Washington Watch

Jan. 1, 2010

F-35 Problems Now in the Open

In late fall, the press buzzed with reports about problems gripping the pivotal F-35 fighter. Then the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, acknowledged in November that the press reports were, essentially, correct.

Lockheed reported that the Lightning II stealth fighter program is behind schedule and over budget, facts established in the latest assessment by DOD’s F-35 joint estimate team, or JET.

Even so, company officials were quick to say that the situation was improving, and certainly was not getting worse, as some press accounts had claimed.

Daniel J. Crowley, the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics executive vice president, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in November, “What I am encouraged by is, each jet that goes out is more complete and it takes less time” to build. He added, “Everybody is looking at the schedule and saying you’ve had past delays, but they’re coming down.”

In addition, program officials announced “a significant achievement” with the Nov. 14 first flight of AF-1, the first weight-optimized F-35A test aircraft built in the conventional takeoff and landing configuration that the Air Force plans to procure in large numbers.

“AF-1 is one of the most important aircraft in our test fleet because knowledge gained from its use expanding the flight envelope will benefit the other two variants and every F-35 ever built,” said Doug Pearson, Lockheed Martin vice president for F-35 test and verification.

The JET comprises program and cost experts from USAF, the Navy, and Office of the Secretary of Defense. It comes under the authority of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, which is the old Program Analysis and Evaluation shop with a new name.

The JET found that the F-35 program faces potential schedule slips up to two years and corresponding cost overruns of billions of dollars, according to press reports.

Discussing the JET analysis with reporters in October, Pentagon spokesman Geoffrey S. Morrell said it was “still a work in progress.” However, he added, “I think it’s fair to say that if the JET had provided some especially good news, we would be trumpeting it.” Clearly, DOD was not doing that.

Morrell said the JET analysis is “important” to the budget process, but it offered a “worst-case assessment,” while the F-35 program office is “generally much more optimistic.”

The Office of the Secretary of Defense leadership must ultimately “figure out the sweet spot” between the two views, he said.

Inside the Pentagon, a Washington, D.C.-area online news service, reported in its Nov. 26 issue that DOD is considering a one-year extension of the F-35 development program. ITP described the potential shift as “a move that would allow Defense Department leaders to recalibrate the program and postpone a looming cost breach” that could trigger tremendous problems.

DOD had no public response to the story.

China Ramps Up Offensive …

China’s communist government has been busily expanding its spying and computer attack operations against the United States, says a new assessment delivered to Capitol Hill.

The Congressionally mandated report from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission declared, “As a means of enhancing its military modernization and economic development, China has been heavily involved in conducting human and cyber espionage” targeting the United States.

The 367-page report, released in late November, noted that US officials “have concluded that Chinese intelligence collection efforts are growing in scale, intensity, and sophistication.”

Citing a “marked increase” in cyber intrusions originating in China that target US government and defense-related computer systems, the commission said these actions could “compromise sensitive defense and military data.”

Cyber attacks and network intrusions are notoriously difficult to trace back to their origins, but all indications are that China is the prime offender.

Chinese intelligence services are “actively involved in operations directed against the United States,” according to the bipartisan panel. “China is the most aggressive country conducting espionage against the United States.”

The cyber campaign has all the hallmarks of a state-sponsored operation.

Many of China’s cyber-attack capabilities are run from within the People’s Liberation Army, and the PRC is actively recruiting technically skilled people from the country’s private sector to bolster its capabilities. “It is recruiting skilled cyber operators from information technology firms and computer science programs into the ranks of numerous information warfare militia units,” stated the report.

And much like the Russian government is believed to have included cyber assaults in recent campaigns against Estonia and Georgia, China would be expected to attack opposing government and military information systems in the early stages of a conflict.

The commissioners noted that Chinese espionage must be countered head-on. Lawmakers should ensure the US can “meet the rising challenge of Chinese human intelligence and illicit technology collection.”

They said that government computer defenses should be strengthened, with an eye toward developing “effective and reliable attribution techniques for computer exploitation and computer attacks.”

… To Expand Its Military Power

In the view of the panel’s commissioners, China’s rising cyber and intelligence actions are part of a broad and dedicated effort whose underlying goal was to enhance Beijing’s military capabilities and expand Chinese regional influence.

