Wednesday, 6 April 2011

JSF Cost Predictions Rattle Foreign Customers

Customers for Lockheed-Martin’s stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—among them Canada, Israel, Britain and Australia—are shifting their mood from anxiety to paranoia over increasingly unpredictable costs.

Foreign analysts now expect JSF prices to significantly exceed even the latest Pentagon estimate, putting government officials in fiscal and political jeopardy as they try to craft a rational purchase plan for the fifth-generation warplane.

Adding new concern was congressional testimony by Lt. Gen. Mark Shackleford, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisitons, who says that ”we currently expect up to a two-year delay” in fielding the first operational unit, which shifts the date to 2018. The delay is being triggered by the most recent program restructuring.

A new report by Canada’s Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates that total program costs for the country’s 65 aircraft will be U.S. $29 billion which means a total program (through-life) unit price tag of about $450 million per aircraft in Fiscal 2009 dollars.

For Israel, a long, list of unique requirements from the Israeli air force (IAF) has almost disappeared for the first 19 JSFs. Options for installing Israeli weaponry produced a staggering price tag, while plans to fit the F-35 with Israeli electronic warfare systems were rejected for both technological and political reasons.

Britain is concerned about the cost of F-35 upgrades because of problems during earlier collaborations with the U.S. In its Lockheed Martin C-130J program the U.K. was forced to closely integrate upgrade plans with the U.S., rather than allowing indigenous modifications at a lower price as it did in the earlier C-130K buy. British army officers told Aviation Week that the computerized air-drop system was flawed, making cargo recovery in Afghanistan more difficult and dangerous. With the F-35, the situation is expected to be even more extreme, says a British government official.

Australia has also been the victim of U.S. miscalculations in an earlier cutting-edge project. Its Boeing/Northrop Grumman Wedgetail surveillance aircraft is more than four years behind schedule as Canberra considers the F-35. The airborne early warning and control aircraft’s software cost and schedule problems mirror those of the F-35.

Canada’s report—“An Estimate of the Fiscal Impact of Canada’s Proposed Acquisition of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter”—came out March 10. The report predicts that average unit production cost for its F-35s will be $148 million with an additional $15 million for the engine, which brings the total to $163 million per aircraft. Cost estimates given to Congress last week say the fourth low-rate initial production batch, with engines, will cost $127 million per aircraft for the F-35A, $141 million for the F-35B and $158 million for the F-35C.

Lockheed Martin is reviewing details of Canada’s F-35 cost estimates. Company officials contend their estimates are based on proprietary F-35 program data and predict that each Canadian aircraft will cost $70 to 75 million when deliveries begin in 2016.

“It is not immediately obvious, given the available evidence, how the cost can be reduced to estimates predicted by Lockheed Martin over 10 years ago,” the Canadian report says. “Overall, F-35 development is now five years behind the schedule set at the outset of the program, and total [development] overruns are projected to exceed $21 billion, or 60% above the original goal.Unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary, it is difficult to see prices reducing to their original estimated level,” it concludes.
“It’s hard to do those sorts of calculations with confidence, so there’s a degree of uncertainty—which I think the report notes appropriately,” says Andrew Davies, program director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a member of the independent peer-review panel for the Canadian report. “But I think the estimates here are about as good as educated outsiders can get them using public source data.”

The Canadian study also lists a number of additional opportunities for cost escalation that could inflate Ottawa’s F-35 bill. Research, development, test and evaluation costs grew 40% between 2001 and 2009 while production cost increased 54%. Elimination of the F-35B that could drive up unit cost for Canada due to a smaller total buy, as could reductions in sales to the U.S. and other militaries. The integration of nation-specific weapons not cleared by Lockheed Martin and the Defense Department may lead to additional costs for Canada. The unique cost of operating and supporting a fifth-generation strike fighter is still a significant, unknown quantity. Changed circumstances at the time of mid-life upgrades and overhauls would make F-35s more expensive and dependent on availability of Lockheed Martin’s workforce and facilities.

Canada’s analysis goes on to contend that elimination of the alternative engine program would leave it with no competitive leverage to lower engine costs. Some U.S. lawmakers agree.

