If you don’t follow the defense business closely, then you can be excused for believing that the F-35 joint strike fighter is in trouble. The $300 billion program to develop a stealthy, multirole tactical aircraft for three U.S. military services and at least nine allies has been the focus of negative coverage since approximately April 6, when defense secretary Robert Gates announced the Air Force would buy no more F-22 fighters. Almost overnight, critics who had been assailing the F-22 trained their sights on the F-35 and resumed firing.
The complaints certainly sound familiar. Cost increases. Development delays. Design flaws. This is standard fare for any new weapons program. Because the Pentagon’s approach to projecting the cost of new weapons is like the four phases of grief — phase one is denial — new programs always go through a difficult period of adjustment to reality. One facet of this ritualized process is the swing from optimism to despair, a transition aided by the jockeying for power of bureaucratic factions such as the weapons testing community and the program analysis mafia. These groups gain influence when anxiety rises, so they exude pessimism at every turn. But the F-35 program isn’t really all that troubled, and Pentagon acquisition czar Ashton Carter will see the bureaucratic politics for what they are. Here are four reasons the F-35 program is going to turn out fine.
1. There is no alternative. When the Clinton Administration decided to replace the cold-war fighters of three services with variants of one aircraft, it made the joint strike fighter indispensable to the armed forces. Secretary Gates amplified that effect by terminating the F-22 — the only other fighter with comparable survivability. If F-35 were to falter, the defense department would have to begin crash programs to develop replacements for everything from Air Force F-16s to Marine jumpjets, and it would have no chance of fielding those replacements before the advanced age of existing fighters undermined U.S. air power.
2. Other programs are faring worse. The F-35 program is months behind schedule on key goals such as the delivery of test aircraft. These delays are costly, but they compare favorably with delays seen in other major aircraft development programs. The Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 commercial transports are both running years late in their development, and the Airbus A400 military transport is so troubled that it may not be fixable. The F-35 program is more complicated than any of these programs — it must develop three different versions of the same airframe — and yet it has progressed more smoothly.
3. The design concept is sound. The F-35 design exploits airframe, engine and sensor advances previously developed for the F-22 fighter. Thus, many of its key features (like stealth) have already been proven in principle. While the F-35 program must develop different variants of the plane for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, there will be 80% commonality of parts among the versions — making the planes cheaper to produce in quantity and cheaper to maintain in the field. And once a key part or component is successfully tested in one version, there is good reason to believe it will work in the other versions.
4. The development strategy is refined. The F-35 development approach is not like that used on previous fighters. First, it benefits from the availability of management and engineering tools that did not exist prior to the information age. Second, billions of dollars have been invested in the early stages of the program to reduce risks. Third, the contractor learned many lessons from developing the similarly configured F-22. The pessimistic cost projections for the program failed to take these factors into account, and thus over-estimated cost growth for 2011 by 300%. Bottom line: F-35 is progressing at a healthy pace, and is not in trouble.