Allies and the F-35: Getting on With It

The F-35B aboard the USS Wasp during the October 2011 Ship Trials (Credit: SLD)

6/24/12: by Ed Timperlake

A recent Heritage Foundation seminar focused on the F-35 and allies.

The presentations were by Colonel Kevin J. Killea, 
United States Marine Corps, Dr. Robbin F. Laird, 
Co-Founder and Senior Analyst, Second Line of Defense and Anthony “Lazer” Lazarski 
Military Legislative Assistant, Office of Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK).

The overarching convergent agreement of the panelists was that building the F-35 in numbers made significant strategic sense.

For Col. Killea, the F-35B is the centerpiece of the USMC’s capabilities in the decade ahead. Killea underscored in his concluding comment:

I would ask you to understand the requirement.  We’re not just buying a new airplane.  When I say understand the requirement that implies understanding the threat.

And where we are today and what we have to go forward and face that threat, ask yourself if you want to maintain the upper hand.  I know I do because the folks that I’m going to deploy out there are going to have to be dealing with that threat.

And also, understand that this program is alive.  It is absolutely energized.  I implore you to get yourself down to Eglin and see it.  See it in action.

And understand that on both sides, on the industry side and the government side, there’s an incredible amount of effort going on to keep this program stable in the best way that we can.

And the times that we’re in right now with the resources that we have, it’s imperative that we maintain the strength of the international partnership that we have.

This partnership allows us to leverage off each other to make this aircraft even more capable than we know it can be today.

For Dr. Laird, the emphasis was upon the importance of getting on with it in the program.  The F-35 is being manufactured now and is built around software upgradability.  The first operational squadron will be stood up in Yuma Air Station later this year, and weapons certification, the last piece of getting a go to war airplane is going on right now at Edwards AFB.

The plane flies, the combat systems work, the plane is being manufactured, and weapons will soon be in place. A key reality is simply that the plane being manufactured now is better than anything that it is replacing.  And a manufactured plane can be upgraded with tech refreshes – chips and cards – as those refreshes are ready.

By not building in numbers now – we can get to 10 a month sooner rather than latter – “we are breaking faith with our allies. This is not like a legacy program where the U.S. builds and buys and the allies follow sometime in the future.  The concurrency that matters here is Allied concurrency – they are buying in the same time period virtually as the United States.  To not build to the numbers possible on the U.S. slide would be a violation of trust.”

Indeed as a member of one allied nation buying the plane in significant numbers commented privately: “If the U.S. is not willing to surge production of this aircraft, is are key ally making a strategic statement to go along with the Sequestration waffling?”

Anthony “Lazer” Lazarski underscored the importance of getting the plane into the warfighters hand and getting on with it.

His concluding remarks were hard hitting.

We can argue all we want about what happened in the past with the development costs and the overruns.  And that could be a great war college discussion that we probably will have in years to come.

But where we are right now with the aircraft, it’s ready to move forward, ready to accelerate production.  And that really is the bottom line.

That aircraft coming off the line today is better than what our allies have and what we have today.

And so, there is no reason why not to accelerate production.

Instead of kicking it down the road and spending billions of more dollars, recoup that money, get it out there, get it into the hands of the war fighter so we could actually operationalize it.

The panel took place on June 7th.

The very next week, announcements in Norway and coming announcements from Japan re-enforced everything said at the roundtable.

Norway recently announced parliamentary approval of a decision to procure the F-35 in significant numbers.  Norway is serious about its defense, a key stakeholder in Arctic development and a non-Euro zone member.  They are investing in their future with the F-35 as a key centerpiece.

This Norwegian decision is the continuation of significant allied commitment to the program.  There are multiple partners in the program, and at the end of the month Japan will commit fully to the purchase of the plane as well.

The F-35 is a unique multi-national program.  Allies are part of the initial development, testing, and production of the aircraft.  It is not a case of the US building and then later selling.  They are integral components of the program.

But while the allies are holding firm, the U.S. is pushing its purchases continuously to the right.

Most recently, the Administration has performed its third cut to the numbers of aircraft in the program, pushing purchases to the out years, and to the years when it wont be around. The U.S. has cut 426 F35s from a five-year spending plan in the last two budget cycles.

In a twist of irony, the allied pressure to buy is so high that planned further downturns by the Administration have been put on hold.  The numbers of aircraft which allies want to buy in the near and mid term actually would suck up much of the planned production inventory.  In a not so funny development, a US sponsored program is seen by allies as so significant to their national security that they are pressuring the US to surge production.

The program was designed to build 20 aircraft a month.  The factory has been producing 2; and is building up to 4 a month starting next month.  Plans were in place to go back to 2 when the allied orders led to rethinking this position.  To put this in perspective the French build 1.5 Rafale fighter aircraft a month for the French airforce, so the U.S. is approaching the French production standard, and this with an international program in hand.

This breaks the sacred trust that the US has with its allies to build, sustain and deploy a 21st century joint coalition aircraft.

It also breaks faith with the American people, where both jobs, and global leadership are at stake.

There is no reason that we cannot start producing at 10 a month within a year and move to 20 a month in two.

The plane is flying now, and every aircraft you see flying over your head is a production aircraft, not a test aircraft.

The allies in the F-35 consortium have watched from their Ministries, and have seen the best and the worst of American behavior. The great creative spark of technological innovation being nurtured and developed by industry and military officers who may some day fight has been proven gain and again as a force for good.

Arrayed against this cauldron of creativity have been myopic score keepers who do not have a clue. In fact the total arrogance of the debate Inside the Beltway has been reflected in: Allies what Allies?

The American defense industry and the warriors working with that industry, can say at the Farnbrough Air Show this summer: America is back and you haven’t seen anything yet.

This was all made possible by the faith of our trusted allies who also took unbelievable incoming to forge a strong relationship in the most unique military defense consortium in history, thank you all.