F-35 Cost Rise Is Speculative, But Progress Is Real

Author(s): Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
Posted in: Defense

Issue Brief

Last week brought both good news and bad news for the F-35 joint strike fighter, the biggest weapons program currently being funded by the Pentagon. On the plus side, the Marine version of the plane demonstrated for the first time its ability to land and take off vertically from confined spaces without imposing the heavy workload on pilots seen in earlier vertical-ascent jets. On the minus side, veteran defense reporter Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg Business News wrote that the F-35 program “has risen about 62 percent in cost and is four years behind schedule.” The two stories illustrate a paradox in the F-35 program: it is progressing better than any other major aircraft development program in the world, and yet the political system views it as a “troubled” effort.

Given the way the news business works, it’s the “troubled” part of the story that most people are hearing. Good news usually isn’t interesting, so bad news is what gets reported. That’s why you didn’t hear about the same company’s C-5M cargo plane upgrade meeting or exceeding all goals in recent flight tests. There’s no scandal to report, nobody’s being fired, the customer is pleased. Boring! Unfortunately, when there are problems to report on a program, reporters often leave out anything that is inconsistent with the negative theme of the story, so news consumers get an incomplete picture of how the program is faring. Here are some facts about the F-35 program you probably haven’t heard:

1. The program is facing no major design or engineering problems.
2. The program is satisfying or surpassing all key performance parameters.
3. The designs for all three versions of the plane are complete, and all three have been built.
4. The weights, strengths and radar cross-sections of the planes are matching program goals.
5. The development program is 80% complete, and progressing better than previous fighter efforts.

There are plenty of other metrics reflecting strong program performance. Over 70% of the F-35s completing flight tests are ready to fly again after routine maintenance. Software reliability is 20 times better than at the same point in the F-22 fighter development program. Somehow, none of this information finds its way into news stories about the “troubled” program. Instead, readers and viewers are treated to a drumbeat of bad news about rising costs and delivery delays.

But there’s a difference between cost projections and the metrics cited above. The metrics cited above are based on concrete data. The cost projections are speculative. They are based on assumptions that will probably prove to be wrong. For instance, here’s another fact about the F-35 program you probably haven’t heard: the price charged to the government for every one of the F-35s contracted to date has been below government cost estimates. And how about this: the same estimating team that says the F-35 development program is running 13 months late previously predicted it would run 30 months late. Despite such errors, the government has adjusted its budget and schedule to match what estimators predict, making rising cost projections a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Now the Government Accountability Office is arguing that, “Given all these challenges, moving forward with the current plan for ramping up production does not seem prudent” — advice that if heeded would increase costs even more. Is it any wonder the Pentagon can’t make ends meet while generating nearly half of all global military outlays?