Defense secretary Robert Gates has finally found a weapons system he likes. After canceling or cutting back over a dozen major programs in April — and setting the stage for additional cuts in the fiscal 2011 budget submission — Gates has embraced the F-35 joint strike fighter, officially known as the Lightning II. On August 31, Secretary Gates visited the sprawling Lockheed Martin fighter plant in Fort Worth where the company will execute the huge program in concert with key subcontractors Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, and engine-maker Pratt & Whitney. But it wasn’t the mere fact he showed up that mattered, it is what he said while he was there.
According to Reuters, Gates stated that he was encouraged by progress on the F-35, and went on to say that “the high-risk elements associated with this developmental program are largely behind us.” That was a telling comment, because budgeteers are targeting weapons programs that look too risky, and the media have recently revived a story first disclosed last year by Bloomberg Business News that the Pentagon’s Joint Estimating Team was predicting a two-year delay in the F-35 development effort. That prediction was based on extrapolating experience from the F-22 fighter program to the F-35, as if Lockheed Martin and its team-mates had learned nothing from the earlier program.
So the fact that Secretary Gates expressed confidence in the program is a clear signal that he does not agree with some of the pessimistic reports appearing in the press. Gates would not take ownership of a program if his advisors were saying there were significant uncertainties as to price and performance. Both the F-35 joint program office and prime contractor disputed the projection of the Joint Estimating Team when it first appeared, and so far their own predictions of steady progress appear to be coming true. The contractors have been systematically identifying issues with the airframe, engines, subsystems and software, and one by one resolving them. About 85% of key development tasks are now completed, with no sign of serious trouble.
Boeing and Airbus must wish they could make that claim about their latest commercial jets. It is a remarkable achievement to develop three distinctly different variants of a next-generation tactical aircraft for three different military services without running into any real show-stoppers. Even if Lockheed had learned nothing from F-22, it knows the fate of its aeronautics business is riding on the wings of the F-35, so this is one time when the “A-team” is definitely in charge. As a result, F-35 could be the most successful development effort for a major military aircraft since the F-16 fighter debuted in the 1970s.
That’s somewhat ironic, since the F-35 is destined to eventually replace the F-16 in the joint inventory and the air forces of overseas allies. Despite the complexity of involving so many allies in the program from its early stages, the strategy is yielding both economic and operational benefits. Bigger production runs and commonality across variants mean lower costs per plane, and use of the same aircraft by allies bolsters wartime interoperability. So far, the allies seem happy with what they are getting: the United Kingdom plans to buy 138, with deliveries starting in 2011; Italy will buy 131 starting in 2014; Australia and Turkey will each buy 100 starting in 2014; Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Israel will all be major buyers. So F-35 is as much about global partnering and our balance of trade as it is about the need to replace America’s aging fleet of cold-war fighters. Secretary Gates could not have picked a better program to embrace.
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