Oh no. This is terrible. The program that critics of defense spending love to hate is becoming a normal acquisition program. What are the F-35 deniers to do? Well, they could go after the V-22 Osprey. Whoops, that’s not a good answer. The Osprey is performing amazingly well in combat and has the highest aircraft availability rate of any aircraft in the Marine Corps’ inventory. Is it possible that supporters of the V-22 (including your humble author) were right and what was needed was time to work out the bugs? Could it be that supporters of the F-35 (including your now less humble author) who argued that every leap-ahead acquisition effort has bumps along the way were right about that program too?
The unrelenting tide of good news on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program must be like fingers on a chalk board for those who thought they could make a career out of criticizing the program. The STOVL variant, the F-35B, is about to emerge from the probationary period imposed on it by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Not only has the F-35B program overcome a series of technical issues but it has been to sea, conducting dozens of takeoffs and landings from a large deck amphib. Remember the critics who warned that the exhausts from the STOVL JSF would melt deck plates? Big whoops there.
The Air Force and Navy variants, the F-35A and F-35C respectively, are moving along smartly. Issues with software development have been addressed. The test programs for both of these variants are reported to be ahead of schedule.
Not only is the JSF rapidly overcoming technical challenges but it is also bringing down the cost of the aircraft. This is something the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, told everyone repeatedly would happen as the program matured and innovative manufacturing techniques were introduced. Even though the F-35 is still in low-rate initial production, Lockheed representatives are reporting significant reductions in the time required to put together aircraft. According to Larry Lawson, executive vice president and general manager of the F-35 program, there are hard data to support such claims. “We’re seeing learning curves that are really the best that have been seen in this industry at this point. We’re getting incredible performance in reducing those hours.” According to Defense News, the JSF Program Office acknowledges the same reality: “We are pleased with signs of emerging stability in the manufacturing flow at Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney and in their supplier teams.”
The big issue remaining is concurrency, the practice of building early versions of a weapons system while testing and even R&D are still going on. F-35 critics bemoan the degree of concurrency arguing that this increases overall program costs when design changes have to be made even as aircraft are coming off the production line and early models need to be retrofitted. I might point out that concurrency is the norm in major weapons programs. In fact, there are a number of studies by reputable organizations that suggest only a modest relationship between concurrency and cost growth.
What these criticisms ignore are two facts. First, if the Program Office waits until the final design is set in stone and tested before firing up the assembly line there will be schedule delays and possibly even cost increases as production issues emerge and have to be addressed later in the program. Second, the criticism assumes that the costs of making changes to the line and retrofitting early models will be greater than the costs of allowing the assembly line to lie idle for an extended period of time, the greater costs of production in the out years and the costs associated with maintaining a massive supply chain at non-economical rates of production. Since the plan is to produce several thousand F-35s, these early costs will be vanishingly small against the savings from getting the assembly line spun up and the supply chain sorted out.
Another sign that the F-35 is becoming a normal acquisition program is that the Pentagon is trying to stick the Lockheed Martin team with all the costs of concurrency. This is a bad idea, particularly when the size of the low-rate initial production lots is being reduced. But it also suggests that the defense department now has enough confidence in the program that it feels safe trying to squeeze the companies. This is what happens in a normal acquisition program.
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