Defenders of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are having a tough year as headlines scream about cost overruns, schedule delays and international partner wobbles. Under pressure to justify the program’s multibillion-dollar price tag, Pentagon and service chiefs hit back by citing the F-35’s essential role in closing capability gaps. It’s a valid point, but it still does not paint the bigger picture of what makes this aircraft critical and why, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “We cannot afford, as a nation, not to have this airplane.”
Costs, schedules and affordability are unquestionably important, but too much emphasis on these without a balanced perspective on what has been achieved and what this aircraft can do that sets it apart from all other tactical aircraft could undermine national and international confidence at a critical time. If as a result of the media hype, partners pull out or reduce their orders, then the impact on unit price could indeed make the F-35 unaffordable. That would be a self-fulfilling prophecy based not on facts but on speculation.
More than the F-35’s gap-closing capabilities, it’s the aircraft’s ability to find and exploit gaps — using a combination of stealth, supersonic and sensor capabilities — that makes it a unique and game-changing asset. That combination means that in the F-35’s primary strike role, it can slip unseen through routes in enemy territory, get close to the target for ultraprecise delivery, and then exit as stealthily as it entered. The F-35 pilot, in other words, can avoid the fight and focus on the mission. Thus far, that’s been the signature of only a handful of elite, single-purpose, boutique-production stealth aircraft such as the F-117 and F-22. The F-35 is stealthier than the first, cheaper than the second and is a multimission aircraft to boot. For the first time, it brings gap-exploiting capabilities to a mass-production aircraft that will be common to three U.S. services and a host of international partners.
First, however, Pentagon and industry program managers must do some stealthy route-tracking work of their own to negotiate the F-35 through the eyebrow-raising numbers and to reassure Congress and the program’s international partners that today’s pain will be worth tomorrow’s payoff. It’s an exercise in confidence restoration, and it has put prime manufacturer Lockheed Martin on a war footing. On costs, Lockheed Martin chairman and CEO Bob Stevens has thrown down the gauntlet, promising customers that the F-35A conventional takeoff-and-landing (CTOL) variant will have a unit flyaway cost of $60 million in 2010 dollars, making it comparable with the cost of a similarly equipped F-16 Block 60 or F/A-18E/F. The message is, why settle for fourth-generation aircraft technology when you can get fifth-generation for the same price? In other fighting talk, the company says it will undercut the Pentagon’s estimated flyaway costs for the next low-rate initial production (LRIP) aircraft by about 20 percent. To demonstrate its faith in its figures, Lockheed agreed to change production contracts from cost-plus to fixed-price two years earlier than originally planned, beginning with the LRIP 4 contract for 32 aircraft that was in final negotiations in June. Senior executives have also been on a global tour of key foreign partners to walk them through the numbers and issue reassurances.
What prompted this round of heightened activity was the program’s breach of Nunn-McCurdy statute rules that in turn mandated a detailed report from the Pentagon explaining why the F-35 was essential to national security. Nunn-McCurdy requires that weapon systems’ cost growth of more than 15 percent be reported to Congress, and the termination of programs whose total cost grows by more than 25 percent over the original estimate, unless their criticality can be proven. The F-35’s breach was more of an all-out flood. The Pentagon’s independent Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) report estimated the F-35’s total acquisition cost (including research and development) was $382 billion for 2,457 aircraft — an increase of some 65 percent since 2002 projections, when the number of U.S. aircraft to be procured was adjusted down from 2,852 to 2,443 after the Navy reduced its planned buy. Excluding R&D costs, the Pentagon estimates the F-35 has risen to $92.4 million per aircraft, calculated in 2002 dollars. In today’s dollars, that’s $108.7 million; when the contract was awarded in October 2001, the price for one F-35 was estimated to be $50 million. Lockheed executives argue that the CAPE costs are based on experience from legacy aircraft programs, such as the F-16, F/A-18 and F-22, that were developed and produced differently from the new practices created for the F-35. Lockheed says it has sufficient real data from the F-35 program to justify its belief that it is already beating cost estimates by around 20 percent in LRIP 3 and is therefore confident of continuing that trend with the fixed-price contract.
Adding to the program’s woes, however, the F-35 is behind schedule. The system design and development phase was originally scheduled to be completed in fiscal 2012; now it’s pushed back to fiscal 2016. Specifically, flight test aircraft have been late to deliver against planned goals. By June, only six of 12 planned flight-test aircraft were at government test centers. But the pace has quickened. As of the end of June, eight flight-test aircraft were flying and Lockheed and the Pentagon reached an agreement to move three aircraft from production to the flight-test program to ensure an adequate speed of testing. Lockheed could have mitigated the flight-test issues. The company placed great confidence in its ability to prove the F-35’s capability through modeling and simulation, backed by more extensive laboratory testing and earlier structural testing than has ever been done in previous programs. This belief, however, led to the original flight-test program having little “down time” for pinpointing and implementing fixes to problems uncovered in flight. And the company also seemed unprepared for skepticism about its reliance on lab figures. If this process had been extensively used and demonstrated previously, there might have been more trust in the argument that actual test flights would simply validate the simulation figures — as has largely been the case. Put bluntly, however, Lockheed was slow to show the hardware.
