Flat White

The F-35: where to from here?

26 June 2017

7:32 AM

26 June 2017

7:32 AM

Our Government has told us that the RAAF’s F-35 fleet of 72 aircraft will cost us $16,000 million. Setting aside a couple of billion for basing requirements, that works out at about $US145 million per aircraft. That is in line with US Government projections of the cost of acquiring F-35s in 2021 of $US125 million per aircraft. What the Australian Government hasn’t told us is how many are coming, and when. A couple of pro forma US Government notifications provide some detail. This solicitation dated December 1, 2016, includes the sentence:

Sustainment for thirty-three (33) F-35A aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) through the end of FY18, forty-eight (48) F-35A aircraft for the RAAF through the end of FY19, or for other such quantities or variants as may be authorized by the Department of Defence.

The United States 2018 fiscal year will start on October 1, 2017, and end on September 30, 2018. Australia has two completed F-35s at the moment. So over the next year or so we will be getting another 31 aircraft and then more at the rate of 15 per year. In fact, over the next few years Australia will be acquiring F-35s at a little under one-third of the rate of the US Air Force, as shown by this document. We are not being done a favour by the US in this matter. Lockheed Martin, aware that the F-35 is unlikely to pass Milestone C (which allows full rate production to proceed) in 2019, is pushing for a block buy of F-35s because buying in bulk will produce savings, so they say. They know the F-35 is doomed but they will sell a few hundred more aircraft in the meantime. When the F-35 program is abandoned then Australia’s F-35s will become orphans. For parts, we will be at the mercy of Lockheed Martin, who will be merciless in their gouging.

The US has some choices for life after the F-35. The F-15 and F-16 are still in production thanks to recent Arab orders and there is talk of producing a tricked-up F-16 for the USAF. Lockheed Martin is shifting its F-16 production line from Texas to South Carolina, most probably to spread the pork more evenly. The Company has done very well in the Trump administration. Kay Granger, whose seat in Congress includes the F-35 plant in Fort Worth, Texas and was a founding member of the Congressional F-35 caucus, is now the Chairman of the Defense Appropriations Committee. This is the Committee that decides in which Congressional districts the defence acquisition budget is spent.

The Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, has accepted some $US600,000 from Lockheed Martin, most of it for a nominal position at some nuclear labs that the Company was running at the time. Lockheed Martin was required to pay back $442,887 to the Department of Energy. Lockheed Martin’s position as paymaster to the Deep State is demonstrated by its $US6 million ex gratia payment to the former FBI Director, James Comey, upon his leaving the company. This also explains why ultra-leftist Barack Obama didn’t do too much to the US military while he was president – the money flows were too useful to the Democrats.

As Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson will be able to ruin the careers of any USAF generals expressing doubt about the F-35. President Trump probably believed in draining the swamp as much as he believed in anything, but the appointment of Heather Wilson was an own-goal.

Australia will have a limited range of choices when the F-35 cancellation leaves a gaping hole in our defences early next decade. The rest of the world will be scrambling for fighter aircraft at the same time. The RAAF wilfully destroyed our F-111 fleet so it couldn’t be resurrected. We can’t just order more F-18 Super Hornets because that aircraft is really a light bomber that will be outclassed by the Su-35s that Indonesia is buying.

If you think the future outlined above is implausible, if not impossible, think of the Tiger helicopter. John Howard, as prime minister, selected the Tiger, which is the Airbus equivalent of the Apache, instead of the Apache, the Army’s first pick. For over a decade we were told that it was wonderful, until it suddenly wasn’t and we will be replacing our Tiger fleet with Apaches.

The Tiger has demonstrated a 21 per cent readiness rate, that is only one in five are ready to fly at any one time. What does that remind us of? It reminds us of the F-35, of which the US Department of Defense’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation stated on page 83 of his annual report released in December 2016: “Reliability metrics related to critical failures have decreased over the past year. This decrease in reliability correlates with the simultaneously observed decline in the Fully Mission Capable (FMC) rate for all variants, which measures the percentage of aircraft not in depot status that are able to fly all defined F-35 missions. The fleet-wide FMC rate peaked in December 2014 at 62 percent and has fallen steadily since then to 21 percent in October 2016.” It is also eleven years since the first F-35 came off the production line.

But what to do? The twin-engine Eurocanards, the Rafale and the Typhoon, are built to European work practices and so will be expensive and slow in delivery. The Swedish Air Force has some Gripen C and D fighters in storage but we would have to get in early. So does South Africa, as long as that country is still hanging together at the time. Saab could crank up the production of the Gripen E, better than the Su-35 in combat, and we could end up buying some from Brazil as well.

David Archibald is the author of American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare.

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