FORT WORTH, Texas — Top Norwegian officials are standing by their commitment to buying up to 52 F-35 fighter jets over the next decade, despite ongoing budget gridlock and sequestration cuts that threaten the US production line.
Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide said Monday she is not concerned budget pressure will derail the F-35 program.
"We have no indication that that will affect the F-35 program. On the contrary, this situation has been there for many years right now, the sequestration and also the budgetary restraints, and it has not affected the program," Søreide said. "We see that the number of planes being ordered both by the US and other partners is actually at the same level as it has been since 2008, 2009."
Søreide also expressed confidence that the price of the F-35 will continue to drop as Lockheed Martin begins ramping up production of the jet. She lauded a 2010 restructuring of the program as crucial to turning the effort around, and said so far the Norwegian jets are being received on time and on budget.
"The price is going in the right direction, I think that is quite important to underline," Søreide said. "The first planes that we are now receiving, they are received on time and on budget … that also tells us that the F-35 program as such is under quite strict control at the moment."
Søreide and other Norwegian officials were here on Monday and Tuesday for Lockheed's rollout of Norway's first F-35. Two Norwegian F-35As are scheduled for delivery this year and will be used for pilot training at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. Norway is slated to receive its first jets in 2017 for training, with initial operational capability expected in 2019. The Norwegian jets, a modified version of the US Air Force's A-model conventional-take-off-and-landing variant, will reach full operational capability in 2025.
Soereide's comments come as the prospect of a year-long continuing resolution threatens to derail the Pentagon's planned ramp of F-35 production over the next few years. A CR, a stopgap spending measure used to temporarily fund the government when Congress cannot reach a budget agreement, prohibits new-start programs and limits resources for platforms currently in production to prior year funding levels. This is a particular problem for the F-35, as the Pentagon plans to buy 19 additional jets next year, officials have said. If the Pentagon is trapped in a year-long CR, the Joint Program Office won't be able to buy those planes.
Although US officials are not worried the prospect of a year-long continuing resolution will scare off the international partners, the Pentagon's acquisition chief told reporters on Tuesday that scenario would impact the price of the jet "on the margins."
"It has an impact on the margins, whenever we change the production rate, whenever we lower it, there is an impact on the margins," Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for acquisition, said Tuesday after the rollout ceremony. "It's simply economies of scale, and that ripples through all the partners and foreign sales as well — whoever is buying the F-35 is affected by that."
However, one top F-35 official pointed out that most international customers are looking at the aircraft as a 50-year investment, and are not concerned about a single year of budget gridlock.
"I think most of the folks looking at the airplane are looking at it as a much longer term than just a single year," Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, head of the F-35 JPO, said Tuesday. "This is an investment in 40 or 50 years of air superiority, so I don't think it will have much effect."
Søreide and other Norwegian officials echoed Bogdan's comments, pointing out the advanced capabilities the F-35 will bring to a region faced with a changing threat environment. Søreide pointed to the jet's advanced sensor package, which provides enhanced situational awareness, as well as its long-range and stealth capabilities.
The F-35 is particularly crucial for Norway in light of Russia's aggressive moves in the European theater and increased military flights in the Baltic Sea region, Maj. Gen. Per Egil Rygg, inspector general of the Royal Norwegian Air Force, told reporters Monday. Rygg said he believes Norway's significant buy will make Russia think twice about provoking the small nation.
"With the F-35 the our defense capability in Norway increases very much, so it gives us new capabilities that we don't have today," Rygg said. "It gives us capabilities that any adversary will have to take into considerations whatever they think to do because we have such a large volume — we are a small nation but we will have a large volume of F-35s."
Søreide also underscored how the F-35 will enhance Norway's military operations in the Arctic region, where Norway and Russia share a border.
"We need to have a situational awareness [in the Arctic] and the new F-35s alongside other capabilities will provide that," Søreide said. "It is important because the environment is constantly changing, and that's why we need to be able to figure out what is happening in real time."
Given Norway's geographical location, the Norwegian F-35s will have a unique drag chute to rapidly decelerate the aircraft after landing on the country's short, icy runways. The F-35 team is currently beginning to modify the Norwegian aircraft to incorporate the drag chute and will begin testing on icy runways the capability in Alaska around this time next year.
"In Norway we operate from runways that are built shorter than you will find in the US and also in Norway we have very demanding weather, you know parts of Norway are in the aArctic," Rygg said. "So the combination of slippery runways and very rough winter weather made us decide to have the drag chute."
While the US Air Force does not at this time have a requirement for the drag chute, the partner nations can choose to tap into the capability any time in the future, Bogdan said.
The Norwegian aircraft will also carry the Joint Strike Missile, built by Norwegian defense company Kongsberg, and utilize Nammo's 25-mm Armor Piercing Ammunition Explosive (APEX) munition. Norwegian industry is targeting the US and other partner nations to buy those capabilities to increase commonality and lethality of the aircraft.
These additional capabilities will give the Norwegian F-35s greater operational flexibility than any of the partner jets, Norway defense ministry spokesman Endre Lunde emphasized Monday.
"By 2025 I believe we can say that the Norwegian F-35s are going to be the most capable CTOLs in the world," Lunde said.