Bill Sweetman, one of the most respected aerospace journalists in the business, has written a biting response to my Forbes piece about the F-35 fighter posted here on October 15. That isn’t surprising, because I roundly attacked an editorial that his magazine, Aviation Week & Space Technology, published October 1 criticizing the Pentagon’s biggest weapons program. The gist of what they said was that the F-35 program is faring poorly and that the Pentagon should therefore start searching for alternatives. The gist of what I said was that the program is doing fine, and that most of the projected cost increases blamed on the prime contractor were actually caused by government actions.
Sweetman begins by pointing out that I am a consultant to F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin (a fact he acknowledges is readily available to Forbes readers). However, he neglects to mention that I also advise some of Lockheed Martin’s biggest competitors, and that I often take the side of Boeing, Lockheed’s biggest rival, on issues like the Air Force’s new tanker and the Navy’s new patrol aircraft. Even if Lockheed had bought me a ten-acre estate in the Hamptons, it wouldn’t change the facts: the F-35 is meeting all of its key performance goals, the cost of building each plane is dropping fast, and much of what critics say about the program is just plain wrong.
I focused on costs in my Forbes piece because it seemed to me that AvWeek’s arguments for seeking F-35 alternatives hinged of government estimates of rapidly rising costs. However, as I pointed out, the government’s estimates are misleading: less than half of the projected increase in the cost for acquiring the F-35 since the program began was caused by anything the prime contractor did, and at least a third was caused by changes in the way the government calculates costs. As for increases in the projected cost to operate and sustain the planes, the government caused roughly 80 percent of those increases. The latter cost stands at about $500 billion in today’s dollars over a 50-year period, which is a fraction of what it would cost to sustain the existing fleet of legacy planes.
Contrary to what AvWeek believes, competition can’t fix whatever ails the F-35 program because most of the fault does not lie with contractors. It lies with a government customer that can’t stick with a plan, and instead restructures efforts every year in ways that makes them less efficient. But let’s keep our eye on the ball here: the production cost of each Air Force F-35 in the first lot was $200 million, and the government is now eyeing a unit cost of $80 million in the sixth lot. Follow that learning curve and see where it leads you by the time the program reaches full-rate production. It’s a pretty reasonable price-tag for a very capable plane.