When the Obama Administration announced plans to cap F-22 production last year, they suggested that a smaller Raptor fleet would mean more money for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the stealthy, multi-role aircraft that will replace thousands of older jets in the U.S. inventory, and those of various allied nations.
With the JSF program moving from the development phase to early series production, the move made fiscal sense, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He described the F-22 as something of a Cold War relic, a technical marvel designed to counter threats that never materialized. On the other hand, Gates argued, there was a pressing need to replace aging F-16s, A-10s, F/A-18s (and other aircraft) with the more capable JSF.
But critics noted that Dr. Gates' actions on the F-35 didn't exactly match his rhetoric. In an interview for our Examiner.com column last spring, airpower analyst Rebecca Grant observed that Gates did not accelerate the pace of the JSF program (despite its stated importance), and left open the possibility of cuts under the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).
Since then, the Joint Strike Fighter has taken more lumps, raising more questions about its delivery timetable, and the number that will actually be produced. Costs for late-stage development and production have soared, prompting Dr. Gates to fire the DoD program manager (a Marine Corps Major General) earlier this year.
And earlier today, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley confirmed that the F-35 program will be delayed by at least two years and "significantly over cost." Mr. Donley didn't put a dollar figure on the overruns, but said "it is probable there will be a Nunn-McGurdy breach."
Named for its Congressional sponsors, the Nunn-McGurdy act mandates an extensive review of the program, the reasons behind the overruns and potential alternatives to the weapons system. In conversations with Aviation Week (and other news outlets), Donley and other senior DoD officials have emphasized that there is "no alternative" to the JSF, which combines speed and stealth in a multiple versions that will be used by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, the Marine Corps, along with the air and naval forces of nine allied nations.
Donley also reports that steps are being taken to "shore up" the program, in anticipation of the fiscal breach. But the F-35's problems mean that development of the aircraft will be extended, pushing back delivery dates for the first operational models.
Donley attributes much of the delay to airframe availability, which is under the purview of Lockheed Martin. The Air Force last week announced a slip of initial operational capability (IOC) for its conventional-takeoff-and-landing F-35 from 2013 to late calendar year 2015, and Navy officials are assessing the impact to their planned IOC in 2014.
The Pentagon is in the midst of negotiating LRIP (Low Rate Initial Production) Lot 4 with Lockheed Martin, and Donley appears hopeful that the contractor can produce the aircraft below prices cited by independent estimates. This could allow the Defense Dept. to buy more aircraft per year than planned; the Fiscal 2011 spending plan sliced 122 aircraft from the next five years to allow for $2.8 billion be added into the development program. Donley declined to say how many aircraft could be bought above the planned numbers using this “buy-to-budget” strategy.
While JSF will assuredly survive its current problems, the Pentagon hasn't determine the final size of the aircraft "buy." Last year, Dr. Gates indicated that the U.S. would purchase 2,443 F-35s, equipping Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps squadrons for the next 30 years. But cost overruns (and other problems) may reduce that total. There is also the possibility that some of the foreign partners might back out of the program, further decreasing the number of F-35s, and driving up production costs.
How important is the price factor? Consider this: originally, the JSF was supposed to be four times more effective than fourth-generation fighters (F-15, F-16, Typhoon, SU-27/35 Flanker) in air-to-air combat, and eight times better in air-to-ground roles, at 75% of the price of an F-22 ($80 million versus $120 million). But now there are growing concerns about the ability of Lockheed Martin and its sub-contractors to meet that goal. In fact, some export versions may break the $100 million/unit barrier, one reason that some U.S. allies (notably Australia) have asked about buying Raptors instead of the F-35, which has been nicknamed the Lightning II.
As for alternatives, we highlighted this possibility almost a year ago. Facing a massive federal budget deficit (and a troubled F-35 program), the Obama Administration could adopt an "alternate" procurement strategy developed by the Congressional Budget Office. That plan calls for cutting the Air Force's JSF buy in half, and limiting the Marine Corps purchases to the number of aircraft required to replace the AV-8B Harriers still in service.
During a visit to the F-35 production facility in Fort Worth last fall, Robert Gates described the aircraft as "the heart of future tactical combat aviation." But with the program behind schedule and way over budget, the "heart" may be much smaller than originally envisioned.
Making matters worse, the F-35 is also expected to fill the gap created by capping F-22 production at less than 200 aircraft. The magnitude of that blunder will be even more evident in the years to come. The JSF is a marvelous piece of technology, but it is no substitute for the Raptor, no matter how Robert Gates tries to spin it. And, if the military, contractors and Congress can't get a handle on the program's problems, there may be even fewer F-35s to fill that gap.