by Laicie Heeley [contact information]
Mounting Problems Plague the F-35
March 3, 2010
On March 2, U.S. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley announced a probable cost overrun and major delay in the tri-service, nine-nation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Under the Nunn-McCurdy statute, this would trigger an extensive, mandatory review of alternatives.
The outcome of any upcoming review, however, appears to already be determined. “This is a fifth-generation fighter/attack capability,” Donley told reporters, “There are no alternatives to that in our system. Yes, you can build the 4.5 generation, enhanced capability F-15 kind of capability. But, really there are no good alternatives to F-35 at this point. This is a program to which we are deeply committed.”
The Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 budget bases its revised program strategy for the F-35 on the Joint Estimating Team II report (JET II), prepared last fall. Based on this analysis, the Pentagon chose to extend development by 13 months, reduce production by 122 aircraft and add an additional low-rate initial production lot, LRIP 9, to the program. It also adds a single carrier variant to the development program and pulls three LRIP aircraft into developmental testing to add to the 19 flight test assets already in the program.
Overall, the FY 2011 budget request contains $11.4 billion for the F-35, including $8.7 billion in procurement funding, $2.3 billion for continued research and development and $535 million for spare parts.
Since the budget was announced in February, however, problems with the F-35 have continued to mount.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced last month that at least one senior manager would be fired from the program and $614 million in performance bonuses would be withheld from its main contractor, Lockheed Martin. At the time, Gates cited his concerns, but also noted that, “… there are no insurmountable problems, technological or otherwise, with the F-35… We are in a position to move forward with this program in a realistic way.”
Since that time, monthly reports from the Defense Contract Management Agency have come to light, detailing long delays, cost overruns and the “cannibalizing” of parts from fuselages being built by Northrop Grumman to repair aircraft on the assembly line and in preflight testing.
Though the jets were originally expected to be available to the Air Force in 2013, Donley told reporters Tuesday that the planes would probably not be ready until 2015. The Pentagon declined to say whether there might also be delays in the F-35 program for the Marine Corp and Navy, though both branches have expressed their optimism.
Still, Donley appears hopeful that Lockheed will be able to produce some aircraft below prices cited by independent estimates. This could allow the Pentagon to buy more aircraft per year than planned, but Donley declined to say how many aircraft could be bought above the planned numbers.
In a Feb. 24 acquisition decision memorandum (ADM) on the F-35, Ashton Carter states that the Pentagon is making preparations to buy long-lead items for 48 aircraft in FY 2011, five above the official request.
As for continued delays, Donley noted that the Air Force was considering funding a service life extension program for the Lockheed F-16 fighter planes, given the expected delays in fielding of the F-35, but stated that it was not yet clear if any funding for such a program would be added to the fiscal 2011 budget or later budget years.
Laicie Heeley is Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where her work focuses on weapons proliferation, military spending and global security issues.