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Apr 23, 2014

Lockheed wins out over taxpayers in the F-35 procurement nightmare

The history of the F-35 is that of a defence procurement disaster. But contrary to the claims of the Pentagon, the program is still not under control.


The Joint Strike Fighter (pictured) — or the F-35 Lightning II, to give it its proper name — is a plane that divides defence commentators. Some say the aircraft, the most expensive United States defence project in history, is the future of air warfare, and the US and its allies will control the skies with its low radar visibility and high-tech information processing software. Others say it is a piece of junk that is already uncompetitive. We can defer to air warfare experts on which view is correct, or whether the truth lies somewhere in between.

What is not in dispute is that the aircraft’s builder, Lockheed Martin, has comprehensively triumphed over taxpayers and governments. The JSF program, as the US Department of Defense has itself acknowledged, was out of control from the awarding of the contract to Lockheed Martin in 2001, with commitments from the British, Australian and Canadian and several European governments, until at least 2010, when the program was the subject of a brutal Pentagon memo describing its extensive flaws and ballooning costs.

By that stage, the program was 57% over budget and six years behind schedule, and had incurred what is called a Nunn-McCurdy breach, the point at which costs go so far beyond budget that the Defense Secretary has to provide an explanation for it or risk the program being defunded by Congress. By that stage, too, the Pentagon had actually acquired F-35s before they were even flown. The head of the program was sacked, the plane delayed yet another year, and Lockheed Martin “punished” with more than half a billion dollars in withheld bonuses — though the overall project will now cost over US$390 billion.

Both the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin now insist that is ancient history. The Pentagon says the program is under control, and is scaling up to eventually purchasing 100 F-35s a year. Australia now says it will have 70 of the planes — it has already purchased 12, and will pick up another 58 for $12 billion. The Royal Australian Air Force says it eventually wants about 100 of them.

The problem is, the F-35 program is not under control, even according to the US government. In September, the Pentagon Inspector-General issued yet another in a long line of scathing reports about the program, having found over 700 separate problems with the program’s administration that led to over 300 findings. “The F-35 Program did not sufficiently implement or flow down technical and quality management system requirements to prevent the fielding of nonconforming hardware and software,” the Inspector-General found. “This could adversely affect aircraft performance, reliability, maintainability, and ultimately program cost.”

That apparently did not deter federal cabinet here from deciding to lock Australia into $12 billion on the planes. Nor had the fleet-wide grounding of the planes in the US last year after cracks were discovered in the plane’s turbine blades and elsewhere. Nor did another report, revealed in January this year by Reuters, by the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, that described the performance of the plane’s highly complex software as “unacceptable” and noted that Lockheed Martin had delivered less than half of the software capabilities its contract specified.

Software was the also the target of yet another critical report just last month, this time by the US government Accountability Office:

“The Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) predicts delivery of warfighting capabilities could be delayed by as much as 13 months. Delays of this magnitude will likely limit the warfighting capabilities that are delivered to support the military services’ initial operational capabilities—the first of which is scheduled for July 2015—and at this time it is not clear what those specific capabilities will be because testing is still ongoing. In addition, delays could increase the already significant concurrency between testing and aircraft procurement and result in additional cost growth.”

So the plane will be further delayed, and costs could blow out further. Defence Minister David Johnston today said that in the event of further cost blowouts, Australia would scale back the number of aircraft it purchases. Based on both the history of the project and the very latest official assessments, that’s a decision Johnston or his successors will have to take.

But no matter which plane dominates the skies in the future, the JSF is guaranteed to continue to deliver victory to Lockheed Martin. Even when a procurement program is as comprehensively bungled as the JSF has been, big defence contractors face minimal repercussions as the US government, and unquestioning allies like Australia, continue to hand over hundreds of billions of dollars.


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29 thoughts on “Lockheed wins out over taxpayers in the F-35 procurement nightmare

  1. mikeb

    ………..and they label the pink batts initiative a debacle.

  2. Liamj

    Searching for an upside .. i don’t think Indo or China will feel threatened by a plane that comes to bits.

    But surely it’d be cheaper to just give the chickenhawks involved in floating this obscene scam 100mil each in f*off money.

  3. Grumpy Old Sod

    I am NOT an air war specialist or any war specialist of any type but I do ask the question that given that Iran (and presumably Russia) are said to have the capability of detecting both by radar and satellite low radar signature aircraft by the wake they leave in the atmosphere and that their air to air missiles are meant to be so lethal as to give the pilot only 2 seconds warning before the destruction of the aircraft, what use will these aircraft be to us if we can’t defend ourselves from that type of threat? Have these aircraft got the capability to defend themselves from that capability? If they haven’t then I sure don’t want to see Australian Air Force pilots dying needlessly in a war which I can bet we will have no need to be in anyway if our past history is any indication.

