By Giovanni de Briganti
PARIS — The latest round of Dutch defense cuts is an apt illustration of how defense readiness across NATO is being damaged by government insistence on procuring the F-35 fighter at whatever cost, despite its recurring delays and very serious technical faults and design shortcomings.
Two prospective buyers, Canada and the Netherlands, have established firm price caps on their F-35 acquisition budgets to prevent cost blow-outs, but because costs continue to increase, the number of aircraft they will be able to buy is being constantly reduced. This also reduces their military usefulness, as the fewer the aircraft, the lower their overall operational effectiveness.
The Netherlands are an apt illustration of the dangers of such an approach. It was originally due to buy 85 F-35s, but successive Dutch governments have reduced this number to 58, which, as the Algemene Rekenkamer (AR), the independent state auditor, concluded in its Oct. 25, 2013 report, are not even enough to fulfill Dutch commitments to NATO. Nonetheless, the F-35 program will absorb half the defense ministry’s total capital expenditure budget for six years, starving other programs of funding.
The current Dutch government now simply plans to buy as many aircraft as it can with its €4 billion budget – fewer than 40, the Rekenkamer estimated. But even to afford this reduced number, it must cut most other defense spending.
The latest round of cuts, reported Sept. 5, is worth €330 million, and will entail the sale of a logistics support ship which is still being built, the scrapping of an entire Army battalion and the mothballing of six or seven more F-16 fighters.
The situation is broadly similar in Canada, where the government has placed a price cap of $8.9 billion on its F-35 acquisition budget, without being able to say how many aircraft this will buy. Yet, it is gradually becoming apparent that cuts in other parts of the defense budget will be needed to protect F-35 funding, and an Aug. 13 report in the National Post was headlined “F-35 purchase may force Conservatives to chop infantry battalion from cash-strapped military.”
And it’s really no different in the United States. Under the pressure of sequestration, the Pentagon will have to choose between a “much smaller force” or a decade-long “holiday” from modernizing its weapon systems, to quote defense secretary Chuck Hagel.
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon acquisitions chief, has already indicated that the F-35 program, and a few other top priority programs, will be protected from further cuts, but this means that “remaining programs in the procurement account would have to be cut even more than the 16% average reduction for the whole [acquisition] account,” as the Lexington Institute’s Lauren B. Thompson recently noted.
In the United States as in the Netherlands and Canada, the F-35 is soaking up much of the available acquisition funding, at the expense of other programs or activities that will have to be stretched out or cut altogether. One example is the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program, which Defense News reported Sept. 2 may be cut from 52 to 24, and others are still emerging.
On current trends, the US Air Force one day will fly only F-35s, KC-46 tankers and the future Global Strike bomber, along with a few – by then elderly – F-22s. This will be a stunning loss of capability compared to the large and diversified combat fleet it operates today, but that is their choice, made by elected representatives and, indirectly, approved by voters.
But there is no reason for US allies to display the same stubborn insistence on buying the overpriced and underperforming F-35. This has already put some allies onto the slippery slope where they must sacrifice other programs to pay for ever-lower numbers of F-35s. Italy, for example, has already said it will reduce its F-35 off-take from 130 to 90 or fewer, while the UK is currently committed to buying 48, instead of the 150+ it originally planned, although it ultimately intends to buy more.
If current, short-sighted policies continue, these governments – whether in Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway or other countries – will wake up one day and realize they have forsaken their entire military capabilities to pay for a squadron or two of F-35s they cannot afford to fly.