Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley summarized the outlook for the F-35 joint strike fighter program succinctly on March 2, when he told a group of reporters, “Really, there are no good alternatives to F-35 at this point…This is a program to which we are deeply committed.” Donley’s service is only destined to buy two-thirds of the plane’s domestic production run, but the Navy and Marine Corps that will buy the other third probably feel just as strongly about the inevitability of the F-35. The Marine Corps has constructed its whole concept of future operations around the presumed availability of the F-35’s vertical-takeoff variant, and Navy aviators know that they won’t survive in the hostile air space of tomorrow without the stealth and situational awareness provided by the carrier variant.
So what’s most depressing about the news coming out of yesterday’s congressional hearing on the F-35 is that the three services participating in the program might have to pay more money for each plane they buy than originally planned. However, the key word in the previous sentence is “might,” because the future cost of the planes is based upon complex and unprovable assumptions. Some increase in per-plane cost above the initial plan is nearly certain, since the flight-test phase of the program is behind schedule and the sea services cut their buy by 400 planes several years ago — meaning the cost of developing three variants will have to be spread across a smaller pool of production aircraft. But trying to predict exactly what each plane will ultimately cost at this point is nearly impossible, because so many factors come into play (including the rate at which they are produced).
Now here’s the good news. Many of the metrics used to track the F-35 program are positive, in fact very positive compared with previous fighter development efforts. The positive side of the story doesn’t get much coverage in the media, so here are a few facts that brighten up the picture of the F-35 program as it currently stands.
1. The F-35 program is meeting or exceeding every one of its key performance parameters.
2. The testing program to date has uncovered no significant design defects or problems.
3. The designs for all three versions of the plane are complete, and all three have been built.
4. Weights, strengths and radar cross sections in early planes are matching planned goals.
5. Software reliability is 20 times better than on the F-22 fighter at the same stage of development.
6. The production plan is only running six months late, and that lag will continue shrinking.
7. 16 of the 19 developmental aircraft have been delivered, with the rest arriving by June.
8. The cost of each aircraft fell 50 percent between the first and fourth production lots.
9. Projected fleet prices for all three variants of F-35 have been stable for several years.
10. 157 flight tests have been completed, with over 70% of planes ready to fly again after routine maintenance.
11. Over 80 percent of the development program has been completed, with excellent early test results.
12. Despite the complexity of building three variants, the program is progressing better than previous fighter efforts.
So there is another side to the story. Lockheed Martin insists that it will surpass the performance projected in Pentagon cost and schedule estimates, which isn’t so surprising since the most recent estimate reduced the predicted development delay from 30 months to 13 months. In addition, the price charged to the government for every one of the F-35s contracted to date has been below government cost estimates. With no major design or engineering problems found in the recently completed review of the program, there is good reason to believe the F-35 will progress steadily. This program isn’t as “troubled” as some observers think.