The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: A Global Snapshot

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  • September 2013

    The United States dominates global defence markets, but the nature of this dominance is shifting. Strategic and budgetary considerations—the latter being constantly restructured by the rising relative cost of defence labour—drive US defence production towards international collaboration. In this essay, I examine the politics of a high-calibre international collaborative programme that has made headlines in recent years: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). What motivated the US government to take on partners, and what influence, if any, have the partners had on the programme so far? Also, how have the partner governments dealt with the mounting controversies surrounding this programme?

    With respect to the first two questions, my goal in this essay will be to provide an overview of the programme, including the most up-to-date progress report. As for the third question, what interests me—and I recognise the question brings into play a much broader political analysis—is the manner in which partner governments have publicly justified participation in a US-controlled weapons programme that is handicapped by rising costs, delays and performance shortfalls. All major arms acquisitions involve public exchanges over complex trade-offs among capability, costs, job-creation and strategy, which, I suggest, can contribute to the understanding of the politics of arms production and arms transfers. Judging by the positions taken by supporters and opponents across national debates on F-35 acquisition in the 2009–2012 time period, the partner countries appear to be resigned to their fate as rule-takers in the programme. A seemingly impending cut in production quantities will affect them all, but the combination of sunk costs and alliance politics is likely to compel the partners to stay the course, even if it means reducing ‘original’ individual orders by 50 per cent or more.