Australia heaps praise on F-35, says rivals years behind

CANBERRA Thu May 16, 2013 2:58am EDT

CANBERRA May 16 (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp is well on the way to fixing the F-35s performance and helmet problems, Australian military chiefs said on Thursday, rejecting criticism the troubled jet will be overmatched by newer Russian and Chinese aircraft.

In testimony to parliament on the F-35, for which Australia is one of the largest international buyers with plans for up to 100, Australia's air force chief Air Marshal Geoff Brown said rivals were years behind the Lightning II's development.

Critics of the F-35 have predicted the aircraft, for which many performance data are classified, will be outflown by emerging aircraft like Russia's Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA and China's J-20, as well as existing fighters like the Su-35, citing computer modelling of known abilities.

"Let me tell you, I don't think that they have the level of stealth that's available in U.S. fifth generation aircraft, and it's by a significant factor," Air Marshal Brown told lawmakers.

"Both PAK FA, J-20 and J-31 are possibly where we were in excess of 10-12 years ago in their development time frames, so all those aeroplanes have still got a long, long way to go," Brown said.

The United States and its allies plan to buy more than 3,100 of the F-35 joint strike fighters in coming decades, although the numbers may change as some countries pare back orders. Australia is one of nine partner countries involved in the aircraft's development.

Australia earlier this month released a new strategic blueprint after the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific, committing to the joint strike fighter and promising to beef up its maritime and air forces as China and India emerge as regional heavyweights.

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan warned Congress last month that the $396 billion F-35 program, the most expensive ever U.S. arms program, remained at risk of a "death spiral" in which cuts in orders drive up the cost per plane, leading to more cuts..

Some unclassified computer wargaming of the F-35 against major rivals has pointed to the F-35 being defeated, with critics claiming the aircraft is too ungainly and lightly armed to come out on top in a close-quarters dog fight.

Development has also been plagued by problems in the development of complex software to fuse sensor information from on-board and off-board data systems bringing together weapons, radar and electronic warfare capabilities.

Those include glitches with its futuristic helmet, designed by a joint venture of Rockwell Collins Inc and Israel's Elbit Systems to display all the information F-35 pilots need to fly the plane.

Brown said the F-35's stealth and integrated sensors gave a "God's eye view of the world", while Australia's F-35 program chief Air Vice-Marshal Kym Osley said helmet issues including sensor light clouding displays, ineffective night vision and image "jitter" were being steadily overcome.

Software programming appeared to be the biggest development risk, lawmakers were told, with costs now projected to fall to around $83 million apiece, with the first two aircraft to cost $130 million each.

Australia expects delivery of its first two F-35 fighters in 2014-15, with the first squadron to be operational in 2020. It has so far contractually committed to buying only 14 F-35s.