Bloated In Budget And Absent At Airshow, F-35 Charts A Troubled Course

The new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is supposed to be combat-ready next year. But the aircraft, which is already over-budget, failed to show up at the International Air Show in the UK. The show was to be its big overseas debut. Christopher Werth looks at what this means for the plane's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.

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This afternoon, the Pentagon announced the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will not fly to England this week. It was supposed to make its international debut there at the Farnborough Airshow. That's bad news for Lockheed Martin, the F-35's manufacturer. The company is dependent on foreign sales to make the troubled program work. From Farnborough, Christopher Werth reports.

CHRISTOPHER WERTH, BYLINE: The F-35 is the most expensive defense program in U.S. history. So far, it's racked up nearly $400 billion in costs. But Al Norman, the plane's chief test pilot, argues that's money spent on radar-evading design and high-tech computer software that is far more advanced than anything before it.

AL NORMAN: This technology makes the F-35 a quantum leap in capability for fighter aircraft.

WERTH: Norman is giving tours of the F-35 at what would have been its grand entrance on the world stage. Countries like Britain, Australia and Italy have placed orders for the fighter jet. Foreign delegates have come to kick the tires and maybe even watch the plane fly, but after more than a decade under development, all Norman has to show them is essentially a big, model airplane.

NORMAN: What we're walking around right now is a full-scale mockup of the aircraft. The actual airplane is not right in front of you right now.

WERTH: Can I tap this? What's this made of?

NORMAN: Oh, sure, sure. Yeah. This right here is just - is wood.

WERTH: Oh, it's wood.

NORMAN: I think it is.

WERTH: Actually, the folks at Lockheed Martin tell me it's fiberglass. But in any case, Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, who oversees the F-35 for the U.S. Military, says not having a real plane at the airshow has made it harder to promote the F-35 abroad.

CHRISTOPHER BOGDAN: We did want to show off the airplane to the partners and to the foreign military sales customers.

WERTH: He says that's because those foreign countries are key to making sure the U.S. can pay for the fighter as it ramps up production. Right now, estimates for a single F-35 range from $112 million, according to the Pentagon, to closer to $200 million. But Bogdan says the more firm orders foreign buyers place, the cheaper the price tag should become.

BOGDAN: Without them, we cannot drive the price of this airplane down far enough for it to be affordable for everybody. So it is crucial for them to buy the airplanes they've committed to.

WERTH: And Bogdan says those partner countries are committed. But many have lowered their initial orders in recent years. For example, Britain originally planned to buy 138 F-35. Today the number stands at 48. Canada, Italy and the Netherlands have also wavered as defense budgets have been cut. And Justin Bronk, an analyst at RUSI, a British think tank, says the risk is the F-35 could enter what's known as a death spiral, where as orders drop, the price per plane starts to spin out of control.

JUSTIN BRONK: It's very hard for governments to justify politically buying an aircraft that is so eye-wateringly expensive. So any negative publicity, the fear will be you'd see further people cutting their orders to the point where even the U.S. just can't afford these aircraft.

WERTH: Lieutenant General Bogdan does not fear a death spiral. He says costs have actually dropped over the past four years. And his goal is to get the F-35's price down to around $85 million dollars each. Although, he says any uncertainty does not help that process.

BOGDAN: As people waver, it makes it harder for us to project how much the airplane is going to cost. So what we're really looking for is stability.

WERTH: To get that stability, Bogdan says he's here talking to partner countries about what he calls a block buy, which would allow partner nations to pull their orders and purchase F-35s at a wholesale price.

BOGDAN: My incentive to them is if you commit to buying X number of airplanes over five years, I'm going to give you a discount.

WERTH: At the same time, America's allies may not have a choice in the matter. The F-35 is the only advanced, fifth-generation fighter available to replace aging military fleets. And any alternative could be decades in the making. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Werth in Farnborough, England.

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