Aviation Week: Are there alternatives to F-35?

Further to this post, doubts about the future of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter have now grown to the point where even aviation industry insiders like Aviation Week are asking whether there are alternatives to the troubled aircraft (David A. Fulghum & Bill Sweetman, Are There Alternatives To The F-35 Program? Aviation Week, 29 November 2011). The U.S. holds the key to the future of the F-35, but the decisions of other potential buyers, including Canada, will also affect its future costs and even viability:

The initial options available to Pentagon leaders, should the Joint Strike Fighter prove unaffordable, range from outright termination of the program to the deletion or delay of either or both the Navy’s F-35C or the Marines’ F-35B. Terminating the Air Force’s F-35A would kill the program, but it could be delayed, or full-rate production for the USAF could be cut back from the current goal of 80 aircraft a year.

“There is no alternative” and “There is no Plan B,” JSF advocates have repeatedly said in reaction to any plans to trim the colossal project. However, the threat of sequestration, the reality of fiscal crisis and the certainty of cuts to planned budgets are emerging at a point where the program and Pentagon leadership have yet to produce firm guarantees about the JSF’s future in terms of initial operational capability dates, procurement and support costs. [...]

Nonetheless, vastly complicating the F-35 issue is the role of international partners. Individually, none of the eight partner nations is expected to take even 5% of the planned production run. But they need aircraft early, with the result that – under the current program of record – the collective partner buy in the low rate initial production (LRIP) phase is comparable in size to that of the USAF.

If the partners respond to delays and cost increases by sliding their own purchases to the right, or by leaving the program altogether, that will reduce production rates and increase unit costs during the LRIP phase, which is designed around a steep ramp-up from a few dozen aircraft annually to more than 200 by the fiscal 2016 buy year.

Given recent economic news out of Europe, expect serious delays and/or cancellations from many of those partners, leaving Canada to pay an ever-increasing bill for this unnecessary aircraft.

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