[Editor's Note: This editorial ran in the October 1 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.]
In October 2001, when the U.S.awarded 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 thehave 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, 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, and of 2001.
Some portion of that force will have been upgraded with the latest radars, avionics and weapons—at a cost that was not anticipated when the F-35 contract was awarded. But, for the most part, their airframes and engines will date back to the 1980s and 1990s, with all the costs and issues that come with age.
One bold plan might be for President Barack Obama or Republican rival Mitt Romney to commit the Pentagon to competing the purchase of its next 300 fighters. It would shake things up, although it is questionable the Pentagon could stage a meaningful competition between the F-35 with its estimated costs and promised abilities and the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 with known costs and available capabilities. And the value of new tails must be balanced against the impact of reducing F-35 procurement, potentially causing partners to defect, production rates to drop and costs to soar.
But complexity is no excuse for inaction. The Pentagon has begun to act by acknowledging there is a problem and publicly increasing pressure to perform. Step 2, also underway, is to gauge the severity of the problem and come to realistic acquisition and operating cost projections so the U.S. and its partners can decide what they can afford.
There must be a hedge against further problems. The U.S. should keep producing F/A-18s for the Navy, upgrading F-16s for the Air Force and promoting the F-15 and F-16 internationally so a fallback option remains open. Then, the Defense Department must revisit how to evolve tactical aviation through the 2020s and sustain the industrial base to keep competition alive for the next fighter.
The F-35's problems could provide an opportunity to adjust military plans to the new capabilities and realities that have emerged since 2001. Instead of the smooth transition to the fifth-generation fighter force envisioned then, the turbulent, mixed-fleet 2020s could bring a reason to rethink. Some military leaders already say U.S. relies too much on stealth—a technology China is moving rapidly to match. There is nothing to say the U.S. must wait beyond 2030 for the next fighter, or to introduce competition for the F-35.