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  • The Dismal Science
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 1:37 PM on Mar 07, 2012

    Last Friday's meeting in Washington of Joint Strike Fighter partners didn't result in any huge public issues, and it would have been surprising if it had. Norwegian defense minister Roger Ingebrigsten emerged with statements of confidence, albeit linked to a cut-back order and an eyewatering price tag.
    "We think that we are going to pay close to what we said we would in 2008," Ingebrigsten told Reuters by telephone after returning from his U.S. visit. "The main approach will be the same as it has been since 2008."

    He declined to provide details ahead of the Norwegian government's submission to parliament in two weeks. Previous plans called for Norway to buy 56 aircraft for 61 billion Norwegian crown ($10.89 billion), in undiscounted 2011 crowns, or 72 billion crowns when a greater contingency is counted.
    The main issue addressed by the meeting was the impact of successive Pentagon acquisition delays, up to and including the 2013 budget actions, on the production ramp: simply, how much an F-35 will cost in which year, until some as yet undefined point where the program ascends into the promised land of one-aircraft-per-working-day production.

    US budget documents don't say when this will happen, but it will not be in the 2017 buy year, for 2019 deliveries. Near-full-rate production has definitely slipped into the 2020s, for a program that was supposed to be in multi-year full rate procurement by now.

    Under previous plans, full-rate production for the US comprises 130 aircraft: 80 F-35As per year for the USAF and 50 F-35B/Cs for the Department of the Navy. The planned total for FY2017 is 76 -- 48 for the USAF, 14 Bs and 14 Cs.

    But when will the Pentagon get to 130 per year -- if indeed it does?

    Rather than continuing to ramp upwards from FY2015, the USAF buy levels out at 48 in FY2016 and FY2017. At a briefing last week at the Stimson Center, USAF assistant secretary for financial management  Jamie Morin declined to project buys beyond 2017. He said, however, that the plan was conservative "with some potential for overperformance as well as underperformance. We're relying on the contractors to step up their game".

    The 2017 unit flyaway price ($107 million) is also pretty close to the projected average for subsequent years ($108.3 million) -- which says that the USAF is not projecting big savings from increases in production rate. As USAF chief of staff Gen Norman Schwartz remarked late in January: "There ain't no more money. If the aircraft are cheaper we'll buy more. If they're more expensive, we'll buy less."

    It sounds like it is up to the contractors to bring unit costs down to get the numbers up. And that 48 number? I hate to say "you read it here first", but
    you read it here first, four years ago:
    A bigger potential problem was raised by Lt Gen Raymond Johns, USAF deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs: the USAF won't be able to afford its planned 110 JSFs a year under its projected total obligational authority (TOA). F-16s, he said, "will be coming out of the force at a rate of 100 a year from 2014. With our TOA, we can buy 48 JSFs per year, and the fighter force declines to 1400 aircraft."
    Exactly how this will affect partner orders and deliveries remains to be seen. The Norwegians may be happy, but not everyone in the party is a petro-currency.

    On the Navy side, there is a different issue. 2017 orders and 2019 deliveries leave the Navy with 33 F-35Cs ordered in 2014 or later -- that is to say, with the new TR-2 processor hardware that can handle Block 3 software. (That is the initial operational capability standard). The next question: When will the Navy be able to declare IOC? If that's defined as "a squadron continuously available at sea, backed up by a training unit", IOC looks like 2020 at best.

    That leaves the UK on the ragged edge of being able to put even a sub-squadron number of F-35s on the deck of Prince of Wales in 2020. Which, taken with uncertainties over partner buys, explains UK defense procurement minister Peter Luff's answer to Parliament last month, about the cost of UK F-35Cs: "The honest answer is we don't know."

    Gadzooks, the man told the truth. Nurse, tranquilizers, stat!

    Tags: ar99, tacair, budget, JSF

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