F-35 Grounding Dims Hopes for International Debut

F-35 sea trials

The grounding of the F-35 fighter jet on the eve of its international debut has turned into a public-relations and marketing nightmare for the Pentagon and its biggest contractor.

The Defense Department had planned on showcasing Lockheed Martin Corp.'s fifth-generation stealth fighter to the global market at multiple events this month in the United Kingdom. Those plans changed after one of the planes caught fire during takeoff last month in Florida and led to a fleet-wide grounding of the jets.

"Air shows are all about showing confidence in the product," said Richard Aboulafia, a vice president at Teal Group, a consulting company in Fairfax, Virginia. "And frankly, confidence has been in short supply with the F-35."

As of Thursday morning, the Pentagon was still debating whether to fly overseas four of the F-35B jump-set variants, including three Marine Corps and one Royal Air Force aircraft, which were standing by at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.

Speaking to troops in a hangar at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the site of the June 23 engine fire aboard an F-35A, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said inspectors are investigating "all dimensions" of the incident.

"This aircraft is the future," he said in a vow of support, flanked by a pair of the jets.

Kyra Hawn, a spokeswoman for the F-35 program office, said in a statement that all variants of the aircraft -- including the Air Force's F-35A conventional model, the Marine Corps' F-35B and the Navy's F-35C aircraft carrier version -- remain grounded since the July 3 order.

"All efforts will be made to support transatlantic flight to the UK for F-35B participation in RIAT/Farnborough as the evolving situation allows," she said, referring to the Royal International Air Tattoo this week, and the Farnborough International Airshow next week outside London.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, who oversees the Joint Strike Fighter program, said officials are working to clear the planes for travel to the shows.

"We haven't learned enough yet" about what caused the engine fire, he told reporters at RIAT. The pilot was able to abort the takeoff just as the plane was lifting from the runway, shut down the engine and safely escape from the cockpit.

The incident reportedly stemmed from a problem with Pratt & Whitney's F135 engine, according to USNI News. An engine malfunction was assumed to be the culprit, given how the blaze started in the rear of the plane. The article implicated the propulsion system's after-burning turbofan, not the integrated power pack.

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer, said "there is a growing body of evidence" that the fire was caused by an "individual" issue rather than a "systemic" flaw, according to Bloomberg News.

The F-35Bs were originally scheduled to conduct a fly-over on July 4 at Rosyth Dockyard, Scotland, as part of a naming ceremony for the new British aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth. This week, it was supposed to be on display at the Royal International Air Tattoo and then fly at Farnborough International Air Show, which kicks off July 14.

The appearances were designed to send a message to international partners and potential buyers that the single-engine fighter has rounded the corner in terms of development. The program has been plagued by design challenges, cost overruns and schedule delays.

"You're showing off its maturity and that's an area where customers need reassurances on," Aboulafia said. "It comes back to: 'Is this ready for prime time?'"

The Joint Strike Fighter began development in the 1990s and is the Pentagon's most expensive acquisition program, estimated to cost nearly $400 billion for 2,443 aircraft. Keeping the planes flying over the next half-century may cost another $1 trillion in sustainment.

Eight countries have committed to help develop the F-35, including the U.K., Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway. Also, Israel, Japan and South Korea plan to buy production models of the aircraft.

In addition to symbolic importance, the F-35's international debut also has practical implications for the Defense Department and Lockheed Martin, which are seeking to attract foreign sales to increase production and decrease unit costs, currently budgeted at more than $100 million per plane.

A decade from now, whether the jets make an appearance this year in the UK "will make no difference," Aboulafia said. "But for the economics over the next few years -- production rates, unit costs -- yeah, it probably makes a difference."

Shares of Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed -- the world's largest defense contractor – fell almost 4 percent to $158 in New York trading since the June 23 engine fire through Wednesday. The slide, no doubt, was driven by negative publicity over the incident.

Washington, D.C.-based Foreign Policy magazine in an article this week blasted the aircraft as "The Pentagon's $399 Billion Plane to Nowhere," and one of Canada's largest newspapers asked, "Will the F-35 be another 'Widow Maker' for Canadian pilots?"

Daniel Goure, vice president at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based research group that receives funding from Lockheed and other F-35 contractors, described some of the recent media coverage as " hysteria."

"We might find out it's nothing more than a manufacturing defect -- a one-off," he said. "The things that have caused previous problems don't seem to be the source."

When asked whether the latest grounding may cause some allies to reconsider their financial commitment to the program, Goure said: "None, zero, zip." Fourth-generation aircraft can't operate in areas with increasingly sophisticated enemy air defenses, he said.

"Nobody has a choice," he said. "We're not going to go back and ... build F-16s, F-15s."

Last year, in a surprise reversal, the government of South Korea opted against buying newly upgraded F-15SE fighter jets made by Boeing Co. and announced plans to purchase F-35s instead, citing the need for stealth aircraft amid recent provocations by North Korea. The deal was potentially valued at $7.7 billion for 60 aircraft.

Meanwhile, the government of Canada is poised to announce whether it will move forward with a $9 billion deal for 65 F-35 aircraft. Officials last year thought twice about the program after auditors criticized aspects of it and spent months reviewing potential alternatives such as Dassault's Rafale, Eurofighter's Typhoon and Boeing's Super Hornet.

"The decision is easy," said one Canadian defense analyst who asked to speak anonymously. "It should be the F-35."

Even critics of the F-35 were ambivalent about what the latest setback will mean for the program, whose political strength can be traced in part to having 1,200 suppliers in 45 states.

"There have been a thousand straws on this camel's back and the back hasn't broken," said Winslow Wheeler, a longtime defense analyst and a staff member at the Project On Government Oversight, a watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

"The political support for the F-35 has been astounding both inside the Pentagon and in Congress and internationally," he added. "Lockheed is world-class in building political armor. It just can't design airplanes."

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@monster.com

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