King of Lemons: Australia swindled by Lockheed Martin and its Joint Strike Fighter

by | Sep 26, 2020 | Government

The Joint Strike Fighter has been plagued by problems since it was just a sketch on paper, when in 2002 John Howard jumped the gun and committed to buying them. But the F-35 still has its champions in Australia with some wanting to buy 200 to get ready for a war with China. This is more of a work scheme for aircraft maintenance personnel than a cost-effective contribution to the defence of Australia, writes Brian Toohey.

“A cost-effective solution,” claimed Australia’s Defence Minister Linda Reynolds.

A costly failure, said Heather Wilson, the then secretary of the US Air Force.

Both were talking about ALIS (Autonomic Logistics Information System), which has a crucial role in Australia’s new F-35 fighter planes. While Minister Reynolds praised ALIS in August 2019 as “a cost-effective solution for key aspects of Australia’s F-35 maintenance management”, secretary Wilson had earlier said, “I can guarantee that no Air Force maintainer will ever name their daughter Alice.”

It soon became obvious that Reynolds was badly wrong. In January, the Pentagon announced it would scrap ALIS because it was causing operational delays of 45,000 hours a year. According to a report to Congress by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in July, US air force crews weren’t sure if a plane was safe to fly because the information provided by ALIS was either missing or too unreliable. Yet the US has paid billions to ALIS’s developers Lockheed Martin. An earlier GAO report said the system’s data could not be backed up. Astonishing.

Linda Reynolds

In the US there is an abundance of reputable government and media reports alerting the public to what’s happening with the F-35. Not so in Australia. As Michael West Media recently reported, the Australian Defence department has 17,000 regular public servants and another 20,000 in outsourced roles. That’s in addition to 20,000 in the air force and its active reserve, and a further 500 civilian and military personnel based in the US. Someone must’ve known what was going wrong. Yet Minister Reynolds was left to seem appallingly ignorant about one of the biggest projects in her portfolio.

Where does all this leave Australia and its purchase of the F-35, which has been plagued for decades by problems ever since then prime minister John Howard chose it in 2002 when it was just a sketch on paper. Howard locked Australia into the F-35 after a meeting with then US President George W Bush shortly after he met the plane’s Texas-based manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, in Washington in 2002.

Howard’s haste took Lockheed Martin’s international programs director Mike Cosentino by surprise. He told Australian media he was “absolutely flabbergasted” the company’s plane had been chosen so early in the development process.

And the core problem from the start was the Bush Administration’s decision to begin producing the plane long before it finished flight testing.

Band of Brothers: Lockheed Martin and the Department of Defence

Key Australian officials were committed to buying the F 35 in defiance of the facts. In 2009, they convinced then defence minister Labor’s John Faulkner there was an urgent need to commit to buying an initial 14 F-35s for $3.2 billion, despite acknowledging it would be cheaper to buy them further down the production track.

Just over two months later, then US defence secretary Robert Gates announced he would delay the purchase of 122 planes, sack the general in charge of the program and withhold  US$6.14 million from Lockheed Martin because it had failed to meet a number of key benchmarks. There was clearly good case for Faulkner to wait or, better still, re-evaluate Howard’s reckless 2002 purchase. But that didn’t happen.

The F-35 was promoted as being a “cheap truck” for delivering bombs yet GAO figures for the US financial year ending in September 2019 show the overall fleet was fully mission capable for only 31.6% of the time. The minimum war fighting target is 60-65%. A trucking firm would not tolerate having two-thirds of its fleet unavailable.

A replacement computerised information system called ODIN (Operational Data Integrated Network) is now being developed by Lockheed Martin but it is refusing to share key information such as computer source code, leading to serious concerns that the new system is also likely to suffer costly faults.

