A journalist friend of mine left a message on my voicemail this week requesting comments on the “continuing implosion” of the F-35 joint strike fighter program. The drumbeat of negative stories about the program has become so persistent that many people who aren’t paying close attention think the effort is deeply troubled — so much so that it might come unraveled. That would certainly be bad news, because three of the five U.S. military services are counting on F-35 variants to replace aging Cold War aircraft, and they have few alternatives if the program fails.
The reality, though, is that F-35 is progressing better than any other major aircraft development program around the world, either military or civil. If you doubt that, then take a look at the Airbus A380 jumbojet or its A400M military transport. If either of those programs ever come to fruition as profitable undertakings, I will dip this blog posting in melted brie and eat it. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is in better shape — it will eventually be a big moneymaker — but it isn’t progressing anywhere near as steadily as the F-35. No joke: F-35 is the most successful major aircraft development program in the world today.
So why does it seem like the program is in trouble? Well, mainly because it is moving through its flight tests too slowly, and therefore will require more time than planned to reach some developmental milestones. But what gets lost in the news coverage is that these delays are not resulting from design or performance problems — unlike the controversial alternate engine GE wants to build for the plane, which had to be redesigned after repeated test failures. Using its primary Pratt & Whitney engine, F-35 is proving to be more reliable than any other developmental fighter in modern times, as a letter in the Wall Street Journal Wednesday from program executive Tom Burbage noted. The simple truth is that F-35 is performing remarkably well in both ground and flight tests — which is why the Marine Corps and Navy told Congress last week that they still expect their versions of the plane to become operational in 2012 and 2014.
It appears that the F-35 program has gotten ensnarled in the kind of episodic media coverage where every little problem gets breathlessly reported, but nobody ever manages to describe the overall state of the program. The problems, such as they are, arise mainly from a disagreement between the Bush and Obama administrations about how much up-front testing is required, combined with some excessively pessimistic forecasts about how much the program will cost to execute over the next few years. The forecasts, prepared under the sponsorship of the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation shop, aren’t actually based on how the program is progressing — they are based mainly on how previous programs have unfolded. So when you hear that F-35 costs are rising, or that the program will breach Nunn-McCurdy thresholds on cost growth, don’t just take such assertions at face value. They’re probably wrong.
It’s still early in the testing program, so for all I know some problem will crop up later that needs to be addressed. But thus far, it hasn’t. F-35 still looks like the future of tactical aviation, a fighter so stealthy, agile, versatile and effective that buying anything else would put countries at a severe operational disadvantage in the future. The program isn’t imploding and the defense department isn’t having doubts about whether it should still be funded. Developing world-class fighters is one area where America is still number one, and F-35 is proving that fact every day.