  4. Venise Alstergren

    All in all it sounds as if it should be called ‘The Flying Coffin.

    But hey, now we know why we’re all being kicked in the gonads over the MediCare Health Care issue. The government obviously thinks that a few elderly folk meeting with an early demise are a small price to pay for purchasing these Flying Coffins. America the land of the screw. Australia, happy to be screwed.

  5. Electric Lardyland

    Strange, it seems like only yesterday, that this government was muttering about cutting pensions and Medicare locals, because of that terrible “budget emergency”.

  6. Bo Gainsbourg

    The Age of entitlement for defense contractors seems to go on forever doesn’t it. I await with baited breath the pursuit of the inefficiencies and wast of taxpayer money in this project with the same fervour that fuelled the coverage of the progams building decent buildings for school kids and getting loads of houses better insulated.

  7. CML

    And the Collins class Submarines from SA were a disaster!!!!!
    Sounds like this lot will be a much larger stuff-up, take longer (if ever) to get right, and cost a sh+t load of money in the process.
    Maybe we are not so bad at these things as some people (read LNP and supporters) like to make out!

  8. Bill Hilliger

    Aren’t our political leaders lucky that they don’t have to explain to the good Aussie sheeples that it’s money not well spent, except to keep the US war materials economy just chugging along fine. We do enjoy our cuts to pensions, health, general welfare, research, schooling, etc. to pay for all this. Additionally we’re being told to work longer because pensions and old age services are becoming less affordable. What nobody in the politics of predicting and making/defending war together with the plethora of experts can tell us Australian sheeples is that who our current enemies actually are. It can’t be China, Indonesia, Vietnam or Japan as they are all our best friends and we trade with them. Indeed, if China decided to curtail trade with us we would be stuffed and not able to afford the Americam war toys. Oh yes, I forgot, the US has nominated Iran as a probable enemy, and the old catch-all standby of terrorism from unidentified rogue countries. I note Iran has gone quiet since the Crimea/Russian issues. I for one would love to see my pension and services cut to pay for those lovely hi tech aircraft.

  9. Electric Lardyland

    Yes, Bill, this is just another reason why the modern neo-con shouldn’t be let anywhere near government. That is, while they gibber endlessly about the need to cut government spending, none of them seem to have any real conception, that spending on intelligence agencies, police, prisons and especially defence, is actually government spending. Like, today we had the bizarre claim that spending on this project, wasn’t really government spending; more just using a bit of money that had been tucked away.
    Oh, the hypocrisy!

  10. fractious

    See also:
    Ben Sandilands’ Plane Talking blog (search JSF, F-35 Lightning II), and

    the 4 Corners doco “Reach For the Sky” Feb 19 2013 http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2013/02/18/3690317.htm

  11. klewso

    $12 billion for Toady too have his photo taken in another cock-pit, and to assist the US economy, like Honest John?

  12. Mad Dog Muir

    @Grumpy Old Sod

    I dunno where ya goin with all that, but I like it. hehehe.

  13. Scott

    Developing a fighter jet from scratch isn’t that easy, especially a high performance one. The F-22 had a development cycle of around 14.5 years from design to operational status. It is now widely regarded as the premiere fighter jet in the world.

    The JSF has only been going for around 12.5 years so they still have a couple of years to redeem themselves. If they get the problems sorted, Australia will have a quality airborne weapons platform that has a large combat radius and heavy payload capacity, both of which Australia requires to safeguard the sea lanes.

    Australia, as an island nation, needs aircraft and submarines most of all, as naval forces are by far our greatest threats. Spending dollars to attain superiority in both these areas are in our national interest. If the Ukraine problem has shown anything, it is that military threats still exist and having quality defense capacity is a necessity to safeguard the civilian population.

  14. Chris Johnson

    Abbott is signing off like a man possessed on any project that remotely locks his name into history. A totally vacuous guy giving the thumbs up to 72 jet fighters at a cost of $13 billion dollars is going to reinforce how unreliable our elected officials can be. In Tony’s case, ‘run Forrest run’ will resonate with Australians well beyond that anecdote delivered by his humiliated daughters.

  15. Fair Suck of the Sav

    Why can’t we build our own?

  16. The Pedanticist

    Ok, this link may be a bit old by now but, as Stalin once said, “quantity has a quality all of its own.”


