By Loren M. Thompson, Ph. D.
Jason Sherman of Inside Defense broke a major story on December 9 concerning likely changes to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. The story said that pursuant to recent budget deliberations, development may be delayed by "at least a year," the number of planes produced across the 2011-2015 spending period could decline by a hundred, and billions of additional dollars may be required.
Sherman's interpretation of these potential developments follows his past practice of reflecting the views of the Pentagon program evaluators who leaked the story to him: "This...amounts to a repudiation of the cost estimate advanced by the Joint Strike Fighter program office and prime contractor Lockheed Martin and sets the Pentagon's costliest acquisition program on course to immediately breach so-called ‘critical’ Nunn-McCurdy cost-growth thresholds."
Well, maybe. The reason the same sources keep leaking to Sherman is because they know he'll tell the story the way they want it to appear in the Pentagon's in-house clipping service.
But F-35 isn't in anywhere near the trouble that Sherman's story implies, because it is strongly supported by senior defense officials and there are no viable alternatives. When the smoke clears, it will become apparent that senior officials have not sided with program evaluators in accepting the most pessimistic cost projections for the program, they have not cut the maximum rate at which the planes will be produced, and they are still expecting the program to unfold more or less as planned.
For instance, Sherman's prediction of a one-year program delay is a good deal less than the worrisome projection of a 30-month lag in the report of the Joint Estimating Team recently sponsored by the program evaluation shop. What's really going on is that Pentagon acquisition czar Ashton Carter has opted to minimize risk by conducting virtually every test recommended by the developmental test community before the plane enters serial production (the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation recommended a 12-month extension of testing in 2008).
That means money will move out of production and into development in the near term, but the consequences for warfighters and contractors will be modest at worst.
With risks minimized, there will be less likelihood of surprises as production ramps up, so planes will flow into the operational force at a smooth rate, and the production base will operate more efficiently. That could mean lower unit costs over the long run, but in the near term conducting more tests will obviously drive costs up.
Perhaps the key fact to keep in mind here, though, as Secretary Gates said in a visit to the F-35 plant at Fort Worth in August, is that there are no show-stoppers. The initial variants of the planes are making steady progress, and there is little reason to think that contemplated changes in the program acquisition plan signal doubts about its ultimate success.