As the Pentagon moves towards negotiating for the next lot of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, it is doing so with a sense that things are moving in the right direction. Pentagon acquisition chief, Under Secretary Ashton Carter, publicly stated that he was more confident in the program. There is also said to be an improved working relationship between senior Lockheed Martin officials and the new head of the Joint Program Office, Vice Admiral David Venlet.
The test program for the F-35 is firing on all cylinders. If the current progress is sustained, by mid-year the program will be caught up to its planned test program, eliminating at least one of the probationary items established last year for the STOVL JSF variant, the F-35B. The program will also address another problem area when it begins testing of a redesigned inlet door that has been causing some vibration problems.
In addition to progress on the airframe, avionics and software, the F-35s engine maker, Pratt & Whitney (P&W), is also making progress. Fixes have been implemented for each of the problem areas identified in earlier tests and should be completed before the end of the year. Equally important, P&W has committed to its original cost reduction plan for the next lot of engines, despite the fact that the restructured program is buying fewer F-35s than originally planned. According to reports, P&W has committed to dropping its price by 13 percent through engine 250, a cost savings rate more than double the typical six percent reduction for an engine program at the same stage of development.
The biggest challenge facing the JSF program is not technical; all the problems identified for the aircraft and the engine have fixes in development or actually deployed on test vehicles. The biggest issue is cost. The program is on track to produce the aircraft for the target price of $60 million a copy when it reaches full production. The problem is that the Pentagon and the Congress are continually reducing the annual buys for the aircraft. This makes it very difficult for Lockheed Martin and P&W to move down the learning curve, provide predictability to their subcontractors or manage their labor force correctly. Everyone who shops at Costco or BJ’s knows that when you buy in bulk you save money. Well, the same thing is true for weapons platforms.
While it is right for the Pentagon to make affordability a priority in weapons systems acquisition, it is equally the government’s duty to act like a responsible buyer. If DoD wants a low, stable price than it has to commit to a predictable acquisition rate and to reaching that target as rapidly as possible.
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