Plane Thinking

01 January 2006
The multi-billion dollar Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project has only two clear beneficiaries: the Bush administration and Lockheed Martin. So how did European taxpayers come to be propping up the US arms industry?

In 2001, when fear of a world recession was sweeping the Western world, many governments turned to the arms industry and military expenditure as a way to boost their economies. It was at this time that the US, UK and several partner countries decided to start developing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a plane designed for close air support and tactical bombing as well as being capable of air-to-air combat, in order to replace the old-fashioned Harriers and the conventional A-10 Thunderbolt II, F/A-18 Hornet and the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

The multi-billion dollar contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin Corporation. Lockheed, based in Maryland USA, is the largest arms manufacturer in the world -followed by Boeing (HQ Chicago) and Northrop-Grumman (LA) - and one of the Bush administration’s favorite corporations. Even though at that point another independent European strike fighter project, the Euro fighter Typhoon, involving the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain, was already in an advanced development phase, had superior capabilities and a lower cost, some European countries decided to turn to the new project. Thus, the US got the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway to commit funds to the JSF. Overall, the eight countries contributing to the first phase of the programme - the design and development of the technology - do so on three different levels. These depend on their financial stake in the project; the level of technology transfer and subcontracts open to bidding by national companies; and the general order in which countries will be able to obtain production aircraft. The UK is the sole level I partner, contributing a little over $2 billion. Italy and the Netherlands are level II partners, contributing $1 billion and $800 million respectively. At level III are Turkey ($175 million), Australia ($144 million), Norway ($122 million), Denmark ($110 million), and Canada ($100 million). Israel and Singapore are ’security cooperative participants’.

The perfect deal - for the US The deal goes like this. The US Congress approves the increased expenditure that the JSF requires on the condition that it gets other countries to cover a large part of the cost. In order to get others to be willing to give significant amounts of money to the US and Lockheed Martin, the US government promises them contracts, technology and, of course, a chance to be part of the ’axis of good’ and one of the ’big boys’.

So eight countries pay the US to do business with their companies, thus transferring public money from the state to their national arms and technology industries via the US and Lockheed Martin. However, it seems that for the past five years the funds have not been completing the roundtrip. On 11 November 2005, the Norwegian government sent out a statement declaring that ’the government will undertake a thorough review of Norway’s participation in the JSF and the Eurofighter programmes, with special emphasis on clarifying and quantifying the relationship between the cost of participation and the resultant benefits to Norwegian industry’. In other words: opposition is growing, where are all the promised contracts? But contracts are not the only thing not being delivered. Opposition to the release of US know-how to other countries, even allies, has been growing on Capitol Hill, and as a result even the UK is complaining about the secrecy and the unwillingness of the programme developers to accept a full technology release agreement. Mike Turner, the CEO of BAE Systems, the British contractor in the project, has complained that the US has not given the UK (and his company) access to the crucial source code of the plane’s software, thus making it impossible for Britain to maintain and modify the JSF independently.

Too old and too expensive The rip-off, however, goes even further. Critics of the programme maintain that the JSF suffers from illdefined design goals; that it has insufficient range to make a capable replacement for dedicated bombing aircraft; that its inability to ’supercruise’ limits it as an air defence platform; and that it is almost certain to suffer lengthy development delays and cost over-runs - meaning that interim types will have to be purchased to fill the gap between the end of useful life of existing fleets and the introduction of the JSF.

Further criticisms include the fact that next-generation strike fighters are expected to change radically, not needing a human pilot to fly and strike, while the JSF, if ever built, will have to carry a human commander. The ability of the JSF to lift off and land vertically and to hover above the ground, moreover, is something only US and British air forces need - and these are precisely the countries cutting down on their purchases. The US air force and navy have cut their planned purchases from 3,006 units to 2,240, thus boosting each plane’s estimated price tag by between $5 million and $10 million, analysts say, and rendering it almost noncompetitive.

’If it costs too much, it does not go,’ said Rear Admiral Steven Enewold, the US navy’s JSF program executive officer in September 2005. The predicted development delays and cost over-runs are already a reality, and the initial $33 billion budget rose to $41.5 billion in October 2005 ’primarily due to the [Defense Department’s] annual revision of inflation assumptions’, JSF programme officials said. All this has led some countries to reconsider their participation in the JSF project. Huge investments have already been made, though, and pulling out would result in the loss of enormous amounts of public money. Where has all the money gone?

Five years into the development phase of the JSF, it is revealing that the only country still enthusiastic about the whole endeavour is the US. You can’t blame them. They got the Europeans to pay a considerable part of the development costs and at the same time retained complete control over the process and kept the relevant software even from its main ally, the UK. The juiciest research and development contracts have gone to Lockheed and a host of secondary US defence contractors. A transfer of state-of-the-art technology did take place, but not in the direction expected, because it is European contractors who are transferring their technology to the US via the development of parts of the plane for which they won the contract. Meanwhile, the US has been able to boost its weak exports with the help of all those friendly European heads of state. And the ultimate bonus: the JSF undermined the independent European fighter project - the Eurofighter - thus averting an embarrassing situation whereby the European technological base for fighter planes would have out-manoeuvered that of the US.

The only clear winners in this game are the Bush administration and Lockheed Martin. For Europeans it’s been a doomed scenario from the start. Little return on investment; doubts about the eventual product; a lingering debate within the EU about loyalty... At the end of the day, the British, the Italians, Dutch, Norwegians and Danish have been betting on the wrong horse. But it’s not as if they were not forewarned. In all of those countries, strong opposition to the project pointed out all the dangers both before and during the political decision-making processes. Maybe it’s time to face our governments, and ask them where our tax money has gone. The answer they are not likely to give easily is that it went to the US military economy, and more specifically, into balancing the books of the world’s biggest arms producer: Lockheed Martin.