Are there alternatives to keep U.S. strike aviation viable if the F-35 program is delayed, reduced or killed by the budget sequestration?

The initial options available to Pentagon leaders, should the Joint Strike Fighter prove unaffordable, range from outright termination of the program to the deletion or delay of either or both the Navy’s F-35C or the Marines’ F-35B. Terminating the Air Force’s F-35A would kill the program, but it could be delayed, or full-rate production for the USAF could be cut back from the current goal of 80 aircraft a year.

“There is no alternative” and “There is no Plan B,” JSF advocates have repeatedly said in reaction to any plans to trim the colossal project. However, the threat of sequestration, the reality of fiscal crisis and the certainty of cuts to planned budgets are emerging at a point where the program and Pentagon leadership have yet to produce firm guarantees about the JSF’s future in terms of initial operational capability dates, procurement and support costs.

But there also are U.S. and international groups working on plans to sustain other in-production fighters like the F-15, F-16, F/A-18 and European products through mid-century to minimize the predicted fighter shortage. Supplementing those less stealthy designs will be unmanned strike designs, standoff weapons, electronic attack devices and signature reduction packages.

Nonetheless, vastly complicating the F-35 issue is the role of international partners. Individually, none of the eight partner nations is expected to take even 5% of the planned production run. But they need aircraft early, with the result that – under the current program of record – the collective partner buy in the low rate initial production (LRIP) phase is comparable in size to that of the USAF.

If the partners respond to delays and cost increases by sliding their own purchases to the right, or by leaving the program altogether, that will reduce production rates and increase unit costs during the LRIP phase, which is designed around a steep ramp-up from a few dozen aircraft annually to more than 200 by the fiscal 2016 buy year.

High production rates (several times higher than any other fighter today) and large numbers have always been the foundation for the JSF’s economics, both in terms of procurement and support costs. Major investments have been made in assembly, test and completion facilities, and a complex supply chain involving many small and medium enterprises has been established, premised on large volumes of work. The result is a system that may not be well optimized for the production rates seen in other fighter programs.

Close to two years after then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired program office director Maj. Gen. David Heinz, the JSF effort was declared in critical breach of Nunn-McCurdy limits, and there is no final estimate of delays and overruns, since so far none of the customer services has been able to establish a firm date for initial operational capability.

The project does not even have Milestone B approval (a legal requirement for systems development and demonstration and low-rate initial production.) The original MS-B was issued in 2001 and rescinded last year as a consequence of the Nunn-McCurdy breach.

The Defense Acquisition Board is charged with re-establishing MS-B and was expected to do so in May, but it was kicked back to fall and still has not happened. Part of DAB’s job is also to resolve disparities between estimates of procurement and operating costs from the contractors, the program office, and independent reviewers such as Navair and the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office.