Yesterday, one of the advocates for the F-35, Lockheed's consultant Loren Thompson, wrote about the F-35 at Forbes.com. It will surprise no one that the piece, shown below, accentuates the positive.
Sadly, Forbes didn't have the journalistic wherewithal to print both sides of the story. The material that follows might help to balance out Forbes.com's “oversight.” The content below comes from a military source inside the Pentagon and a civilian outside the Pentagon who were both flabbergasted at the one sided--misleading--nature of the Thompson/Forbes piece.
The F-35 is not as much on schedule as stated
First, testers are not executing the 2012 plan, as planned. They have to "pull" test points from upcoming years because of what testers call "engineering blocks" on the testing they have planned. Nevertheless, DOD is still doing the easy part of the tests: weapons release, high angle of attack, more ship deployments, and more, are yet to come.
Second, a lot of the testing being done is "regression testing:" basically re-testing after you make a change to the configuration--it's mandatory "do over" testing.
What this means is that the aircraft is not ahead of the test schedule. Furthermore, compared to the original test plan, it is way behind, and the current pace is a reduced one that DOD imposed in the recent restructure of the program.
The appropriate questions to the program office might be:
-- Has the testing produced the results needed to move ahead at the expected rate?
-- Is the program proving what it had planned to prove through flight test at this point in time?
-- Third, there are problems in the delivery of aircraft. Lot 3 aircraft are late off the production line--perhaps five to six months late--which also increases their cost.
-- Fourth, the F-35's maintenance system, the Autonomic Logistics Information Support (ALIS), failed some testing, which may affect DOD's ability to accept aircraft, some say. The dilemma for the military services is whether or not to accept the aircraft given that some flight operations cannot be supported or sustained until the ALIS problem is fixed, or at least a reasonable "work around" is created.
Someone might ask the questions:
-- In the first three lots of production, did any aircraft meet the contracted requirements at delivery? What, or how many, variances were accepted? Why were these accepted?
--While some assert the Lot 3 aircraft are being delivered at lower cost, others might want to ask if that is the aircraft "as is", or is further work, and cost, necessary?
-- Fifth, as pointed out by the Senate Armed Services Committee in its new NDAA report, the electronic warfare antenna in the wing’s leading edges has a significant flaw. It and the fix are not yet fully understood, and all jets so far produced may need a fix or a replacement. The latter will be complicated.
Other than that, and everything else you have read about the F-35's problems, everything is fine.
The one-sided Forbes.com piece follows. (ends)
By Loren Thompson, Contributor; I write about national security, especially its business dimensions
If you pay any attention to media coverage of the F-35 fighter program, then you know the Pentagon’s biggest weapons program is “troubled” (to use the favored adjective of reporters). Flight tests are lagging, costs are skyrocketing, and overseas partners are beginning to get cold feet. So the Joint Strike Fighter, as it used to be called, is looking like another black eye for the Pentagon’s fouled up acquisition system, right?
The reality is that for the third straight year flight tests are ahead of schedule, the cost to build each plane is falling fast, and international partners are so enthused that new customers are getting in line for the F-35 on a regular basis (South Korea will be next). So how come you don’t know any of this? The reason you don’t know it is that political appointees have decided they can score points with Congress by attacking their own program, and national media always lead with the most sensational information.
For instance, Pentagon officials recently disclosed that the cost of building and operating the F-35 had risen to $1.5 trillion without mentioning that a third of that total is unprovable estimates of future inflation and two-thirds of supposed increases from the program baseline reflect changes in how costs are calculated rather than real increases. Officials also didn’t mention it would cost two or three times more to stick with the current fleet of fighters, given the cost of maintaining aging aircraft. Most news accounts just cited the trillion-dollar price-tag, preferring to stick with the “troubled program” theme. Easy to write, no thinking required.
There’s another side to this story, and it’s mostly positive. It helps explain why none of the three services receiving the plane is going to cancel its version and why none of the allies who signed on to the program when economies were stronger is now going to back out. F-35 is well on its way to being the most capable, cost-effective tactical aircraft in the history of warfare, and you can see that fact clearly reflected in how the flight-test program is progressing, the production cost is falling, and other countries are jockeying to get the plane.
Let’s start with the flight tests that are steadily verifying all the performance features of the aircraft. The program has surpassed its goals for flight testing in each of the last three years, doing 15 percent better than planned in 2011 and 20 percent better than planned so far in 2012. Collectively, the three versions of the F-35 have now flown well over 2,000 times, accomplishing more than a quarter of the planned tasks in a comprehensive testing regime. By the end of this year, the most common version of the plane the one that will be used by the Air Force and exported to most foreign customers will be 45 percent of the way through all its flight tests.
