With both the House of Representatives and the Senate Armed Services committees in the process of producing their annual legislation authorizing Pentagon spending, the fate of a number of high profile weapons programs are being carefully weighed. One such is the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which is under development for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines, as well as Britain's Royal Air Force and Navy.
Current plans call for the production of more than 3,000 aircraft, the first of which are to be delivered in 2008. At a total estimated cost of nearly $220 billion, the JSF is the single largest weapons program ever. A selection of which of the two competing defense contractors -- Boeing and Lockheed Martin -- will be prime contractor on the program is scheduled for April, 2001. At this time the program will go from the current concept demonstration phase, where aircraft designs are developed, to the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase, where the aircraft is fully developed, engineered, constructed and tested to determine whether production models of the aircraft will meet the military's performance requirements.
A report released this week by the General Accounting Office (GAO) recommends that the decision to begin the EMD phase be delayed so that technologies critical to the success of the JSF have sufficient time to mature and can be incorporated in to the aircraft as part of the EMD phase. This report is the final version of a draft study presented to Congress in March. According to the report, "Should any of these technologies be delayed, or worse still, not be available for incorporation into the final joint Strike Fighter design, the impact on the program would be dramatic ...DoD could expect an increase of several billions of dollars" in the JSF program.
Concerned about GAO's recommendations, as well as by the delays that have occurred in both Boeing's and Lockheed Martin's development programs over the last year, Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy De Leon commissioned a study within the Pentagon to determine the impact of a delay of the JSF program. According to news sources, the study indicates that delays in JSF development would likely have a major impact on the tactical aircraft programs of the three U.S. services, all of which have incorporated into their long term planning the replacement of aging aircraft currently in their inventories by the JSF. As the older aircraft move closer to the end of their usable service lives, they become increasingly costly to operate and maintain. Delays in deploying the JSF would require the services to buy additional numbers of current aircraft to bridge the gap between the retirement of the existing fleet and the introduction of the JSF.
Both these reports have become public at a critical time in the annual budget process, as both the House and Senate are moving quickly on their respective Pentagon spending bills. Last week, the Senate Armed Services' Airland Subcommittee recommended that the JSF program be delayed six months to allow critical technologies additional time to develop. After meeting with Defense Secretary William Cohen, the full Senate committee decided not to delay the program, but cut $595 million from the EMD phase and adding $424 million to the current Demonstration and Validation phase in order, as the Committee's press release put it, to "strengthen" the program.