30 Jan 05. The FT reported that at an estimated $200bn when completed early in the next decade, the JSF programme is by far the largest project in military history. Yet it must clear hurdles that some believe may be insurmountable. (See BATTLESPACE UPDATE Vol.6 ISSUE 41, 30 October 2004, AUSA 2004 – BACK TO THE FUTURE). It must prove it is not too heavy to complete its mission. It must convince allies it is not part of a US scheme to control the technologies that run their air forces. Perhaps most importantly, it must also survive in a Pentagon budget that, because of the billions being spent on the war in Iraq, is likely to see deep cuts in weapons procurement for the rest of the decade.
The first signs of those budget cuts are expected this week when George W. Bush, the US president, reveals his 2006 spending plan. Robert Elrod, one of two general managers of Lockheed’s JSF programme, describes 2006 as a “tough damn year”: “With all the funding and all the programmes on the plate, in addition to the stress of funding the Iraq war, it is serious business. And it’s going to get harder, not easier.” The aircraft almost did not make it this far. A year ago detailed work by Lockheed engineers uncovered a flaw that almost stopped the programme on the drawing board: the aircraft was thousands of pounds overweight.
The JSF is actually three similar fighters. The first is designed for standard airstrips whilst the second version, bigger and sturdier, is for the US Navy and can take off from aircraft carriers. The third and most complicated is a “jump jet”, modelled on the Harrier and to be used by the US Marines and the UK’s Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.
For this third version – known as the “Stovl”, for Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing, and pronounced “Stove-all” – Lockheed needed to cram lots of advanced systems – including a revolutionary engine – into the same skin as that of the more conventional versions. As a result the Stovl version emerged about 3,500lb (1,600kg) overweight, making it unable to carry enough bombs and fly far enough. That forced the Pentagon to delay the entire programme by a year and add $7bn to its development budget. Questions were raised about whether the Stovl version could be saved at all, calling the whole programme into question, since without the marines and the UK, much of the rationale behind a single service-wide fighter would be lost.
Lockheed asked 500 engineers to look for reductions, and found about 600 changes it could make to bring down the weight by almost 3,000lb. More weight was saved by agreeing to change some of the mission requirements with the Pentagon and improving the engine. In November the Pentagon’s acquisition chiefs approved the changes. Not everyone is convinced, however. The Pentagon’s independent testing agency said last week the changes might not be enough. “The Stovl weight reduction target of 3,500lb is optimistic,” the report found. “[We] assess there is an additional 800lb to 1,000lb threat to the Stovl design.” Even if the changes do work, many of them – such as smaller bomb bays – make the Stovl increasingly different from the other versions, which could increase costs.
Lockheed is also facing some testy allies who argue they were misled when they invested in the programme. Assuaging angry partner countries has become so onerous that Lockheed recently split the job of programme manager between Mr Elrod and Tom Burbage, the fighter’s original overseer. Mr Burbage said he had been spending more than half his time dealing with complaining allies. The complaints have their roots in the unusual way the programme is structured. Traditionally, countries that want to buy into a large fighter project are given an industrial sweetener in return for participating. In the rival Eurofighter programme- built by BAE Systems, EADS and Finmeccanica – each of four European countries is guaranteed a share o