Third strike in a defence debacle

Diagrams showing major design inadequacies for each of the Joint Strike Fighter's three purposes will test manufacturer claims all is well with the program.

Americans are starting to take Australians for granted. There were signs of this in the President Obama visit but this new phase in our relationship was taken to a new high when Lockheed Martin executive vice-president Tom Burbage visited us this week. Burbage must love coming to Australia, where he finds an oasis of pleasure. He is able to say that all is well with the Joint Strike Fighters and not be questioned.

The Australian Defence Minster is cocooned from the problems of the JSF by his defence chiefs while the media accepts without question Burbage’s assurances that all is well.

But then poor Tom must leave his oasis and go back to the real world – the US, where the JSF review conducted by three deputy assistant secretaries of defence (David Ahern, Edward G Greer and Stephen Welby) and two other top government defence experts (James Woolsey and James MacStravic) has revealed deep and serious problems in and with the JSF aircraft designs.

If the JSF reviewers are right about the aircraft's problems, then Burbage and Lockheed have more than taken us for granted – they have misled the nation.

Alternatively, perhaps the JSF reviewers are wrong and Lockheed Martin Corp, through Burbage, is right.

In Business Spectator we alerted readers to the existence of the JSF review and the problems it revealed about the aircraft but we relied on US newspaper leaks (Headed for a JSF tailspin, Dec 13). Now the final report is out things are far worse than the leaks indicated.

The review says there are 725 change requests at the engineering kick-off stage; 696 change requests at the engineering release stage; 538 change requests awaiting manufacturing bill of materials release and 148 change requests awaiting implementation.

The median time from issue identification to implementation of change into production varies between 18 and 24 months. Remember this aircraft is trying to fly while this multitude of change is being undertaken. But there is more.

The report isolates that the JSF is experiencing moderate to severe buffeting in its flying. A small amount of buffeting can be a good thing in an aircraft as a warning signal to the pilot but if buffeting levels rise, it usually indicates a fundamental problem with the aircraft.

In some of the tables in the report’s appendix, the review panel appears to be indicating that some of the buffeting is reaching dangerous levels. If this happens it may require major changes in the aircraft which could affect performance. Interestingly, Australian aeronautical engineers in the Air Power Australia Think Tank warned the Pentagon in 2004-2005 that the early design of the JSF may be quite vulnerable to buffeting. Australians appear to have isolated the JSF dangers well before the Americans but unfortunately our department of defence didn’t listen and relied on American rather than Australian expertise.

But the JSF problems get worst. The appendices of the review carry three diagrams of the airframe of the aircraft for each of its three purposes. Below is the CV or carrier version which has not yet started its fatigue testing on its airframe but the severe red lines going through the diagram indicate difficult or complex modifications are required.

Almost certainly this conclusion has been reached as a result of analysis of the problems showing up in testing in the other versions.

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The second version is the so-called STOVL, which was designed for short take-off and vertical landing. You will see in the diagram that there are extensive areas that require difficult access or complex modifications. Only 9.375 per cent of this aircraft’s fatigue testing has been done but already it seems that some complex modifications and some new design/different parts will be required. The cost of these in conjunction with other problems may cause it to be abandoned. But I must emphasise that no decision has been made.

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Then comes the CTOL – the Australian version of the plane which has reached some 18.75 per cent of its fatigue testing. As you can see in the diagram below, there are problems in parts of the aircraft’s airframe which will require difficult access or complex modification. Then there are the five major frames which carry the wings, which the diagram shows have problems which require moderately difficult access or moderately complex modifications. These are coded yellow.

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It would seem that in the case of the STOVL, a new frame will be required, whereas with our aircraft an attempt will be made to modify these fatigue problem-ridden parts. There is a grave danger that even if the aircraft can be made safe, it will not last a long time. Alternatively the modifications will further reduce the performance of the Australian JSF.

Given this diagram, the buffeting and the enormous number of problems requiring 18 to 24 months to solve, for Lockheed to claim to Australian ministers and press that the program did not have major problems will test the boundaries of credibility.

Australians traditionally have been admired around the world for speaking their mind and not suffering fools lightly. Now on the JSF issue we are not only taken for granted, but becoming like frightened rabbits and not prepared to face the truth.

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