Friday, December 20, 2013

F-35 - A warning for future defense planning

In October, 2013, just two months ago, an F-35 Lightning II completed its first successful ground attack during training at Edwards Air Force Base in California.  The F-35B dropped a Guided Bomb Unit-12 (GBU-12) Paveway II bomb from an internal weapons bay from an altitude of 25,000 feet, destroying a parked tank.  Some, especially those officers in the Marine Corps involved in these trials, hailed this successful test as a step forward in a "vital program."  Undoubtedly, the F-35 is vital, if only because of the other airframes it is to replace are already being pulled from service.  In 2012, the U.S. Air Force alone stood down seven squadrons, five A-10's, one F-16 Aggressor squadron, and one aging F-15C squadron.  The F-35 is slated to fill those roles, as well as the role of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets (excluding the E/F model Super Hornets), and the AV-8B Harrier II's.   While there is no recourse now but to move forward with the program, and attempt to gain as much ground as has been lost, the F-35 program and its history should stand as a warning to future DoD leadership on the value of expectation management, and setting realistic goals.

From Lockheed:

Development began in 2001, and since then has been hit with setback after setback.  Original plans called for a $80 million sticker price per unit and full fielding by 2012.  Over a decade later and the costs have more than doubled, with total program coast at $392 billion, $161 million per plane.  Though the Marine Corps and Navy plan to start operating the F-35 by mid-2015, total deployment is projected to take until 2019.  Part of this problem is in the whole premise of the enterprise.  A single multirole aircraft that can replace several different single role, or single focus, planes is difficult enough to develop, but one that can also serve the needs of twelve U.S. allies, partnered in the Joint Strike Fighter program, is abnormally troublesome.  At one point in its development there were as many as nineteen countries signed on to the project, but many have had to bow out due to budgetary concerns.  Each time a contributing member leaves the project, cost per unit increases.

On December 13, 2003 Lockheed Martin Corp. celebrated the 100th F-35 to be produced.  So far 95 of those have gone to the United States, the other five operated by the British and Netherlands Royal Air Forces, but based out of Florida.  Senior DoD procurement officials have said that they believe the F-35 program has made sufficient progress to increase budgets to accomodate higher production in fiscal year 2015, but they remain concerned about progress on the jet's software, reliability and a computer-based logistics system.  In the September 16, 2013 edition of Vanity Fair, security analyst Adam Ciralsky wrote :

According to the Government Accountability Office (G.A.O.), which is relatively independent, the price tag for each F-35 was supposed to be $81 million when the program began in October 2001. Since that time, the price per plane has basically doubled, to $161 million. Full-rate production of the F-35, which was supposed to start in 2012, will not start until 2019. The Joint Program Office, which oversees the project, disagrees with the G.A.O.’s assessment, arguing that it does not break out the F-35 by variant and does not take into account what they contend is a learning curve that will drive prices down over time. They say a more realistic figure is $120 million a copy, which will go down with each production batch. Critics, like Winslow Wheeler, from the Project on Government Oversight and a longtime G.A.O. official, argue the opposite: “The true cost of the airplane—when you cast aside all the bullshit—is $219 million or more a copy, and that number is likely to go up.”

Senate Armed Forces Committee Hearing Concerning F-35 Program for USN & USMC:

At this point the project has already had twelve years, and billions of dollars pumped into it, and there is no option to scrap it and start over with a less expensive model.  What can be done, however, is develop and implement better cost saving mechanisms and policies for future defense spending.  The cost of developing this aircraft are staggering, and most of it has been on the backs of American tax payers.  This is because the contract signed in 2001 placed most of the risk involved on the government.  Under current contractual obligations, should the developers make a mistake in design or production, because the government assumed the risk, we all as tax payers pay them to make up for the loss, the time involved, and then pay them to fix the problem they created.  There's little incentive to get it right the first time when you can make a mistake and actually get reimbursed more in the end for making the mistake.  For more information concerning the F-35 program costs in development, check out the links below:

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