Outlook For F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Brightens

Despite a continuous drumbeat of warnings about defense cuts, the outlook for the Pentagon’s biggest weapon program is brightening perceptibly. Defense acquisition czar Frank Kendall told the Reuters news agency yesterday that the government and prime contractor Lockheed Martin are “getting close” to agreement on the details of a fifth production lot for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which will continue the downward trajectory in the cost of each plane. In addition, progress has been made in resolving issues with the pilot’s helmet — a key contributor to situational awareness — and proving the reliability of an improved tailhook for the naval variant. As if all that were not enough, Senator John McCain offered some unusually positive comments about the F-35 at a ceremony before Thanksgiving, saying it might prove to be “the greatest combat aircraft in the history of the world.”

With regard to the fifth production lot, completion of negotiations is crucial to keeping the program on track and locking in funds for a follow-on buy before sequestration cuts the budget. If the unit cost for the most common version of the F-35 exhibits the same learning-curve improvement seen in previous production lots, it will come in well below $100 million per plane. The program plan envisions that by 2017 the “unit recurring flyaway cost” — the production cost — of each plane will be roughly equal to that of the latest F-16 fighters the F-35 was designed to replace. Getting to that number of about $66 million per plane in the tenth production lot is necessary if the plane is to be affordable for foreign and domestic buyers (that’s $66 million in today’s dollars, without any inflation added).

With regard to the pilot’s helmet, which is designed to provide 360-degree situational awareness of the plane’s tactical environment, military experts say that even without improvements it is superior to anything the joint force is using today. Nonetheless, steady progress is being made in correcting lags noted in the performance of the helmet that could detract from its performance. In the case of the tailhook required so that the naval variant of F-35 can land safely on carriers at sea, redesign enabled the tailhook to successfully grab onto arresting cables in 83 out of 83 tests, effectively resolving any concerns about the hook’s operational performance.

Perhaps the clearest sign of progress, though, came from the least likely source. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a persistent critic of under-performing weapon programs, praised the F-35 at a ceremony earlier this month and cited a Government Accountability Office study that McCain said found for the first time the F-35 program is on track “to produce more achievable and predictable outcomes.” When the Senate’s most vigilant watchdog of taxpayer dollars says your program is on the right track, that’s reason in and of itself to celebrate.