Member of Finmeccanica group to build dutch JSF?

Lieuwe de Vries for Veenstra & De Vries Aviation Publishing

The dutch minister of defence has conducted talks this week to discus a possible deal to build F-35’s for the Royal Netherlands Air Force in Italy. The talks held in Rome would make Alenia Aerospace the prime builder for the Dutch Joint Strike Fighters. Alenia Aerospace however is part of the Finmeccanica group, along side companies as Ansaldo Breda and AgustaWestland. A group that has earned a dubious reputation for high profile failures.

Fyra, High speed fail

When the Dutch national rail carrier the Nationale Spoorwegen or NS wanted trains to run on its new fast rail link to Antwerp and Brussels it turned to Ansaldo Breda to produce the trains. When the first trains were delivered, the first examples arriving two years after all deliveries should have been done, it soon became apparent all was not well. Reports of serious manufacturing quality issues surfaced and the few trains delivered suffered frequent outages with at times up to 80 percent of trains being taken out of the schedule.

Though Ansaldo Breda remained optimistic about their ability to resolve the issues few tangible solutions arrived. The final straw came in the winter of 2012, limited passenger service had just begun when a period of light frost accompanied by snow set in. Large chunks of ice form underneath carraiges in these conditions as melt water from the roof refreezes on the underside of the carraiges. These chunks tend to come of while driving, they bounce of the tracks and can hit the underside of trains. Most Dutch rolling stock is designed to handle this battering, Fyra was not. The high speed train was banned from the Belgian-Dutch High Speed South track when it shed large pieces of underside plating at below operational speeds in early januari 2013.

A legal battle ensued, the Dutch and Belgian national carriers wanted Ansaldo Breda to take the trains back and refund the costs. Ansaldo Breda however continued to play down the problems claiming the issues could be quickly rectified. In the end Ansaldo Breda took the trains back and refunded the NS and their Belgian partners.

Tellingly, when joking comparisons between the Fyra and low cost supermarker chain ALDI were drawn, it was the supermarket that complained about damage to its public image.

NH90, No sea legs

The Royal Netherlands Navy had long operated the Westland Lynx on its frigates as a submarine hunter and Search And Rescue platform. Though the machine was still going strong in the 1990 it was decided that the Lynx would eventually be replaced by a European built helicopter.

Through NATO the NAHEMA, NATO Helicopter Management and Aquisition, group was established that would oversee design and production of what would become the NH90 helicopter. Soon delays ensued, after a lengthy process helicopters began to trickle into service years late.

The Dutch had by now brought all their rotary wing assets under one roof in the Defence Helicopter Command. The lynx had been phased out without its succesor being ready to step in. Cougar helicopters were deployed to fill the gaps. When the NH90 finally went into limited service crews complained about physical discomfort due to high vibration and noise levels while operating the NH90. Investigations led to introduction of improved noise cancelling headgear and added isolation.

Larger troubles lay on the horizon however as the first machines were deployed to navy frigates during Operation ATALANTA of the coast of Somalia to combat the threat of piracy to commercial shipping. Upon inspection aircraft showed corrosion and wear beyond what can be expected from aircraft this age.

The Dutch national aviation research lab examined both machines delivered and found construction and design errors on both machines. Ranging from a poorly designed tail structure to improperly applied or completely missing sealants these errors instill little faith in quality control at the manufacturing facilities. Many of these errors were direct contribution factors to rapid deterion of the aircrafts structure.

Talks with AgustaWestland have been characterised as productive and solution oriented. The burden of the NH90 tasks has fallen again to the Dutch Cougar fleet, a fleet the MoD had wanted to dowsize drastically. As such no budget is available for the increased Cougar operations. Eventually the Dutch halted NH90 deliveries when both parties failed to reach an agreement about costs associated with the rectivication of problems with the NH90 and those costs associated with increased  Cougar operations to fill operational gaps left by the NH90.

Alenia, trustworthy partner?

Alenia Aerospace, the prospect JSF builder, has had its own trouble with manufacturing quality in recent projects. The company was to be the prefered supplier of horizontal tail surfaces for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. Once production got underway problems with the sub assemblies supplied by Alenia soon surfaced. These problems led to delamination, meaning the skin of the aircraft came loose, in some cases. The problems were caused by improper use of shims and overtightning of bolts. Alenia’s errors led to delays in the production of new Dreamliners and forced Boeing to rebuild many of the aircraft already delivered. In the end Alenia lost its status as the lead manufacturer of tailplanes for Boeing.

Alenia plans to build the JSF at a new factory at Cameri airbase in Italy. Alenia will assemble Italies JSF’s and hopes to attract maintenance contracts for other countries aircraft at this facility. Documents recently leaked from the Italian government however hint at plans to cut the number of F-35’s the Italian air force will eventually recieve in half. This would put profitablity of the Cameri plant under enormous pressure. While the Dutch had hoped to exchange production for maintenance, which would see Italian machines maintained in The Netherlands, this seems increasingly unlikely.

Fool me once….

Though earlier problems with projects by Finmeccanica group companies don’t necesarily spell trouble for Alenia’s JSF involvement they do seem to hint at a group-wide corporate culture that does not promote quality. Alenia’s failure in the Boeing Dreamliner production process does provide more direct clues at the companies ability to handle complex projects.

With one large procurement project from the Finmeccanica group, the NH90 helicopter, already in the doldrums perhaps a more trusted source for production might be worth investigating for the Dutch Minister of Defence.