Joint Strike Fighter head defends $17bn purchase despite software delays

The Australian head of the Joint Strike Fighter program says he is confident the next delivery of the cutting-edge combat aircraft to the RAAF is on track despite a report finding the next batch of planes will not have the most up-to-date technology.

Air Vice-Marshal Leigh Gordon told Fairfax Media that doubts raised by the Pentagon’s test and evaluation office about problems such as software glitches would not affect those due for delivery to the RAAF next year.

His comments follow the announcement of a Pentagon review of the Joint Strike Fighter, or F-35, after President Donald Trump used Twitter to blast the $520 billion program as “out of control”. The price per plane has been falling.

A report released last month by the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation found that testing of the systems – including the all-important software – due to be installed on the next rollout of 90 planes is running about a year behind schedule and won’t be finished until July next year.

The RAAF expects to take delivery of eight planes from that batch next year and aims to start operating them in Australia by December 2020.

The report stated the latest systems – labelled Block 3F – have “more than 270 … unresolved, high-priority performance deficiencies”, less than half of which were being “actively worked on”.

It concluded that the US military would “need to plan for accepting aircraft with less capability, possibly with [earlier] Block 3i capability”.

The report added that a plan by the US program office to fast-track testing was “a risky course of action” that could “deliver Block 3F to the field with severe shortfalls in capability” that will be essential “if the F-35 is ever needed in combat against current threats”.Australia has committed to buying 72 F-35 planes by 2023 at a cost of $17 billion.

Air Vice-Marshal Gordon said the delays were more relevant to different versions of the plane that are being built for the US Navy and Marines.

“We expect those aircraft [for Australia] will have the 3F software, which is the load we’re after for IOC [initial operating capability]. As long as those aircraft have that 3F software when they come to Australia by 2020, that’ll be fine … and I don’t see a lot of risk in that,” he said.

“When they make some of these general comments, they’re talking about the other versions.”

The RAAF’s first two, which are being tested and used to train RAAF pilots in the US, will make their debut at the Avalon Air Show in a fortnight.

In total Australia has committed to buying 72 of the planes by 2023 at a cost of $17 billion.

Fuselages for six of the next eight Australian planes are being built at the US firm Northrop Grumman’s plant in Palmdale, California, which was shown to Australian journalists last month.

Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne last week dismissed concerns that Australia could be harmed if the F-35 program were curtailed under the review ordered by Mr Trump. He said he’d spoken to the reviewer, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, and was “very confident that the Joint Strike Fighter program as we know it will continue into the future”.

Air Vice-Marshal Gordon said the F-35 could stay ahead of competitors because it was built to be upgraded. He said no existing plane “comes anywhere near it” and doubted that potential rivals being designed elsewhere could be developed smoothly.

Under the Trump review, the aircraft carrier version of the F-35 will be compared against the existing Boeing Super Hornet.

A spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin said that “fourth generation” planes such as the Super Hornet were designed for threats that existed a decade ago but the “fifth generation” Joint Strike Fighter would keep an advantage over the threats of 2030.

“It simply isn’t possible to enhance a fourth generation fighter to counter this present and evolving threat,” she said.

[Source:-Sydeny Morning Herald]