Delivery delays for the Block 3 version of the F-35 Lightning II strike fighter to the U.S. Air Force and Navy will little affect the program's international partners, Pentagon and Lockheed Martin officials say.
"Our ability to deliver jets to our international partners, as currently scheduled, is not encumbered by the recently announced delay to the program," DoD's F-35 international director, Jon Schreiber, said March 19. "Current program schedule and timelines also support known potential sales of the F-35 to other interested buyers."
For example, planned deliveries of the F-35B short-takeoff and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant of the jet to the United Kingdom and Italy are on track, for 2013 and 2014 respectively, said Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin, executive vice president and general manager of F-35 Program Integration.
"Right now, there are no anticipated delays in delivery to any of the international partners," Burbage told reporters during a March 18 telephone call. "Our production schedules are still tracking to plan."
The Pentagon restructured the F-35 program last month to stem delays in the plane's test schedule and allow for the timely delivery of production jets. Official estimates of the plane's flyaway cost have jumped since the program's 2001 launch, from $50 million apiece to between $79 million and $95 million, according to March 11 Senate testimony by Ashton Carter, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer.
Those figures are adusted for inflation; a Pentagon document released March 19 said that when F-35s are being delivered in 2012-14, the per-plane price tag would read $114 million to $135 million in then-year dollars.
The document puts the total procurement cost of the Pentagon's 2,443 planned F-35s at $278 billion to $329 billion in then-year dollars. It did not specify which year, but a Pentagon spokesman said 2012-14.
In Britain, officials pronounced themselves sanguine about the program.
"Current indications are that the effect on the U.K. is likely to be relatively small and that there is no immediate impact on either the U.K.'s ongoing participation in JSF or our future plans to acquire JSF," a Ministry of Defence statement said.
Quentin Davies, Britain's defense procurement minister, said March 17 that the potential for delays in the delivery of the F-35 to the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy is "being mitigated by a number of measures agreed with Ash Carter and others during discussion in Washington and Fort Worth [Texas] in February."
Moreover, the Ministry of Defence will be "extensively involved" in implementing the restructuring, the MoD statement said.
Britain, which pledged 2 billion pounds ($3 billion) to the fighter's design-and-development phase, originally planned to buy 150 F-35s. That number has officially slipped to a likely 138, but final decisions will wait at least for a government strategic defense review to be launched after the May elections - and possibly slip to 2015, the MoD's chief of defense materiel, Gen. Sir Kevin O'Donoghue, told the Parliamentary defense committee late last year.
In its statement, the MoD said Britain has always planned to buy its F-35s in increments and that the number depends on the program's technical maturity and affordability. Officials declined to give a planned in-service date.
Analysts and industry executives say the MoD will likely order between 70 and 100 jets - perhaps more, depending on how the RAF decides to replace the strike capability currently provided by the Tornado.
Meanwhile, Italian defense officials last week cautioned that the nation would face a fighter gap if its F-35Bs were delayed by more than a year or two.
"We will need some by 2015-16," and ideally by 2014, Gen. Giuseppe Bernardis, head of the Italian Air Force, said March 17. "Beyond that, we could see a drop in capabilities."
The Italian Air Force plans to buy 40 B models from the sixth batch of Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) fighters to replace its AMX attack jets, which are to retire mid-decade.
"We do not want to be obliged to keeping aging, front-line aircraft in service, with the rising costs that entails," Bernardis said.
Italy feels less pressure concerning its plans to buy 69 F-35As to replace its Panavia Tornado fighters, which will start retiring only in 2020-25, Bernardis said.
Unlike the Eurofighter program, in which Italy fixed its spending and then purchased the number of aircraft permitted by that cap, Rome might ultimately decide to buy more F-35s.
"Nothing is fixed yet, but I am confident the unit price, which refers to the first aircraft, will drop as the program proceeds, and we could decide to buy fewer aircraft at the start and more later on," he said.
Still, he said, delays in a program are never a good thing: "Slippage always means cost increases and potential drops in capability."
Turkish officials are not happy about the F-35 delays - officials say they expect initial deliveries to slip a year to 2016 - but they say their Air Force would compensate for any delivery slips.
"We remain committed to the JSF," said one Turkish procurement official. "As long as there are no additional delays or huge price increases, we wouldn't be concerned much."
Lockheed Martin is upgrading 117 older Turkish F-16s for $1.1 billion. Turkey also is buying 30 new Block 50 F-16s, which are to enter service in 2012, as part of a $1.8 billion stopgap until the arrival of the F-35.
Turkey plans to buy 100 JSF F-35s, but procurement chief Murad Bayar said last fall that number could rise to 120.
But one Ankara-based defense analyst said the delay may open the door to a competitor.
"Further delays won't be good for the JSF, because the rival Eurofighter consortium still aggressively is seeking sales of the Eurofighter Typhoon to the Turks," said the analyst.
In Denmark, the government is under intense pressure from ruling coalition political parties and parliament not to rush to decide among the F-35, Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Saab's Gripen-NG.
Still, budgetary pressures coupled with JSF's escalating cost have caused Danish opposition parties to question the continuation of its fighter replacement project (FRP).
"Should the government decide to not proceed with the project on the basis that the F-35 is too expensive, then the Super Hornet will most likely emerge as the favorite candidate over the Gripen. The smart money is on a further delay, perhaps one or two years," said a Copenhagen-based defense analyst.
By June, the Ministry of Defense expects to have a full technical and cost appraisal of the candidate aircraft, as well as a state auditor's macro-assessment of the project.
Israel Awaits LOA
As for Israel, a lower-tier JSF participant that is likely to be the program's first export customer, defense and industry sources say the latest schedule slip is not affecting internal deliberations within the defense establishment or ongoing external negotiations with the U.S. government for purchase of the jet.
While Tel Aviv is still officially committed to purchasing three squadrons of up to 75 aircraft, cost growth -even before the latest numbers were released this past month - prompted Israel to consider reducing its initial buy from 25 to 20 aircraft. In parallel, Israel revised its original plan to complete a government-to-government contract, known as a Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA), by the end of last year, with first deliveries of the jet slated for 2014.
Now, according to government and industry sources from both countries, the goal of the Israel Air Force and MoD is to conclude the LOA sometime this year, with initial deliveries from the first to begin in late 2015.
A Pentagon source said a formal LOA that includes detailed costs, terms and conditions is nearing completion and should be ready to be presented to the Israeli government in about two months.
Australia Stands Pat
In Australia, defense officials said this week that the country is committed to purchasing 100 of the aircraft to replace its aging F-111s and F/A-18 Hornets, which are both set to retire this decade. å
Andrew Chuter in London, Umit Enginsoy in Ankara, Gregor Ferguson in Sydney, Tom Kington in Rome, Gerard O'Dwyer in Helsinki and Barbara Opall-Rome in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.