“For those who might ask the question regarding F-35 program cost, at what point does this program become unaffordable, I would respond that if you believe our nation needs a fifth-generation stealth fighter, you have no choice,” says Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R.-Md.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactial air and land forces. “Having no choice but to continue to pay for F-35 development and procurement cost increases is exactly why many of us do not believe it is wise to create the same monopoly situation [for the engine] by giving a decades-long, $110 billion, sole-source contract [to Pratt & Whitney].”

Short-term savings from abandoning the F136 engine will total $2-3 billion, Bartlett contends, while the manufacturer, General Electric, says these will be $1 billion. But savings from re-competing engine buys over 40 years would save more, Bartlett says.

U.S. analysts offer their own cautionary notes. “The program continues to lag [budget and schedule] predictions,” says Michael Sullivan, director of acquisition and sourcing for the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “It is not out of the woods yet.”

Software is another area of imperfect cost estimates. The early software development packages are projected to be two years late for each block, the result of underestimating the time and resources required, and the need for new code continues to grow. As software is rebuilt and added, “costs have grown by 40 percent,” Sullivan says.

Others point to earlier disappointments with buying into advanced U.S. technology. A senior Royal Australian Air Force officer with insight into the Boeing/Northrop Grumman Wedgetail aircraft, summed up the dilemma of foreign purchasers: “It’s great kit and just what we needed, but it would have been so helpful and caused us so much less pain [with the government] if we had been told up front how big that radar was going to be [3.5 tons], how long it actually was going to take [five years over schedule] and how much it was actually going to cost [more than $4 billion].”

Israel’s defense establishment is divided on the question of whether to go ahead with procurement of F-35s, despite expected delays, or to postpone the program until costs and schedules are clear. Jerusalem is expected to be the first international customer for the F-35A with deliveries to begin in 2015. But recent discussions with the F-35 program and Lockheed Martin officials made it clear that there will be delays in delivery, with Israeli estimates varying from two months to two years.

The IAF’s first squadron of F-35s will be almost identical to the international JSF, except for an indigenous C4I (command, control, computers, communications and intelligence) system. “The first aircraft will have the bare necessities required to go into combat,” a senior IAF official told Aviation Week. “We will gradually expand their capabilities.”

This is a sharp turn from the IAF’s initial vision of an F-35I, equipped with Rafael’s Python 5 and Spice missiles. “When we received the first F-16Is, they were almost bare as well,” says the official. Those limitations have not cooled the IAF’s enthusiasm for the new aircraft. The deployment of Russian-made SA-17 (Grizzly) and SA-22 (Greyhound) short-range air defense missiles by Syria is considered a genuine challenge for the IAF.

The cost to Israel will be $145 million each for 19 A-model aircraft. But there is talk of using near-term F-35 funding for other projects. “Despite the F-35’s advantages, it will not be the panacea for Israel’s problems and most of its tasks can be performed with similar effectiveness through existing planes with one upgrade or another,” claims a February report by the Institute for National Security Studies.

However, the IAF traditionally has the upper hand over other services and with the current volatility in the Middle East it is expected to request an increase in the number of its fighting platforms. But other services, as well as the defense ministry of defense, are less eager, saying that delaying the payments for F-35s in a year or two could provide the missing funds for missile defense programs and the new armored fighting vehicle for the army.

Lockheed Martin has warned that postponing the acquisition could result in greater delays and jeopardize a controversial offset package for Israeli industry. The defense ministry, Lockheed Martin and Israeli industries are denying news reports of a Lockheed Martin pledge for $4 billion in offsets, but Israeli and U.S. officials have confirmed the amount with Aviation Week.

The Canadian JSF audit also drew Britain’s attention. U.K. officials say its cost assumptions seem credible. As with Canada, they note that it has been difficult to properly assess underlying program costs. JSF concerns come as the British government is trying to adopt more realistic budget planning, with Defense Secretary Liam Fox vowing that only fully funded programs will proceed.

authors :By David A. Fulghum, Graham Warwick, Robert Wall, Alon Ben-David
Washington, Washington, London, Tel Aviv
courtsey : aviationweek