PDA

View Full Version : Painting a Rosy Picture of a Costly Fighter Jet



thedrifter
06-23-07, 11:47 AM
Painting a Rosy Picture of a Costly Fighter Jet
Wilmington Morning Star, NC

Lockheed Martin’s $600 billion Joint Strike Fighter program is only now moving off the drawing board and into first flight.

LE BOURGET, France, June 21 — With jets screaming overhead, macho often mixes with Mach 1 here at the Paris air show. But the Lockheed Martin Corporation chose a softer approach to show the might of its next-generation radar-evading, supersonic fighter jet.

It commissioned nine international artists to portray the multibillion-dollar combat plane in a variety of imaginary scenes — sailing over the Canadian Northwest, hovering over a British naval carrier and gliding above Sydney Harbor in Australia.

The unveiling of the paintings here was a case of making virtue out of necessity. Lockheed’s Joint Strike Fighter program — the largest program in Pentagon aviation with an eventual price tag exceeding $600 billion — is only now moving off the drawing board and into first flight.

Only one Joint Strike Fighter, also called the F-35 Lightning II, has been produced so far, to be used in testing, with 13 more planes scheduled for next year. Lockheed continues to push ahead amid concerns over the program’s costs, its ambitious development schedule and an international political drama as Lockheed and the eight other partner nations in the project continue to bump elbows, and sometimes heads.

The Joint Strike Fighter program is unique in military aviation. With this program, the Pentagon rewrote the rules on how fighter jets are made. It put together an international coalition to design, finance and build the jet jointly rather than having a single country, typically the United States, build the jet and sell it to others. This required the countries to share sensitive technologies, invest large sums of money and act in the best interest of the group, not their own nation.

The sums of money involved are staggering, and growing. The Pentagon has estimated the program’s development and procurement costs at $276 billion, with an additional $347 billion needed to operate and support the planes in the field. Already, the program is $31.6 billion over budget, slightly behind schedule and facing daunting technical challenges.

Yet Brig. Gen. Charles R. Davis of the Air Force, the program’s executive director, was optimistic about the program’s recent accomplishments — not the least of which was keeping all nine nations on board.

“We’re well on our way,” General Davis said at a Lockheed news conference. “And we will grow.”

Others say there is reason for optimism. Alexandra Ashbourne of Ashbourne Strategic Consulting in London, which specializes in military contractors, said, “The program is looking rosier than it has been in a while.

“It had been running late,” Ms. Ashbourne said. “And there were a number of other issues involving technology transfers. But these concerns seem to have been allayed in the last few months. A lot of people are beginning to feel that this is a most amazing craft.”

From a pilot’s perspective, the F-35 Lightning is a dream machine. It is intended to replace the F-16 and other fighter jets of that generation, which total around 4,000 worldwide. The F-35’s stealth technology makes it invisible to radar. It flies faster than the speed of sound and is filled with the latest aviation electronics.

At the air show, a life-size mock-up of the plane attracted a crowd of military aviators, who climbed into the single-seat, single-engine airplane as though it were real. Jon Beesley, chief test pilot for the F-35, stood by in his blue flight suit, eagerly explaining the plane’s technical details to this knowledgeable crowd.

Yet for all its sizzle, the F-35 is designed to be affordable — a sort of Chevrolet of the skies — so that the nations in the partnership, and ones that are not, can add it to their fleets. The terms of the international partnership mean that Lockheed must look around the world for the best technologies and the most efficient production processes for the craft.

But the program’s ambitious schedule and technological challenges are raising concerns, especially at the Government Accountability Office, which oversees the program. .

The G.A.O. called the decision by Lockheed and the Air Force to begin to produce the craft in low numbers before all the testing has been done a “high-risk strategy.” Overlapping the testing with early production could easily backfire and result in delays and cost overruns should modifications in the design or the manufacturing of the plane be required, the G.A.O. said in a report issued last March entitled “Joint Strike Fighter: Progress Made and Challenges Remain.”

As a result, the G.A.O. recommended slowing the program until the design was further refined.

Tom Burbage, Lockheed’s F-35 program manager, could not disagree more. He argues that technological advances allow the company to telescope the development and manufacturing processes and that this approach will reduce risk of delays and cost overruns.

“I do not agree it adds extra risk,” Mr. Burbage said of Lockheed’s approach, speaking at the news conference. “We are doing it the right way, and what the G.A.O. says will do just the opposite.”

Adding to the complication is that the international consortium plans to produce three variations of the plane — one that will land at regular air fields, one to land on carriers and a third, championed by the Marines and the British, that will have a vertical takeoff and landing.

The Pentagon has said it wants to buy 2,458 F-35s, which will be divided among the services, with the Air Force taking the bulk, 1,763. Deliveries are expected to begin in 2010. The other international partners have indicated they will buy 600 to 700. And as they are built, planes will be made available for sale to nations not in the program. The jets will cost around $75 million each for the basic version and up to $90 million for more advanced designs.

But a quarrel has broken out between the Navy and Marines over the vertical version. Internal Navy memos that were obtained by DefenseNews, a trade publication, indicate that the Navy, which oversees the Marine budget, would like to see the Marine version dropped from the program. It is the most expensive F-35, and the most technically complicated.

“The Marines want a fighter that can land anywhere,” said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a research group based in Arlington, Va. “But the admirals don’t like what the Marines are asking for.”

The Marines, though, have a powerful ally in Britain, which wants to buy 138 vertical-lift F-35s as a replacement for the Harrier, which can also take off and land vertically. And analysts say that it would be hard to drop the version of the plane that is so important to Britain.

The international partners — Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, Canada, Australia and Denmark — have invested around $4 billion in the F-35. In return, they are given part of the design and the production, based on their skills and cost structure. Final assembly will be done in the United States, although negotiations are under way for a possible second assembly site in northern Italy.

The G.A.O. has also warned that the enormity of the program coupled with a large budget deficit in the United States may lead to cutbacks.

But General Davis, the Pentagon official overseeing the program day to day, has more immediate worries.

“My biggest challenge,” he said, “is just to keep it on schedule.”

Ellie