I have often seen F-35’s export successes being used as a proof of aircraft’s quality. Is it really so? I decided to check situation.
It is known that United States have often used diplomatic pressure – even threats of military invasion – to secure arms contracts. That also seems to be case here. And it is not only a matter of US politicians and generals – who themselves are often led by political concerns – praising F-35.
US State Department memos have revealed that Norway has been persuaded through diplomatic channels to buy F-35. In 2010, Canada has announced decision to buy 65 F-35s for 9 billion USD. In fact, influence of Military-Industrial Complex in United States are such that US embassies lobby for F-35.
In Norway’s case, diplomatic notes have been revealed (excerpts brought by therecord.com):
“We needed to avoid any appearance of undue pressuring … but we couldn’t let stand the view that the choice didn’t matter for the relationship,”
While public US position was that buying F-35 would “maximise” Norway’s relations with United States
“In private, we were much more forceful,”
When F-35s sale to Norway was in danger of being cancelled, US diplomats in Norway have warned that
“High-level Washington advocacy on this issue is needed to help reverse this trend,”
On September 22, 2008, US Embassy in Norway has asked United States to warn Norway that future US-Norway relations may be harmed if Norway does not select F-35.
After winning Norwegian deal, same memo has praised US diplomatic involvement.
While official Canadian position was that F-35 has been chosen due to its capabilities, that must be brought into question, since after Norwegian success, United States have compiled a list of lessons that can be used to help secure future F-35 exports:
active involvement of local US embassy, including Ambassador
co-ordinating sales strategy with Lockheed Martin
creating opportunities to praise aircraft – meetings by people of importance, often on lunches organized by US Embassy in respective country.
Even more damning, US diplomat – Kevin Johnson – who pushed F-35 on Norway is now based in Canada. His name also appears on document which lists lessons mentioned in paragraph above. In the same document, it was noted that SAAB has offered superior benefits for Norwegian industry compared to F-35, and price tag half of F-35s. Moreover, Gripen was also far better choice politically, playing on card of Norwegian neutrality and being a national corporation based in Norway’s neighbour, Sweden. Explaining decision, Norway has scorned Gripen’s performance, something never done by, and in opposing experiences of, other operators of the aircraft.
Later, it has been revealed that pressure has also been made by delaying export lincense for Gripen’s radar until after Norwegian decision.
Canadian politicians have engaged themselves in promoting the F-35. Canadian Department of National Defense has spent over 130 000 USD on tour designed to improve F-35s public image, and Industry Canada additional 55 000. (figures for 2011). There have also been visits by US politicians, as well as attempts to influence public opinion by articles – one, “The truth about those jets”, being written by retired General Paul Manson – also an ex-president of Lockheed Martin Canada. Canadian decision was, officially, based on competition held between 1997 and 2001. While it is true, competition in question was US 2001 competition which determined company to build F-35s. F-35 was also chosen before Canadian military has defined its requirements.
Many Canadian officials responsible for Canada’s decision to join Joint Strike Fighter programme are now lobbysts for Lockheed Martin. Also, over 70 Canadian firms have contracts signed with Lockheed Martin – and Lockheed Martin has said that it will not deal with these firms in future unless Canada buys F-35.
Canada needs to replace F-18s by 2016, yet F-35 will only be finishing its development phase that year.
Japan and Korea, meanwhile, have very strong political and military ties to the United States, and depend on US support in case of invasion by China. Korea has also been subject to pressure by United States: its request for upgrading F-16s radar has been denied.
While Korea has budgeted 120 million USD per aircraft, Air Force version of F-35 now costs at least 199 million USD in flyaway cost; cost difference will be covered by US taxpayers, and later presumably paid by increased maintenance costs.
Japan, meanwhile, has selected F-35 despite Eurofighter offering far better terms – 95 % of work was to be done in Japan, compared to 20 % for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and 80 % for Boeing’s Super Hornet.
Wikileaks documents have shown that pressure by US diplomacy was important in securing F-35 deals in Turkey and Italy.
That hardly reveales decisions brought purely on basis of military concerns. Actually, since all F-35s export customers have close ties to United States (especially Israel), and many are not likely to see any situation where they might need it, not a single F-35 export order was made on basis of performance.
However, even traditional US allies – such as Japan and Korea – are saying that they might cancel F-35 order if costs rise further. F-35’s export costs are, as seen before, actually already below its actual flyaway cost, with difference being covered by US taxpayers. Even then, cost might turn out to be too high for Korea. Canada and Netherlands are also thinking about cancelling F-35 buys, and UK is looking at Naval Typhoon for their carrier, an aircraft that will be superior to F-35 by all possible measures.
As for F-35’s performance, it is nothing to praise. It is large, heavy, has high wing loading and low thrust-to-weight ratio – and that despite its huge engine. A such, it is sluggish in both turn and acceleration, and very easily spotted by modern-day IRSTs such as PIRATE, at distances of 100 kilometers or larger – even from front, where its IR signature will be smallest.
Decade into programme, only 21 percent of developmental testing has been completed – and even in full testing plan, many factors will remain untested. Ben Freeman has rightly called the Joint Strike Fighter programme a “phenomenal idiocy”. Even now, F-35s built are basically prototypes. Only 4 % of systems required to run airplane are a final version; and depending on wether F-35’s issues with helmet mounted display are solved, and what is causing them, it might end up without high off-bore capability; a sitting duck for almost any other fighter out there.
Low cost promise – an utter oxymoron when it comes to stealth aircraft – has relied on large US orders. United States, however, will be forced to reduce their order due to mounting costs. If US reduce quantity substantially – they already have and they will reduce it even more in future – per-aircraft costs are going to increase, calling in question export orders.
Only good thing for the West that may have come from programme is that Typhoons and Rafales will have easy time dealing with at least some Chinese aircraft, as Chinese stealth fighters will have similar problems as US stealth aircraft: large size, high weight, high cost and low sortie rate, as well as limited payload.
It isn’t just F-35 exports that are being pushed via threats. In 2003, Poland chose US F-16 deal over Eurofighter and BAE bids due to US threats of blocking Poland’s participation in NATO, EU and its relations with US.
(expansion of original article follows)
Reasons for situation described above are multifold. First, large F-35 exports will harm competition, particularly European firms (Eurofighter, Dassault, SAAB) which are offering cheaper and more capable aircraft. Second is, as already explained, long-term profit; while F-35 sales will cause a short-term losses to US (but not to Lockheed Martin) due to US Government subsidizing cost difference, in long term it will provide profits – United States are unwilling to share detailed knowledge of the system required for maintaining it, which means that aircraft have to be shipped to United States for upgrades and maintenance.