantage of the latest manufacturing processes to get the production line moving ahead.

"Even the manufacturing lines for some of our newest fighters, the F-22, started in the late '80s and early '90s," he said. "We have progressed almost two decades in manufacturing technology, but we have never really tried it out on a full-scale program."

Courtesy of American Forces Press Service via Air Force Link.