There has been a lot of talk lately about the dangers of producing F-35s before testing is completed, because if problems are found then planes already built will supposedly require costly fixes. So far, though, the danger seems to be mainly theoretical: Wikipedia says the price-tag for correcting problems uncovered in testing is $1.3 billion, which is less than one-half of one-percent of the production cost for 3,000 domestic and foreign fighters. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Wikipedia? Is this the best source the author can find to prove his point?)
Another concern has been delays in software; however, as of today 95 percent of the plane’s airborne software is either being used in flight tests or being tested in labs. No show-stoppers in sight, either in the hardware or in the software.
Few outsiders realize how smoothly the F-35 flight-test schedule is unfolding, so here are a few milestones of progress thus far this year. On January 18 the Air Force version performed its first night flight. On March 22 it conducted its first night-time refueling mission. On April 21 it completed its first aerial-refueling mission while carrying weapons. The Marine version accomplished the same refueling with weapons on board two week earlier; designed to land on a dime almost anywhere, the Marine variant has performed over 500 short takeoffs and over 300 vertical landings. The flights generally go well, which is why the testing schedule is so far ahead of plan.
The factor that usually trips up new weapons programs is cost, because while nobody in Congress understands how to measure the stealthiness of an F-35, everybody thinks they understand a price-tag. Pentagon leaders have thoroughly confused this issue by making it sound like the cost of F-35 is going up while actually taking huge amounts of money out of the program each year. In 2011 they cut 122 planes and $10 billion from near-term spending plans for the program; in 2012 they cut another 124 planes and $9 billion; and now in 2013 they have proposed cutting 179 planes and $15 billion. Cutting the rate at which F-35s are produced definitely increases the cost of each plane, but during the Obama years the program has become more of a piggy bank than a money pit for Pentagon planners.
Obviously, any money that already has been spent can’t be recovered. However, when you look at the cost going forward to build each new plane, that’s coming down ? and fast. The “unit recurring flyaway” cost for the most common variant of F-35 fell below $150 million each in the third low-rate production lot and will fall below $100 million in the fifth lot currently being negotiated. By the time its gets to the tenth production lot, the recurring flyaway cost of the most common variant will be approaching what legacy F-16 and F/A-18 fighters sell for today. Granted, that’s just what it costs to “drive it off the lot,” and doesn’t include items like training and spare parts. On the other hand, the price-tag on legacy fighters doesn’t include all the equipment they will need in combat (the F-35 price-tag does), and older fighters don’t have the F-35′s stealth.
The F-35 effort was conceived in the Clinton years as a program that would provide next-generation fighters not only for the United States, but for eight other countries. The United Kingdom contributed $2.5 billion to its development, while Italy and the Netherlands each contributed $1 billion. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Turkey each contributed over $100 million. Thus, any sign that these overseas partners are wavering in their commitment is taken as evidence that trouble may lie ahead for the program.
However, support for the program has remained strong despite recent weakening of the global economy. Norway’s defense minister stated in March, “We remain confident that the F-35 represents the best capability for the best value possible.” Australia’s air force chief said last week that the 100 F-35s his nation needs are “still affordable” within a budget range established in 2003. The United Kingdom has shifted the variant it plans to buy while remaining dedicated to the program. Even Italy, the country which faces the direst financial circumstances among the original partners, has said that while it will trim its purchases of the plane, it still intends to build them indigenously for its military.
Meanwhile, Israel, Japan and Singapore have all indicated an interest in purchasing the F-35, while Asian observers say South Korea may soon become its newest customer. International interest is so strong that other countries are likely to buy as many F-35s over the next five years as the U.S. government, and eventually will buy more than the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps programs of record combined. So the F-35 isn’t just going to be the most widely used fighter in the world for the next several decades, it is also going to be one of America’s biggest export items.
All of which proves that you can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper (assuming you still read one). Despite the persistent negativism of F-35 coverage in the national media, the program is progressing steadily. That’s a good thing because none of the U.S. military services and overseas allies participating in the program has a backup plan for maintaining air dominance if it falters. For all the hand-wringing and delays, the F-35 fighter is gradually becoming an American success story. It would be nice to hear somebody in the Pentagon actually say that. (ends)
For a factual look at the F-35 program 10 years on, see:
-- F-35 Reality Check Ten Years On -- Part 1: ‘Fifth-Generation’ and Other Myths
-- F-35 Reality Check Ten Years On, Part 2: The Jobs Mirage and Other Stories