By Andrea Shalal-Esa and Jane Wardell
WASHINGTON/MELBOURNE Feb 25 This year's second
grounding of Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 warplane, plus
looming U.S. defence cuts, will complicate a push this week by
Lockheed and U.S. officials to convince Australian lawmakers and
generals to stick to a plan to buy 100 of the jets.
Australia, a close American ally, is considering doubling
its fleet of 24 Boeing Co F/A-18 Super Hornets amid
delays and setbacks in Lockheed's $396 billion F-35 project.
That means Canberra could buy far fewer F-35s than initially
planned, at a time when Canada is also rethinking its plans to
make the F-35 - also known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) -
its future frontline warplane.
U.S. Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, the Pentagon
program chief for the F-35, said the grounding over a crack
found in a test aircraft engine would not delay delivery of the
most expensive combat aircraft in history.
"It is not unusual in development programs for these things
to happen," Bogdan told reporters at an airshow in the
Australian city of Melbourne, where the futuristic jet will draw
attention from potential customers in Asia.
"Don't be shocked in the future if we find other things
wrong with the airplane that will result in us doing the same
All flights by the 51 F-35 fighter planes were suspended on
Friday after a routine inspection revealed a crack on a turbine
blade in the jet engine of a test aircraft in California.
SUPER HORNETS COULD TAKE F-35 ORDERS
Australia will decide at the end of this year on the timing
of an order for an initial 12 F-35s while it considers options
to replace 71 early model F/A-18 fighter jets and a recently
retired fleet of 24 Vietnam-era F-111 supersonic bombers.
Many defence insiders expect plans for a fleet of F-35s to
be revised to feature 48 Super Hornets - 12 equipped as EA-18G
Growlers with radar-jamming electronic weapons - and as few as
50 Joint Strike Fighters.
A source familiar with the matter said Canberra's decision
on the Super Hornets could come within the next three to six
"The Super Hornets will eat into F-35 orders," said Sam
Roggeveen, a former Australian government intelligence and arms
analyst, now with the Lowy Institute security think tank.
"It's not too crude to say it will be a one for one
replacement, because so far that's the kind of basis that
defence has so far been working on anyway."
Budget cuts have already forced Italy to scale back its F-35
orders, and Turkey has delayed its purchases by two years.
Orders from Japan and Israel have buoyed the project, and
additional Israeli orders are expected in 2013.
Singapore has also taken a more active interest in the
radar-evading jet, and South Korea is expected to announce a
winner in its fighter contest late this year.
Australia and other countries are watching orders and
problems with the jet with concern, since every reduction drives
up the price of the remaining fighters to be built.
"It is a nuisance," said a spokesman for the Dutch defence
ministry, which has already paid for two test planes but will
determine the size of its total F-35 order later this year.
Australian officials know the stakes are high.
"We're only a small player, but other countries are
watching," said a source at Australia's Defence Materiel
Organisation, part of the defence department, who was not
authorised to speak publicly.
Bogdan approved the grounding just before leaving Washington
to join Lockheed executives at the Avalon air show in Melbourne.
"I believe by the end of this week we would know what the
root cause of that crack was. If it's as simple as a foreign
object damage problem, or a manufacturing quality problem, I
could foresee the airplanes being back in the air in the next
week or two," he said.
Lockheed executives have been trying to reassure Canberra.
They insist that problems with software and design, including
imaging and night vision functions of the pilot's helmet, are
being resolved, and testing is ahead of schedule.
U.S. BUDGET CUTS ANOTHER WORRY
One U.S. defence official, who was not authorised to speak
publicly, said the technical problems bedevilling the new
fighter were less troubling than Washington's budget woes.
Sweeping budget cuts due to take effect in the United States
on March 1 could cut funding for the Pentagon's biggest weapons
program and delay work on seven jets this year alone.
"What the foreign partners worry about is the stability of
the program writ large," said the official. "We're solving the
technical challenges. There are no showstoppers there, although
they're not cheap."
U.S. military budgets are slated to be cut by nearly $500
billion over the next decade, an amount which could double
unless Congress acts in the next week to avert spending
reductions known as "sequestration".
After the latest F-35 grounding, a former Australian defence
minister in the Labor government, Joel Fitzgibbon, criticised
the country's military commanders for their "obsession" with the
"I think there is an almost obsession with the JSF within
the uniformed ranks. This is their brand new toy," Fitzgibbon,
who still holds a senior government role, told local media.
Bogdan said he was not aware of a single partner country in
the aircraft wavering in their commitment to the fighter.
"When they buy their airplanes is a different story and I
won't comment on any of the partners' notions of when they do
that," he said.
Lockheed is building three different models of the F-35 for
the U.S. military and eight countries that helped pay for its
development: Britain, Canada, Italy, Turkey, Denmark, the
Netherlands, Australia and Norway.
The Pentagon plans to buy 2,443 of the warplanes in the
coming decades, although many analysts believe U.S. budget
constraints and deficits will reduce that number.