October 01, 2012
Credit: Credit: Lockheed Martin
[Editor's Note: This editorial ran in the October 1 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.]
In October 2001, when the U.S. Defense Department awarded Lockheed Martin the contract to develop the Joint Strike Fighter, it looked like the deal of the century for the company and its customer. In the largest defense procurement in history, Lockheed would produce three variants of one stealthy design to replace the mixed and aging fleets of three U.S. services, saving money and time.
Eleven years in, the deal still looks pretty good for Lockheed, but less so for its customers, including the eight international partners. In 2001, they expected by 2020 to be operating a large fleet of stealthy “fifth-generation” fighters.
Instead, the cost to develop and produce the aircraft has grown to $330.5 billion, far more than the original $177.1 billion estimate (both in 2012 dollars). Projections of operating and support costs for the F-35 have escalated far beyond the estimates of 2001, and fielding is years behind the original schedule. In fact, 11 years in, the exact timings—and capability levels—for initial operation of the three variants are still uncertain.
Before going farther down this cracked and broken path, the Pentagon needs to take a hard look at the consequences. On schedule and affordability, the JSF program is already a failure. In terms of capabilities and the long-term benefits of commonality, the jury is still out. And even if the F-35 delivers on everything it promised, the world has changed since 2001.
One problem is the lack of competition. Including the F-22, Lockheed will have been the sole U.S. producer of all-new fighters for 50 years by the time a “sixth-generation” aircraft comes along—no earlier than 2030—with significant consequences for the industrial base.
Faced with an ill-defined, but unacceptable trillion-dollar sustainment cost estimate for the F-35 fleet, the new tough-talking leader of the joint program office is considering abandoning the contractor-run support system and opening it to competition, including from government depots.
That might work long term, but it would do little to help warfighters stay ahead of threats through the 2020s. By 2021, U.S. forces will be operating only a fraction of the 2,400-plus F-35s they plan to buy. The bulk of U.S. fleets will comprise the same F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18s of 2001.