The F-35 and implications for allies


We tend to see the F-35 through the lens of the US military requirements. Earlier this week, Jeffrey W. Hornung offered an interesting take on the F-35:

While the Defense Ministry is responsible for choosing the F-35, officials are concerned about its delivery and price. In February, Defense Ministry officials told the U.S. government there’s a possibility of cancelling its order if things change. This followed news that the United States delayed, Italy reduced, and Australia and Canada were rethinking their acquisition plans. All of these will increase the F-35’s cost. The Defense Ministry also requested the U.S. review its FMS-based acquisition program so Japan’s defense industry can have deeper involvement in the jet so as to acquire technical know-how.

The alliance has dealt with broken promises before, and relations suffered. We saw this most recently in 2009, when Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama reneged on a 2006 Japanese promise to relocate troops from Okinawa to Guam, contingent on relocating Futenma to a replacement facility in northern Okinawa. The U.S. came down hard on Hatoyama. It was only after he stepped down that alliance relations could be reset and the process of rebuilding trust could begin.

The F-35 may very well be delivered on time and on cost. However, this doesn’t appear to be the case right now. Although the U.S. can’t be held legally responsible for changes in price or delivery dates under FMS rules, there will be political damage. The U.S. needs to think about how to manage this damage with its closest ally in the Asia-Pacific if the F-35 can’t be delivered as promised.

Worse, what to do if Japan cancels all or part of its order? Japan has a shrinking budget and needs new fighters. Any changes will put Japan in a precarious situation. While the other options available to the Defense Ministry weren’t 5th generation fighters, it nevertheless had other options better suited to aid its collapsing defense industry. Japanese officials are counting on the U.S. to deliver on its promise, much like the U.S. counted on Japan to deliver on its 2006 promise. Hatoyama showed the alliance how not to renege. Is the United States prepared to do any better regarding its F-35 promises?

Earlier in the article, Hornung details several changes in Japanese policy with respect to weapons development and sales, which were needed to “land” the F-35 on the western side of the Pacific.  Such underscore the economic factors in play and the high cost of cutting-edge technology.  If a nation cannot feel safe without a fifth-generation fighter, then the nation must pay for that platform – even if that means cutting legal corners to do so.

To me the F-35 is eerily similar to the F-111’s early guise, in the 1960s, as the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX).   From otherwise disparate requirements, DoD chiefs forced the Air Force and Navy to adopt a common airframe for a deep-strike interdiction bomber (um… fighter) and a long-endurance interceptor.  Tagging along were the British who ordered 50 of the F-111K variant.  One common airframe for everyone?  Sounds good.

By 1968, the F-111 program was terribly behind and over budget.  A limited initial operating capability deployment to Southeast Asia further tarnished the TFX’s record.  Tragically three aircraft losses were attributed to horizontal stabilizer malfunctions, not enemy action.  The TFX needed more development.  By that time the British and the Navy had backed out (each going on to independently pursue excellent solutions for what its worth).  Only after several more years of development did the F-111 emerge as a very capable bomber (in both tactical and strategic guises) for the USAF – serving until the late 1990s.  The Australians used their version of the F-111 up until recently.

In the 1960s, Cold War pressures meant the services could overlook some project over-runs and inefficiencies.  It was just one of the costs of being the leader of the free world, we were told.  Likewise, allies could overlook program failures, assuaged by assessments of what sat behind the iron curtain.

But in today’s world, one must worry about misguided weapons development projects.  With so much momentum behind it, I am certain the F-35 will eventually reach service at some point.  But the weapon system may prove more damaging politically than militarily.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The F-35 and implications for allies

  1. Grumpy

    What happens when the Allies come to the conclusion that this albatross is priced way to high and simply say, “No Thank You, we can’t afford it!”

    • That is exactly what the Brits did with the TFX in 1968. They’d cancelled the TSR.1 project (which might have evolved into a useful aircraft… might). The RAF turned to their Navy’s Buccaneer as a stopgap. The failure of the TFX though, brought the British on board with the Pavania Tornado project. So that’s the ironic twist. The TFX failed as a swing-wing, multi-role, multi-service platform. But the Tornado succeed.

    • The Strike versions of the Tornado were undoubtedly a success. the F2/F3 ADV… not so much. Not bad, really, and well suited for the long range air defense interceptor role which Britain faced, but not terribly good in a close in ACM environment. They also quickly suffered from G-limit structural restrictions.

      The F-35 program suffered from the same problem as the TFX/F-111 debacle, and I’m sure some very bright people at DoD were told to shut up and get on the bus or get tossed under it. Too bad.

      The smart thing to do would have been to recognize that the functions of three variants were so widely different that any common airframe would be badly compromised. But there still could have been great economies of scale realized by using common core technologies in separate airframes. For instance, a massive part of the cost of any new jet is developing the engine. A common engine core could easily be used in different airframes. Similarly, while flight control software is of course airframe dependent, mission software and associated electronic systems are not quite as constrained. A common electronic architecture could have been developed and used across three different airframes.

      Finally, the original goal of JSF was “design to cost” to produce a large number of low cost aircraft. But the perverse incentives in current procurement make designing a plane far more remunerative than building one for a contractor. Is it any wonder design times have stretched? It takes an extremely rigid hand on the tiller, by the services, to establish the design parameters, and stop adjusting them, and accept that the plane will have limitations. And to force the contractor and the customer to quit designing and start building.

  2. Mark Dunlap SFC Rigger (Ret).

    Accurate analogy concerning the F-111. Regards

  3. Grumpy

    This concept is always based on the idea of an extended number of sales of aircraft to other nations. The problems come when the discounted cost is still too high. We, as a Nation, need to address the problem of limiting our expectations. I am talking about the whole DOD, how and when we use the Military. This is where this whole Nation needs to discipline itself. By the way, this includes you and me.