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Aussie air zealot savages prêt-à-porter stealth fighter

Pulse-bomb prophet fears Russian tech dominance

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Israel, Norway, Holland and Australia vs ... Carlo Kopp

It isn't just the Israelis, either. Norway has recently gone for the F-35, rejecting the well-thought-of Scandinavian Gripen alternative. So has Holland. The Australian government stands firm, for all the fulminating that Dr Kopp and his allies have done in the Aussie press. The British MoD has its concerns about the F-35, but they relate more to the issue of the jumpjet B version, equipped as a patrol fighter, being able to bring its weapons back to a carrier deck - not to matters of stealth and combat puissance.

Whenever anybody is allowed to know about the F-35 in any detail, they typically decide that it's the best buy available on the Western market, which probably tells us something. As far as Dr Kopp's standpoint goes, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the Raptor will ever be exported to anyone: he is arguing for a "solution" that isn't on the table. He might be right when he paints Russian air-combat tech as vastly superior to almost anything produced anywhere else, but it seems very unlikely - even back in the palmy days of the Cold War, when the Soviet design bureaux had almost unlimited resources, their products were typically overhyped**.

This is not to say that the F-35 programme isn't deserving of criticism. Nobody can really put a finger on what an F-35 costs, for instance - most of the customers seem to be hoping to hold their orders until well into the production run, when it should become quite cheap. Unfortunately, somebody has to buy the first hundred planes or so, or the promised affordable ones may never appear. Whoever does is not to be envied, as these aircraft will be very expensive for what they are - and won't be as good as later upgraded ones either.

One might argue that Lockheed should simply take a loss on the early planes in order to get things moving - they could afford it, and would make the money back later - but funnily enough the firm remains reluctant to do that. Defence contractors always prefer financial burdens and risks to be carried by taxpayers, not themselves. One can also complain of Lockheed and the F-35 programme office's behaviour on other grounds: they are certainly prone to making exaggerated and inconsistent claims.

There are also a lot of criticisms offered of the F-35's performance, generally on the grounds that it won't be able to mount raids against enemies on the level of China or above. This seems fairly silly to an outsider, but in the rather odd defence-aerospace world it is regarded as a valid criticism. After all, if we went about accepting that we won't have wars with major nuclear-armed nations, why, you'd hardly have any lovely new jets at all.

And in fact, this seems to be the true reason why the F-35 is so disliked in the aerospace world: because if it is even close to what its makers say it is, it has a fair chance of putting almost every other Western fighter make out of business. The F-35 contains more advanced tech than anything except the Raptor, and it seems very plausible that the US forces alone will wind up buying huge numbers. This will drive the price down, offering unbeatable value for export customers.

There will be very little reason for any government in the world with any money to buy any other tactical jet. Outfits like Saab, Dassault, the Eurofighter consortium et al will have to subsist on crumbs or nothing at all - and thus will have less to spend on development of amazing new ideas.

This is the real reason why those who love the richness and diversity of the Western military aerospace industry really dislike the F-35: because it could lead to a serious contraction of that industry. Massive F-35 sales could see the Western nations and their friends spending a lot less money on fighters, and most of it going on just one relatively affordable and boring plane. Sweetman, indeed, describes this as a monopoly.

This is why military aerospace analysts tend to give so much play to a fairly marginal figure like Dr Kopp - because he's the most highly-qualified person willing to bash the F-35 in public. And the F-35 is a bad thing for the military aerospace world.

Those who like jet fighters for their own sweet sake, who take an aesthetic pleasure in advanced engineering, or who believe that diversity is key to technical strength, will find much to sympathise with in that viewpoint. And who knows, maybe the free and fairly-free-ish nations of the world really do need to maintain a huge, expensive, diversified body of engineering and technical talent focused principally on high-end air combat.

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