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Risk still remains for Australia and the F-35

October 24, 2009 (by Eric L. Palmer) - The Australian federal cabinet’s national security committee is set to apporve the F-35 acquisition in late November of this year.

F-35A - CTOL [via]

The present plan is for the RAAF to get its first operational squadron by 2018 with two test F-35s to be handed over a few years earlier.

The Defence Material Minister Greg Combet is certain that the F-35 represents the best choice for the nations next generation combat capability. In his recent tour of the Fort Worth, Texas production facility Combet stated, “On all relevant issues—that is, the capability of the JSF, its cost and schedule for delivery, and Australian industry participation—I came away with greater confidence.”

He also stated some blue sky marketing to go along with whatever briefing U.S. defence and industry officials fed him. He stated that, “The U.S. is looking to purchase almost 3000 aircraft and it is the largest defence acquisition the Pentagon has undertaken.” His additional statements with this give the impression that since U.S. officials that see nothing but good things about the F-35 program told him so, that it must be. This shows a lack of critical thinking on his part. Why?

While the plan is for Australia to purchase up to 100 F-35s for four operational squadrons, there are some other issues to consider with this. The plan was always supposed have these purchases done in batches. Of interest though is a statement reported in The Australian, that the initial squadron of F-35s could be cut from 24 to as few as 14 aircraft. Why?

Given all that, Australia still has no idea what the F-35 program will cost the taxpayer. It is just too early in the F-35 program to know. The popular number in the press is always mentioned as up to $16 billion dollars for the total acquisition. However, if no one knows what an F-35 will cost, how many aircraft will Australia get for their money?

Just as interesting is that while Mr. Combet was wearing his rose coloured glasses on his tour through Cowtown, there are still other serious questions to be addressed about the F-35 program.

Flight testing is still behind. For the U.S. fiscal year 2009, the plan was for 317 test flights. Only a few dozen were performed. FY 2010 has 1243 scheduled; plus the make up work from 2009. FY 2011 has 1425 test fights scheduled. FY 2012 has 1289 scheduled. While defense programs do get behind, the F-35 program officials are now infamous for publishing schedules that don’t deliver much in the area of milestones.

The U.S. Marine Corps is supposed to have initial operating capability by the year 2012. The program still thinks this schedule is reachable. Additional problems working against this besides the test flight schedule is the fact that several test airframes have not had their first flight. The overlap between the people that do flight testing to make sure the basic airframe works and those that do operational warfighter testing is going to expand. What kind of flight envelope will an operational test pilot be able to perform and write up as a set of combat tactics if the basic flight perfromance of the aircraft isn’t any where near being shaken out?

More things that Mr. Combet and others in Australian Defence ignore or don’t want to hear is that the recent news out of Washington is that a report by the Joint Estimates Committee confirms an earlier one that they did on the health of the F-35 program. That is, that cost control is not good and that a possible 2 year delay and cost blowouts of up to $17B are at risk of happening.

The F-35 program officials disagree with this and believe they have a handle on any delays. Recently BF-1, the first production representative F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant for the U.S. Marine Corps. was back in the air preparing for a move to Patuxent River Naval Air Station to begin its “build down” tests to prove vertical landing and associated STOVL flight performance. This particular event has slipped several times.

When Australian Defence officials can be a little bit more honest about what may be the biggest defence purchase for the Australian taxpayer, then true defence procurement reform is possible. Until then, the usual platitudes are not good enough. And the Australian public should demand better.