Controversy, cost and Trump: The F-35 Program in the eyes of its Chief Officer

Controversy, cost and Trump: The F-35 Program in the eyes of its Chief Officer

Controversy, cost, and Trump: The F-35 Program in the eyes of its Chief Officer
The F-35A AU-001 arriving at Avalon Airshow 2017

The fifth-generation F-35 is a stealthy, data-driven jet designed to perform ground attack and air defence missions. It represents a "quantum leap in air dominance capability with enhanced lethality and survivability in hostile, anti-access airspace environments".

At least that’s what the proponents will tell you.

Look a little further and many opponents and detractors of the program will tell you otherwise.

Some have even gone as far as to dub it ‘one of the worst fighter jets ever’ due to its cost and its capabilities, or lack thereof.

Australia will have a total of 72 F-35A aircraft, with the full fleet in service by the end of 2023. Two, AU-001 and AU-002, have been delivered and each cost more than US$120 million. 

Over 30 Australian companies have already participated in production supply chains to provide high-end solutions to the JSF capability. The current cumulative total of Australian JSF production contracts is US$681 million and is forecast to reach almost US$4 billion in 2038.

Recently, manufacturer Quickstep Holdings has completed its $10 million capital expansion of its aerospace manufacturing facilities in Bankstown, an expansion that includes a capital investment program for ongoing JSF production.

One of the key players behind project, head of the F-35 Joint Program Office Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, has tried to set the record straight at a conference in Australia.

Addressing the Australian audience, Bogdan started off by discussing how the program has changed in the last four years.

"What I'm going to try and give you today, like I always try to, is give you a balanced assessment of what the programme is, and it means I'm going to tell you both the good and the bad, and that's the way we do business in our programme office, I'll try and be as fairly balanced as I can," said Lt Gen Bodgan.

"The first time I came to Australia as head of the F-35 was in 2013 … Here’s what I will tell you, since that time this is a very different programme. The programme today is on a much, much better trajectory than it was four plus years ago, it is a growing programme, it is accelerating, and in a lot of good ways it's changing."

Controversies

Lt Gen Bogdan was not hesitant to address the elephant in the room, noting “there has been a lot of controversy about how late that programme is and completing that programme, and how much it costs to complete that programme. So let me give you some perspective on that, and a few facts.

"Back in 2011, this programme was re-baselined, it was re-baselined because in prior years we have not done such a good job on the programme. It was many years late, and many millions of dollars over budget, so in 2011 we re-baselined the programme," Lt Gen Bogdan said.

"When we re-baselined the programme and put a new plan in place, the plan was to finish flight testing on this programme at the end of 2017, and to deliver all the capability between August of 2017 and February of 2018.

"Today, I'm here to tell you we're well within that window for completing all the flight testing, and for delivering that capability. I just told you, we'll finish flight testing in January and we'll deliver the capability some time in the late Fall of 2017 to the early part of 2018."

Cost

Lt Gen Bogdan also gave naysayers of the program something to think about when he emphasised that the program has been successful at remaining in budget since being re-baselined in 2011.

"When we re-baselined in 2011, the department of defence said, 'You have this much money to finish the programme.' The lower end of that boundary was US$13.9 billion, the upper end of that boundary was US$15.2 billion. They said, 'we want you to finish the programme on time within that budget'," Lt Gen Bogdan said.

"When we get done with the devolving programme next January and deliver that capability, the programme would have cost us since 2011, US$14.2 billion. That's only 2 per cent higher than the lower bound that was put in place in 2011.

"When you have folks tell you that this programme is still in trouble, that this is a tragic programme, it's out of control – go back and remember what it looked like before 2011 and remember what it looked like after 2011, and then make that case, because I don't think this programme has a problem now. We have risks, we have things we have to sort out. There are challenges ahead, but since 2011 when the programme was re-baselined, we are in much better footing than we've ever been."

Trump

Bogdan was also complementary of new US President Donald Trump, rallying behind his enquiries into the project and defence.

"The message that the new administration is providing and giving to both industry and the department of defence, that we want better value for our money, is a great message. I applaud the President and the new administration for taking that on," said Lt Gen Bogdan.

"The tasks that we are now answering as a result of then President-elect Trump and now President Trump asking about the programme, can be broken up into two pieces.

"The two tasks going on right now, have to do with one, affordability of the F-35 and what they would like to know is what have we done in the past to drive the cost of procuring and sustaining the aeroplane, and what are our plans in the future to continue to drive cost out of the aeroplane?

"Very great set of questions. The good news is for years and years, we have recognised that affordability is probably the most important thing we work on, on this programme, and driving costs down. We have a lot of that information already, we just need to package it up and show the new administration and show the new leadership in the department of defence what we're doing, because what they're really asking is, 'How can we help you? What are those initiatives, what are those things that you need to do and how can we help you drive the cost of the aeroplane down?'"

The second portion of the task, said Lt Gen Bogdan, is largely focused on the US Navy.

"The US Navy has always had a plan to use both the super-hornet and the F-35 C together on their large deck carriers. They have always said that both the Super Hornet and the C model would be complementary to each other. That hasn't changed," Lt Gen Bogdan said.

"The question that was asked, and the specific answer we're trying to give the new administration is, ‘What is the right mix of F-35 C's and advanced Super Hornets on large deck carriers now and in the future?’ And that investigation is ongoing."

Lt Gen Bogdan was quick to state that this question should not be of concern for Australia.

"I think the subtle piece that's important here, especially for Australia is that, that investigation and that set of questioning, and that tasking is nothing to do with A models or B models," Lt Gen Bogdan said.

"There is absolutely no intention at this point in time, to change the programme of record on the A model or the B model. This was a unique question about the C model, about the mix of aeroplanes on an aircraft carrier, and about the advanced super-hornet and the F-35 C.

"So, from that perspective those are very reasonable questions that the new administration asked, and we're setting out to answer them – neither question has been answered yet.

"I can tell you on the affordability one, after doing all the work that I did I gave you a little preview of the movie here, I think an US$85 million aeroplane can be lower than that, for an A model.

"I think less than an US$85 million aeroplane is probably achievable, and you'll see that in some of the results that I plan to brief to the department."

 

Controversy, cost and Trump: The F-35 Program in the eyes of its Chief Officer
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