Fight takes off over new fighter jets

Opposition politicians have grown increasingly uneasy over the unclear costs of Norway’s plans to buy a new fleet of fighter jets from US contractor Lockheed Martin. Defense Minister Grete Faremo was called in to an open hearing in Parliament, to answer tough questions on the project, and some claim she ended up resorting to defensive maneuvers.

Norway needs new fighter jets to replace its F16s, and has opted for the US-built F35, a model of which was on display at an air show in Rygge two years ago. Since then, the F35 program has been restructured and concerns are flying over the jets' ultimate cost. PHOTO: Forsvaret

Faremo, from the Labour Party, admitted that the price of the F35 jets has increased, but “only” by an estimated NOK 1 billion (about USD 180 million at current exchange rates). Newspaper Aftenposten reported Tuesday that actual cost estimates for the fighter jets won’t be put forth until half a year after the first aircraft have been ordered, a process that confounds the opposition.

“What makes this so difficult is that so much is being postponed until next year,” said Ivar Kristiansen, a Member of Parliament for the Conservatives (Høyre). He complained that total cost estimates now vary from NOK 145 billion to NOK 200 billion. The pending fighter jet order, aimed at replacing Norway’s current fleet of F16 jets, will regardless amount to the single largest public expenditure in Norwegian history.

Faremo claimed she would gladly have been able to provide more detailed numbers. “But with the accounting we have underway, including a full examination of the air force and placement of air force bases, chances would be great that I would be presenting figures that would have to be revised next year,” Faremo said.

The government simply doesn’t know how much the new fighter jets will ultimately cost. The government plans to order four of the F35s this fall for training purposes in the US, with delivery set for 2016. Then the government will put forth a long-term plan for the military next spring including fewer air force bases and costs over the life of the new jets. The first new F35 isn’t expected to land in Norway until 2018.

By 2023, all of today’s F16s, several of which currently are active in bombing raids over Libya, will be replaced by the new F35s under current plans that call for up to as many as 56 jets. The price per jet will vary according to how many are ordered by other countries because of economies of scale.

Media reports in both Norway and in other countries evaluating the jets, not least the US itself, have detailed major cost overruns and higher prices for the F35s. Even Republican senators in the US, known for being pro-military and supporters of defense spending, have questioned the prices, while Faremo has categorically denied reports of a major price hike. Nor has she been willing to express worries over the project.

Aftenposten reported that it was only after Peter Skovholt Gitmark of the Conservatives claimed the military hasn’t acknowledged any worry that Faremo acknowledged that there is some reason for concern. She linked it, though, to a restructuring of the fighter jet project initiated by US officials last year.

She claimed that prospects for the project “remain good” and that Norway must order the first four jets this fall in order to secure them by 2016. Some opposition parties have threatened to vote against approving the orders, until costs are better known.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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