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All Eyes on F-35

Threats from China Shape Conflicting Priorities Throughout Asia-Pacific

Feb. 10, 2014 - 12:07PM   |  
By WENDELL MINNICK   |   Comments
TO GO WITH ASIA-AIR-AEROSPACE This ph
Long Buildup: People gather around the F-35 at the Asian Aerospace exhibition in Singapore 10 years ago. As military and industry gather at the Singapore Airshow this month, several Asian countries are in various stages of buying the jet — or deciding if they want it. (AFP/Getty Images)
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TAIPEI — Lockheed Martin’s fifth-generation multirole joint strike fighter has all of the problems one could expect from a program with 11 total partner/participant nations: cost overruns, technical difficulties, espionage, delays and persistent rumors of desertion by various members.

Pentagon cost-cutters might be forced to save the F-35 program by wounding others, which could mean the defunding of the US Air Force’s combat avionics programmed extension suite (CAPES) program to upgrade radars and avionics on 300 F-16 fighter jets, and the end of production for Boeing’s F/A-18E Super Hornet.

“We really need [CAPES],” said Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of US Pacific Air Forces, in an interview. “I will tell you that as we looked at trying to make decisions, there were cases where to keep the new procurement systems like the F-35 and KC-46 [aerial refueling plane] on track … we may have to slow the upgrades on some of our legacy platforms to make sure we get the proper investment in procuring the new systems, i.e. the F-35.”

Despite these issues, Asia-Pacific nations appear set on procuring the single-engine stealth fighter for a variety of reasons: as a guarantor of interoperability with US forces; a hedge against the rise of China’s military and its own stealth fighters, the J-20 and J-31; and fears the US is losing its security grip on the Asia-Pacific region as China continues to push forward on plans to dominate its near seas and break through the first island chain into the Pacific.

“China has turned into Lockheed’s greatest salesman ever,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis with the Virginia-based Teal Group.

The Chinese military’s aggressive posturing and the leadership’s rhetoric, coupled with the Chinese Air Force’s and Navy’s somewhat premature efforts to field stealth fighters and an aircraft carrier, have highlighted East Asian interest in fifth-generation fighters.

Australia

Following earlier signs that Australia might reduce its F-35 order, the government is expressing growing confidence in the program. In December, the program achieved a milestone with the transition of the first aircraft from the electronic mate and assembly system to the final assembly line at Fort Worth, Texas.

Australia’s first two F-35s, AU-1 and AU-2, are currently being assembled in Fort Worth and deliveries are scheduled for this year, said Eric Schnaible, F-35 international communications manager.

The milestone increased confidence in Australian military circles that the New Air Combat Capability program will deliver under the latest deadline. The combat capability program was created in 1999 to find a replacement for Australia’s F/A-18 Hornet and the now-retired F-111.

Still, Australia has only two F-35As on order, both of which are due to go to the international F-35 training center being established at Arizona’s Luke Air Force Base next January.

There, they will be used to train the initial cadre of Australian pilots before delivery to Williamtown Royal Australian Air Force base in late 2018.

This is a relatively disappointing number, as Australia is the only partner nation involved in the development of the F-35 with Lockheed. The only other nation in the region that comes close is Singapore, which is a participant nation.

A further 12 aircraft have been committed to, commencing with low-rate initial production lot 10 (LRIP-10) in mid-2015. But if the Hornet is to be retired on schedule, three squadrons and a training unit are required by the end of 2022. This will require purchasing 72 aircraft, with a further decision to be made sometime in the next decade on a final batch of 28 to replace Australia’s newer F/A-18F Super Hornets.

“The next lots deliver in LRIP-10 [eight aircraft for delivery in 2018] and LRIP-11 [four aircraft for delivery in 2019],” Schnaible said. “The Australian government reaffirmed its commitment to procuring up to 100 aircraft.”

The Royal Australian Air Force will submit its recommended purchase profile for government consideration early this year, with a decision expected around April. Options include a single tranche of 72 aircraft or a phased approach, which will require a series of government approvals.

