I've been criticized for being a bit of a F-35 "basher", but I honestly do try to keep the JSF program in perspective. It certainly isn't the first large scale military project to run off the rails a little bit. My issues with the F-35 mainly center around its suitability for for Canada, what with it being better suited for attacking foreign ground targets than protecting a country's airspace.
When the news came out a few days ago that the F-35 was being constructed with Chinese parts, I didn't think it was that big of a deal. These were supposedly simple magnets, after all, worth little more than $2 a piece. Perhaps these magnets required rare earth metals found predominantly in China, I thought. It certainly wouldn't be the first time a western defense contractor needed to go elsewhere for rare metals, the SR-71 Blackbird was constructed from Soviet sourced titanium, unbeknownst to the Soviets at the time.
It turns out that the Chinese sourced parts are a little more complicated than simple magnets. Honeywell, the subcontractor in question, was also using Chinese made "thermal sensors". These sensors are part of the F-35's cooling system, needed to dissipate heat that could increase the aircraft's IR signature, interfere with electronic systems, or cause catastrophic engine failure.
Honeywell is now being investigated about the matter, even though certain laws were waived allowing the practice in order to meet deadlines.
How big of a deal is this? I have no doubt that the quality of the Chinese sourced parts is fine. While China is still famous for its cheap knockoffs, it also happens to be where plenty of high end consumer electronics are made. The iMac from which I type this blog was made there, and there's a pretty good chance you're reading it on a device made in China as well.
Should we be worried about the security concerns of having Chinese built parts? Partially. Chinese current status as a "frenemy" means that, while relations are currently good, there is a possibility of hostile action in the future. Anything from all-out war to a minor trade embargo could result in a collapse of a supply chain, causing a delay in building the very fighters you need to go to war with.
|Lockheed Martin F-35A, not to be confused with...|
|The Shenyang J-31. Any resemblance is purely coincidental, I'm sure.|
The Chinese sourced parts are due to be replaced eventually, but why was production of these parts even considered in the first place? The F-35 already has a bit of a shaky history when it comes to Chinese espionage, why add to that by relying on them to make parts for it?
Where things really start to fall apart is the JSF program's promise of lucrative aerospace contracts, providing high paying aerospace manufacturing jobs. Since F-35 subcontracts are rewarded on basis of merit and cost, potential subcontractors need to make their bid as attractive as possible. In this case, that means outsourcing certain parts to China. Doesn't that defeat the purpose?
Has the Western world's manufacturing capability deteriorated so much that we have to rely on Chinese sourced parts for something as politically sensitive as stealth fighter jet parts? Don't we build anything anymore?
China seems to be enjoying many of the "perks" associated with the F-35 Global Partnership members. Not only have they received "technology transfer" by way of hacking into classified files, but they have also received industrial benefits in the form of supplying magnets and thermal sensors to the JSF program. China has done fairly well by the F-35 considering it hasn't invested into the program, nor will it purchase a single fighter.
China's working on its own stealth fighters now. One of them, the Shenyang J-31, looks suspiciously similar to the F-35. China plans on selling the J-31 in direct competition to the F-35.
The real JSF payoff for China might be from J-31 sales.