Moreover, the Pentagon has entered into a contract that cedes control of the global supply of spare parts, including the management of logistics and maintenance, to Lockheed Martin, according to the US non-partisan Project on Government Oversight (POGO). Lockheed Martin retains control of what property records do exist in a proprietary database called Maximo that government personnel have no access to. The intense secrecy about some components undermines Australia’s sovereign independence. Australia cannot maintain operational readiness on its own, because it isn’t able to repair secret US parts that fail.

Geoff Brown

Just as disturbingly, the complete corporate capture of the Pentagon means that Lockheed Martin ultimately flies Australia’s F-35s via extended data communications links from the plane back to the manufacturer in the US. The pilot relies on a constant stream of input from the US, using a communications link that could potentially be hacked or jammed thousands of kilometres from the Australian pilot’s actual location.

Moreover, all the data generated by Lockheed Martin is shared with the 13-plus countries that will soon deploy the F-35.  Not all the data may be securely held. Nor might Australia want to share everything it does with all the other operators of the F-35.

And there’s still plenty to go wrong. POGO reported earlier this year that the F-35 Program Office’s latest Deficiencies Report shows it was dealing with 883 unresolved design flaws in February this year – and has no plan for correcting more than 160 of them.

POGO has also reported that multiple sources within the F-35 program say that Lockheed Martin claims the design meets all specifications and that further changes can only be made by a contract adjustment. In other words, Lockheed will not fix the inherent faults unless the customer pays for it.

WHAT does all this mean for Australia?

Defence gives an average price of less than $126 million for Australia’s 72 F-35s when fully operational by 2023. It is the ongoing costs of maintenance and support that are the killer. The Australian Strategy Policy Institute estimates the sustainment costs to be triple those of the F-18 fighters it replaces.

Bloomberg reported this month that the confidential estimates  of the Pentagon’s Cost Analysis Unit now put the F-35’s life cycle operating and sustainment costs at $US1.723 trillion in 2020 dollars – easily the most expensive weapons program in history. It says that $1.266 trillion of the $US1.723 trillion is for operations and support and the rest for the initial acquisition cost. On this basis, the life cycle cost in current dollars for Australia’s F 35s will be approximately $(A)475 million per plane.

The sustainment costs are so high it’s likely the US will keep cutting the total number of planes it buys from its proposed 2400, thus adding to unit costs.

However, the F-35 still has its champions in Australia. Some strategic thinkers want to buy 200 to get ready for a war with China. That sounds more like a make-work scheme for aircraft maintenance personnel than a cost-effective contribution to the defence of Australia.

Defence spending continues to rocket in spite of coronavirus recession

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Toohey

Brian Toohey

Brian Toohey began his career in journalism as a political correspondent at the Australian Financial Review in 1973. He edited the National Times in the 1980s and has contributed to numerous publications. He is author of Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State.

31 Comments

  1. Avatar

    will they come with labels – ‘WOFTAM’, ‘SNAFU’ or both ?

  2. Avatar

    I heard Johnny Howard was ambushed by a full regalia US general at an outback country airport who simply shook little Johnny’s hand and told him ‘we have the plane you need !’

    and ever-keen little Johnny was like ‘where do I sign … ?’ – the Man of Steel – or was it Steal … ?

  3. Avatar

    No tender process was conducted, arguably much better planes were on offer, but they were not even considered.

    • Avatar

      Didn’t Brendan Nelson make secret commitment to F35 with Howard confirming? And no consultation with expertise at RAAF?

      LNP no care, no responsibility.

      • Avatar

        The worst part is the F-35 doesn’t even do what we need. To dominate airspace. Defence white papers from a decade back identified the deficiency. They are now looking at complimentary aircraft to actually do the role we need.

        I think the idiots in Parliament were rebuffed when they asked for the F-22 and thought the F-35 would be a cut price consolation prize.

  4. Avatar

    But, but, but, the LNP are the most superior, intelligent, cost effective governance since Howard, ever to walk the planet!

    And Morrison continues the charade.

