The F-35 and implications for allies

We tend to see the F-35 through the lens of the US military requirements. Earlier this week, Jeffrey W. Hornung offered an interesting take on the F-35:

While the Defense Ministry is responsible for choosing the F-35, officials are concerned about its delivery and price. In February, Defense Ministry officials told the U.S. government there’s a possibility of cancelling its order if things change. This followed news that the United States delayed, Italy reduced, and Australia and Canada were rethinking their acquisition plans. All of these will increase the F-35’s cost. The Defense Ministry also requested the U.S. review its FMS-based acquisition program so Japan’s defense industry can have deeper involvement in the jet so as to acquire technical know-how.

The alliance has dealt with broken promises before, and relations suffered. We saw this most recently in 2009, when Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama reneged on a 2006 Japanese promise to relocate troops from Okinawa to Guam, contingent on relocating Futenma to a replacement facility in northern Okinawa. The U.S. came down hard on Hatoyama. It was only after he stepped down that alliance relations could be reset and the process of rebuilding trust could begin.

The F-35 may very well be delivered on time and on cost. However, this doesn’t appear to be the case right now. Although the U.S. can’t be held legally responsible for changes in price or delivery dates under FMS rules, there will be political damage. The U.S. needs to think about how to manage this damage with its closest ally in the Asia-Pacific if the F-35 can’t be delivered as promised.

Worse, what to do if Japan cancels all or part of its order? Japan has a shrinking budget and needs new fighters. Any changes will put Japan in a precarious situation. While the other options available to the Defense Ministry weren’t 5th generation fighters, it nevertheless had other options better suited to aid its collapsing defense industry. Japanese officials are counting on the U.S. to deliver on its promise, much like the U.S. counted on Japan to deliver on its 2006 promise. Hatoyama showed the alliance how not to renege. Is the United States prepared to do any better regarding its F-35 promises?

Earlier in the article, Hornung details several changes in Japanese policy with respect to weapons development and sales, which were needed to “land” the F-35 on the western side of the Pacific.  Such underscore the economic factors in play and the high cost of cutting-edge technology.  If a nation cannot feel safe without a fifth-generation fighter, then the nation must pay for that platform – even if that means cutting legal corners to do so.

To me the F-35 is eerily similar to the F-111’s early guise, in the 1960s, as the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX).   From otherwise disparate requirements, DoD chiefs forced the Air Force and Navy to adopt a common airframe for a deep-strike interdiction bomber (um… fighter) and a long-endurance interceptor.  Tagging along were the British who ordered 50 of the F-111K variant.  One common airframe for everyone?  Sounds good.

By 1968, the F-111 program was terribly behind and over budget.  A limited initial operating capability deployment to Southeast Asia further tarnished the TFX’s record.  Tragically three aircraft losses were attributed to horizontal stabilizer malfunctions, not enemy action.  The TFX needed more development.  By that time the British and the Navy had backed out (each going on to independently pursue excellent solutions for what its worth).  Only after several more years of development did the F-111 emerge as a very capable bomber (in both tactical and strategic guises) for the USAF – serving until the late 1990s.  The Australians used their version of the F-111 up until recently.

In the 1960s, Cold War pressures meant the services could overlook some project over-runs and inefficiencies.  It was just one of the costs of being the leader of the free world, we were told.  Likewise, allies could overlook program failures, assuaged by assessments of what sat behind the iron curtain.

But in today’s world, one must worry about misguided weapons development projects.  With so much momentum behind it, I am certain the F-35 will eventually reach service at some point.  But the weapon system may prove more damaging politically than militarily.