F-35 development is progressing on firmer foundations.

Calling a spade a shovel

F-35 boss’s frank language F-35’s best marketing boost yet

Firstly, an apology. Yes, this is yet another editorial about the F-35 and Super Hornet debate. If you are, understandably, tired of the debate, my apologies! But it is an important debate, and one that is reaching a critical decision point. At some stage in the coming weeks government will consider whether to procure another batch of Super Hornets, which, while Defence Minister Stephen Smith has never explicitly said, but logic suggests, would come at the expense of a similar number of F-35s. As discussed last issue, that would leave the RAAF with a fighter force structure a decade hence of 36 F/A-18F Super Hornets, 12 EA-18G Growlers and 50 or so F-35s, whereas, at least until the Growler debate gathered steam, the RAAF seemed on course for a 100-strong F-35 fleet.

Which way the government goes will largely depend on Minister Smith’s comfort level with the developmental and cost risk remaining in the F-35 program. Will the F-35, while still relatively early in its production run, be affordable and offer low technical risk? Given the history of the program those are reasonable questions that would be framing the government’s considerations, even before the events surrounding the Avalon airshow saw debate on the F-35 reach fever pitch.

Preceding Avalon was an ABC Four Corners report on the F-35 program, which must surely be rated as a missed opportunity. The F-35 deserves scrutiny and is certainly not beyond criticism, but the Four Corners program was an old-fashioned beat-up that rehashed old ground and re-heated old critics, and which missed the opportunity afforded to it through unprecedented access to the top F-35 program officials on both the Lockheed Martin and US DoD sides.

Unfortunately the simplistic framing of the F-35 as over-budget, under-performing and late that Four Corners ran with helps frame the context the public debate on F-35 takes place in, and certainly doesn’t make it easier for a risk-adverse minister to stick with the F-35, when the Super Hornet, with its known costs and low risks, sits ready to be plucked off the shelf.

And that was before the F-35 was grounded immediately before the Avalon Airshow due to a crack in a test F-35A aircraft’s F135 engine.

So it was that environment that the head of the JSF Program Office, Lt Gen Chris Bogdan, strode into at Avalon, where he gave without doubt the most frank and blunt press conference on the F-35 yet heard in Australia.

On face value the General’s comments on the F-35 don’t seem to help the aircraft’s cause, given he labelled the program’s history as “tragic”, for example, and he gave Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney an old-fashioned serve for their behaviour in negotiating on price.

But conversely, Lt Gen Bogdan’s directness may have instead served to reassure Minister Smith on the direction of the F-35 is on, given his message that since the F-35 program was ‘rebaselined’ two years ago, development of the aircraft has been progressing largely on track and largely on budget.

Fascinatingly, the General expressed some sympathy with Minister Smith’s position and deliberations on the F-35 – “I have no problem with Minister Smith being skeptical,” he said, as we report in our feature on his press briefing elsewhere in this issue. “He wants no risk when he makes a decision. Neither would I. Neither would anybody. And I can’t give him that. I can only give him my word that I’m going to do everything I can to drive the cost down. ” A frankness about where the program has been, and where it currently stands, from a man whose directness is refreshing, arguably gives a better sense of comfort of where the program is going than any marketing Powerpoint presentation – or any current affairs TV program.

The Four Corners program was an old-fashioned beat-up that rehashed old ground and re-heated old critics.


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