There is so much misleading information about the F-35 joint strike fighter in the public record that I feel a need to return to the subject periodically in an attempt to provide some balance. I’m happy to say this time around, though, that for the first time this year the political prospects of the program seem to be brightening. I have already noted many times in the past that the engineering status of the plane is healthy — no design problems, all key performance parameters for all variants being met, etc. But the political standing of the program appeared to be eroding steadily as the new year began. Now, that trend seems to have reversed.
The most encouraging sign politically is the strong support the program is receiving from senior Pentagon leaders. Key appointees such as defense secretary Robert Gates and acquisition czar Ashton Carter were reluctant to embrace the program while it was under review for breaching Nunn-McCurdy thresholds, but now that the review is completed they have forcefully re-stated the department’s commitment to the program. In addition, for the first time I can recall, both authorizing committees in Congress have marked to the full number of planes requested by the administration for next year. And Air Force acquisition head David Van Buren went on the record disputing exaggerated cost estimates for the program generated by the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment & Program Evaluation (CAPE) shop.
The unit cost of the F-35 is at the core of the recent political controversy because the plane was conceived to be a low-cost replacement of Cold War F-16s, and cost is one thing that everybody in the political system can readily grasp. So disputes about what the price of each plane will be have driven the debate about how the program is faring. After some initial reluctance to comment, prime contractor Lockheed Martin has begun to forcefully rebut the absurd cost estimates being issued by CAPE — estimates that made the plane sound unaffordable. Lockheed chairman Robert Stevens stated last week that the company expects the actual purchase price of each Air Force variant will be roughly the same as a current Lockheed F-16 or Boeing F/A-18. That would be about $60 million in today’s dollars — less than half the price of an F-22 Raptor — and it includes all the necessary mission equipment.
There will soon be a public release of information about the pricing for the next, fourth production lot of F-35s, and it will demonstrate once again that program costs are far below what CAPE has predicted. Lockheed opened the bidding 20 percent below CAPE’s unit cost, and the government talked the company down from there. The fact that Lockheed was willing to agree to a fixed-price contract far below official estimates, and that the government sought a price even lower, shows how inflated those estimates are. For some reason, CAPE projects F-35 costs using almost no actual data from the program. Instead, it prefers to extrapolate from the experience of previous fighter programs. But if Lockheed Martin demonstrates for the fourth time in a row that it is greatly under-running official cost estimates on the F-35, then the significance of those estimates in the political process will presumably begin to fade.
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