Pentagon's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter flies in the face of deadlines, budget

Most expensive weapons system in US history 70pc over budget, seven years behind schedule

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 February, 2013, 6:10am

The Pentagon envisioned the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a state-of-the-art yet affordable stealth jet serving three military branches and US allies. Instead, it has been plagued by a costly redesign, bulkhead cracks, too much weight, and delays to essential software that have helped put it seven years behind schedule and 70 per cent over its initial cost estimate.

At almost US$400 billion, it is the most expensive weapons system in American history. It is also the defence project too big to kill.

The Lockheed Martin aircraft funnels business to a global network of contractors that includes Northrop Grumman and Kongsberg Gruppen of Norway. It counts 1,300 suppliers in 45 US states, supporting 133,000 jobs, and more in nine other countries, according to Lockheed.

The F-35 is an example of how large weapons programmes can plough ahead amid questions about their strategic necessity.

"It's got a lot of political protection," said Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight's Centre for Defence Information in Washington. "In that environment, very, very few members of Congress are willing to say this is an unaffordable dog and we need to get rid of it."

The Pentagon on Friday suspended all F-35 flights after a routine engine inspection of a test aircraft revealed a crack on a turbine blade. It was the second engine-related grounding of the US$396-billion jet in two months, and came on the eve of a big air show in Australia, which is considering reducing its planned purchase of 100 F-35 jets.

About a quarter of the aircraft would be purchased outside the United States. Norway, Canada, Britain, Australia, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark and the US agreed in 2006 to co-operatively produce and sustain the F-35. Israel and Japan later signed on to purchase jets and take part in their development.

"This is the last US export fighter standing, and that has saved this programme," said Gordon Adams, senior official for national security and foreign policy budgets under president Bill Clinton. "There is a huge economic element to the F-35."

Even Senator John McCain, who has been a critic of the fighter, toned down his rhetoric to welcome a squadron of the marines' F-35B short-take-off-and-vertical-landing jets to his home state of Arizona in November.

Barry Blechman, co-founder of the Stimson Centre in Washington, questioned the need for all F-35 models, saying they provide marginal improvement over existing F-16 jets "but nothing compared with the amount the Pentagon is planning to invest".

Japan, which will increase its defence budget for the first time in 11 years, is not likely to change its plan to buy 42 planes, said Chiaki Akimoto, a military expert with the Royal United Services Institute in Japan.

It may even order hundreds more F-35 jets when it starts retiring its fleets of F-2 and F-15 planes, Akimoto said.

Additional reporting by Reuters