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JSF / F-35: an ambitious program but more expensive than expected…

Aircraft carrier version of the F 35 during a flight test on February 11, 2011 in Maryland, USA (Credits: US Navy)

(BRUSSELS2) This is nothing new, new generation combat aircraft are expensive. This is particularly the case for the future F 35 Lightning II, or JSF (Joint Strike Fighter), coming to replace the fighters of many Euro-Atlantic armies in the coming decades. The project is not new, nor are its fluctuations and other erroneous estimates (see the article from a year ago already: JSF / F35: a skyrocketing price, a breathtaking Canadian report).

Two official reports have just confirmed this: the JSF program costs more than initially announced while technical shortcomings persist, which also leads to delays in production. The two reports come respectively from Auditor General for Canada and Government Accountability Office for the United States, two audit bodies attached to parliaments and politically independent.

These two reports are quite critical of a program which seemed attractive following the announcement that had been made: “Producing the most versatile and technologically advanced aircraft, while being the least Dear". Although it is of undeniable interest in theory, this program is not that “affordable” after all. Demonstration…

An ambitious program to say the least!

The F 35: a unique aircraft adapted to the 3 armies

The idea behind the JSF project is simple but extremely ambitious: to produce a multi-role combat aircraft that can replace the fighter planes of many national armies, whether in their Air, Land or Sea components. Thus, three variants of the F 35 are (were) planned with a dual perspective of rationalizing costs (again and again...) and optimizing efficiency (particularly in terms of inter-operability), it is indeed a single basic model, adapted to the specific needs of the 3 components, which must be built.

An aircraft built in cooperation… very directede

Started at the end of the 1990s, this project is “The largest development and procurement program in the history of the United States Department of Defense“, recognizes the Canadian report. Comprising design, development, manufacturing and maintenance until 2051, it is led by the United States with the participation of eight other partners: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and United Kingdom. It aims to produce more than 3000 aircraft, the overwhelming majority of which are intended for the United States (around 2400), which are also the only ones to have ordered all three models.

Rising prices, technical shortcomings and production delays: a triptych that goes wrong

An underestimated real cost

The ex-factory cost of the F 35 was largely underestimated at the start and has been regularly revised upwards since. It has almost doubled in less than 10 years: from US$49,9 million in October 2001 to $84,9 million in December 2009. And it should continue like this, according to American and Canadian reports, although with an increase less strong in the years to come, thanks to short-term program restructuring. 

More importantly, it is the real cost – that is to say that which includes the complete life cycle of the aircraft – which has been underestimated. According to the Canadian report, which recalls that the calculation of this cost is “a complex task", several factors "were not taken into account“: replacement aircraft (the army must in fact expect to lose some of its aircraft), future software upgrades but also weapons… Factors to which are added all the uncertainties linked to any prognosis ( price of kerosene, exchange rates, etc.). Finally, Last but not least, National Defense (Canadian Department of Defense) based its estimates on a life cycle of 20 years while that of the F 35 is estimated at 36 years (or 8000 flight hours)…

All these additional costs could force the defense ministries of partner countries to make cuts in other areas, “from other portions of its equipment budgets or operational budgets".

The "Decisions made to date, and those to come, will have repercussions that will be felt over the next 40 years” specifies the Canadian report. Quite gross “mistakes”… committed knowingly, apparently. The Canadian auditor thus states that “ the representatives [of National Defense] knew that costs were likely to increase but they did not inform parliamentarians ". The industrial benefits of this program are, in reality, the overriding factor for the Canadian government (and probably others). And National Defense did not want to “show off” a program that was too expensive.

Technical problems greater than expected, which lead to delays in delivery

Both reports mention technical problems that are delaying the progress of the JSF program. The test phase has thus been extended until 2018 (instead of 2012 as initially announced), the date on which only the “full capacity” production phase can begin. The deadline has already been pushed back three times (in 2003, 2007, 2010). Among the technical problems, the American report specifies that it is particularly the “software”, “communication” and other logistical systems aspects which are more complex and longer to test than expected. According to this same report, the JSF program is characterized by too high a degree of competition, which leads to a more complicated process and above all, overlaps and double work between the development, test and production phases. Furthermore, it agrees with the Canadian report on another point: starting to manufacture planes before the test phase is entirely completed presents both technical risks and additional costs, since they must then be modified according to the results of the tests. tests. In response to these various problems, partner country governments have significantly reduced their orders, at least in the short term. For example, the United States reduced its orders by 400, from 2866 to 2457 aircraft.

Download reports in B2 documents (*)

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2 thoughts on “JSF / F-35: an ambitious program but more expensive than expected…"

  • I discovered your interesting blog but I can't help telling you that on this subject, the JSF, you should take note of the multiple articles written over the years by The author ended up making it the symbol of the inevitable fall of American power… we are well beyond the delays in delivery. Here is the ultimate avatar of the “catastrophe-jsf”:

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