In one of the most positive congressional hearings the F-35 fighter program has seen since it was awarded to an industry team led by Lockheed Martin in 2001, Senate defense appropriations subcommittee chairman Richard Durbin (D-IL) yesterday endorsed the military need for the plane and signaled satisfaction with the program’s progress. Durbin’s verdict is significant because he only recently took over the chairmanship of the subcommittee and was viewed as having an open mind on the F-35’s future. After hearing from the most senior officials responsible for the program in the hearing, though, Durbin seemed to be persuaded that past problems with the Pentagon’s biggest weapons program have either been resolved or soon will be.
The F-35 actually has encountered fewer developmental issues than some other well-known military aircraft such as the B-2 bomber. What made it a lightning rod for criticism was its huge cost — nearly $400 billion to buy and hundreds of billions more to sustain across its operational lifetime. The unprecedented price-tag results from the cutting-edge nature of the technology being used and the fact that three different variants are being developed to replace the Cold War fighter fleets of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. At its inception the concept of a common airframe for three military services looked like the most cost-effective approach to fighter modernization, but execution of the program has been among the most complex technological undertakings in history.
Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall and F-35 program executive officer Christopher Bogdan acknowledged in the hearing that mistakes had been made, such as permitting excessive concurrency in the development and initial production of the three variants. However, they indicated that most of the issues have been worked through, with Bogdan stating the F-35 is a much different program today than it was three years ago. Not only was the ramp-up of production slowed to assure design features had stabilized, but the contractor team was asked to share more risk. But having now accomplished 5,000 flights of the aircraft, Pentagon leaders are increasingly confident the program will produce an affordable, survivable, versatile fighter.
Secretary Kendall opined that F-35 increasingly looks like the future of tactical air power, not just here but overseas. That has important trade consequences for the U.S., since dozens of countries may eventually choose to buy one or another variant of F-35 as their air fleets age. If F-35 simply matches the export performance of the venerable F-16 it is replacing, it will become the most common fighter in the world, generating hundreds of thousands of jobs at home and abroad. The performance that matters most, though, is in the air, and it now looks increasingly clear that the key features of the fifth-generation fighter — stealth, sensor fusion, high-capacity datalinks, etc. — will assure the U.S. continues to enjoy global air dominance through mid-century.
Senator Durbin indicated at several points during the hearing that he understands how crucial air dominance is to every other facet of modern warfare. He wants U.S. warfighters to have the best technology available, but he also wants to make sure money isn’t wasted acquiring it. So while Durbin has now added his voice to the positive assessments of F-35 being rendered by everyone from the Government Accountability Office to Senator McCain, no one should assume that the challenges F-35 faces are over. Integration of on-board software still must be completed, production costs must be reduced, and sustainment practices must be clarified. The good news coming out of yesterday’s hearing, though, is that more and more bright, open-minded people like Senator Durbin think the F-35 effort is on a path to doing those things successfully.