Recent U.S. commentaries on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program have focused on its costs to the U.S. defense budget and its importance to our military services. What is missing from most of the current discussion is that the JSF is an international program. The United States is only one of nine partner countries to have invested money and engineering know-how to develop the new fighter. The others, Great Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway, have invested more than $4.5 billion in the program. Together, they plan on acquiring some 738 aircraft. Moreover, they are deeply involved in the engineering of the F-35, the production of critical components and in creating the global supply chain and maintenance structure that will support this aircraft worldwide.
Take the example of Italy. Italy will have the second largest fleet of short take-off and vertical landing F-35s (62), being exceeded only by the U.S. Marine Corps. The Italian government has invested more than $1 billion so far. More important, Italian defense companies are playing a critical role in the program. Around twenty Italian companies are involved in some part of F-35 design and production from avionics to portions of the fuselage and weapons systems. The largest structural component built outside the United States is provided by an Italian company. Alenia is building wing boxes, Oto Melara is providing the gun for the carrier variant, Selex Galileo is responsible for electronic warfare components and the ejection seat firing mechanism and Secondo Mona is providing actuators.
Final assembly and checkout (FACO) for all 131 Italian F-35s will be performed in a brand new facility designed and built by Italian companies in cooperation with Lockheed Martin. This facility will also be a hub supporting maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade work on foreign-owned F-35s for decades to come.
As budget woes force the U.S. military to scale back its capabilities and commitments, international programs such as that for the F-35 become even more important to our security and that of U.S. allies. The F-35 is likely to be the only fifth-generation, stealthy fighter available to U.S allies in the first half of the 21st Century. Once deployed with foreign militaries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, the F-35 will act as a form of strategic glue, creating a bond of common training and maintenance practices, supply chain activities and defense planning that will add to regional and global security and stability.
The critical issue today for U.S. defense planners and budgeteers is to avoid reducing the number of JSFs procured in the near-term so far that the price per individual aircraft spikes. Were that to happen, foreign counties might have to abandon the program, further reducing procurement levels and causing still greater price increases. The result would be programmatic death spiral.
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