Calling the F-35 fighter “our highest priority conventional warfare weapon system,” Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall yesterday signaled that the tri-service program is now progressing smoothly toward initial operational capability in 2015. Speaking before an annual stakeholder conference that brought together customers and suppliers at the main assembly site in Fort Worth, Texas, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer offered an assessment of the F-35 effort that was distinctly more positive than his take in prior years. Barring unexpected surprises, he said, production of the plane can begin ramping up in 2015 because program performance has stabilized.
Kendall and Program Executive Officer Christopher Bogdan are not noted for using diplomatic language when contractors fail to perform. The fact that both overseers have recently been making positive comments about how F-35 is faring suggests that the outlook for the Pentagon’s biggest weapons program is brightening. Over the last several months, the Government Accountability Office has issued its first assessment of the program ever in which it declined to offer advice on how management could be improved; the defense department’s latest cost estimate for the program cut its long-term price-tag; and an estimate of the cost burden incurred by concurrently developing and producing the planes was also slashed.
The Air Force, Navy and Marine variants of F-35 have now flown over 5,000 times, with about 40% of those flights involving production models of the plane. Five production lots have been fully funded and an additional three are partially funded. The planes are flying at five domestic bases and Australia has recently confirmed its intention to buy a hundred. Despite the problems some overseas partners are facing with weak economies and chronic budget deficits, none of the original foreign partners has backed out and new countries like Japan have joined the program. So slowly but surely, this program is marching towards global acceptance as the future of tactical aviation.
That’s a good thing as U.S. policymakers contemplate what to do next about Syria, North Korea and Iran, because the days of fighting enemies who lack air forces or air defenses are just about over. Tomorrow’s adversaries will be equipped with sophisticated surface-to-air missiles and radars that can track pretty much anything that wasn’t designed to be stealthy. The F-35 was conceived to combine integrated stealth features with sensor fusion and off-board datalinks that afford comprehensive situational awareness. What that means in practical terms is that we can see the enemy but he can’t see us — a huge advantage in any warfighting situation. So Secretary Kendall’s positive take on F-35 is a sign that U.S. warfighters will own the skies through mid-century.
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