Release of the latest selected acquisition report on the F-35, and the announcement of initial operational capability dates, is good news for the program.
Good news, in that -- three years after VAdm David Venlet was confirmed as the program's leader, succeeded by Lt Gen Chris Bogdan -- the program has signed up to a firm schedule, at least for an interim capability. As I argued in my January 28 column for AW&ST (subscription required), which exclusively reported that the USAF was likely to accept a watered-down IOC, this was a long overdue development.
It says a lot for the state of the project in 2009-10 that it took two strong leaders, and their hand-picked teams, this long to get to this point.
However, nobody should be allowed to get away with conflating the reduced capabilities delivered with USAF and Marine IOCs with the aircraft originally promised at the end of development, which is now expected to reach IOC with the Navy in 2019. Before the overhaul that started in 2010, those capabilities were due to arrive in 2013-15. Now they are identified as Block 3F and will not be operational until 2019.
There are questions to be answered, too, about how much capability will be delivered in the IOC configuration. The Marines are declaring IOC with Block 2B software and the associated TR-1 central processing hardware. The number of F-35B/TR-1 aircraft is sufficient for one squadron; the question is whether the USMC will form more squadrons with TR-2/3I, which would mean having three standards of aircraft once TR-2/3F is available.
The USAF has to make a similar choice: Whether to devote resources to preparing for operational units with Block 3F or whether to add more 3I-standard units.
As for the usefulness of the 2B/3I aircraft: With two AIM-120s and no AIM-9s (and no gun) its air-to-air capabilities are down to limited self-defense. The two air-to-ground weapons are JDAM and laser-guided bombs, good for fixed targets but not so much for moving objectives. It also lacks the Rover system (invented after the F-35 requirement is written) which is badly needed as an upgrade if the F-35B is to replace the AV-8B as a sea- and short-runway-based close air support asset, organic to the Marine amphibious force.
Primarily, 2B/3I gives you an F-117-type stealthy, fixed target strike capability, plus some in-weather attack and much better situational awareness. On the other hand, it could be argued that simply putting the aircraft in the hands of an operational squadron provides a two-year-plus start in learning lessons about how the aircraft will be used.
Meanwhile, a little-remarked piece of data in the SAR is that the US Navy Dept. (combining Marine and Navy buys) has stretched out its planned orders, reducing its full rate from 50 to 40 aircraft per year. As I pointed out more than a year ago, the JSF plan envisaged spending $13+ billion a year by FY21, and even then it seemed most unlikely that so much money could be found.
The USAF top rate remains ostensibly unchanged -- but is still out of kilter with service testimony to Congress. While the F-35 program of record shows 1050 USAF F-35A deliveries through 2030, the service says that it will have a total of 1900 fighters in that year, and if you add up all the A-10s, F-15s, F-22s and Extreme Makeover F-16s that it expects to have, they come to more than 1100, leaving about 300 fewer JSF slots that the SAR numbers suggest. The USAF has not responded to enquiries about the discrepancy.
However, what may be the most significant number in the SAR is the cost per flight hour -- which has not changed at all compared with the 2011 SAR, although the cost for the F-16C/D has been increased. The Pentagon's cost estimators adopted the Verdun watchword - ils ne passeront pas - in the face of vehement attacks from Lockheed Martin bosses, who accused them of incompetence (as one put it, "they are wrong, even using their own data"). If there are any heroes when the story is finally written, the bean-counters will be among them.