FARNBOROUGH AIR SHOW: Headline: Dutch Parliament votes to kill Joint Strike Fighter. Reality: Dutch parliamentarians cast meaningless vote as they position for elections in six months.
That sort of sums up much of what we’ve heard about the F-35 here. There are a few headlines but very little that’s really newsworthy. Of course, you can hear the Lockheed Martin folks going “yippee” as they read that, but it’s true.
I spoke with two Dutch journalists here – one of them a fairly keen supporter of the left coalition that led the vote a few days ago against the F-35 – and they said the vote was immaterial except as a political marker. The government had dissolved so the parliamentary vote carries no constitutional authority.
Also, while Dutch lawmakers voted to kill the program, they only required a study looking at the issue that should be finished after the next election. So – much Sturm und Drang and pretty little substance. The Dutch have committed to buy two test aircraft and earmarked roughly 4.5 billion Euros for the program. Dutch workers are responsible for producing the aircraft’s wiring bundle, which, as V-22 folks can tell you, is extremely important to an aircraft.
By the way, Lockheed’s head of the F-35 program, Tom Burbage, expressed confidence last night that the Dutch would continue down the path of buying the F-35. (He may want to double check with the head of the U.S. Navy as to whether Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert really plans to buy the full complement of 260 aircraft, given his article in the latest issue of Proceedings.)
Lockheed, clearly hungry to drum up some good news here at the air show, announced that four F-35s have been delivered to the U.S. government since June 29, putting the military in possession of more production aircraft — 16 — than test planes –14. While this may not be momentous, it does seem worthy of note after the years of schedule goofs and cost overruns. It does mark a kind of tipping point in the program.
In other F-35 news, the F-35’s top test pilots spoke with the press during a late morning briefing here. We heard a few interesting tidbits beyond the now numbing litany that they are ahead on test points and will just be doing better and better as time goes on.
One was that the pilots really like the helmets, which have been sharply criticized for shaking – aka “jitter” – and other technical problems. The helmet provides a “big, wide field of view,” said Lockheed’s Chief Test Pilot, Al Norman. This “adds to the sense this is an easy aircraft to fly.” Vice Adm. David Venlet said about a month ago that it looked as if fixes have been found for the helmet. This is one we’ll just to watch.
British test pilot Peter “Wizzer” Wilson offered a very warm view of the F-35B’s performance. The shipboard tests on the USS Wasp had demonstrated the aircraft would not damage ships’ decks and did not generate any more blowback than do existing ship-based aircraft, he told reporters.
Finally, Norman, who spent 12 years as a test pilot on the F-22, said the F-35 is “years ahead of where we were with the F-22” at this stage in the program.
So if Lockheed and the Pentagon can control the program’s costs – as the Dutch and Japanese have made clear they must – then the F-35 may survive without the deep cuts that could drive the unit costs into the stratosphere, something likely to really kill the program. Note to Dutch politicians: killing the F-35 might destroy some Dutch jobs and that may not be helpful to your reelection chances.