Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Amos told defense trade publication Inside the Navy last month that his service has no plans to delay fielding of the F-35 fighter despite the fact that the development plan is 13 months behind schedule. In fact, the Marine Corps is so confident that its short-takeoff-vertical-landing (STOVL) version of the plane will debut on time that it hasn’t even drawn up contingency plans to deal with the possibility of problems. This is in marked contrast to the Air Force and Navy, which have deferred the initial operational capability of their planes several years due to a lengthening development cycle.
Prime contractor Lockheed Martin has repeatedly complained that reports about delays and cost increases in the F-35 program are exaggerated, and has secured a commitment from the defense department to “buy back” some of the planes deleted from early production plans if it comes in below government cost estimates. That won’t be hard to do, because the contractor has consistently priced its planes below Pentagon cost estimates in the first three production lots. Negotiations on the fourth production lot should be completed this month, with the final price likely to be about 25% below what the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment & Program Evaluation (CAPE) office has predicted.
The Marine Corps is under some pressure to field the F-35 as soon as possible, because unlike the Navy it elected to forgo the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, and as a result its air fleet is quite old. That decision was based on its conviction that future expeditionary warfare would favor airframes with vertical agility such as the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor and the short-takeoff-vertical-landing variant of F-35. However, the decision to stick with a 2012 initial operational capability for F-35 inevitably raises questions about why other services chose to wait several more years for their planes. Inside the Navy suggested that part of the explanation might be that the Marine variant is less capable, but in fact its vertical lift fan and vectored thrust make the propulsion system considerably more complex than what is found on Air Force and Navy versions.
So maybe what’s happening here is that the Marine Corps is making a statement about what shape the F-35 program is really in. Gen. Amos was quoted praising the Lockheed Martin production line and expressing confidence that the planes would deliver on time. He is not the only source for such optimism. Even the 2009 Selected Acquisition Report on F-35 that generated so many negative headlines concerning costs said that the planes were meeting all of their key performance parameters, were passing tests with flying colors, and were establishing new standards for quality. The rising cost estimates turn out to be based mainly on data from other programs, whose relevance to future F-35 pricing is problematic. In any event, the Marine Corps is determined to start operating its F-35s in two years, and then we shall see whether all the costly adjustments recently made in the program were even necessary.
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