It is obvious that some of the actions will place Chinese ambitions at odds with US interests in the Pacific, said the new study. Congress in 2000 set up the 12-member commission to analyze the implications—military, economic, and diplomatic—of growing US-China trade.

Although China is not yet considered a global military power, claimed the study, it is increasingly able to project force beyond the Taiwan Strait and potentially able to interfere with US access to the region.

As the panel noted, China’s People’s Liberation Army is rapidly modernizing its naval and air forces and upgrading its ballistic missile capabilities. These efforts could make it difficult for the US Navy to come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a cross-strait war, and air bases that USAF operates from near China’s periphery are increasingly at risk from an expanding missile threat.

In a broad assessment of overall bilateral relations, the commission highlighted 10 of its 42 recommendations as being “of particular significance,” many with direct relevance to the Defense Department’s missions.

The report states that Congress should ensure DOD is paying enough attention to China’s anti-access capabilities, such as its air defense system, offensive submarine capabilities, and ballistic missile arsenal. The health of US anti-submarine warfare and ballistic missile defense capabilities are key concerns, though US stealth aircraft would still hold the upper hand in any dustup with Chinese air defenders.

The commission also recommended that Washington encourage Beijing to scale back the forces threatening democratic Taiwan and, in so doing, reduce tensions. China can “demonstrate the sincerity of its desire for improved cross-strait relations by drawing down the number of forces, including missiles, opposite Taiwan,” said the panel.

Chinese government officials blasted the report upon its release in the week following President Obama’s visit to China. Beijing questioned the commission’s purposes, charging that the report “ignores the facts and is full of prejudice and ulterior motives,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang in a statement.

He added that the United States should not “do things that interfere in China’s internal affairs and damage China-US relations.”

Rethinking Air-Terror Threat

After al Qaeda hijackers attacked New York and Washington, D.C., with seized airliners, Washington gave high priority to defense of US cities and critical facilities from similar airborne strikes. The urgency felt after Sept. 11, 2001, however, appears to have faded in the capital.

In fact, the Pentagon is now awaiting the outcome of a new review of costly preventive measures put in place after those attacks. These include keeping USAF fighters and other aircraft on alert, poised to respond at a moment’s notice to any perceived aviation threat.

The review was ordered by USAF Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., commander of both NORAD and of US Northern Command, the command responsible for homeland defense.

The review was first disclosed in the Nov. 19 edition of the New York Times. The Times story averred that the review stems from pressures on a military straining to fight two wars while simultaneously defending the homeland.

“The fighter force is extremely expensive, so you always have to ask yourself the question, ‘How much is enough?’” Canadian Maj. Gen. Pierre J. Forgues of NORAD told the Times.

For the record, officials say the study has no predetermined conclusion, and that the level of force commitment could go down, up, or stay the same. In reality, though, the aim is believed to be to determine whether the program is still justified.

Senior officers told the Times that the assessment is to gauge the likelihood that terrorists might succeed in hijacking an airliner or flying their own smaller craft into the United States or Canada.

The review will be completed this spring, said the report.

NORAD ended regular combat air patrols over cities in 2006, and instead introduced sporadic combat patrols. The Air Force keeps fighters and aircrew members on alert at an unspecified number of locations.

These alert fighters, whose numbers may be adjusted to meet changing threat levels, are capable of reaching, within minutes, targets threatening cities or critical infrastructure such as dams or nuclear power facilities. Supporting and complementing them are defense and FAA surveillance radars, E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, and tankers.

Operation Noble Eagle maintains a dedicated 24-hours-a-day/seven-days-a-week fighter alert site at Joint Base Andrews, Md., near sensitive Washington sites, and operates a dedicated, around-the-clock ground-based air defense missile system.

DOD directs the US Air Force to support Noble Eagle, with most of that support coming from the Air National Guard’s airmen and fighters.

In the past, Pentagon officials have been prepared to reinforce US air sovereignty with US Navy E-2 Hawkeye early warning aircraft and US Marine Corps F/A-18 fighters. That has not happened on a regular basis, however.