Over the past couple of months, there has been a revived dynamic in discussions over the Joint Strike Fighter, in the form of Lockheed Martin's renewed willingness to challenge or simply ignore the work of government schedule and cost estimates.
At the company's media day last month, I asked vice-president business development Steve O'Bryan about the statement in the 2011 Selected Acquisition Report that JSF initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) would not be completed before 2019. (The target is February and the threshold is October.) Finishing IOT&E is normally a prerequisite for initial operational capability (IOC) -- for which no target date is currently set for the USAF and Navy.
O'Bryan's response: "It is news to me. That's something for Dr Gilmore's office." (Dr Michael Gilmore is the Pentagon's director of OT&E -- but his brief is not to design OT&E plans but to supervise them. Neither does Gilmore's office write the SAR.) "All I know is where we are, and the plan we have is to finish flight testing on the F-35A in 2016."
Last month's Government Accountability Office report on the F-35A said that "initial dedicated operational testing of a fully integrated and capable JSF is scheduled to begin in 2017." That might suggest a completion date in 2018. But there is still a gap between O'Bryan's statement -- even if it refers to development testing -- and the GAO and SAR predictions.
Lockheed Martin executive vice-president for aeronautics Larry Lawson separately took issue with another statement in the GAO report:
The sustainment affordability target for the Air Force’s CTOL ($35,200 per flight hour) is much higher than the current cost for the F-16 it will replace ($22,500 per flight hour, both expressed in fiscal year 2012 dollars).This is plain wrong, Lawson asserts, attributing the number to the Pentagon's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office. Lawson says that CAPE uses the same input numbers as Lockheed Martin, but that when the company calculates them on a comparable basis the F-35A costs only 12 per cent more to fly than the much smaller F-16. (That's still a 40 percent increase over the 0.8-times-F-16 cost being advertised a few years ago.)
Leave aside, for the moment, the question of which dates and numbers are right. Two simple, factual observations:
First, this program's leaders have a documented history of pooh-poohing the Pentagon critics and insisting that everything is fine -- while the program slipped and the Pentagon's projected bill for development and procurement (in FY2012 dollars) increased, to date, by an average of $40 million per day.
Second, and more importantly, it is an indictment of Pentagon leadership, up to and including defense secretary Leon Panetta, that public disagreement is boiling over like this, because it makes it impossible for anyone -- partner governments, Congress, suppliers -- to make rational decisions. If there is bad data coming out of CAPE and into the SAR, and being passed to Congress, it needs to be corrected. But if the numbers are accurate, then the contractor needs to be offered a nice hot cup of...
So why is the situation persisting? The numbers at issue -- operating costs and IOC dates -- could not be more important. They directly determine whether partner countries with aging fleets and limited operating budgets can sustain minimal fighter force numbers and, indeed, whether the Pentagon itself can support the program as planned.