The F-35 may click together like Lego but keeping the partners together is harder

Challenges are piling on the Joint Strike Fighter programme, even as the Lockheed Martin-led industry team promotes at Paris advances achieved during assembly of the first aircraft. Development delays, cost increases, technology transfers and investment returns are key issues as programme officials begin crucial negotiations with international partners on the production and sustainment phase.

That the nine investing partners – the USA, UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway – remain a team is an achievement, given the political, economic and competitive pressures on the JSF programme over the three years since the partnership was forged. But to take the next step, from development into production, the partnership must resolve a series of issues.

A final, three-month round of government-to-government negotiations is set for launch in September, with the goal of agreeing a single memorandum of understanding (MoU) for production, sustainment and follow-on development that will be signed by all eight international partners. Preparatory talks opened in May, with the MoU scheduled to be signed by December next year.

As part of the MoU negotiations, partner nations will be required to provide a “good faith” commitment to procuring aircraft. “So far they have been investing partners. Now we are looking at large defence outlays to buy aircraft,” says Tom Burbage, Lockheed executive vice-president and general manager of F-35 JSF programme integration. “The biggest challenge is matching the budget decision cycles.”

The MoU was conceived as a way of allowing the partner nations to commit to the production phase without having to seek parliamentary budget approval to procure aircraft. “This is not a contract to buy aircraft. It is a commitment in good faith,” says Burbage. “The MoU will provide some level of assurance that they will buy.”

Signing the MoU will provide each partner with a revenue stream from production and sustainment of the JSF, and determine its contribution to follow-on development of the F-35. Unique national requirements will be negotiated as part of the MoU, and must be paid for. “As individual partners do excursions, they come at cost to that partner so that they do not affect the baseline cost of the US aircraft,” Burbage says at the show.

Excursions would include any demand for a local assembly of the F-35. So far, only Italy has expressed the desire for a second final assembly and check-out (FACO) line, with the matter being discussed during a bilateral side meeting at the 9 June JSF chief executives’ conference.

European assembly

Lockheed is analysing the cost, technology transfer and production issues at the request of the US-led joint programme office, but is clearly enthusiastic about prospect for an Italy-based “European final assembly” location. The challenge will be persuading the US government to expand Italy’s final assembly rights beyond its projected order for some 130 aircraft.

Industrial workshare demands that a year ago nearly drove Norway and Turkey from the programme appear to have quieted, after Lockheed adjusted its “best value” sourcing strategy to favour contractors in countries that had not realised an adequate return on investment in the system development and demonstration (SDD) phase.

As the programme moves into production, the company intends to stick to its strategy. “Industry will continue to provide best value,” says Burbage. “This is not going to be an offset-type programme, because that will drive up costs.” Suppliers can expect to continue into production provided they maintain their cost and quality improvement performance, “otherwise we reserve the right to rebid”, he says.

The biggest issue entering MoU negotiations appears to be the longstanding complaint about foreign access to potentially sensitive US technology. The most outspoken critic of the current technology-transfer restrictions is the chief executive of major JSF team member BAE Systems, Mike Turner, who has called on the UK to withdraw from the programme unless the USA shows progress.

“When you enter into a programme with the USA you should get the technology transfer right, or you have to go to the States every time you need a change and it costs you a fortune,” Turner said on the eve of the show. He wants assurances before the UK commits to the production phase that the USA will make available the technology required to sustain the JSF in service. But the US position is that further transfer approvals must wait until the UK fulfils its commitment to buy 150 aircraft and signs a production contract.

“The partners would like guaranteed access today, but the US government will not do that,” says Burbage. “There is nothing in BAE’s workshare that they cannot do, but projecting 10 years ahead they would like access to more. They do not have everything they need to sustain the aircraft,” he says, adding: “That will be worked out through the MoU process.”

Technology release to the UK has been handled by a series of technical assistance agreements (TAA) that provide for progressive disclosure of information to BAE as its work expands. The governments have completed amendment 9, which provides “all the technology access we need to complete SDD work on the aft fuselage and empennage”, says Mark Hodge, BAE’s vice-president for JSF marketing.

“We are up to TAA 9 on SDD and working on amendment 10, which is outside SDD. TAA 10 will be in place before the UK signs the MoU,” says Burbage. But Hodge says the release process is “cumbersome, slow and annoying to both sides”, while Turner is more direct: “Up to TAA 9 it has been difficult every time. The thing that will take it to a head is the FACO.”

Turner’s comment is a clear indication that BAE is angling for a second F-35 assembly line, to allow the UK to maintain and upgrade its aircraft. But US industry and government officials say the BAE chief executive’s public remarks are not echoed in behind-the-scenes talks with the UK Ministry of Defence. Programme officials say the MoD has made no demands for a FACO site, which is likely to cost the host nation more than $100 million.

To counter criticism, Lockheed can point out that the international partners have been shielded from the almost $7 billion rise in the cost of JSF development because the USA alone is covering the increase. But at the same time the foreign partners have had no say in the US decision to extend development and delay production, which in some cases creates a gap in their frontline capability.

While fielding of the first operationalF-35 unit, for the US Marine Corps, has been delayed almost two years to 2012, the first operational unit for an international customer, the UK, has been pushed back by a similar period to 2014. The delay will force Australia, for example, to upgrade existing fighters unless early-production F-35s suitable only for training are made available for export by 2012. Some of the other partners, particularly operators of Lockheed’s F-16, are already considering top-up purchases, the company revealed at the show.

As the first F-35 takes shape at Lockheed’s Fort Worth, Texas plant, heading for a first flight in August of next year, it is clear that successful development of three JSF variants, with two engine options, for multiple customers is but one of the many challenges facing the programme.



Source: Flight International