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PAS11: Lockheed's new sales challenge

PARIS -- The F-35 program's number two officer and Lockheed Martin's number one manager painted a rosy picture Tuesday in Paris, of test points overcome, an ambitious agenda for the rest of the year, and even a new signature on the dotted line. (Norway's parliament has agreed to buy four F-35s in 2016 to train its pilots.) Taking Air Force Maj. Gen. C.D. Moore and Lockheed vice president Tom Burbage at their word, the F-35's biggest problem now could be the toughest to overcome: Perception.

Moore and Burbage still do not have an alternative to DoD's dire projection that it'll cost $1 trillion to operate and sustain the Air Force, Navy and Marines' fleet of Lightning IIs. They and other Lockheed officials have said, hey, look, we're not getting into a game of numbers trump here -- we want our performance going forward to speak for itself and restore confidence in our jet. But everyone in the defense game, from the hacks in the audience even to Lockheed's newest client, remains deeply skeptical. In fact, Lockheed's old arch rival in the Joint Strike Fighter program, Boeing, hopes many clients run out of patience waiting for the F-35 -- but more on that later.

"I hope there will be no more surprises in the coming years," on the F-35 program, Norwegian Adm. Arne Roksund said at Lockheed's press conference. As of today, Norway wants to buy 56 jets, including its four trainers, but Roksund made it sound as though the F-35 had been a hard sell to his parliament, and he talked more about the need to get the program right than about how much Norway looked forward to fielding a fifth-generation super-jet.

A little earlier, a reporter in the audience asked Moore and Burbage about an Australian rumor that the international variants of the F-35 weren't going to be as stealthy as the American ones. Is that true? Aviation Week star reporter Amy Butler followed up by asking for a definite yes or no. Moore and Burbage discounted that idea, saying that whoever came up with it was clearly not plugged into the program office, and that international clients' jets will meet or exceed all of their specifications. But neither official said categorically: The international jets will have every ounce of stealth special sauce that the American ones have.

Yes, this is tricky -- it's hard for government and industry leaders to talk openly about such sensitive issues. Maybe there's nothing to it: Program officials have been saying for years that the whole point of JSF was to get high-quality advanced fighters into the hands of U.S. allies to make it easier to fight together and to make everyone that much deadlier. But the fact remains that the F-35 has a perception problem, and the international attendees here in Paris make it clear that it's not just limited to American shores.

"Wow, the F-35 is controversial?" That's not a news flash, you say. No -- but it could become very significant if the jet can't overcome the apparent perception gap between what people think ("it's all jacked up") with how government and industry officials say it's actually doing ("things are great!") As Moore and Burbage said Tuesday, this is a big year for the F-35: The B is doing its first shipboard testing this fall, and the first jets are arriving soon at Eglin AFB, Fla., where Moore said the schoolhouse will begin cranking out 2,000 maintainers and 100 pilots a year.

Moore showed a PowerPoint slide with a photograph of the new facilities at Eglin: "The next time I talk to press, I hope the hangar on the right will have some really sweet CTOL aircraft, with maintainers crawling all over them, and some jet fumes coming out the back," he said.

It appears as though it'll take that, or more, to win back some of the F-35's many skeptics.

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