Fighter’s path could get bumpy as foreign partners facing pressures

Pentagon leaders are throwing their full support behind Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter, but the plane’s path to production may yet get bumpy as key foreign partners face political and financial pressures to scale back their participation in the program.

The F-35 Lighting II is called the Joint Strike Fighter for a reason: The approximately $256 billion effort aims to deliver more than 2,000 next-generation fighter jets to the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and a slew of international partner countries.

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International governments are reaffirming their commitment to purchasing the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) even as they face their own financial crises. But several governments are dealing with domestic political controversies and criticism that could threaten their participation in the program.

The fighter jet program was conceived with international cooperation. It was to be a key to a new push toward global cooperation and interoperability between foreign militaries and U.S. forces.

While the United States is footing most of the bill for the research and development related to the new fighter jet, eight other countries are also backing the program financially: the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway.

Of the eight countries financing the plane’s development, the United Kingdom is spending the most, at $2 billion, followed by Italy with $1 billion and the Netherlands with $800 million. The rest are contributing between $125 million and $175 million apiece.

The most telling example of the kind of heartburn the JSF is causing some European governments is that of the Netherlands. There, the decision over whether to buy two test Joint Strike Fighters almost led to the collapse of the coalition government as a result of a parliamentary standoff between the Labor party — which opposed the purchase — and the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party.

The parliamentary faction of the Labor party in April distanced itself from its own Cabinet ministers, who earlier agreed in principle with the government’s intention to purchase the test planes. The CDA, meanwhile, pressed for a decision on the fighter planes.

To avert a collapse, the coalition parties decided to buy one test aircraft and postpone the definitive decision on the replacement of its fleet of F-16 fighter jets until 2012, when the next government is elected. That is two years later than initially expected.

Acknowledging that the political backing for the JSF is a sensitive issue in the country, a Dutch military source told The Hill that the Ministry of Defense is fully committed to buying the JSF as the replacement for the F-16 fleet based on the outcome of an evaluation of several planes.

“Politics are always going to be a significant element,” said Damon Wilson, the director of the international security program at the Atlantic Council of the United States. The Netherlands is “a particular case because of the diversity of the coalition,” he added. “In any democratic society, it is normal to defend due diligence with something expensive like this [program].”

 The governments of Denmark and Norway also appear to be fighting off some criticism related to the JSF. Denmark is also pushing back its decision to buy a new fighter jet until 2012, with the caveat that the new plane come at a fixed price. And the country has not ruled out buying Saab’s Gripen and Boeing’s Super Hornet F-18 instead.

Meanwhile, the Norwegian government is dealing with the fallout of its decision to dismiss the Swedish Gripen in favor of the JSF. Critics, who favor a non-U.S. plane, argue that the decision was rigged in favor of the JSF.

Despite the controversy, however, analysts say the JSF remains the leading contender in both countries as long as the developments and capabilities of the plane go as planned.

In Italy, the parliament this month is set to authorize a budget that would allow the country to buy as many as 121 JSFs. Still, there is some public grumbling about the decision, despite the fact that the country is the only foreign partner with an assembly site for the JSF. Italy would make aircraft for itself and the Netherlands under the international agreement.

The current government is fully committed to the JSF, but Italians are upset with the termination of the U.S. presidential helicopter built by Agusta Westland, a British-Italian venture and part of the Finmeccanica conglomerate, as well as with the paring-back of the C-27J purchase, a cargo aircraft built by another Italian company, Alenia, also part of Finmeccanica.

“Italy and the U.S. wage war over military contracts,” reads a recent headline in the Milan weekly Panorama. “President Obama aims to cut Finmeccanica helicopters from the budget. Italy may respond by canceling an order for Lockheed’s F-35 fighter jets.”

Italy’s defense minister sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week pleading for the continuation of the presidential helicopter contract.

Meanwhile, Britain, the largest participant in the JSF program, is moving forward despite the growing pressures on its defense budget brought on by the financial crisis, which has hit the country especially hard.

Britain’s defense minister reaffirmed his country’s commitment to the program during a March visit in Washington. He signed the contract for three JSF test aircraft.

Overall, Lockheed Martin is looking at the sale of more than 2,000 planes in the United States and another 730 internationally, but those numbers are still in flux.