Last week was a tough one for the tri-service F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, with program manager Vice Admiral David Venlet expressing concern to AOL Defense about problems being found in developmental testing. They’re the kinds of problems that crop up in every new military aircraft program (and a lot of commercial aircraft programs too), but Venlet said the cost of correcting them would be significant. Add to that prime-contractor Lockheed Martin’s cautionary comments that F-35 revenues might be impacted by any sequestration of defense funds, and you have the stuff of which sleepless nights are made for industry executives.
However, there’s at least one front on which F-35 is excelling. The pace of testing, which was a drag on program progress in previous years, is now running well ahead of the plan. In November 79 flight tests were conducted rather than the 64 planned, and 476 specific test points were conducted versus the 440 planned. For the full year through November, the flight-test program is 11 percent ahead of plan, having conducted 902 actual tests compared with 813 planned. The year-to-date results on individual test points was even better, with results 15 percent ahead of plan.
All three variants of the plane are surpassing expectations for both number of flight tests and number of test points. Meanwhile, Air Force and Navy sources say the services have begun challenging the assumptions and methods used by Pentagon estimators in calculating the cost of supporting the F-35 across a fifty-year operational lifetime. That cost was reported earlier in the year to be estimated at $1.07 trillion in “then-year” dollars — about $500 billion in today’s dollars. While the estimate suggests an annual sustainment price-tag well below what the aircraft F-35 will replace are already costing the military, the services contend the F-35 projection greatly exaggerates the actual costs of keeping 2,443 Joint Strike Fighters in a high state of readiness.
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