  5. Avatar

    I read somewhere that after every flight, the F-35 needs two days of maintenance in order to fly again. I also read that the forward deployment environment includes a mainframe computer in a shipping container that needs about two weeks to obtain all the information needed to prepare the fighters for local operations – things like local terrain mapping, enemy radar and other communication systems etc.

    …and I also saw that the planes would have to be flown back to USA to maintenance work on some parts that we’re not allowed to know about.

    …and don’t get me started on the new submarines… someone once described a yacht as a hole in the water into which you pour money… when the hole is below sea level, it needs a LOT more money!

    • Avatar

      I love positions that begin with “I read somewhere…”. So precise.

      • Avatar

        Thanks for the put-down. Did you bother actually looking into it… or is the insult the better option for you?

        I have the article on file… but I can’t be bothered digging it out for you.

      • Avatar

        I read your post, it’s a very good post too, thanks for sharing.

  6. Avatar

    Cancel the contract it’s a pig in a poke , put the money into self developed defence technologys , make a new secure defence arm in the CSIRO and don’t tell me we havnt the capabilities to do this !!! it’s time gentlemen to cut the apron strings …anchor fast anchor …..

  7. Avatar

    One opinion in 100’s. Many other articles actually written by F35 pilots are actually very positive about the aircraft. I think I will take the word of someone with actual experience with the plane.

    • Avatar

      Zero-sum thinking. It can be both a monumental waste of money and superior to last generation jets at the same time.

      While you might subscribe to it being extremely good, you could also subscribe to it only needing to cost half as much. This ultimately is a result of largesse.

      DOD reports point to a slow aircraft that has poor maneuverability and a stealth system that will have no advantage over any other 5th gen aircraft.

      But if you could explain the most pertinent thing to us, why does a nation who has primary needs of air superiority purchased an aircraft designed for ground strike?

    • Avatar

      Pilots only see working F-35s…

      This article was about F-35s that doesn’t work.

    • Avatar

      The great thing about raaf pilots is that they do not give a fuck what a plane costs, to buy or maintain. Moreover it is about 68 years since any pilot flying in RAAF aircraft took on an enemy aircraft with the capacity to meet it on equal terms, or a country (like most of those in Europe,or China, say) with anti- aircraft weapons of any calibre. It is nice to be able to “dominate” the airspace; it is by no means certain that the enemies we are currently courting are like the poor tent makers we currently practise on.
      It is interesting to see the brainwashed drongos who think that the findings of the General Accounting Office) i.e. the American equivalent of the auditor general, or of political/administrative staff in the us airforce are as nothing compared with good old boy fliers, or good old boy senior officers who have gone over to the enemy promptly on retirement, or shameful toads, like brendan Nelson allowed to be a “consultant” to the arms manufacturing industry while head of a memorial dedicated to its victims. Nelson, dedicated patriot, is now an employee of a foreign company which is, in effect, a wholly owned subsidiary of American government.

  8. Avatar

    Yea a great aircraft so long as the onboard oxygen generation system works and not flying within 100 km of a thunderstorm and to be flown only on sunny Sundays then put back in the garage, yada yada yada 🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣

  9. Avatar

    What a load of pseudo-intellectual vomit. Time to get a service done on your frontal lobe if you think this pile of dreck constitutes anything more than a C-grade high school opinion piece. Can’t believe you actually get paid for any of this. Utter drivel.

    • Avatar

      You have evidence to back up your refutation of the article?

    • Avatar

      Ha ha, I’ve read your comment three times and I have no idea what your saying apart from maybe you’ve had a bad day that’s made you angry and irritable? They say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. How many of these fighters are operational? And in reality they’ll make zero difference to our chances if a serious ww3 type situation crops up. Coz our politicians are morons they get dazzled by shiny shinies. Our jets are no more than window dressing support for the yanks in third world middle eastern clusterfudges or buzzing the east timorese or scaring the crap out of fishermen down the south coast. And if we have to face china in an all out combat situation, well, we’d be fubar’d in two seconds. And all they’d have to do is stop shipping us mobile phones and tv’s and our own civil war would do us in 🤣🤣 Plus having actual pilots in aerial combat vehicles is so 2013 mixed technology NBN. Autonomous UAV’s are the way of the future! Go Skynet!

