JSF partners prepare for next MoU talks
MICHAEL SIRAK, JANE’S DEFENCE WEEKLY – August 19-24, 2005
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The next round of negotiations for the JSF production and sustainment phases is expected to take place in September. The partner nations must still resolve issues like technology sharing and where to locate regional hubs to maintain the aircraft. The goal is to have an MoU completed by mid-2006 and signed by the partners by the end of that year. The nine partner nations in the UK-US-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project are preparing to enter the second round of negotiations in September to determine how they will co-operate in building and maintaining the aircraft in coming decades. Senior officials involved in the talks said the negotiations have progressed well to date. However, they said, consensus needs to be reached on critical issues such as the release of technology and information between the partners, the establishment of regional centres for repairs and spare parts and whether more than one production facility is warranted.
US Navy Rear Admiral Steven Enewold, programme executive officer for the JSF programme office, told JDW on 9 August that the partners would like to finalise by mid-2006 the memorandum of understanding (MoU) that will anchor the programme’s production, sustainment and follow-on development phases. The goal is to give each of the partner nations – Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, the UK and US – time to approve the document by the end of 2006.
The pace and scope of technology transfer from the US to the partner nations remains the most contentious aspect of the programme. “My view is that the partners are unhappy with the pace of release and there is uncertainty on their part as to what they are going to get,” Rear Adm Enewold acknowledged. Still, he said: “I think the partners are seeing stuff being adjudicated and being released and most of them are five to six years away from getting airplanes, so they understand it is going to be a measured process.”
While the US is committed to ensure that the partners have “enough information to operate and sustain their airplanes,” it cannot release some of the information yet, the admiral said. “Frankly, there is a lot of information that we do not know yet because the design [of the aircraft] is not done.” Further, there have been requests for data to support the aircraft that the US has never had any intention of acquiring from Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor, yet alone release to other nations, since the company will be handling the aircraft’s logistics, he said. “Some of this information that they want is just not available and may never be unless they want to pay for it,” the admiral said.
Another factor often overlooked is that the flow of technologies in the JSF programme is not solely from the US to the partners, but also in the opposite direction, Air Commodore John Harvey, director general of the Royal Australian Air Force’s new air combat capability project, told JDW on 16 August. He said Australia, like the other partners, also has to address this issue of releasing technology while protecting its national interests. Rear Adm Enewold said he believes that establishing regional maintenance centres for repairs and spare parts makes sense. “I think there will be a need to have centralised theatre support,” he said. “I don’t think even the US wants to bring the airplanes back to the US for [all] work. Because of issues like customs and getting parts in and out of countries, we would probably like to pre-position some parts forward.”
Rear Adm Enewold said he has tasked Lockheed Martin to study business models, including the composition of the centres, that provide the most cost-effective way of supporting the aircraft globally. “We don’t need 10 of them but I envisage that we will need a couple,” he said, adding that it is likely that one will based in Europe and one in Asia. Australia, said Air Cdre Harvey, would like to host a centre, since, he said, “it is essential that we can look after our own aircraft” and the country can offer vast open space to accommodate a centre. It plans to procure around 100 of the JSF conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) variant.
A more difficult issue is where to locate a hub in Europe since just about every European partner would like to host it, said Rear Adm Enewold. While supporting the centres, the admiral said he has not yet seen a business case that supports the establishment of a second production facility for the aircraft. “There are several countries that have done studies to see what it would take to set up a second final assembly and checkout line,” he said. “It is certainly within the realm of possibility, but I think it is going to cost quite a lot of money to set it up and right now, it is not clear to me that the airplanes that come off of it will be at or below the cost of the airplanes that come off of the [main production line in Fort Worth, Texas].”
The MoU negotiations are occurring against the backdrop of the US Department of Defense mulling cuts to the number of JSFs it will buy as part of the Quadrennial Defense Review and future years’ budget drills. Currently the JSF programme is valued at USD257 billion over its life for 2,458 aircraft. In addition to the US buy, the partner nations are expected to purchase between 600 and 700 aircraft. Additional orders are expected from countries like Israel and Singapore, which have joined the programme as security co-operation participants. US Air Force officials have hinted publicly that they intend to cut back on the number of JSFs that the service will buy. Currently set at 1,763, some US defence sources indicated that this total may eventually fall by hundreds.
One key determinant will be how the development of unmanned strike aircraft evolves in the next few years. Rear Adm Enewold said the programme is proceeding uninhibited, despite the rumours of pending reductions, saying that “the numbers haven’t changed yet”. One desire, he said, is that anyone who is considering changes to the programme realise that cutting back on the purchase of one variant will have an impact on the costs of all versions of the aircraft and are likely to affect the programme in ways that may not seem obvious. “We run what-if drills once a week or more,” he said. “What I have found is that, as we have done these budget drills, the impacts to the programme are not intuitive – that is, if you pull something out of the programme in one place, you see something around the back side that gets messed up. “Especially within the US, people need to account for all of the cost changes.”
One caveat is that cuts in US numbers would not immediately cause the programme’s costs to spiral because the current per-unit price tag of the aircraft account only for the projected US buy and not the additional aircraft that the partners are expected to purchase. Based on the current US totals, Rear Adm Enewold said the CTOL aircraft will have an average recurring unit flyaway cost of approximately USD 45 million in base-year 2002 dollars. The short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant will cost somewhat under USD60 million applying those same criteria, while the carrier-borne version will be slightly more than USD60 million per unit.
The first flight of the CTOL test aircraft, dubbed A1, is expected in August 2006. The inaugural flight of the first aircraft, known as B1, is planned for about one year after that. The JSF carrier version should take to the air by early 2009. The admiral said programme engineers are confident that they have adequately modified the design of the STOVL variant to shed weight that could have effected its performance. Still, he said, he would like “to get 300 lb [136 kg] more out of the airplane” that would provide some ‘wiggle room’ to accommodate future enhancements and allow for design changes to optimise a component if an issue arises during static fatigue testing or flight testing of the aircraft.
One future option is an internally housed directed energy weapon. Overall, Rear Adm Enewold said the programme has rebounded from the STOVL weight issue that slowed its pace, but challenges remain, especially in areas like software integration and systems engineering. “Over a year ago, we had the weight revelations and, in [early] 2004, we put forward a programme plan that, frankly, I don’t think anyone thought that we could execute,” he said. “Since that plan was put forward, so far we have hit all of our milestones…. There are still a lot of nay-sayers out there who say [the programme] is too complicated, too hard, too big. But in the last year, we have hit the wickets.” Added Air Cdre Harvey: “Overall the programme is progressing very well.”
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