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June 20, 2018 | International, Aerospace

Thanks To NATO Infighting, the Future of the F-35 Is Shrinking


The U.S. Senate wants to revoke Turkey's license to buy the jet, while other European governments are looking to get a competitor off the ground.

The most sophisticated fighter jet in the world, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will play a smaller role in the future of European security than originally conceived. On Monday, the Senate amended its version of the 2019 defense authorization act to block the sale of the fifth-generation fighter jet to Turkey. The reason: the NATO ally's purchase of the Russian S-400, a radar and missile battery with a lethal range of 250 km. In routine operation, the sensor- and transmitter-packed jet exchanges electronic data with friendly anti-air systems and sensors, and if Turkey were to do this, data collected by the Russian-built weapon might find its way back to Moscow.

The House version of the bill also expresses concerns about the S-400 and Turkey and requires a report 60 days after the bill's enactment to assess Turkey's purchase of the system and possible consequences to U.S. aircraft.

Turkey inked the S-400 deal last year, over strenuous objections from the U.S. and other NATO-member governments concerned about an ally using Russian air defense systems. “A NATO-interoperable missile defense system remains the best option to defend Turkey from the full range of threats in the region,” Pentagon spokesperson Johnny Michael told CNBC last fall.

Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called Monday's decision“lamentable.” It's also very inconvenient for Turkey's political elite, coming just days before Turkish elections.

The U.S. military has gotten up close and personal with the S-400 over Syria, where the Russian military has deployed to aid the Assad regime. Its deadly presence reshaped how the U.S.-led coalition flies air ops, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigan told reporters in September. “‘We are consistently monitoring them to see if something changes their intent because we have to manage that and respond quickly...We look at it every day. It's an everyday discussion to make sure our force can manage that risk.”

Strained Atlantic relations aren't just affecting today's jet sales and development today, but potentially decisions far off as well.

France and Germany have agreed to work together on a sixth-generation fighter, the so-called Future Combat Air System, or FCAS, to begin to replace the Tornado by 2040. The previous chief of the Luftwaffe, Lt. Gen. Karl Müllner, had been in favor of replacing the Tornado with the F-35. Partly for that reason, he was dismissed in May.

Going with the F-35 would “eliminate the need for a next-gen European fighter and possibly cripple Europe's capacity to develop such a system for years to come,” said Ulrich Kühn, a German political scientist and senior research associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.

The move has ramifications far beyond what new jets are sitting on the tarmac in Western Europe in ten years.

“Since Germany takes part in NATO nuclear sharing, a new platform would have to be certified by the U.S. to deliver U.S.B61s,” thermonuclear gravity bombs, Kühn pointed out on Twitter. He was responding to an article that ran Sunday in the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. “But [the] new fighter should be nuke capable,” says Kühn. “Now, German Airbus officials have started asking the Gretchen Question: what nukes shall the FCAS carry? U.S. or French ones?” Kühn argues that the question of how to develop the FCAS as a nuclear capable jet will be one of the most important decisions that Germany will take in the next few years and could have ramifications for the future of the nuclear umbrella over Europe.

What was supposed to be a unified, highly interoperable American weapons web could become more fractured, less under American control. “The decision about the FCAS as a nuclear platform will have wide-ranging repercussions on Germany, the EU and NATO,” he says.

The U.S. military has been pushing allies to buy the F-35 not just to expand America's weapons reach but because the jet is a flying intelligence fusion cell as much a bomb-dropper. One of its core selling features is its ability to transmit rich targeting intelligence to nearby drones or faraway jets or even Aegis warships rigged for missile defense miles away.

That interoperability is key to the Pentagon's vision of future wars. As alliances with Western partners fray, those plans may need revision.

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  • Navy Readies To Buy New Frigates As Industrial Base Wobbles