  10. Avatar

    You are a disgrace to write such garbage about thus excellent stealth aircraft and it’s probably ahead 10 years in technology and it’s secrets of its capabilities will be secret from people who are ignorant to appreciate this war machine and critics like you and not pilots to appreciate it’s technology and our airforce and its pilots are very happy and proud to call this great beast a flying computer and as this plane matures no adversaries will touch this plane in warfare as its a fifth generation stealth and it’s super computers will be fused with a squadron of plane’s and hunt down and destroy it’s enemies like a wolf pack.

    • Avatar

      Except it isn’t a secret. DOD has a public document every year outlining capabilities.

      It is a publicly accountable expenditure.

    • Avatar

      Go Nicholas! Thank you bro, I haven’t had a chuckle like that in ages 😊 I admire your enthusiasm and love the wolf pack imagery. No poverty stricken third world country will stand a chance against us!!

  11. Avatar

    Little johnnie. What did you leave us.hmmm
    Work choices, an unfair vote on a republic and a well a trained military with faulty equipment.

  12. Avatar

    An uninformed opinion by a journalist with an agenda who would sing the F35s praises if it suited what caused more controversy…… I’ve heard from the mouths of multiple pilots that if they had to go to war it would be hands down in the F35. That fourth gen aircraft like the mig 29, the SU27 derivatives (which are the biggest current threat right now) are no comparison to the F35 and the upcoming threats like J20 and SU57 will be the future adversaries. If the west didn’t have F35 or F22 they may as well not bother having airforces at all because the next 3 decades of air technology will be decided By fifth gen aircraft.

    • Avatar

      Which is rather irrelevant to the point.

      F-35 doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It doesn’t achieve the mission we need it to. It isn’t reliable and couldn’t currently hold its own against modern 4th gen aircraft.

      But ignore that, they built a cut price version of the F-22 for F-22 money… That is the point being made. I’m sure GDLS could turn out the best Abrams successor ever with a blank cheque and the exact same product could be built for far less if proper oversight occurred.

  13. Avatar

    Another John Howard instigated failure, Howard had simply observed a paper cut-out at the time.
    The one surety agreed upon… was that this US of A corporate Arms and Weapons manufacturer truly love’s Australia’s money.
    (They don’t even have to pay tax on their Aussie generated revenues.)
    Sco mo, not unlike the treasonous “Fibber” Howard, is more than happy to have Lockheed Martin’s spiv’s dictating the terms and introducing their secret herbs and spices technology into their now outdated and dysfunctional F-35s.
    Furthermore, you can be assured that there aren’t any warranties and guarantees associated with these Lockheed Martin Stealth Lemons.

  14. Avatar

    A good pairing with the US tank fleet. Both would make an excellent reef❤️🇦🇺

  15. Avatar

    What a waste of money develop better trade relationships and leave the war to the Yanks with their failing empire.

  16. Avatar

    Really, I mean all,of the negative posts here are written with the benefit of hindsight. They may be 100% correct, but you cannot buy hindsight, it comes with experience. The problem here is programmed obsolescence, all of our politicians are programmed to be obsolete at one stage, generally after a major f up. The problem here is we are in a market place where we cannot buy ‘ off the shelf’. We are buying, or more correctly, investing in futures. Anybody who gambles like this knows how fickle this is.

  17. Avatar

    The American test pilots has nicknamed the F35 fighter plane as, “The Flying Turd”…….

  18. Avatar

    Thanks, Brian. I am sure that after your long career as a hack, you have a thick skin. Keep writing for us.

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