Still, the perception that the F-35 is another major weapons program gone awry is wrong. By the end of June, 136 flight tests had been accomplished against a plan of 118 flights. All three variants are flying, and the Pentagon’s acquisition report said that each is expected to meet all key performance parameters, that structural testing has been completed without incident and that the planes are “setting new standards for quality.”
The F-35B, whose short-takeoff and vertical-landing (STOVL) capabilities make it the most technically challenging of the three, has flown supersonic and is performing regular vertical landings. Also in June, the Navy’s carrier version had its first flight, another “code one,” or perfect flight. No other tactical aircraft program has simultaneously put three variants into test flight — and in each case, the actual tests validate the lab predictions. About 31 aircraft were in various stages of production on the company’s mile-long moving assembly line by the end of June, and the first two production aircraft are on schedule to roll off the line in the third quarter for delivery later this year.
So the idea that this is a program in need of a major fix or cancellation is off the mark and potentially damaging if it results in too much meddling in how the aircraft is put together. One example is the congressional drumbeat to keep an alternate engine on the program. The F-35 is powered by the Pratt & Whitney F135, a derivative of the F-22’s F119 and an engine so huge relative to the size of the airframe that Lockheed F-35 chief test pilot Jon Beesley says, “It’s really an engine that happens to have a wing attached.” In 1996, Congress directed the Pentagon to establish an alternate engine development program, which it did with a team consisting of General Electric and Rolls-Royce that has produced the F136. Since 2006, both the Bush and Obama administrations have yearly proposed canceling the F136, but the program remains alive and kicking thanks to successive congressional campaigns. No one disputes the integrity and suitability of either engine — Lockheed executives make clear that they are engine agnostic — but the longer the debate continues and the further the aircraft production program advances, the more disruptive an injection of a new engine would be to flight tests, schedules and ultimately to costs. At some point in the very near future, the impact will not be absorbable without major disruption.
Similarly, JSF customers are not entirely blameless in the cost game. The original contract premise was based on very large numbers of aircraft and a swift production ramp-up rate. Shift the numbers downward, as the Navy has done, or outward, as the Pentagon and many of the international partners are contemplating, and unit costs will climb. That’s why firm commitments from the eight international partners are critical and urgent. In particular, watch for near-term endorsements from countries such as Canada, a key ally that is also an F/A-18 customer. Also important are nonpartner countries that could add valuable Foreign Military Sales orders to the F-35’s customer list. These would push the production numbers up and also potentially fill in some nearer-term production slots if any are given up by an F-35 international partner. Among countries known to be interested in the F-35 are Israel, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. The military reputations of these nations, and the types of potential threats they face, would make their selection of the F-35 a welcome validation of its capabilities.
Beyond the rumpus about costs and schedules, however, is the central issue of what the F-35 is designed to do that no other aircraft can and why that makes it necessary. In his summary to Congress on the F-35 after its Nunn-McCurdy-prompted restructuring, Ashton Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, stated the Pentagon’s commitment clearly. The continuation of the program is “essential to the national security,” he wrote. “There are no alternatives to the program which will provide acceptable capability to meet the joint military requirement at less cost.”
The Air Force chief of staff and Navy chief of naval operations have also described the F-35 as one of their highest aviation priority programs, with Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz saying he is “an absolute proponent.” At a Washington think tank briefing, he said, “The F-35 will be the backbone of our tactical strike capability going forward. It will be a platform that strikes with precision and with capabilities that are not currently present in our existing force structure.”
In essence, the F-35 is a hybrid aircraft for hybrid wars. Its flexibility across multiple missions is without parallel, in large part because of what stealth brings to the equation, but also because of its highly advanced communications, sensor and data management systems. Removing the head-up display and putting everything on the helmet, for example, provides the pilot with unprecedented awareness of the tactical situation. This includes the distributed aperture system, a passive infrared sensor that provides 360 degrees of target tracking and imaging — a capability not available on any other combat aircraft. In the air-to-surface role, that capability takes the pilot directly to the target. In the air-to-air role, the F-35’s stealth and radar combination gives it the advantage every fighter pilot has sought since World War I aces learned to keep the sun behind them: See the enemy before he sees you.
“This is a combat aircraft with a real purpose, not an air show airplane,” says Beesley. “This will be a high-angle of attack aircraft. I know that because of my experience with the F-22. Those who don’t have these capabilities will not be able to match it.”
And in the joint role, the F-35’s powerful and ultra-high-resolution radar can help collect detailed information for allied forces in the air and on the ground. An illustration of what this would bring to an Afghanistan-type battlefield is a slide that Lockheed shows taken from information gained by an F-35 from long distance of a national park in Arizona. A man is sweeping the car park; the details of the brush are pinpoint clear, complete with glints of sun coming off the brush head. Cars can be seen in the park, and also “shadows” from cars that recently left.
“It knits together a better picture of the battle space so that every other force and commander out there has a much better awareness,” says Steve O’ Bryan, Lockheed Martin vice president for F-35 business development and customer engagement. Those capabilities, in particular the stealth and advanced helmet display and sensor systems, cannot be patched on to existing fourth-generation aircraft; they are integral to the design.
Not that anyone is arguing this is easy to deliver. “The Holy Grail of fighter airplanes was to find one that could meet multiple mission demands and requirements, that could be used by multiple services, would be suitable for export, would have some level of commonality and that would enable us to build partner capacity,” says Stevens. “It’s really damned hard and that’s why no one else has done the F-35 before.” AFJ