    Thing is, for the JSF to maintain effectiveness, they will require a well developed infrastructure to support them. A swarm of relatively cheap cruise missiles or drones could potentially render these planes ineffective by denying them operating bases.

  17. @chrispydog

    Hey, anyone remember when it was a crime not to have a “cost benefit analysis” for a real fibre to the home NBN?

  18. Keith Thomas

    Build our own? Why not buy from the Russians or the Chinese? Their planes are said to be better in some respects than this over-sophisticated show pony.

  19. Chris Hartwell

    By all accounts, the nature of the JSF is that it’s a multi-mission capable unit. Meaning it’s not specialised for any particular mission type. So it’ll be outbombed by a dedicated bomber, and out-flown by a dedicated fighter. Meaning it will still need the protection of a dedicated fighter jet on most missions.

    Mr Abbott claims the purchase of these units will send a message to the region. I respectfully agree, although I’d argue that message is “Australia has difficulty recognising a poor deal.”

  20. klewso

    “Message”? What does Indonesia think of the rhetoric behind this?

  21. Chris Johnson

    Don’t forget its taxpayers in numerous countries funding messages to various regions none of which spruiks global peace.

  22. Scott

    The message to Indonesia is that is better to be our friend than our foe…which is always the message sent when building a defence capacity.

  23. frey

    Yes, the message to Indonesia is that is better to be our friend than our foe….look how much easier it is to gull a friend into spending exhorbitant amounts on the unproven.

  24. tonyfunnywalker

    Sorry Bernard — its $24 billion you forgot the spares and you forgot the spares and service contracts. We better not have an emergency as the reliabiliy of the aircraft makes it a 5th Generation Model T and is already inferior to the Russians and Chinese ( and BTW )
    Indonesia are buying the superior Russian Model.
    Do we have enough pilots who are under 50Kg and midgets?

  25. Venise Alstergren

    Everyone waxes enthusiastically about Australia, with its vast distances, needs all these aircraft. Surely these same distances would mean each one of these planes could only get as far as our coastline before needing to refuel. What is so clever about this?

    Note: It was John Howard’s government that introduced this schmozzle, and the Americans are perfectly happy to see someone trying to renege on the deal.

  26. Sean

    So-called ‘stealth’ technology is a bit of a scam also — it only works partially with the high frequency radar used by other fighter planes — low frequency, long wavelength fixed ground radar can spot the planes quite easily.

    Not sure the Russians and Chinese have anything ‘better’ than the F-22 and F-35 really though. The F-22 was taken out of production, so it obviously wasn’t seen by the US as being particularly necessary in any hypothetical theatre of war.

  27. westral

    At last report the fighter would have a combat availability of 50% and the air force (US) hoped to get that up to 60% in the next year. This must be why our air farce (not a typo) want so many aircraft.

  28. campidg

    @ Sean and others,

    The Russians and the Chinese are developing their stealth technology fighters, I have seen photos of what are proported to be the Chinesse effort on the ground and ready to fly.

    Can anyone imagine a international crisis senario where we would be engaging other nations in air to air combat? In such an unlikely event we wouldn’t have enough of the aircraft, or pilots, to fight off anyone big enough to threaten us. Maybe they are purely meant as a deterent to slight smaller nations? I have heard it argued that submarines are the only sensible investment if wereally want to be able to defend overselves. But we would need 30+. And defend ourselves from who?

  29. Oksanna

    I know this goes against the prevailing watermelon POV that we shouldn’t be so bold as to even think of defending ourselves, but I happen to agree that buying JSFs alone is probably not a good idea. Mind you they sound great for defending the Australian mainland, considering their stunted range, lack of speed and power (one engine) and their mainly defensive “all-seeing eye” touted capability.

    But what is missing is a successor to the F1-11, and that successor could have been the F-22. The F-22 Raptor would have restored our ability to mount stealthy, long range offensive missions against an enemy offshore before they get to the mainland, as well as provide more flexible responses to regional threats like Chinese territorial ambitions against our little friends in the region, instead of being limited to what is, from a traditional perspective an underpowered small fighter-bomber, albeit a sneaky one with a big brain. But the US won’t export them, and it’d be $17 billion just to get production cranked up again and build 75 of the things. By the way, it was arms control and peace activists in Washington that prompted Obama to shut down the F-22 program after only 187 aircraft.

    The other possibility is to follow our friends South Korea’s and India’s lead and consider the Russian Sukhoi PAK FA T-50 due for production in 2016. Stealth and range (3,500km) and cheap compared to US prices. Russia will sell them to foreign governments. And maybe considering their country of origin the usual Deep Green objections will be somewhat muted?


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