Source: Adobe Stock/KonstantinL
“Trump puts pressure on Lockheed Martin over cost of F-35” says the Financial Times.
Well, we don’t have a problem with that. These defense contracts are notorious for overrunning budgets and, although to be fair to the contractors, the overruns are as often due to the buyer changing specifications as they are to the manufacturer mismanaging the project. At least that’s the case here in the U.K., and I don’t doubt it’s the same in the U.S.
But — and this is the big but — whoever is to blame, the fact is it is you and me, the taxpayer, that picks up the tab for these overruns and we aren’t talking a few dollars. It’s billions. Billions that could be spent on other defense equipment or roads, schools, research and development, etc. So, if the new president-to-be is intent on reducing this waste, then good for him. The issue is how you achieve that.
Why Negotiate Via Social Media?
Opening the negotiations via Twitter and seriously suggesting the U.S. Armed Forces should instead opt for an uprated fourth-generation F-18 Super Hornet in place of the world’s best fifth-generation airplane in the F-35 is about as puerile as it gets. Negotiations via Twitter? You should shake yourself and ask is this some teenage popstar building his fanbase or the most powerful politician in the world managing the defense of the nation? The U.S., and its allies that purchase versions of the F-35, are looking for state-of-the art technology that will remain capable for 30+ years.
The Super Hornet is cold war technology, not the avionics and weapons systems — they are more add-ons — it’s the airframe that must be designed from a blank sheet of paper. The FT quotes Loren Thompson, defense industry analyst, who defends contractor Lockheed Martin’s position saying “….most of the cost of the F-35 is beyond Lockheed Martin’s ability to affect because it relates to supplier costs and government regulation, and the second problem is that the F-35 was designed to be far more capable than that F-18 — and that does cost money. You could get any Cold War plane cheaper than a cutting edge 21st century plane, but you are not going to like the results when you go to war.”
Lockheed Martin Makes Its Case
Lockheed Martin is naturally defensive about their position. Jeff Babione, executive vice president and general manager of the F-35 Program, came out saying “We project the price of the aircraft will be $85 million in the 2019-2020 timeframe. When we get to $85 million, the F-35 will be less expensive than any fourth-generation fighter in the world. And it will be the premiere fifth-generation fighter. That’s an incredible value for anyone operating the airplane.”
When negotiations are handled in the glare of publicity that Twitter involves the risk is the president cannot be seen to have failed to achieve a win. As a result, concessions to capability will be made to achieve a cost savings rather than a real preservation of excellence at a lower cost.
“For the air forces that get this airplane, it’s not an evolution in technology, it’s a step function in capability,” Babione further said. “Whoever has it will have the most advanced air force in the world, and that’s why we’re building the F-35.”
This airplane must remain world class for 30-plus years. Think about that. Dumbing it down — or worse still switching to a previous generation of aircraft design — is not just a failure of that objective, it is an almighty waste of money.