Soaring way over budget and lagging far behind schedule, the F-35 warplane – once billed as "affordably stealthy" – is facing severe political turbulence at home and skittish buyers abroad. The combination could doom the entire $1.45-trillion program.
In the heady days when the all-purpose fighter-bomber was launched, Pentagon planners expected to buy more than 3,000, including hundreds that could hover like a helicopter and land vertically for the U.S. Marines and others that could launch and land on the U.S. Navy's massive aircraft carriers.
Manufacturer Lockheed Martin was hoping allies, including Canada, would line up to buy more than 1,000 additional F-35s to give their air forces deep-strike capacity in heavily defended airspace – think China – and the ability to drop laser-guided bombs capable of destroying deeply buried targets.
But foreign buyers are getting cold feet.
Monstrously expensive and crippled by delays, the F-35 now looks less like the answer to a wide array of air force renewal prayers than an albatross. There are fears it would drag defence budgets into a mire of 'too much money for too few planes' that are designed to fight a war that seems increasingly unlikely.
Every cancellation drives the unit cost of the remaining F-35s – although billed at roughly $161-million each – higher and higher.
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. The newest-model F-18s are considered by many as a proven, far-less-expensive alternative to the F-35, although Canberra remains officially committed to the fighter. So far only 14 have been ordered and the decision on another 24 has been pushed back until 2015.
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. 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; one is flying.
Although a member of the F-35 consortium, Denmark has made no purchase commitment. Instead, decision has been pushed back and Copenhagen is now expected to upgrade a couple of dozen of its aging F-16.
In 2010, Israel ordered 20 F-35s from Lockheed Martin at a cost of $2.8-billion but isn't expecting deliveries until 2017. Eventually it plans to buy 75 of the fifth-generation warplane to maintain its clear air warfare superiority in the Middle East, Because of F-35 delays, Israel's powerful air force is looking at an interim buy of refurbished F-15s from Boeing.
Cash-strapped Italy, which originally announced that it wanted 131 F-35s – but didn't sign a contract – has already slashed the planned purchase to 90 of the fighter-bombers. That too is expected to be cut way back. The navy needs 22 warplanes for its new, medium-sized aircraft carrier but that may become the total purchase.
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 earlier this year 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 tranche of a 100-plus aircraft program.
The first Dutch F-35 was completed last summer but the planned purchase of 85 aircraft remains in jeopardy. A Dutch government study questions the cost estimates and some defence analysts suggest only 40 aircraft will be purchased. Decisions have been pushed back to 2015.
Even as it delayed until 2024 final deliveries of the 52 F-35s it plans to buy, the Norwegian government gave the troubled warplane program a rare vote of confidence earlier this year. "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.
Bold plans to buy 100 F-35 fighters seem to be fading although the Ankara has not officially scaled back – or committed to – the purchase.
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.