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One NATO Ally Might Regret Buying Expensive F-35 Stealth Fighters

December 2, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: F-35MilitaryTechnologyWorldDenmarkNATO

One NATO Ally Might Regret Buying Expensive F-35 Stealth Fighters

Denmark had a small air force. And then they bought the F-35. 

The U.S. ambassador to Denmark wants the Nordic country to buy more American-designed F-35 stealth fighters.

Ambassador Carla Sands’s advocacy for a “made-in-America” warplane should come as no surprise. But leaving aside the benefit to U.S. industry, Sands has a point. Denmark has too few fighters.

Of course, it’s in part the fault of the country’s determination to buy the F-35 that it stands little chance of growing its fighter fleet. The radar-evading warplane probably wasn’t the best choice for an air arm that struggles to maintain adequate aerial capacity for a meaningful contribution to international security.

Sands “is concerned that NATO’s aircraft power and surveillance capacities are not enough in the Arctic and that Denmark should fulfill three-year-old promises to strengthen defense and surveillance there,” Danish news outlet CPH Post reported.

Ambassador Sands referred to a report from the Ministry of Defense on the tasks in the Arctic from 2016, which show concern about the presence of Russian soldiers in the Arctic. Sands also believes the report shows that the lack of satellites means that Denmark does not monitor Greenland’s skies or waters well enough.

“There are not a lot of aircraft in Denmark. You have 38 to 40 F-16 aircraft today. It is actually a reduction in the number of aircraft, and Denmark should probably look into it,” Sands told Jyllands-Posten. However, according to the Ministry of Defense, Denmark only owns 30 F-16 planes

The Danish fighter fleet is about to get even smaller as it takes on the F-35.

On May 11, 2016, the government of Denmark recommended that lawmakers approve the purchase of just 27 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from U.S. firm Lockheed Martin in order to replace the Scandinavian country’s F-16s.

Twenty-two of the F-35s would fly from Denmark. The other five would remain in the United States for pilot-training alongside the U.S. Air Force. The Royal Danish Air Force expects to receive its first F-35 in 2021.

The acquisition is a troubled one. The government’s justification of the proposed acquisition included lots of bad assumptions. Denmark seemed to believe that the F-35 would be much cheaper and more capable than it actually is.

It should shock no one that construction costs related to the Danish F-35 purchase have risen well above projections. More cost surprises could be in the cards as the planes themselves begin to arrive in coming years.

Ten “senior experts” from the Danish military and foreign ministry wrote the government’s official recommendation in favor of the stealth fighter.

The experts compared the F-35 to Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Eurofighter’s Typhoon — and declared the F-35 the best plane. But it’s clear that the assessors weighted political and industrial factors more heavily than they did military factors.

“The assessment of the expert panel has been that the selection of the Joint Strike Fighter will entail the greatest potential for promoting Danish interests, in terms of both security policy and military strategy and that the Joint Strike Fighter will provide the highest degree of flexibility at the political level with regards to future tasks,” the experts wrote.

“The broad scope of the group of Joint Strike Fighter users will foster both Denmark’s transatlantic ties and the country’s collaborative relations with a range of European partners.”

In other words — everybody else is buying the F-35, so Denmark should, too. But that assumed that everybody else wasn’t also making a mistake.

The Danish assessors claimed the F-35 would be cheaper than the Super Hornet and Eurofighter are. “The estimated life cycle costs are lowest for the Joint Strike Fighter, second-lowest for the Super Hornet and the highest for the Eurofighter,” they wrote.

“The reason is primarily that the airframe of the Joint Strike Fighter is designed to be capable of flying 8,000 hours, whereas the Eurofighter and the Super Hornet are both designed to fly 6,000 hours.”

Thus, “in order to perform the required portfolio of tasks over a period of 30 years, fewer Joint Strike Fighter airframes are therefore required compared to the Eurofighter or the Super Hornet. The calculations in the economic model have identified a need for 28 Joint Strike Fighter airframes, 34 Eurofighter airframes and 38 Super Hornet airframes, respectively, in order to perform the same portfolio of tasks.”

But airframe life estimates are mostly meaningless. For starters, the Super Hornet primarily is a carrier-based fighter. Its main user, after all, is the U.S. Navy. Catapult-launches and arrested landings strain an airframe. So yes, the Americans have slapped a relatively low service-life rating on the Super Hornet.

But the U.S. Navy still expects to blow right past the 6,000-hour mark with its hundreds of F/A-18E/Fs. The Navy and Boeing and working on upgrade and maintenance schemes to see the Super Hornets through to 10,000 hours in order to compensate for delays with the Navy’s F-35Cs, stemming in part from the Joint Strike Fighter’s unexpectedly high cost and complexity.

Denmark does not possess aircraft carriers and flies its fighters from long, paved runways — a comparatively gentle experience for a jet. A Super Hornet in Danish service easily could last longer than 6,000 flight hours.

“Another reason [for choosing the F-35] is that the Super Hornet is a two-seat aircraft, which implies a greater need for flight instruction hours and training of crews than the Eurofighter and the Joint Strike Fighter,” the Danish experts claimed, apparently forgetting that there are two Super Hornet variants. The F/A-18E is a single-seat plane.

The Danes believed they could acquire and operate 27 F-35s — a number adequate to deploy four jets to a war zone for a year at a time every three years — for just $300 million per plane over the fleet’s whole lifetime.

But that was a hopelessly optimistic number. The Pentagon’s own internal assessment in 2016 estimated that the life-cycle cost for a single F-35 was $460 million.

The Danes also claimed that the F-35 is more heavily-armed than it actually is. “Up to six air-to-air missiles can be placed on the plane,” the experts wrote. That’s true, provided you’re talking about the stealth fighter’s external pylons. But to remain stealthy, the F-35 must carry its weapons in its internal bays. And at present, those bays can only accommodate two air-to-air missiles.

The Danes did want their F-35s to be stealthy. “In terms of survivability and mission effectiveness, the panel of experts assessed that the Joint Strike Fighter is doing better than the other two candidates,” the report explained. “This is partly due to the aircraft’s low radar signature (‘stealth’ properties) and the use of advanced systems and sensors that enhance the pilot’s tactical overview, ensuring the aircraft’s survival and effective mission execution.”

But it was the political and industrial considerations that put the F-35 on top, in the Danes’ eyes. “With respect to future development, the Joint Strike Fighter ranks better than the two other candidates. The reasons are, among other things, that the aircraft is expected to be produced in a large number and that the contractual and development basis for keeping the aircraft technically and operationally relevant throughout its lifespan is present.”

The experts expected Danish industry to profit more from the F-35 than it could from the Super Hornet or Typhoon. “The combined value of the industrial cooperation proposals for the Eurofighter is DKK 18.7 billion [$2.8 billion], consisting of 30 initiatives. The corresponding value for the Joint Strike Fighter is DKK 26.5 billion consisting of 26 initiatives, and for the Super Hornet the value is DKK 15 billion consisting of 68 initiatives.”

But more importantly, buying F-35s would make the Americans happy. “The Joint Strike Fighter is a result of America’s largest military collaborative program and has the potential for continued and long-term close military cooperation between the U.S. and several European countries in a situation where the U.S. security focus increasingly moved from Europe and the Middle East to Asia,” the experts wrote.

When it comes to the F-35 and U.S.-European defense collaboration, just one thing would make the Americans even happier. The Danes buying even more F-35s.

But that’s unlikely to happen as long as costs continue to increase for the modest number of stealth fighters Denmark already has ordered.

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad.