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Another Bar to Tactical Aviation Modernization

One of the most expensive procurements in Pentagon history, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program has recently been estimated to cost just over $299 billion for nearly 2,500 aircraft. This attempt to modernize America’s tactical aircraft inventory is shackled by cost growth and production during and after an insufficient testing period. [1] Some used to call this “concurrency;” “buy before you fly” would also be an accurate description. This program is a good example of historic problems in the weapon acquisition system of today’s Pentagon—problems which no one is doing anything to address.

The F-35 is currently under development and production by Lockheed Martin in cooperation with BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman. Lockheed Martin was selected by DOD on October 26, 2001 after beating out competition from McDonnell Douglas and then Boeing in early design and demonstration phases of the program (1994-2001). The aircraft will be powered by the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine. Designated Lightning II, the F-35 multi-role aircraft design includes three variants. A Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) aircraft is being built for the U.S. Air Force, which is looking to replace or complement F-16, A-10, F-15E, and F-117 aircraft. A Carrier Variant is being built for the U.S. Navy to serve as a “first day-of-the-war” deep-strike stealth bomber. A more complicated Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) version is being built to replace F/A-18C/D and AV-8B aircraft in the U.S. Marine Corps and Harriers in the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy.

JSF is also a multinational acquisition program in partnership with the U.K., Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Australia, Norway, Denmark, and Canada. These program partners and other allied governments, including Israel and Singapore, will have the opportunity to purchase JSF aircraft upon production.

The JSF program evolved out of the Joint Advanced Strike Technology program of the early 1990s to respond to the high cost of tactical aviation. It was asserted that increasing commonality among aircraft for various missions would reduce both acquisition and life cycle costs and would adequately address future threats.

This is not the first time the Air Force promised that new, more complex aircraft would have an affordable procurement cost and an even cheaper cost to maintain and operate than aircraft being replaced. The F-15 was promised to be less expensive to support than the Vietnam era F-4; however, reality proved otherwise, and the F-15 was significantly more expensive to operate. The Air Force promised the F-22 would in turn be 40 percent less expensive to operate than the F-15; information from the Office of the Secretary of Defense indicates it is actually 30 percent more expensive to support. Being significantly more complex than the F-16 it purports to replace, the F-35 is virtually sure to follow this well beaten path.

The same trend marks the F-35’s acquisition cost, which the Department of Defense (DOD) has failed to control. Compared to early cost estimates of $35 million per copy, DOD currently predicts the development and production of 2,458 F-35 aircraft for $299 billion. Each F-35 would cost $122 million. For this reason, the F-35 can already be said to have failed to achieve its primary objective: low cost. Furthermore, the current cost estimate assumes no further cost overruns from the current immature state of the aircraft. We can expect even more cost growth, which is already about three times the original promise. We can also expect more shrinkage in the total number DOD plans to buy; which is, after all, a typical way DOD manages cost growth.

In addition, the F-35 is in danger of inadequately fulfilling the needs of the military services by attempting to satisfy them all with a common “multi-role” aircraft design. Like many of its multi-role predecessor aircraft, the F-35 may well turn out to be a “jack of all trades but a master of none.” Performance compromises in specialized roles are already quite obvious in the close air support (CAS) mission where the F-35 purports to replace the A-10. As a fighter-bomber design, the F-35 is inherently too fast to find targets on the ground independently (that is, without being cued directly to the intended target with external assistance), too limited in range, duration, and weapons payload to persist in the air over ground combat areas, and too thin skinned and delicate to survive tactical air defenses typical on the conventional battlefield. The absence of a more serious air to ground cannon, such as the A-10’s GAU-8, even further limits the F-35 in the close air support role.

Similarly, F-35 performance in comparison to existing aircraft in other fighter or bomber roles will remain fundamentally unknown unless and until there are serious side by side flight test comparisons in specific mission tasks with existing aircraft such as the F-117, F-15E, F-16 and F-18. Such specific side by side tests are, however, not included in the inadequate F-35 test plan. Just as in the case of the A-10’s specific mission, there may well be too many negative trade offs to achieve the multi-role design of the F-35 to make it an effective, let alone affordable, replacement for existing aircraft in the missions now addressed by the F-16 and other aircraft. Only large amounts of rigorous testing and honest reporting will tell, but we may never know until it is very much too late.

Actual performance of the F-35 is currently unknown, and it will remain so for a long time to come. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are now rushing to pay for production units before they know just what it is they are going to get for their money. Initial operational testing is expected to run through 2013, at which point a planned 275 production aircraft will have already been delivered to DOD. This is an even worse degree of concurrency than the F-22, which evidenced multiple performance compromises, even structural problems, deep into its acquisition. However, the F-22 had many more hours of developmental test flying under its belt when the first aircraft were delivered to the Air Force than will be the case for the F-35. In fact, data now being generated on F-35 performance are not even being provided by a production representative aircraft, which has not yet been delivered. This plan to acquire significant numbers of production aircraft well before the completion of operational testing has been the subject of significant criticism by various parties, most prominently the Government Accountability Office (GAO).[2] And, according to recent media reports, the test phase may be truncated even further by reducing yet again the number of test flight aircraft and the number of hours they will fly.

Congress rejected DOD’s requests in FY2007 and FY2008 to cancel funding for a second F136 Alternate Engine produced by General Electric, adding $340 million in the FY2007 budget and $480 million in FY2008 defense bills to continue the Alternate Engine program. While some discount as “pork” the efforts in Congress to continue this second engine program, it is also notable that the history of engine development for the F-14, F-15, and F-16 shows an advantage to having a competing design available.

It may be that for some, perhaps all, missions, the JSF is a significant performance step backwards, but one that comes at great cost. As a result, the JSF program may be more a threat to the U.S. military’s efforts to modernize its tactical aviation capabilities than a solution. Whatever value the JSF program might have is that of a technology demonstrator, for which production of more than a very small number of test samples is unnecessary. If the program can demonstrate significant performance advantages over existing designs, at anything even approximating its yet-to-be determined but substantially higher costs, there may then emerge a reason to proceed. The absence of any known major counter-air fighter threat from a competing air force means that there is certainly no need to rush into buying a “pig in a poke.”

The F-35 is a classic case of the longstanding problems in our weapons procurement system. Unrealistic promises for cost, performance, and maintainability are made; no one in DOD or Congress performs real oversight of the “buy-in” assertions, and a material and political commitment is made to the program. Once the latter is accomplished, the real acquisition costs and performance compromises inevitably become manifest, at which point a rational decision is opposed by the politicians in the Pentagon and Congress because the entire camel is already in the tent.

Elise Szabo is a Research Assistant for CDI’s Straus Military Reform Project. She received a bachelor’s degree in international relation from Saint Joseph’s University in May 2007.

Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. Previously, he worked on Capitol Hill for senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office.

[1] For a prediction of what has come to pass since 2000, see Franklin. C. Spinney, Jr., “The JSF: One More Card In The House,” US Naval Institute Proceedings, August, 2000,

[2] “Joint Strike Fighter: DOD Plans to Enter Production before Testing Demonstrates Acceptable Performance,” Government Accountability Office, March 2006,