Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Editorial: Lightning Strike - F-35 program project head replacement

The latest news from Washington amid the announcement of a record budget deficit for the United States is the decision of Secretary of Defense Gates to remove the current head of the F-35 program, a US Marine Corps General and replace him with a three star (***) General of more senior rank (no comment as yet as to which service).

The outcome of this personnel move is more telling than would appear on the service, especially for international participants who are pinning their hopes on the STOVL variant of the aircraft, such as the Royal Navy, who akin to the USMC have a need for replacements for the Harrier STOVL aircraft.

A USAF successor will likely take his role as a mandate to cut extraneous costs rapidly (and thereby variants) to bring the project under a greater apparent measure of control to dispel some of the political heat the program and DoD will be taking at a time of national austerity. A USN successor will likely sacrifice the VSTOL variant in order to protect the USN variant of the program. A USMC successor to the role of program head is about as unlikely as you can image - plus the Corp is likely more focused on securing upgrades to its amphibious assault capabilities and more Osprey aircraft.

Procurement politics being what they are, the F-35 program is the highest spending and therefore the largest target for;

a) congressional oversight
b) political opponents to the President
c) inter-service rivalries seeking to protect 'pet' projects at the expense of others
d) industrial rivalries seeking to attract increasingly scarce procurement dollars at the expense of others.

The US Air Force has, akin to the F-16 debate of the late 1970s/1980s has disdain for a High-Low fighter mix. The F-15/F-16 was a bitter battle and the F-22/F-35 is likely to be no less so.

Furthermore another implication of the budget has been to confirm reduction of engine suppliers from two to one. A classic procurement study noted that when the number of engine suppliers falls to one, historically costs rise and therefore unit costs increase and likely as the story unfolds numbers will be cut to meet the budget.

For Overseas partners this can only be bad news, especially when the exchange rate has fallen from a position only 18 months ago where $2 equally only 1 GBP.

The Royal Navy has sought to trim the CVF program as a similarly over-exposed program with few friends in the procurement sphere. Only Labour Party ship-building politics keep the project afloat (pardon the pun). One of the two ships has already been re-tasked as an amphibious assault carrier and the plans for the two vessels always had them 'equipped for, but not with steam catapults' - in case a VSTOL successor was not possible.

BAE Systems stands in the wings, likely with plans for a navalised Eurofighter Typhoon - which would force the Royal Navy to rapidly re-aquire skills in fast jet carrier aviation not used since the end of HMS Ark Royal and HMS Eagle in the early 1970s. A political fix given the UK investment could be a second hand buy of F-18 Hornets - not the state-of-the-art but a solid and well developed naval combat aircraft - the British purchase of F-4 Phantoms would mean this is not a precident setting purchase - and it could be justified to the Treasury as being quite parsimonious in the greater scale of things.

However if the choice becomes fast jet or 'no-jet' naval aviation I am sure the service will stand ready.

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