It's been another terrible year for the F-35 program considering the plane's poor availability, inadequate performance, lagging development, increasing costs to foreign buyers and the bogus bragging about combat capable planes which aren't. All of this resulted in the project not being able to finalize a limited production contract in FY2015, ending September 30.
1. Lt. General Christopher Bogdan, the project executive officer, appeared before Congress on October 21 and testified that the current F-35 configuration has a limited capability, that critical parts shortages were still delaying production and that the plane has only fifty-five percent availability. A capable aircraft after fourteen years of development? Bogdan testified that the software on this "flying computer" is limited. Bogdan: "The capabilities delivered in Blocks 2B/3i are indeed limited – that was how the program was designed."
Actually the program was designed to field aircraft with Block 3F software, according to the Selected Acquisition Report (SAR), but Block 3F is three years behind schedule and far in the future. So forget capable aircraft any time soon, only "limited" exists.
2. The F-35 has a poorly-designed unreliable engine, the largest, hottest and heaviest engine ever put in a fighter plane. The project recognized the engine's limitations in 2012 by announcing an intention to change performance specifications for the F-35A, reducing turn performance from 6.0g to 4.6 sustained g's [Sopwith Camel territory] and extending the time for acceleration from 0.8 Mach to 1.2 Mach by 23 seconds. The engine's many problems include failures in 2009, poor assembly in 2011, two groundings in 2013 and a redesign announced in early 2014. Then came a catastrophic failure in June 2014 which brought promises of another redesign to reduce internal rubbing inside the excessively flexing engine, however this has not been done.
According to Bogdan's congressional testimony in October the interim work-around, trenching the stator, will be the long-term solution. But the engine still suffers from reliability and quality problems as reported in 2015 by GAO and DODIG.
The GAO cited the need to make design changes to the engines because reliability is "very poor (less than half of what it should be)." There has been no redesign. And the engine is expensive. Total engine manufacturing and support contracts for lot 8 to date are $24m each, with on-site maintenance costs at nearly $4m per engine.
Click here for detailed coverage of engine problems
3. While Bogdan had announced a year ago that he would seek a block buy in 2015, to start in 2017, now the plan is to delay the multi-year procurement until 2018.
Meanwhile Lockheed is embarked upon a $1.2 billion expansion of its Ft. Worth plant for a "ramp-up" tripling production that can't occur any time soon. There has also been a delay in the award of the basic low rate initial production LRIP-9 contract, funded by the FY2015 budget, the fiscal year that ended three months ago. It's late again, like last year. Another failure.
The plan was to have only six low rate production lots, but apparently now it's fourteen lots or more. Is anything not delayed? Yes, the rosy Lockheed PR news releases and news "exclusives" are always on time.
4. Regarding the the block buy "ramp-up," there are more problems. If the law is followed, there can be no U.S. involvement in a multi-year (block) buy prior to Milestone C production decision, when the plane's design is deemed acceptable. According to Title 10 U.S. Code § 2306b, multiyear contracts require "That there is a stable design for the property to be acquired and that the technical risks associated with such property are not excessive." In other words, fly before buy. So a U.S. multi-year block buy is not possible on F-35 until development is complete, including development and operational testing, April 2019 according to the project's SAR.
Until then the design is not stable, as General Bogdan has stated: "So when we have those 493 airplanes out in the field in 2019, guess how many will be in what I consider to be the right configuration? Not a one."
5. So if the law is followed this means that the 2018-2020 block buy plan for 465 aircraft (delayed from 2017-2019) would only include foreign buyers. Good luck on that. Ten foreign countries have procured only 30 aircraft through the first eight low rate production lots. There is no chance of them buying 465 useless prototype aircraft in three lots, especially when the plane's unit cost is increasing for most foreign customers due to seriously worsening exchange rates. For some countries, this means a probable forty percent cost increase in an already expensive plane.
6. Regarding cost, LRIP-8 unit costs based upon contract awards to date (with more to come) are F-35A $120m and F-35B/C $151m, costs that are double what was promised and double what their rivals cost. And to these increasing initial costs must be added the unknown cost of retrofit to the final configuration. Bogdan again: "Every airplane coming off the line now and coming off in the next two and a half years, plus all the airplanes we've built already, will need some form of modification to get them up to the full capability that we promised the war fighter." Asked why the production line simply can't convert to the new standard, General Harrigan, the USAF F-35 coordinator, said, "We like to think it's easy [but] it's hard" to make those changes. "You have to have the parts and then ... figure out a way to do it." Also there are many other costs as F-35 deployment requires a special hangar, training simulators, spares including for the unreliable engines, logistical support, etc.
7. With all those problems is there any chance of a block buy? It was first proposed in 2007 (as "Lightning Strike") and never done, and chances are slim that there will be a block buy prior to the F-35 Milestone C full rate production decision, currently scheduled for April 2019. That's a major, but well deserved, hit on the program. The basic problem is that it's wrong to buy more planes than needed for testing during development. USAF Secretary James said: "People believed we could go faster, cheaper, better" by designing and building the F-35 concurrently, "and that the degree of concurrency would work. Indeed it has not worked as well as we had hoped and that's probably the understatement of the day." As James indicates, the program has been slower, more expensive and worse than what people were told as a result of building planes during development. Don't do it!
8. Meanwhile the planes reported to be combat capable by the Marines and Air Force, but which have no proven capabilities according to the SAR, continue to sit on the tarmacs (and their combat capable units in their barracks) at Yuma MAS and Hill AFB while all other US and coalition fighter types have been deployed into combat in the Middle East. The F-35s are not really combat capable as claimed by people who should know better. The Marines in July declared that their F-35s "is capable of conducting close air support, offensive and defensive counter air, air interdiction, assault support escort and armed reconnaissance as part of a Marine Air Ground Task Force, or in support of the joint force."
The Air Force last Fall determined that their F-35s are combat-coded, which is "aircraft assigned to meet the primary aircraft authorization to a unit for the performance of its wartime mission." Alas, none of the F-35s are fit for combat, but that's to be expected of developmental prototypes. Combat capable F-35 aircraft? No way, José, not anytime soon, and the operational test and evaluation won't even start for two years.
The F-35 development program is way off track and is taking foooreeeveeer. So why produce more useless prototypes? There are currently enough for some air show appearances and photo sessions.