Canadian hedging on its original pledge to buy 65 of the stealthy F-35 multi-role warplanes was only the latest in a series of second-guessing, cancellations and delayed deliveries as other countries take a hard look at multi-billion contracts.
Stunningly expensive and half-a-decade behind schedule already, the $1.45-trillion program to build more than 3,000 of the sophisticated fight-bombers for the U.S. military and up to a dozen allied air forces is flying into serious turbulence both at home and abroad.
Cancellations will drive the cost of all F-35s higher as the entire program is predicated on volume production. Losing ‘partner’ countries won’t kill the F-35. But despite powerful congressional support – 47 states have a slice of the program – the F-35 is also becoming a juicy target for some inside the Beltway. The latest cost estimate is a staggering $161-million per aircraft, including engine and assuming 3,000 are built.
Australia Initial plans to buy up to 100 F-35s were scaled back after the urgent need to replace the Australian Air Force’s obsolete bombers became clear. So 24 updated F-18s were purchased. A dozen F-35s were ordered with a second tranche of 58 supposedly to follow. Last month Defence Minister Stephen Smith said the delivery of those 58 would be delayed.
Britain After first announcing it wanted 138 of the most-complicated F-35 variant, one that can land vertically like a helicopter and is the U.S. Marines’ version, Britain changed its order to the U.S. Navy aircraft-carrier version that was supposed to be 25-per-cent cheaper. Now with costs escalating on that model too, the government may switch back – even though British test pilots are already flying a pre-production model in Texas. And many analysts expect the total number to be cut by 30 per cent or more. The government said it won’t decide until 2015. Firm orders to date: three.
Israel In 2010, Israel ordered 20 F-35s from Lockheed Martin at a cost of $2.8-billion but isn’t expecting deliveries until 2017. Although Israel wants 75 of the fifth-generation warplane to maintain its clear air warfare superiority in the Middle East, it is already looking at alternatives including refurbished F-15s from Boeing.
Italy Cash-strapped Italy, which originally announced that it wanted 130 F-35s – but didn’t sign a contract – has already slashed the planned purchase to 90 of the deep-strike, stealthy fighter-bombers. More cuts may follow.
Japan After announcing only last December that it would buy 42 F-35s, with the first four delivered in 2017, Japan’s Defence Minister Naoki Tanaka publicly warned last month that delays or price increases would imperil the entire contract. “We would need to consider as a potential option matters like cancelling our orders and starting a new selection process if that is the case,” he said. Losing Japan, with more than 300 warplanes, many of them needing replacement, would be a major blow, as the order for 42 F-35s was widely seen as an initial buy.
Netherlands The first Dutch F-35 was completed this month but the planned purchase of 84 aircraft remains in serious jeopardy. A Dutch government study questions the cost estimates and some defence analysts suggest only 40 aircraft are needed to replace Holland’s aging F-16s.
Norway Even as it delayed final deliveries of the 52 F-35s it plans to buy by 2024, the Norwegian government gave the troubled warplane program a rare vote of confidence last month. “Despite changes made by other partner nations, Norway finds that its previous and robust real-cost estimates remain accurate,” it said, adding it would take its first four aircraft earlier than expected.
Turkey Two months ago, Turkey’s Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz confirmed plans to buy 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Two of them, he said, will be delivered in 2015. His statement seemed to resolve a long-simmering dispute over the highly classified source code of the software that is at the heart of the aircraft. A year earlier Ankara was threatening to put the whole deal on hold if the code was hidden from it.
Other likely buyers They include Saudi Arabia, among the richest and most regular buyers of U.S. big-ticket military hardware, South Korea, Singapore and Brazil.