International F-35 customer base grows, but program concerns persist
For all the talk about fifth-generation-this and stealth-that, for most countries signing up to become partners there is a more basic calculation at play: The industrial return warrants the financial outlays.
Norway has now taken a big step toward potentially making the bargain work. After prolonged lobbying and badgering, Oslo secured a firm U.S. commitments to have Kongsberg's Joint Strike Missile (JSM) integrated early on the F-35.
The commitmentâ€”made in a letter from U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to his Norwegian counterpart, Espen Barth Eideâ€”promises that JSM integration will take place. â€śThe decision to move forward was reached following an extended dialogue with the U.S.aimed at securing opportunities for Norwegian industry,â€ť the Norwegian defense ministry says in announcing the move to buy the initial two aircraft.
Several other F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) partners have shown interest in the weapon, which is still in development, with even the U.S. Navy viewed as a potential customer. Norway sees a potential of $3.3 billion to $4.2 billion in sales for the missile.
The F-35A commitment is for the first two out of a total of 52 to be bought by Norway over the duration of the program. (Oslo was going to buy 56 aircraft, but cut the number in March and stretched its production profile.) Norway estimates it will spend around $10 billion on the F-35.
The missile, to be carried inside the F-35's weapons bay, is to be integrated on JSF starting with the Block 4 configuration standard. Missile development is expected to be completed before then. Critical design review for the weapon is planned for mid-2013, with the final development phase to begin soon after, says Paal Bratlie, executive vice president at Kongsberg Defense Systems. Pre-integration studies on the fighter go back as far as 2008, with development to wrap up around 2018 or 2019, according to a Norwegian defense ministry official.
JSF flight trials are set to begin in early 2014. The JSM is derived from the in-service Naval Strike Missile, although the air-launched version uses a dual-intake and dispenses with the booster motor. Kongsberg also plans to retrofit the seeker being developed for JSM on NSM, which uses INS/GPS guidance. JSM will have land-attack and anti-ship capabilities and is being designed to have a range exceeding 150 nm even when fired at low attitude. The missile will deliver a 120-kg (265-lb.) warhead.
The first two aircraft will be used for training and be based in the U.S. Deliveries are projected for the fourth quarter of 2015. Two more are to be acquired for training purposes with all four aircraft to be in place in 2016. The 48 other aircraft are to be based at Orland main air station with deliveries to start in 2017. The country expects the fighter to reach initial operational capability in 2019.
Norwegian pilots are set to begin training in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2016, with maintainers already moving to the U.S. in late 2013 to begin gathering experience in advance of the country's own aircraft being delivered.
The Evenes base in the north will be used as a forward operating location to help secure Norway's interests in the Artic region. Norway's air force projects that 10% of operations will originate from that facility
The Norwegian parliament this week signed off on the increased budget needed for the deal.
The Norwegian commitment, coming just days after the award of a $490 million contract for Lot VII productionâ€”including one F-35B for the U.K., two F-35As for Turkey, along with aircraft for the U.S. (19 F-35As for the Air Force, six F-35Bs for the, and four F-35Cs for the Navy)â€”should be good news for . But the positive developments are overshadowed by the release on June 14 of the latest in a series of stinging reports on the program.
The report characterized progress made in the F-35 program as mixed. For instance, last year only 6 of 11 important objectives were achieved and the GAO raised concerns about software development. â€śUntil a fully integrated, capable aircraft is flight testedâ€”planned to start in 2015â€”the program is still very susceptible to discovering costly design and technical problems after many aircraft have been fielded.â€ť
It also raised questions about the significance of the Pentagon's move to take the F-35B program off â€śprobationâ€ť after one year. â€śWhile several technical issues have been addressed and some potential solutions engineered, assessing whether the deficiencies are resolved is ongoing and, in some cases, will not be known for years,â€ť the report states.
While noting that flight testing overall is progressing, the GAO also spotlights that â€śmost development flight testing, including the most challenging, still lies ahead.â€ť
While the GAO acknowledges that progress is being made, it also points to â€śparts shortages, supplier quality and performance problems, and manufacturing workaroundsâ€ť that â€śstill need to be addressed.â€ť