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In cash-strapped Washington, the budget-cutting knives are out and the way-over-budget, way-behind-schedule, multi-tasking strike-fighter dubbed the F-35 Lightning II remains a juicy target, despite its vast political constituency.
The $400-billion project – the most expensive in U.S. military history – is estimated to provide 200,000-plus jobs across the country if it ever reaches full production perhaps a decade from now. It may be too big – and politically well-protected to kill – but as costs continue to soar, and delays lengthen the numbers of F-35s may be scaled back.
"It was a bait-and-switch operation; we were overpromised benefits and underpromised costs," Chuck Spinney, a former Pentagon analyst told The Washington Post. "But by the time you realize the numbers don't add up, you can't get out of the program."
Some foreign customers, like Canada, are already hedging on original plans to buy F-35s.
Any further cuts in Pentagon purchases of F-35s or even further delivery delays – as budget cutters slash a program that can't be killed – may have severe consequences for foreign buyers.
Already the total U.S. buy of F-35s has been cut by more than 400 aircraft. Even so, more than 2,300-plus F-35s are still supposedly for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines. Further cuts will drive up the cost for each aircraft.
For the pro-F-35 faction in Canada, which seems to include the Air Force generals who want the hottest warplane on offer as well as an aviation industry seeking a share of the supplier pie, the most sobering news may come, not from the plane's vociferous critics, but from a key overseer.
"My number-one concern is affordability," said U.S. Air Force Lieutenant-General Christopher Bogdan, the Pentagon's top executive running the F-35 program. Gen. Bodgan spoke at the Credit Suisse-McAleese defence conference this week in Washington. "That number is in the sweet spot where our partners want it to be, that's the spot where it would be realistic to buy 3,000 airplanes," the general said, according to the National Defense magazine.
But Gen. Bodgan suggested that reaching that price – currently more than $20-million per aircraft less than what the Pentagon is currently paying – won't happen, if at all, until the end of the decade.
By then, the aging warplanes of key foreign partners, including Japan, Britain, Canada, Turkey and Australia may be so old and so worn out that they aren't combat capable. Those nations either need to buy an available aircraft – Australia has already opted for Boeing's latest version of the U.S. Navy's F-18 – and cut back or forget F-35s or bet billions that high-volume production will eventually deliver affordable – $90-million or so each – F-35s.
Even then, Gen. Bogdan conceded that it is the operations and support costs, stretching out for decades that could doom the F-35. "If we don't start doing things today to bring down O&S now, there will be a point when the services will see this aircraft as unaffordable." Some estimates have put the U.S. costs of flying, fixing and maintaining, the F-35s at over $1-trilllion.
Paul Koring reports from The Globe and Mail's Washington bureau.