    April 29, 2020 | International, Naval

    Navy Readies To Buy New Frigates As Industrial Base Wobbles

    The Navy will recompete the program after the first 10 ships are under contract, leading to a new award and another bite at the apple for the bidders who lost out the first time around. By PAUL MCLEARY WASHINGTON: The Navy will award the first contract for an ambitious new class of frigates in the coming days, several sources with knowledge of the plan said, speeding up a program that wasn't slated to get underway until later this year. After the first award for ten ships, the Navy will launch a new competition for the next ten, possibly splitting the class and giving other shipbuilders another bite at the apple. Moving forward the buy of the first of what should be 20 frigates serves more than one purpose. It locks in place one of the service's top priorities while also pushing work to the winning shipbuilder months ahead of the original schedule, just as the Pentagon worries about the cratering of global manufacturing supply chains as a result to the COVID-19 pandemic. The country's largest shipbuilders are competing for the $1.2 billion first ship, with the price settling in at a projected $900 to $950 million per ship after that. In the running are Huntington Ingalls Industries, which is thought to be offering a more lethal version of its national security cutter. There's also a joint effort between Navantia and General Dynamics Bath Iron Works with a version of its F-100 design already in use by the Spanish navy. Fincantieri Marinette Marine is offering a version of its FREMM frigate in use by the Italian navy. Finally, Austal is trying with a version of its aluminum trimaran Littoral Combat Ship. Fincantieri and Lockheed also make a version of the LCS, but decided not to submit it to the competition. Hanging over any new start shipbuilding program however is the specter of the long-troubled LCS, a vessel still working to find a role and mission within the fleet. Despite its problems, the Navy has ordered 38 of them but is walking away from the class to pursue the new frigate. Unveiling the fiscal 2021 budget earlier this year, Rear Adm. Randy Crites, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget, acknowledged “we don't want to have a repeat of some of the lessons of LCS where we got going too fast,” on the frigate effort, despite speeding up the initial award. Plans call for the FFG(X) to be a small, multi-mission ship loaded out with the Aegis combat system, 32 vertical launch cells and the new SPY-6 radar system. The ship will be smaller than the Arleigh Burke destroyer, the Navy's current workhorse, but outfitted with more power generation capabilities and advanced electronic warfare systems, along with radar and anti-submarine warfare gear. Navy spokesman Capt. Danny Hernandez said in an email that the frigate “will provide increased range, endurance and survivability over previous small surface combatants,” as well as improvements in surface warfare, electromagnetic maneuver warfare and air warfare, “with design flexibility for future growth.” That's a lot of capability to fit in a relatively small package at less than $1 billion per ship. But the Navy's top brass and Defense Secretary Mark Esper have declared the fleet needs to be faster, lighter, more maneuverable and more numerous to meet the challenges of modern Chinese and Russian navies. “It's clear they need fewer large surface combatants and more smaller surface combatants,” a congressional source told me. “But whether the frigate is considered by the Secretary of Defense as being small enough” is an open question. Getting the frigate in place early will provide some stability in an uncertain time for the Navy and its industrial base. The service's long-term plans were thrown into flux in February when Secretary Mark Esper held up the release of the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan and the long-awaited Integrated Force Structure Assessment (INFSA), after he found the Navy's draft wanting. He assigned Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist to lead a group through a months-long review of the plans before making them public this summer. In a letter to the House Armed Services Committee, Esper said he wants the force to grow larger than the much-discussed 355 ship fleet Navy leaders have long aspired to, with many of those new ships being smaller than the ones currently at sea, and many others unmanned. “Three months ago, I would have said, ‘oh yeah they're gonna want to build more than 20'” frigates,” the congressional source said. “But now with the intervention of the Secretary of Defense it's unclear. Maybe he's fine with just 20, and he wants them to build a lot more of something that's considerably smaller still.” Two of the shipbuilders competing, Fincantieri in Wisconsin and Austal in Alabama have a lot riding on the contract, as their big-ticket work on LCS runs out in coming years. Huntington's yards are somewhat protected because it is the only shipbuilder in America capable of building aircraft carriers, and has two more Ford-class big decks to build over the next decade, along with large amphibious ships. Lawmakers in Wisconsin, well aware of what's at stake, sent a letter to President Trump earlier this year promoting the Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipyard as best suited for the work. “We have witnessed what the loss of opportunity does to the Midwest,” the letter said. “When industry departs, so does hope.” Wrapping up the pitch for close to $20 billion worth of work over the 20 ship contract, the senators concluded by telling the president his “leadership and attention to this opportunity is vital.” There is no indication that any political weight is being put on the Navy in awarding the contract, but in an election year, with an industrial base staggering through supply chain meltdowns, the frigate contract is looming large.

  • US Air Force may replace 3 types of aircraft with a single platform

    August 2, 2018 | International, Aerospace

    US Air Force may replace 3 types of aircraft with a single platform

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  • How DoD is getting serious about artificial intelligence

    December 20, 2018 | International, C4ISR

    How DoD is getting serious about artificial intelligence

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