“The hardest part of the F-35A is not the development program, it is getting a competent workforce to be able to operate an F-35A. The critical aspect is actually the pilot and maintenance training,” said Air Marshal Geoff Brown, Australia’s Air Force chief. “If we go for one tranche, we will better be able to plan out the retirement of the ‘classic’ F/A-18A/B [Hornet] and the transition of those personnel.”

Japan

If one country in the region has been shaken to the core by Chinese military activity in the East China Sea, it’s Japan.

China declared an air defense identification zone effective Nov. 23 over a group of disputed islands. The announcement took Tokyo and the US by surprise, as leaders in both countries breathed in details of the new identification zone map that overlapped Japan’s and covered the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which China claims as its own.

Despite a 2011 decision by Tokyo to procure the F-35A to replace its 1960s-era F-4EJ Kai Phantoms, Japan has made little progress on a buy that would include 28 to 42 fighter jets by 2021.

Lockheed’s Schnaible said that for Japan, “contractual agreements were completed, and we’re progressing toward the construction of their final assembly and check out facility.”

Under a June foreign military sales agreement with the US, Japan committed to purchase the first four F-35As at US $124 million each, when the exchange rate was 82 yen to the dollar. Since then, the yen’s value has fluctuated between 95 and 105 to the dollar.

The price of the first two fighters climbed to ¥29.9 billion, and the cost for the next four for fiscal 2014 has risen to ¥63.8 billion, representing a price of nearly 160 billion yen per fighter.

Added to this are plant and tooling-up costs as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), Mitsubishi Electric and IHI establish assembly and production lines. Japan plans to assemble 38 F-35s in country.

Bearing in mind the rising costs of the F-35 program, the Defense Ministry is still figuring out what it can do about the long-term replacement of about 200 F-15J and 90 F-2 fighters.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the MoD still purchases fighters based on an annual budget, meaning that it cannot lock in a price.

“The first four Japanese F-35A aircraft will be delivered from Lockheed Martin’s aircraft production line in Fort Worth, Texas, beginning in 2016 as part of [LRIP] lot 8,” Schnaible said. “The subsequent deliveries of 38 aircraft, beginning in 2017, will come from MHI’s Nagoya [final assembly and check out facility], which will deliver aircraft exclusively for Japan.”

Despite actions by Lockheed to help lower costs, the Japanese media has come out opposing the F-35A by retelling the classic Japanese victimization story, which is deep in the Japanese psyche, of how Japanese are misled by foreign intruders.

Some in the Japanese military are comparing it to a “bottakuri bar,” in which customers are lured in, only to be charged heavy fees later.

Defense analyst Shinichi Kiyotani said the ministry is being vague about the F-15J replacement program because it genuinely does not know if Japan could afford more F-35s, especially as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Electric Corp. and IHI will be assembling and producing parts locally.

Pointing out that locally produced versions of US gear generally cost double their original versions — for example, Kawasaki Heavy Industry’s version of the MCH-101 airborne mine countermeasures helicopter costs about $60 million per unit compared to $30 million for the UK version — Kiyotani said the F-35’s costs could climb.

Singapore

Singapore is a participant nation in the F-35 development program and has special rights to the procurement of the stealth fighter not shared with Japan and South Korea.

“Singapore joined the F-35 program in 2004 as a security cooperation participant, which has enabled Singapore to receive detailed program status and performance information,” Lockheed’s Schnaible said. “The government of Singapore has not announced their specific F-35 acquisition plans or timelines.”

A decision to procure the F-35 is expected to be made in the immediate future, with the possibility the announcement could come at the Singapore Airshow.

In December, Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen visited Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., where two F-35Bs belonging to the US Marine Corps were on display. Singapore has one squadron of F-16 fighters permanently based at Luke for training. Upon his return to Singapore, Ng said the city-state was considering the F-35 to replace its F-16s, but was in no hurry.

On Jan. 14, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced the decision to sell Singapore a program to upgrade 60 F-16C/D models for $2.43 billion. The program would include 70 active electronically scanned array radars.

