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Trump’s F-35 tweets a worrying signal for West’s air defences

By Malcolm Davis

President-elect Donald Trump has again unleashed controversy, this time over the future of the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Trump recently tweeted that “based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet”, and adding: “ … about the F-35. It’s a disaster, it’s totally out of control.”

The president-elect may be using the implied threat of the F-35’s cancellation as a negotiation ploy to force Lockheed Martin to drop the unit cost, but such loose talk has forced the value of Lockheed Martin shares to plummet by almost $US2 billion ($2.77bn).

Opponents of the F-35 have jumped on the remarks, with Robert Gottliebsen suggesting in The Australian (December 27, 2016) that the F-35 is symptomatic of a US military and industrial “defence machine corrupted by power”.

Yet the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s analysis, undertaken by my colleague Andrew Davies, has shown that since 2011, when the entire Joint Strike Fighter project was reset, with new management structures, budgets and projections, the estimated average procurement cost has shrunk from $US147.8 million per aircraft in March 2012 to $US133.1m million per aircraft in December 2015.

The trends keep going down, with contracts for the next 42 F-35A’s at $US$102.1m each, a decrease of 5.5 per cent over the previous batch and a 60 per cent reduction over the first aircraft acquired.

The current goal is a projected unit cost of $US85 million in a 2019-20 time frame.

This does not, by any means, point to a project that is “out of control” — as Trump suggests.

Providing there are no further issues with the aircraft’s software, this reinforces the case to keep buying the aircraft at current projected numbers — or, if possible, to increase purchases.

Trump has called for a proposed alternative of a “comparable F/A-18 Super Hornet”. And that’s a big problem for his position — no matter what Boeing does to the Super Hornet, it won’t be “comparable” to an F-35, except in price.

Boeing’s alternative is likely to be based around its Advanced Super Hornet concept, which has features designed to make it stealthier than a regular variant, and enjoy greater operational range, as well as updated sensors.

Boeing is likely to aggressively promote the Advanced Super Hornet, and Australia would be wise to keep an eye on this concept, particularly given potential for applying the Advanced Super Hornet updates to our Growler electronic warfare aircraft as well as our current batch of Super Hornets.

But the Advanced Super Hornet won’t match the F-35’s advanced stealth or combat radius, and would have to incorporate the sensor and data fusion capabilities that make the F-35 special to even come close to being of comparable capability.

That will take time, and cost money, bringing the currently $US70m unit price for the Super Hornet much closer to the projected F-35 cost.

Despite Trump’s tweeting, the F-35 program’s cost projections are falling, and it is moving towards a conclusion of its developmental phase by the end of February 2018. There is a future risk is that the current developmental phase may stretch out to the following May, requiring money that would have to come from the follow-on modernisation program. This would amount to a $US100m overrun and a six-month delay in the follow-on program. That’s certainly not ideal, but it is hardly the sign of a project “wildly out of control”, as Trump would have us believe.

Cancelling the F-35 program now would be a serious error, given the deleterious implications for US and allied air combat capability and the impact on alliance relations. Russian and Chinese fifth-generation projects are moving ahead, and further investment in a fourth-generation Super Hornet would see Western air combat advantages decline sooner — they might even disappear — than would be the case with the JSF.

Instead of cancelling the F-35 just as it’s about to reach fruition after years of development, the Trump administration would be better advised to stick with the JSF, but start looking forward to boosting investment into complementary and successor capabilities.

The potential offered by unmanned systems needs greater attention. We’re not talking slow Predator drones such as the ones used over Afghanistan, but much more capable fighter-like Unmanned Combat Air Systems epitomised by the revolutionary Northrop Grumman X-47B platform. That’s an option Trump could look at right now, with two X-47B prototypes having successfully demonstrated their potential in recent years and now awaiting further funding to undertake an expanded development program.

If the US were to pursue this capability, a fully developed UCAS concept would potentially offer great benefit to the RAAF in the future. For example, it would allow our manned fighters to exploit unmanned wingmen in a manner that would reduce the risk posed to the manned aircraft. A future RAAF UCAS capability would also offer greater endurance and persistence than manned aircraft, and enjoy much lower operating and through-life costs. This lower cost translates into the opportunity to expand the RAAF’s air combat capabilities to allow a larger and more powerful air force in a more uncertain future.

Cancelling the F-35 is not a smart move for Trump. He should be looking to complement the F-35 with even more advanced capabilities to maintain a US and allied air combat edge against rising powers.

Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst, defence strategy and capability, at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Originally published: The Australian. 2 Jan 2017