The Corona Virus Has Complicated the Geopolitics of the World’s Most Advanced Fighter Jet.

The F-35 is perhaps the most advanced warplane ever built. It’s advanced systems and sensors can see and help defeat enemies over the horizon. It’s AIM-9X missiles are devastatingly precise. Yet, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is helpless in the face of a far deadlier foe – the novel Corona Virus.

Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the aircraft, recently announced that that it expects to deliver just 122 F-35 jets down twenty from its expected target due to slowdowns in production. Lockheed Martin’s vice president for aeronautics Michele A. Evans said in a media appearance this fall that in order to avoid “spikes and low points” in production its might actually take several years for the lost production to be made up.

According to Lockheed Martin it may take until 2023 to make up for the lost production time caused by the pandemic.

The pandemic has played havoc with the production of the fighter craft all year and in particular with Final Assembly and Check-Out (FACO) facilities for the warplane that are located abroad.

“Leonardo’s plant in Cameri, Piedmont, Italy, closed few days for sanitization in March and then reopened,” said Maurizio Geri, an Italian defense analyst who previously worked with NATO, “The FACO plant employs a highly skilled workforce of more than 750 people that were impacted by this and even short-term shutdowns can have long-term impact.”
 
Indeed, the production shortfalls maybe contributing to an apparent kerfluffle between Italian Navy and Air Force over who will operate the next jets to roll of the Cameri assembly line.
 
The other FACO facility located abroad in Japan was also shut down after one of its workers tested positive for the virus.

Only F-35s being built for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces are assembled at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries installation.
 

“The F-35 production rate at the Japanese and Italian FACOs was slowed to mitigate COVID-19 outbreaks; however, aircraft production at both facilities has continued, said Keith Goodsell, a public affairs officer with the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office at the Pentagon earlier this year.

 
The majority of the production of the aircraft occurs at a facility in Texas. The program’s supply chain is unique in that the F-35 was designed as a joint initiative between key American allies and grew out of the Joint Strike Fighter initiative in the 1990s. Australia, Canada, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Norway agreed to contribute over $4.3 billion to the development of the program which was formally launched in 2001. Yet, the programs long-supply chains have drawn criticism from the Trump administration.

“It’s a certain fighter jet, I won’t tell you which, but it happens to be the F-35,” President Trump said in an appearance on Fox Business earlier this summer,”

We make parts for this jet all over the world, we make them in Turkey, we make them here, we make them there. The problem is if we have a problem with a country, you can’t make the jet.”

Prime Minister Erdogan acquisition of the S-400 Russian air defense system sparked major concerns within the United States and other NATO allies. Turkey has guaranteed the S-400 will not be integrated into NATO systems but, it is unclear if such segregation would be technically possible. As a result, the U.S. formally removed Turkey from the F-35 program last year.

U.S. and Turkish disagreement over the war in Syria and in particular regarding Kurdish groups is another point of contention in the relationship between Ankara and Washington D.C.  Ironically the one place where the S-400 air defense system and the F-35 have both operated is in Syria, where media reports indicate the Russian air defense system was unable to detect Israeli F-35s.

While Congressional efforts sought to ensure that no Turkish made parts for the F-35 would be delivered the Pentagon recently revealed that current contractual obligations and the needs of current production mean that Turkey will likely still be producing parts for the aircraft well into 2020.

“Turkish manufacturers are still producing and delivering key components of the aircraft despite the statutory prohibition on such participation in manufacturing,” a bipartisan group of U.S. congressional leaders wrote in an open letter to the U.S. Defense Department in July.

Production issues aside, many partner countries may be reconsidering their orders of the F-35 which can cost as much as 122 million per aircraft in light of the Corona virus’s impact on national defense budgets.

The helmet for each F-35 pilot reportedly costs $400,000 dollars alone.

One estimate suggests that throughout its entire lifetime the aircraft will cost the American taxpayer over 1.7 trillion dollars due in part to high service costs.

The United Kingdom is reportedly considering scaling back its purchase order of the aircraft and other clients maybe looking at cost-cutting measures as well.

Last year, during a visit from U.S. President Donald Trump, Japan announced that it would be purchasing 105 F-35s an order which if completed would give the largest fleet of F-35s of any U.S. ally.

“The FACO program is an expensive one Japan and it would likely prefer to have more of the F-35s it committed to built abroad and then delivered to Japan,” said Jon Grevatt, a Bangkok based Asian defense analyst.

Reduced purchase orders could further impact production as increased economies of scale is one factor which has driven down production costs in recent years. Politics aside, production at the main FACO facility in Dallas has continued apace despite incidences of the Corona virus among Lockheed Martin’s employees at the site.

President Trump has continued to find potential buyers for the F-35 as well. Following the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. President Trump suggested the United States might sell F-35s to the United Arab Emirates following the signing of the Abraham Accords.

“They’re very wealthy countries for the most part. Some are extraordinarily [wealthy] like the UAE, and they would like to buy some fighter jets and I personally would have no problem with it,” Trump said.

Indeed, plans are in the works for the UAE to receive as many as 50 F-35s with the $10 billion sale being approved as soon as December 2nd in time for the UAE National Day. The U.S. State Department notified Congress that it had approved the sale in late October.

Such a sale is unlikely to move forward without the acquiesce of Israel. Israel currently has 24 such jets with plans to obtain another 50. The United States has long pledged to give Israel a qualitative advantage in regional hardware by not supplying its potential Arab adversaries with capabilities entirely equal to Israel. While the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is increasingly acquiescent to Emirati’s security aspirations to acquire the F-35. While Qatar also seeks to acquire the F-35 it is uncertain if such a deal will take place. On October 26th, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz seemed to leave the possibility open for such an acquisition. However, his statement comes after Israel’s Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen nixed the idea in an October interview.

“Our area hasn’t yet turned into Switzerland,” he said at the time.

Joseph Hammond
Joseph Hammond

Joseph Hammond is a journalist and fellow with the African Union’s iDove program. He served as Cairo correspondent for Radio Free Europe in 2011 during the Arab Spring. In 2013, Hammond embedded with M23 rebels in the Eastern Congo becoming one of the last journalists to do so before that group’s rout by United Nations forces. Hammond’s work has been published by The Economist, Forbes, Slate, Christian Science Monitor, International Business Times, Monocle, Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown (CNN), U.S. News and World Report, Deutsche Welle (Qantara), and other publications. He on the advisory board member of several organizations including the Center for Media and Peace Initiatives. He was a Fulbright Public Policy fellow with the government of Malawi. He has also completed fellowships and leadership programs with the Commonwealth of Nations, National Endowment for Democracy, Atlantic Bruecke, National Endowment for Democracy, the Atlantic Council of the United States, International Center for Journalists, the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America Foundation and the Policy Center for the New South's Atlantic Dialogue. Follow him on Twitter @TheJosephH

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