Lightning fails to strike

This first appeared as a Comment in the 22 July issue of Flight International

Very seldom is an aircraft more conspicuous by its absence than the Lockheed Martin F-35, and the embarrassing saga that accompanied its attempted journey to the UK and the Farnborough air show. For Lockheed, in this instance the advertising proverb that all publicity is good publicity failed to ring true.
The F-35 has been in development for nearly 13 years. More than $80 billion has been spent on developing and building a fleet of aircraft. Showcasing the F-35B’s unique and – it must be said – impressive hovering capability on a global stage could have been a critical moment in the history of the programme.
Quite simply, the F-35 needed to be at Farnborough. The type cannot be sold until it becomes more affordable. The US programme office has a plan to reduce the unit price to $85 million by 2019, but it depends on a steep production ramp-up, with output projected to rise about 500% compared with fiscal year 2014 levels.
There was a time when the programme could count on the US Department of Defense to underwrite the vast majority of the ramp up, but those days are gone under the USA’s sequestration policy. So the majority of the ramp-up over the next five years must come from the international market. Orders have already been won in Israel, Japan and South Korea, but the eight development partners are needed to fulfil their obligations.
It is this situation that underscores the devastating impact of the F-35’s absence.
The programme’s ­pre-show script was completely different. As an F-35B hovered over the Farnborough crowds, programme officials were supposed to roll-out a cost reduction programme aimed at Europe’s frugal arms buyers.  With that context understood, it is perhaps easier to comprehend how desperate US government officials bungled the communication strategy so awfully.
In a less stressful situation, programme officials may have adopted a more realistic tone about the F-35’s appearance. They could have said that the programme is on a solid footing with or without Farnborough.
Instead, the programme office and service officials made it all too clear how desperate they were to see the F-35 come to the show.
Until the last minute, government officials spoke in baited breath of how “hopeful” they were that the F-35 would arrive. Even after an accident investigation board imposed a 3h maintenance interval for the F135 engine – rendering a transatlantic flight impossible – US officials still spread false hope.

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