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Leading Indicator of Decline

4:24 PM, Feb 16, 2012 • By RICHARD CLEARY and THOMAS DONNELLY
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The $489 billion cut to defense budgets engineered by Barack Obama — as well as the played-for-fool Republican accomplices on Capitol Hill — won't just mean less American military power. These cuts have significant consequences for America's allies, as well. 

F-35

Consider the case of the F-35 Joint Strike fighter program. The Obama Pentagon has reduced the 2013 purchase of Lightnings from 42 to 29 and reduced the planned five-year buy by more than 100 aircraft. This will drive the cost of each F-35 up, yet again; the development costs of the plane remain the same regardless. And because the JSF program has been an international effort since its conception, Obama’s decision increases the cost for everyone.

Thus it comes as little surprise that yesterday Italy announced a significant reduction, from 131 to 91, in its planned F-35 purchases. Rome’s decision threatens to sow doubt among other international partners. The timing of the announcement, only days after the U.S. fiscal year 2013 budget was released, shows that the Italians are following Obama's lead — the White House has given them cover in using defense reductions as the principle ingredient in accepting government "fiscal discipline." In “extending” the U.S. buy of F-35s—in practice, the purchase of 179 fewer Joint Strike Fighters through fiscal year 2017—the United States has thrown into question the economics of the program and opened the door for partner-nations to back out of commitments.  

The consequences could be felt most critically in the Pacific. Proliferating the F-35 among America's Pacific partners — traditional allies like Japan, South Korea, and Singapore — and potential new ones such as India — is a sine qua non of any meaningful military retrenchment in the region. But already Australia, arguably our closest ally, is on the verge of backing out. The Aussies had agreed to buy at least 100 F-35s. A Pacific "pivot" without the Lightning would be a fizzle.

The F-35's reliance on international partners should be a strength. It affords interoperability, giving the United States a platform around which it can build an international coalition capable of global reach. The Joint Strike Fighter’s inclusion of Italy and other partner-nations should also be a boon to the U.S. defense industrial base, whose future is tied to the F-35 project. Further, the program’s economics favor international purchases, balancing capital costs over more airframes, which also offers the advantage of greater allied power. All of these potential benefits, however, turn on a question of political commitment in the United States. In an environment where the Defense Department is increasingly the bill-payer for domestic, social programs, the F-35 has become a tempting target, and, with the specter of sequestration in sight, there may be more F-35 acquisition “extensions” in store.

But there's more bad news in the Italian decision. Italy has been a stalwart proponent of the jump jet "B" version of the F-35 that is also critical for future capabilities for the U.S. Marine Corps. Indeed, Italian aircraft carriers are essentially the same size as Marine amphibious ships.  For the moment, it is unclear how Italy intends to apportion its cuts — like the Marines, their carriers will be of little use without an airplane — but if cost is the sole driver, Rome will be tempted to go exclusively with the cheaper F-35A and perhaps mothball one of its carriers entirely.  The British have already backed out of their F-35B commitment, even though they have yet to kill the two carriers they've been building in anticipation.  The British think they can squeeze a catapult on their small carriers to accommodate the U.S. Navy's version of the F-35, designated the "C" model, but it remains to be seen if the engineering makes any sense or is worth the cost. Israel and Singapore, as well as other Asian allies whose airfields are now threatened by Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles, were also intrigued by the jump-jet F-35, but a rise in price is inevitable and will be discouraging.

Indeed, the fate of the F-35 program is as good an indicator of the depth and breadth of Barack Obama's retreat from U.S. military preeminence. If more international partners on the project start bailing or similarly "extending" their F-35 plans, the pace of American and allied decline will accelerate.

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