Controversy brews in Copenhagen over F-35 rental amid US turmoil

Denmark is currently grappling with a significant security decision. At present, they have six Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fighter jets stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where Danish pilots receive training. The other four out of the total ten that have been delivered are now housed at Denmark’s Skrydstrup airbase. 

Danish F-35s have no weapons package, they'll use F-16's weapons
Photo credit: RDAF

However, the United States has a situation at hand. More, accurately Lockheed Martin, the country’s premier aircraft manufacturer for the last two decades, is facing scrutiny. Denmark is in limbo, unsure of when the next consignment of F-35s will reach the Royal Danish Air Force. Lockheed Martin’s sticking point remains the Technology Refresh 3 [TR-3] configuration. Despite the firm’s assurances that the necessary upgrade will be completed by July this year, Denmark, along with other countries, is anxiously awaiting their fighter jets. 

Notably, Danish Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen recently put forth several alternatives to enhance the country’s security. The considerations range from recalling the six Danish jets from Luke Air Force Base to even leasing or purchasing F-35 fighter jets from their allied nations. Although Denmark has committed at least 19 F-16 fighters to Ukraine and stressed that the F-35 delivery timeline won’t affect the F-16 consignment for Ukraine, some local analysts are raising concerns about potential impacts on national security.

Danish F-35s have no weapons package, they'll use F-16's weapons
Photo credit: Danish Armed Forces

On Danish territory

As the geopolitical climate continues to intensify, Denmark is facing new security challenges. The escalating tensions in Europe, NATO’s solid presence along the Russian frontier, and the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian conflict are propelling Denmark into an unpredictable defense era. 

Denmark’s ambition to harness the military capabilities of the F-35 fighter jets, a substantial investment for a country of Denmark’s size, is clear. Whether it repatriates its own fighters from the US or negotiates a lease deal for an F-35 with NATO allies, Denmark will inevitably need to conduct pilot training on its homeland. This will require the employment of instructors from its partnering countries. 

South Korean F-35A
Photo credit: USAF

Defense Secretary Poulsen recently expressed his concern about the lingering uncertainty. He stated, “I’ve relayed to the conciliation round that the delivery of the upcoming F-35 fighter jets is still shrouded in vagueness. It’s premature to predict the implications, but I’ve tasked the armed forces with investigating potential measures to mitigate the delay.”

The ТР-3 issue

An upgrade is coming to the F-35 Lightning II, and it’s named Technology Refresh 3 [TR-3]. This considerable update will enhance the airplane’s capacity to communicate, navigate, and handle information. Components like data processing, sensor input amalgamation, and radar refinement are all included in the package. L3Harris Technologies, the company responsible for integrating TR-3 into the F-35, readily acknowledges it’s a challenging task. A significant part of this challenge lies in ensuring the new technology integrates seamlessly with the existing systems. It’s akin to a jigsaw puzzle where every piece needs to perfectly fit into place, and every step is meticulously tested and validated. 

Remember, this is no average aircraft. We’re talking about one of the world’s most advanced planes, thoroughly equipped with sensors, weapons, and a plethora of gadgetry. So, incorporating TR-3 without disrupting its existing capabilities? It’s like threading a minuscule needle, and it’s a colossal task. Complicating matters further are logistical challenges. The F-35 is used by different countries, each with its unique requirements and styles. Therefore, TR-3 must be adaptable to all these different versions, adding an insane level of complexity to an already intricate task. 

One more thing – no one appreciates cost overruns or delays. The F-35 program has been criticized for both, putting pressure on L3Harris to deliver TR-3 on time and within budget. However, L3Harris isn’t a newcomer. Armed with vast experience in the aerospace and defense sectors, they remain optimistic about introducing TR-3 into the F-35. This upgrade is anticipated to significantly upgrade the plane’s performance and maintain its relevance for future battles.

F-35 (AF-7) flies for 50 minutes and initiates stealth version 4
Photo credit: ViperWing

The situation at the moment

Technology Refresh 3 [TR-3], an upgrade designed to improve fighter planes, has run into some hindrances that may postpone its launch by a year or more. This could result in approximately hundreds of F-35s idling at Lockheed Martin’s factories, waiting for the signal to proceed. 

Lockheed Martin started building the first F-35s using TR-3 at its Fort Worth, Texas facility in July. Nevertheless, because the software is still under development, these new fighters cannot undergo essential test flights. Thus, the Department of Defense can’t accept them for delivery. As such, these F-35s remain stationed at Fort Worth. 

JPO spokesperson Russ Goemaere recently shared updates about TR-3 with those awaiting F-35 deliveries, including the US military, international partners, and foreign governments. The updates highlighted the progress and challenges of the TR-3 project, specifically in terms of flight tests for the new software, as well as the project’s ongoing risks. 

“Despite encountering hurdles in testing the new software, there has been significant progress with the TR-3 project since the last update in March 2023,” said Goemaere. “However, due to persisting risks, we’ve had to delay the expected delivery of the first TR-3-equipped F-35s. We now anticipate it to be between April and June 2024. We are collaborating closely with our industrial partners, particularly Lockheed Martin, to navigate these risks and ensure the successful delivery of TR-3,” he added.

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