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Former DoD Officials Laud International Development Programs, Question Their Future In Trump Admin

Four F-35B Lightning II aircraft perform a flyover above the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) on Nov. 20, 2016. US Navy Photo

Four F-35B Lightning II aircraft perform a flyover above the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) on Nov. 20, 2016. US Navy Photo

The Trump administration’s focus on “America first” throws into question whether it would launch any new large-scale international joint development programs such as the F-35, a former under secretary of defense for policy said Monday.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Christine Wormuth said, “having that interoperability is increasingly valuable,” particularly when gained through “working with allies and partners on real-world projects.” Over time the development and operation of these systems strengthen trust and increase the depth of relationships with allies and partners, said Wormuth, now a senior adviser on international security at CSIS. Quoting a Special Forces mantra, she added, “you can’t surge trust.”

But other panelists noted that many challenges – plus the current political climate – could stand in the way of launching another major international joint development program in the near term despite the benefits.

Because these programs take years to move from science and technology projects to full production, Frank Kenlon, former director of international negotiations at the Pentagon, said they need political and economic support with strong advocates inside the Defense Department. They “have to be very stable” for the projects to come to fruition. Otherwise, they could go the way of the Medium Expanded Air Defense System (MEADS), which was projected in the middle 1990s to replace the Patriot Air Defense System but was eliminated to meet the cuts required under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Kenlon questioned whether there was sufficient support in the Pentagon for future international development programs, but he said the Army-led Future Vertical Lift might be the next opportunity to test that interest.

Andrew Hunter, co-author of a new CSIS report on these types of programs, said in his opening remarks that only in the United States would the question be asked about whether a major development program should be an international program because “we can do this on our own.” He added, “Acquisition is hard; international joint development is harder.”

However, Vidar Skjelstad, president of Norwegian firm Kongsberg Defense Systems, said that “If there is a will there is a way” to make international programs work, reducing friction among partners and complexity in development and production.

The Sept. 23, 2014 test of the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile onboard USS Coronado (LCS-4). US Navy Photo

The Sept. 23, 2014 test of the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile onboard USS Coronado (LCS-4). US Navy photo

For a relatively small company like his, it means finding a niche that fits into larger programs. Skjelstad offered two examples: a Kongsberg-developed rudder for the F-35 that lowered overall program costs enough to cover the cost of two aircraft, and the company’s collaboration with Raytheon on developing an international naval strike missile. Even with the projected increase in American defense spending, he said, “there is only so much R&D [research and development] money to go around at any time,” making international partners and their ongoing research efforts all the more valuable.

Skjelstad also suggested that the scope and complexity of partners’ involvement, as well as the total number of partners brought in for development, can be limited to accelerate the design-to-fielding timeline if needed.

Still, questions remain about whether this type of collaboration would take place or succeed under the Trump administration. Marjorie Censer, defense business editor at Inside Defense, said “we have seen a focus on price” of the F-35 program, highlighted by a recent order to review the program’s cost and whether an improved F/A-18E/F Super Hornet could serve as a more cost-effective alternative. The conversation around F-35 has focused strictly on cost, rather than performance or international collaboration.

“Buy American, hire American; how does this play out,” she asked rhetorically.

  • Curtis Conway

    CNO Richardson has stated that the F-35 combat system is far superior to the F/A-18 in every way, and he is correct. Therefore the decision as to which the fleet gets in the short term will be determined by needs of the Battle Group Commanders.

    Additionally, the ARGs and Expeditionary Strike Groups need a VSTOL/STOVL AEW&C asset. Yes, the F-35B Combat System can provide a significant capability with external fuel tanks, in reciprocal orbits overhead, and providing an OTH picture, but this is a poor use of this valuable tactical asset of which the MAGTF of which they have precious few. NO, a specific platform should be providing this capability, and that VSTOL/STOVL AEW&C asset’s time has come, and where are we today?

    • CharleyA

      “CNO Richardson has the F-35 combat system is far superior to the F/A-18 in every way.” Is that what he actually said? – I haven’t seen that quote. His remarks don’t explain the Navy’s continued interest in acquiring a significant number of additional Super Hornets, and the Trump Administration’s review of the entire F-35 program, and separately / specifically the F-35C. If Boeing can produce an effective alternative to F-35C, then we might see fewer F-35Cs procured, even if it is not as stealthy. At any rate, the F-35C is still several years away from finishing development – plenty of time for Lockheed to fix their jet, and Boeing to show their cards.

      • USNVO

        I paraphrase, but he said the capabilities of the F-35 are on a completely different level than the F-18. He also reiterated that the Navy needs the F-35C specifically over an updated F-18.

        The Navy continues to be interested in more F-18s (but not Advanced ones) because they did such a thoroughly poor job of maintaining the ones they have and flying them far more than planned. And at least in the case of the F-18E, using them as tankers in a fashion such that they make numerous heavy landings significantly shortening their life cycle (this has largely been minimized recently by better planning). This has resulted in a Strike Fighter shortfall. To correct the shortfall, one thing the Navy can do is buy some new Block II F-18E/Fs. The benefit is that the new airframes can be immediately assigned to squadrons, requiring no additional personnel or pilot training. If they were to buy more F-35Cs, although the capability would increase dramatically, there is no way to get the added bodies, pilots and maintainers, as well as the time to retrain them, in a expeditious fashion. And of course, the production ramp up of the F-35 will take longer. Since the F-18s are going to be around a long time, new ones ease the fleet management issues going forward and let you retire the less capable Block I Super Hornets.

        As you say, there is plenty of time to see what Boeing has but the desire for new Super Hornets is more about fixing the hole they dug in the last 16 years and less about any comment for the future. Even then, the P-8/BAMS and E-2D have been the priority.

        • CharleyA

          This is a very interesting comment. I do have the event queued up to listen to in its entirety whenever I have an hour to spare. It does make sense that the Navy isn’t ready to accept a large quantity of F-35Cs in two years since they don’t have the supporting infrastructure in place. However, exactly how long have we known the F-35C is coming? At another event over the summer, the CNO noted that there are only four squadrons of Hornets left in service, and those will be gone in a few years. It seems apparent by the Navy’s actions that it will be a long time before each CVW has a single squadron of F-35Cs, let alone two which is/was the plan. The armed scout role mentioned at times by Shoemaker and Manazir et al seems to be a realization that there are not going to be a lot of F-35Cs on deck for quite a while.

  • The operative word in the story is “former”. New day, new direction, new way of doing things, and less reliance on the world wide defense/industrial guys.