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Norway reschedules F-35 buy

September 28, 2010 (by Bjørnar Bolsøy) - The Norwegian Ministry of Defence has announced plans to shift the bulk of its F-35 acquisition start-up from 2016 to 2018. A training unit with up to four F-35 jets will be established in 2016.

AF-02 soars high over the clouds. [Lockheed Martin photo]

The replan will ensure the aircrafts "operational matureness and optimal production cost", according to Minister of Defence Grete Faremo. The acquisition of training jets in 2016 will also enable the "necessary education and training of technical and operational personnel".

The move reflects changes in the F-35 program issued by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) earlier this year and continuing uncertainties over future basing plans. DoD extended the F-35's development phase by one year to 2015, amidst growing concern of cost increases, and operational testing is expected to stretch into 2016. Thus the first F-35A training jets will be of the Block III standard, but Norway wants the more capable Block IV version for its operational jets. This variant is expected to be ready for fielding in 2018.

F-35 contract formalization and ordering is expected in the fourth quarter of 2011 to enable delivery of the training jets in 2016. These will be from the LRIP 8 production lot while the main batch will likely be MYP jets.

These are marginal changes to the schedule, according F-35 program officials in the MoD. In effect the Initial Operating Capability (IOC) is pushed back one year, from late 2018 to late 2019. The fighter evaluation project did account for a schedule delay for up three years, however, and the current F-16 upgrade path will allow the fleet to keep flying until 2018-2023 if needed.

The choice of base location is not as urgent with the new schedule. Having more time will allow for a better decision, according to program officials. The old plan called for a decision in 2010 in order to complete the necessary construction and infrastructure for deliveries in 2016-2017. Now the first operational jets are not expected on Norwegian soil until 2018, whereas the training jets are likely to be stationed in the U.S.

A submission detailing the new basing plan was issued by the Norwegian Government in March of this year. Central to this is whether to continue the present day two-base structure and evaluate the three candidates; Bodo, Orlandet and Evenes air stations. A decision was slated for late 2010 - in time for the spring 2011 parliamentary resolutions - but as there are still considerable uncertainties over noise impacts and cost analysis regarding the basing options the process will be extended. "We will use 2011 to complete the study and to ensure a good quality process", says Faremo.

As a consequence the Norwegian Ministry of Defence says it is best served by deferring its F-35 and basing decision process. Establishing a training unit in 2016 will, however, ensure continued industrial participation and Norway's role as a firm partner in the SDD development phase.