By Daniel Solon
Published: 20 June 2011
At the height of the Cold War, the Paris and Farnborough Air Shows could usually be relied on to produce new military products every year. It was a boom period for prime contractors in the field and for their legions of suppliers and parts manufacturers. A number of programs started in that period, like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, the EADS Typhoon Eurofighter, Dassault’s Rafale and the Saab Gripen, continue to come off the assembly line.
The U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, also a Lockheed Martin product, is an exception, but its development remains well behind schedule and its costs are rising. A recent Pentagon projection of total ownership costs over 50 years of development, testing, manufacturing and operational service arrived at the staggering figure of one trillion dollars, causing serious apprehension even among hardened veterans of military budget wars.
As the late U.S. senator Everett Dirksen said: A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money. The same goes for trillions.
The F-35 is a multinational project with a number of NATO and U.S.-friendly countries among its intended customers and co-producers, including Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, Israel and Singapore. The U.S. plans to buy 2,443 of the aircraft, and purchases by the other nations will bring the total to more than 3,100.
The alarm among all parties about costs continues to mount and is becoming increasingly vocal, raising concerns about the number of aircraft that will actually be produced.
Alexandra Ashbourne, a military consultant based in London, has suggested that the combined effects of delays, rising costs and the rapid increase in capabilities of drones and more sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles may lead to the termination of F-35 purchases earlier than planned. Her view is supported by recent discussions of a possible U.S. strategic strike system — still in the early planning stage — including an “optionally manned” nonnuclear delivery platform, capable of staying airborne, on-station, for up to 100 hours.
As of January 2011, the U.S. Defense Department was looking at a purchase of 175 aircraft with a program cost of $40 billion to $50 billion, and first flight as early as 2016.
The F-35 offers some unhappy parallels with previous U.S. military aircraft programs.
In 1961, Robert McNamara, early in his time as secretary of defense, directed the start of the F-111 program, intended to serve both the air force and navy. The navy dropped out of the program in 1968, although the air force went on to use the F-111 both as a fighter bomber and as a nuclear-armed strategic bomber.
In 1981, early in the Reagan administration, the air force planned to buy 132 B-2 stealth bombers, but budgetary constraints cut the purchase to 21 (of which one was lost in a training accident). The F-22 was cut off at 187 aircraft in 2005, against a planned 648.
Virtually all the major weapons purchasing nations, apart from the petro-powers and probably China, are facing increasingly stringent budget constraints.
Britain, for example, would have canceled outright the orders for the Royal Navy’s two Queen Elizabeth-class conventional aircraft carriers until Prime Minister David Cameron’s incoming government discovered that cancellation would cost nearly as much as completing the vessels. Upon completion, the second ship will be laid up immediately or sold to another country.
India, concerned about its neighbor, China, could be a logical buyer. The Indian government is engaged in an evaluation program for new fighter aircraft, in which the only remaining contestants are the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale.