To some longtime Pentagon insiders and observers, the F-35 joint strike fighter program is on the verge of slipping into an old familiar pattern.
First, unrealistic technical requirements, cost estimates and schedules lead to delays and rising costs. Then, far fewer planes are bought than originally planned. That means the cost of each one rises, resulting in even fewer planes being bought, which produces even higher costs per copy, etc.
The history of weapons programs over the last 50-plus years is replete with examples of what former Air Force officer and civilian Pentagon analyst Chuck Spinney famously dubbed the "death spiral."
Two of those are well known in Fort Worth: the 1960s-era General Dynamics F-111 and, more recently, Lockheed Martin’s F-22. Both planes, because of technical problems, long delays and ever-rising costs, were ultimately built in vastly fewer numbers than originally planned.
In the case of the F-35, the political part of the cost equation is compounded by the fact that key U.S. allies like Britain, the Netherlands and Australia expect to start buying planes within the next three to four years at reasonable prices.
Reports out of Washington indicate that senior Pentagon officials and key members of Congress alike have become much more concerned about Lockheed’s struggle to get airplanes built and tested. So far, only four flight test airplanes have flown, out of 13 that are scheduled.
At the urging of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Senate Armed Service Committee held a closed-door hearing last week to grill Pentagon officials on the F-35 program.
"I came out of the briefing with serious concerns," McCain told Bloomberg News. "There’s already been significant cost overruns. It’s hard for me to believe that all of that has come to a halt."
In internal deliberations that are reportedly going as high as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, senior Pentagon officials are said to be trying to determine just how much additional money will be required just to complete development. One internal study, by the Joint Estimate Team, has predicted it will take an additional 30 months, until 2016, and an additional $16.5 billion to complete development work, test and bring the Lockheed production line up to speed, goals that were to be met in 2013-14.
If that were to occur, the F-35 would trigger congressionally imposed budget reviews that would lead to ever more scrutiny. (end of excerpt)
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