By Alexander Pearson
The F-35 “Lightning II” Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is a multi-role, single seat, single engine strike fighter with next generation stealth technology developed by a consortium of defense companies led by Lockheed Martin. It is a “5th” generational aircraft designed to replace a variety of previous “legacy” generation aircraft such as the F-16 and FA-18 that currently make up the majority of combat aircraft within the United States military. To fulfill this designated role, the F-35 consists of three variants designated A, B and C. The F-35A is a conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) aircraft designed for the US Air Force, the F-35B is a short take-off/vertical-landing (STOVL) aircraft designed for the Marine Core and the F-35C is a carrier variant (CV) designed for the US Navy.
The F-35 program began after the Department of Defense awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin in late 2001 for their experimental X-35 strike aircraft design, which had beat out a design by Boeing. The F-35 was intended to provide a low-cost replacement to the aging fleet of strike aircraft within the US military, whose designs were in some cases over 30 years old. The first operational F-35s were scheduled to enter into active service in 2010. The total life cycle cost of the program was estimated at $1 trillion in 2001, however this estimate has since soared to $1.5 trillion. This makes it the most expensive conventional weapons system in Pentagon history.
The F-35 has encountered a number of technical issues since the program began in 2001:
- A number of serious issues have arisen including problems with the cockpit design, the helmet mounted display (HMD), heat damage resulting from the F-35s engines and cracks within the engine turbines. These issues led the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, Michael Gilmore, to warn against beginning early unmonitored flight training in late 2011.
- Since the first US delivery of F-35s began [on what date?] the plane has been grounded by the DoD on four separate occasions in March and August of 2011 and in January and February of 2013.
- The F-35B variant has been particularly problematic due to severe challenges faced in the development and reliability of its specialized vertical jet propulsion system. These challenges led to the then Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, to issue a two year suspension on development of the variant in January 2011.
- A number of performance concerns were raised after testing began on early models of the F-35 in [what year?]. In air-to-air combat the plane was found to be less agile compared to other “legacy” aircraft and too lightly armored to fulfill its role in ground support operations. This led the DoD to reduce performance specifications across all variants in 2012.
- The aircraft’s relatively short range of 600 miles compared to other “legacy” aircraft has also raised eyebrows. Such a range proves very limiting for carrier-based operations which require an aircraft’s range to be larger than that of the anti-ship missiles possessed by potential adversaries such as China. The development of high-range anti-ship missiles by China raises serious questions about the suitability of the F-35 as a carrier-based multi-role strike aircraft.
- Development of the computer software for the aircraft has been incredibly slow and remains a real challenge for the entire program. The finalized version of this software is not expected to be completed until 2017.
- Lockheed Martin and its subcontractors have lacked adequate quality management in terms of their rigor to design, manufacturing, and quality assurance. In a [September 2013 assessment, the Pentagon highlighted this problem, which it claims was flagged in over 363 of its findings.
- There are concerns that the plane will be no match for fifth generation Chinese and Russian strike aircraft. For example, the Australian Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has stated; “I’m determined not to sign on the dotted line on the JSF until I am absolutely certain it’s capable of delivering the capability it promises”.
The F-35 has been plagued by schedule delays:
- The technical issues with the aircraft have led to significant program delays. As of June 2013, the estimated start date for full-rate production has been delayed 7 years from 2012 to 2019.
The F-35 is egregiously over-budget:
- In June 2013 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) claimed that the estimated total cost to develop and procure the F-35 at $395.7 billion, a significant increase from the original $233 billion estimate in 2001.
- The average cost of one F-35 has increased from the original estimate of $81.7 million in 2001 to $137 million in 2012.
- The latest Pentagon estimates put the 50-year life cycle cost of the F-35 at $1.51 trillion, greatly exceeding the estimate of $1.38 only one year prior.
- The operating costs of the three variants F-35 variants are on average 63% higher than the operating and support costs of the “legacy” aircraft that they are replacing.
- Due to Lockheed Martin’s concurrent approach to procurement and testing, the F-35 program office has predicted retrofit costs over the 10 total annual procurement contracts to amount to $1.7 billion.
Technical problems, schedule delays and cost overruns have resulted in management turmoil:
- In early 2010 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired the JSF Program Manager, Major General David Heinz, and withheld payment of $614 million to Lockheed Martin.
The participation of some allies who are partners in the program is in doubt:
- Italy, suffering from the imposition of severe domestic austerity measures, cancelled 30 of its planned 120 F-35s in early 2012.
- In 2012, Canada dropped its order of F-35s from 80 to 65. Following this reduction, senior Canadian officials acknowledged that they were also reconsidering the remaining purchase after estimates had shown that total life cycle costs would reach around $45 billion.
- More recently in March 2013, the Danish government, which had originally planned on buying 48 F-35s, invited Boeing, Eurofighter and Saab to submit information for possible alternatives.
Large scale order cancellations by either the US or its allies may not radically lower the costs of the program:
- The low cost resulting from the economies of scale achieved through the large number of planes ordered would be negated if orders were to be cancelled in large numbers. Fewer aircraft ordered would share the costs of production over the remaining aircraft which would drive up the price for each F-35 still on order.
- The Pentagon has calculated that a cancellation of 40 aircraft would, for example, result in overall program costs increasing between $1 billion to $4 billion. Later versions of the F-35 are planned to have a capability to deliver nuclear bombs:
- The Pentagon is planning to make Block 4A and Block 4B versions of the F-35A capable of carrying the refurbished B61 mod 12 nuclear gravity bomb by 2022. This would allow the Air Force to retain and forward deploy a dual-capable fighter aircraft, a role currently filled by the F-15E and F-16 in support of NATO commitments.
- In July, the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee zeroed out the $10 million fiscal year 2014 request to assess B61 nuclear bomb integration onto the F-35.
Congressional Action in Fiscal Year 2014:
- In June, the House Armed Services Committee killed an amendment that would have temporarily frozen funding for the F-35.
- In August 2013, the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee placed spending restrictions on the program beginning in fiscal year 2015.
Implementation of sequestration over the rest of the decade would eliminate an additional $450 billion in projected national defense spending. Given the size of the F-35 program it will be extremely difficult to shield it from cuts of this magnitude.
Such cuts will meet stark resistance from a number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. In late 2011 a bi-partisan group of 49 congressmen formed the Congressional Joint Strike Fighter Caucus. This group has received over $1.31 million in campaign funding from Lockheed Martin and many of its members’ constituencies benefit economically from the J-35 program as a result of job creation.
Cuts will also be strongly resisted by some quarters within the Pentagon, who feel that a 5th generation fighter is necessary to maintain US military competitiveness.