While reporting with my colleagues Graham Warwick and Guy Norris for next week’s edition on 10 years of F-35 development work, it was evident that while the program has suffered major – and not unnoticed setbacks – there is progress being made.
The question for the U.S. and its partners ahead is whether the progress is enough to justify further investment in the program and, if so (which is a likely outcome), how much and when.
Vice Adm. David Venlet, brought by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates to rebaseline the program after development and early production problems, said earlier this year he wanted to improve the pace of flight testing, get the F-35B off of “probation” and smooth out the production and assembly process.
Lockheed Martin photo
Prime contractor Lockheed Martin has made progress in each area, though not all of these goals were fully achieved. A program official said in 2009 that 12 test aircraft would make 12 flights per month to support testing by September 2010. That obviously has not happened. But, program officials report that the pace of testing has improved substantially, allowing for data collection at a rate that is more useful for analysts. Still, however, only 18% of flight-testing is complete 10 years and $38 billion into development.
Substantial progress has also been made in the F-35B, which, last year, was effectively grounded owing to reliability issues with BF-1, the only aircraft then outfitted to expand the vertical landing envelope. Now, however, the fleet is up and running and the program was praised by Venlet for making good on a goal to get to the USS Wasp amphibious ship for its first at-sea trails on schedule. Venlet said he was pleased with the progress on the B, so much so that he declared the following during an interview with Aviation Week:
“We are on a threshold now [such] that I don’t believe that there is anything more unique to Stovl than the other variants that should cause it to have special attention.”
Gen. James Dunford, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, the first F-35B customer, says that “We have a presumption of success with the F-35B [and] it is no longer in the crosshairs.” The path isn’t fully clear, however. Check out Graham’s interactive web model of the historical and current issues plaguing the Stovl model. He also has posted descriptive summaries of each technical challenge on his Leading Edge blog, starting with the first entry here.
The all-clear is expected to come this spring, nearly a year earlier than the January 2013 timeline established earlier this year by Gates when he declared the program on probation.
Work on the F-135 engine and the pace of F-35A testing has progressed. And, work has also progressed on the carrier version, the F-35C, and its suitability for land-based catapult takeoff. A poor tailhook design has forced Lockheed to rework the tailhook and conduct arrested landing trials next year; no arrested landings were attempted as planned this year owing to the tailhook problem.
Despite the success, though, 10 years into development the major problem facing the program is cost: cost to finish development (now estimated to still have $12.5 billion to go), cost to produce each lot, the cost to own and operate and, finally, the cost of “concurrency” modifications, or those retrofits required as a result of deficiencies found in testing.
Venlet says a new “sustainment,” or ownership cost figure is slated for release after the Fiscal 2013 federal budget goes to Capitol Hill in February. Based on deep dive studies, the program office established a new technical baseline for sustainment, including some new assumptions, such as how many bases will be needed for U.S. operations. Tom Burbage, executive vice president of F-35 integration, says the $1 trillion ownership price cited in the most recent selected acquisition report (SAR) in April is likely to be reduced by as much as 20%.
Though getting a better handle on the ownership cost issue appeared to be the big issue of 2011 only seven months ago owing to the sticker shock suffered by the nine nations swallowing hard at that $1 trillion figure.
This new figure is going to the Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) in January, along with a request to reinstate the approval to continue Milestone B, or development work. That approval was rescinded last year owing to the Nunn McCurdy cost overrun and subsequent $4.6 billion restructuring.
The Joint Executive Steering Board (JESB), which consists of senior officials from each F-35 member nation, will also meet after the budget release. The December meeting, which was slipped this year because procurement issues are in flux in the United States.
Furthermore, amid so many questions (including whether 3 variants will pass muster in this tight fiscal environment), Jen DiMascio, our congressional editor, has done an interesting piece to look into why some of the lawmakers who have been so blatantly vocal in support of Lockheed Martin programs in the past may be piping down a bit on the F-35.
All of this and more is covered in the Dec. 12 edition of Aviation Week. We hope the update generates some good discussion on the way ahead for the F-35.