Friday, August 9, 2013

Is the F-35 in danger of cancellation?

Could the F-35 be targeted for budget cuts?

To view the latest Lockheed Martin PR, the Joint Strike Fighter is progressing quite nicely, thank you.  Costs are coming down, the 100th jet is being built, and 2400 new jobs will be created as production ramps up.  In a recent Twitter based question and answer session, Lockheed Martin test pilot extolled the F-35's virtues, and stated that the JSF program will provide Canada with "niche industrial participation is unique capability to sustain high-tech industry for 4 decades."


So what's the panic?


Sequestration.  The forced budget cuts required by the U.S. government have put the F-35 program's future in doubt.



U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has stated that the U.S. may have to make the hard decision of choosing between a much smaller force or a modernized one.  How big will  these cuts be?  The U.S. Army would see a cut in personnel from 490,000 to 380,000.  The USMC would be cut from 182,000 to 150,000.  The USN would be hit hard, as well.  2-3 aircraft carriers may need to be prematurely mothballed.  Not to be left out, the USAF could lose up to 5 combat air squadrons, as well as the retirement of the entire B-1B bomber fleet.  It would also mean cutting benefits to remaining military personnel, an unpopular option.  All these cuts would be needed to ensure the continued development of the controversial JSF program.


Cut...

Cut...

Cut.

142,000 troops, three aircraft carriers, 5 air squadrons, the entire B-1B fleet, and reduced benefits for the remaining US military members...  Needless to say, critics are questioning rational for sustaining a project that has, so far, been behind schedule, over budget, and underperforming.  The USAF is defending the program, but many are calling for its cancellation.

Make no mistake, the F-35 is a huge, expensive project.  It's cancellation would send shockwaves throughout the aerospace industry, and western airpower would be left with an almost 2500 fighter sized hole to fill.  4.5 generation fighters like the Typhoon, Gripen, and Super Hornet could help fill some of this hole, but upcoming 5th generation fighters from Russia (the PAK FA) and China (the J-20 and J-31) will likely give military leaders a few sleepless nights.  

My take?  The JSF is too big to kill.  Pure and simple.  It has too much money invested already and there are already 100 fighters built, 2 factories and hundreds of subcontractors in place.  But that doesn't mean it's too big to be completely immune to budget cuts.  Production will almost certainly be delayed.  It's very possible that its performance requirements be reduced further.  Some of its troubledcutting edge features may be cut from the final product in favor of simpler, cheaper substitutes.  Unfortunately, this won't help the F-35's foreign sales, resulting in a higher unit price due to smaller production numbers.  Instead of being produced in F-16 like numbers, the F-35 may be reduced to more of a niche fighter, fulfilling the stealthy strike and STOVL roles of the F-117 and AV-8 Harrier jump-jet, but not the "workhorse" role of fighters like the F-16 and F-18.

Will the F-35 continue its path to becoming the western world's fighter?  Will it be cancelled in order to keep the U.S.A.'s military at its current strength?  Or will there be some sort of compromise allowing both to remain intact, but with some reduction?

Stay tuned...

3 comments:

  1. This article reminds me of the often forgotten fears that the production of the Avro Arrow brought to the procurement table in late 1950s defence circles. If the Arrow had not been cancelled, what would have been cut? New destroyers? APCs for the Army? Transports for the RCAF? Sadly, the emotional baggage of cancellation has buried that argument.

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  2. Yeah, I think a cancellation is impossible and a compromise is the more likely solution : because hardware and human resources are ultimately linked, you can't cut only one. If you haven't the money to purchase a given number of machines to be manned with a given number of soldiers, the most logical is to cut both.
    In my opinion, the 2443 F35 to be purchased by USA isn't realistic anymore. The question is how many? A 10% or 20% cut or something like the dramatic 75% of F22 (750->187)? It will partly depend on the ability of LockMart to implement his claimed cost reduction.

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  3. If the F-35 becomes a specialized platform, I wonder where this leaves Canada. Do we buy a specialized light bomber? Seems foreign to the forces traditional roles. What of are NORAD commitments? I worry about the sortie rates of the F-35. If war were ever to erupt, the system is so complex, how long before there all grounded because supply lines have been bombed, technicians have become casualties.......

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