Grounding, budget woes cloud F-35 warplane sales push in Australia
Australian officials know the stakes are high.
"We're only a small player, but other countries are watching. Of course Lockheed don't want to see orders vanishing," said a source at Australia's Defense Materiel Organisation, part of the defense department, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
U.S. Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, the Pentagon's F-35 program chief, approved the fleetwide grounding just before leaving Washington for a major air show in Melbourne, Australia which starts this week, when it will draw attention from potential customers in Asia.
Lockheed executives have been trying to reassure Canberra that the JSF is on course. They insist that problems with software and design, including imaging and night vision functions of the pilot's helmet, are being resolved, and testing is ahead of schedule.
One U.S. defense official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the technical problems bedeviling the new fighter were less troubling than Washington's budget woes.
Sweeping budget cuts due to take effect in the United States on March 1 could cut funding for the Pentagon's biggest weapons program and delay work on seven jets this year alone.
"What the foreign partners worry about is the stability of the program writ large," said the official. "We're solving the technical challenges. There are no showstoppers there, although they're not cheap."
In the U.S., military budgets are already slated to be cut by nearly $500 billion over the next decade, an amount which could double unless Congress acts in the next week to avert spending reductions known as "sequestration". Continued...