However, with reports that the CAPES F-16 upgrade program might be defunded by the US military in the fiscal 2015 budget, Singapore could delay a decision on whether it goes with the CAPES framework or chooses the F-16 upgrade program selected by South Korea, which includes the Northrop Grumman scalable agile beam radar with BAE Systems as the integrator.

If the F-16 upgrade plan falls apart, Singapore could go forward more quickly with the procurement of the F-35.

South Korea

South Korea is moving forward on its initial purchase of 40 F-35A fighters amid growing worries over stories about the fifth-generation fighter’s technical glitches.

The country’s Joint Chiefs of Staff met Nov. 22 in Seoul and formally approved an updated set of required operational capabilities for its F-X III competition, Lockheed’s Schnaible said.

“The [Joint Chiefs] also announced a plan to move forward with an initial procurement of 40 aircraft with deliveries from 2018-2021, followed up with a possible order of 20 more aircraft in the 2023-2024 timeframe,” he said.

The updated requirements state that South Korea needs an aircraft with “the most advanced stealth capabilities possible.”

South Korea was planning to buy 60 F-15 Silent Eagle fighters from Boeing to replace its aging fleet of F-4 Phantoms and F-5 Tigers. But citing stealth as the priority, the military decided to procure the F-35A. However, due to the higher costs, South Korea could afford only 40.

“The F-35A is available to meet the Republic of Korea’s 2018 delivery requirements and is offered in a Block 3F configuration,” Schnaible said. “Korea’s acquisition process, however, first requires a feasibility study to approve this new acquisition plan before the F-35 can be formally source-selected through their acquisition board.”

In terms of interoperability with the regional and US military’s F-35s, “I think the F-35 decision for the Koreans was the right one,” Carlisle said. “Purchasing the same fifth-generation advanced capability will pay great dividends for the Koreans.”

However, some in South Korea’s defense establishment are not sold on the F-35. Kim Dae-young, a research member of the Korea Defense and Security Forum, is skeptical about the plane’s technical problems.

“The F-35 technical glitches are not expected to affect the deal set for the third quarter immediately,” Kim said. “But if the technical problems are raised continuously, we can’t rule out the possibility that the Korean government may delay the deal or have a second thought on the procurement of the F-35, especially when the public sentiment on the Lockheed Martin jet is getting worse.”

Taiwan

Though Taiwan has a fighter requirement that includes fifth-generation jets, the US appears reluctant to sell the self-governing island new fighters, despite repeated requests since 2006 for 66 F-16C/Ds.

Taiwan officials must contemplate a reversal of a decision to upgrade its remaining fleet of 146 F-16A/B fighters under the US Air Force’s CAPES program, as news spreads that CAPES could be defunded in the next Pentagon budget.

In the past, Taiwan has voiced interest in the F-35B, a short takeoff and vertical landing version of the fighter, to cope with the projected destruction of conventional runways by China’s arsenal of 1,300 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at the island.

In 2002, Taiwan submitted a letter of intent for a briefing on future price and availability data for the F-35. In the letter, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office requested data for 120 F-35B aircraft. The office is Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington.

The letter said China’s missiles threatened Taiwan’s air superiority.

“The primary purpose of this acquisition is to provide a credible response capability in the event that our air bases become non-functional due to initial air, missile and special operations force attack,” the letter said.

In 2004, Taiwan military sources indicated a bolder request was made for 60 F-35Bs and 150 F-35A conventional fighters. The F-35B would help to overcome the damage caused to runways by China’s missiles in case of an attack.

Ed Ross, a former principal director of Security Cooperation Operations at DSCA, said he doubted the US would risk selling Taiwan the F-35 due to concerns over technology theft by China. Ross also cited the betterment of cross-Strait relations between Beijing and Taipei as another reason the US would be wary of selling them to Taiwan. ■

Nigel Pittaway in Melbourne, Jung Sung-ki in Seoul, Paul Kallender-Umezu in Tokyo and Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.

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