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F-35 JSF: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Do No Good

Air Power Australia - Australia's Independent Defence Think Tank

Air Power Australia NOTAM

  24th March, 2010

AVM B J Graf AO (Retd) BSc BE(Aero)

Contacts: Peter Goon
Carlo Kopp

Mob: 0419-806-476 Mob: 0437-478-224

  (Illustration C. Kopp).
The Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon John Faulkner, recently released the following statement about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project commenting on the announcement that the project would trigger the Nunn-McCurdy Amendment in the United States, which requires the Secretary of Defense to re-certify the need for JSF Program-of-Record and justify such increases in cost against such a need. Such a breach also requires a congressional investigation into the cost increases.

Unfortunately for the Australian Department of Defence and the Minister, the media statement only serves to highlight the basic flaws in the Department’s approach to the procurement of major defence projects.

Interleaved in the Minister's statement below are comments on this statement.

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program - right choice for the Australian Defence Force

Friday, Mar 12, 2010
Source: Australian Government

The Minister for Defence, Senator John Faulkner, today confirmed that the Government remains confident the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is the right choice for the Australian Defence Force's next-generation air combat capability, and will enable the Australian Defence Force to maintain its strategic air combat capability advantage out to 2030.

Not only do Air Power Australia believe that this statement is untrue but so do a wide range of other air power analysts. The JSF is not only inferior to the threats it would face in our region from now out to beyond 2030 but it also highly likely to be overmatched both in terms of numbers and the incumbent capabilities resident in our region. If confronted in any conflict, the inevitable conclusion would be that the RAAF will get - in the vernacular - ‘clobbered’ [1].

Responding to the recent developments in the JSF program, Senator Faulkner noted that the JSF program would produce over 3000 aircraft for United States (US) Services and international partners.  Senator Faulkner said, "As with all highly complex and cutting edge projects, risks are to be expected."

The planned number of aircraft may be over 3000 but no one expects this number to be built. Even the US GAO is skeptical[2].

The reference to risks is appropriate. The JSF project is one of the most risk laden projects we have ever embarked upon. There is still a very high level of risk that the project will fail. This has been reported in many publications

"As I said on 2 February 2010, the Australian Government's staged acquisition strategy for the JSF includes significant cost and schedule buffers to deal with project risks which will ensure initial operational capability in 2018 is met."

Significant cost and schedule buffers’ What does this mean? Nothing in our estimation. There is nothing Australia can do that will speed up the already much delayed program so that any buffer Defence build in is meaningless. What it probably means is that Australia will accept earlier aircraft in the production program and thus be stuck with early capability limited aircraft to add to the already inferior 14 low rate production aircraft Defence have gained approval to order. Initial ‘real’ operational capability in 2018 on current progress is not believable. Moreover real cost pressures in the near future will inevitably lead to reduced numbers of JSF’s purchased for Australia. On current plans, including the less than capable 24 x Super Hornet buy, Australia is now staring down the barrel of an air combat capability gap yawning out for some 15 to 30 plus years.

"Defence will continue to maintain close and regular contact with the US to ensure the success of this vital project."

Let’s hope this is true but the evidence to date does not give us any confidence that Defence or the DMO have been keeping a close eye on the project till now.

As a result of the latest US JSF cost update, US Defense Under Secretary Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Dr Ashton Carter has told the United States Senate Armed Services Committee that he expected the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program to experience a Nunn-McCurdy funding breach.

Such a breach has been predicted by Air Power Australia for some years now. It has been obvious to those monitoring the project.

Nunn-McCurdy is US legislation which requires Congressional review of major projects when growth in an acquisition program's cost estimates exceeds specific thresholds.  In the case of the JSF Program, the Nunn-McCurdy breach involves growth in estimated costs for the program exceeding 50 per cent since 2002.

The thorough review now required will be a continuation of the restructuring process announced by Secretary Gates on 1 February 2010 in expectation of a Nunn-McCurdy breach.

This statement confirms the widely held view that the restructuring announced by Secretary Gates was driven only by a desire to get out in front of the Congressional review mandated under the Nunn-McCurdy breach. It was forced on the US Defense Department [DOD] by the imminent Congressional review. It is doubtful if any restructuring would have been undertaken if the Nunn-McCurdy breach could have been avoided.

The statement that the Congressional review would only add to the Gates restructure misses the whole point of a Congressional review. It is independent of the Department and could possibly reverse some of the changes proposed. Be sure the Department and Secretary Gates are not looking forward to this review – such reviews have previously proven to be bitter medicine for the project sponsors as project shortcomings are put on public display.

Senator Faulkner also said, "The JSF Program Office advises that no significant implications are expected for the JSF Partner countries as a result of the Nunn-McCurdy breach due to the restructuring action which has already been taken in the US.

"The adoption of a more conservative budgeting approach by the US Department of Defense for the JSF Program - particularly for early aircraft where cost risk is highest - is a sound management approach for such a large and complex project.

This is code for pay less earlier and pay much more later – a common program manager's ploy to limit or counter criticism.

"Australian Defence planning has always adopted a cautious approach to JSF cost estimates by factoring in significant amounts of contingency funds to deal with cost risks," Senator Faulkner said.

The Minister and the Department have let the cat out of the bag with this statement The US DOD and Lockheed Martin would be over the moon at the following quote from the Minister’s statement:

‘by factoring in significant amounts of contingency funds to deal with cost risks’

This is ‘code for we are prepared to pay up to the full government authorization for the project’ - some A$16B – including all the contingency. The implication also is that if this is not enough, the Department will go back for more money. This is nothing more than a blank cheque for Lockheed-Martin - and their executives must be rubbing their hands together with glee. Be assured Lockheed-Martin will cash that cheque. However this promise of unlimited expenditure does not guarantee a viable or operationally acceptable aircraft in the long run. In fact strong indications to date suggest that Australia will get neither in the F-35 JSF.

The above media release and incumbent Ministerial statements epitomise the lack of Defence and Government understanding of the seriousness of the parlous state into which the JSF has developed. Blindly following the US DOD in this project is a recipe for disaster. It is now time for a serious independent external review of this very risky project and of the decisions made in the Government, the Defence Department and particularly in the DMO which have led us to this perilous situation.


2 Refer the following:
  1. http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-NOTAM-191109-1.html
  2. http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-NOTAM-170809-1.html
  3. http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-NOTAM-290309-1.html

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