The New Era of Good F-35 Feelings

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Tom Reynolds / Lockheed

An F-35 in twilight flight.

Part 1 of 5

There has been a lot of good news for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter recently. No longer are top Department of Defense officials covering their bets by casting aspersions at it; they are rallying to its defense, especially on the galvanizing matter of cost, previously described—by them—as unaffordable.

— On April 11, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told Congress the F-35 program is now “on track” and its costs “are coming down.”

— On April 17, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress the aircraft is “good.”

— On April 24 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, F-35 Program Manager Air Force Lieut. General Christopher Bogdan added details, saying “cost continues to come down” as the “Lot 5” buy costs less than the previous one.

— The Navy, previously reputed to be on the verge of backing out of the program, offered an important, if tepid, endorsement: the commander of Naval Air Systems Command, Vice Admiral David Dunaway, characterized the F-35 as basically a done deal, declaring it to be a “fairly mature air vehicle.”

— In some controversial assertions, even the Government Accountability Office described the program in a March report as making “considerable progress” and “now moving in the right direction,” a characterization that Lockheed consultant Loren Thompson celebrated, saying GAO now has “no new advice…on how to manage [the F-35 program] better.”

— The ultimate gesture came on May 23, when the Pentagon released its most recent Selected Acquisition Report (SAR) announcing a $4.5 billion reduction in the total program cost of the F-35: while only a 1.1% reduction from the previous estimate, it clearly sent the message that the F-35 is turning the corner on the central issue of its expense.

Gone are the days when then-secretary of defense Robert Gates put the Marine Corps version of the F-35 “on probation,” or when the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, called the F-35 program “acquisition malpractice.” Joining the new vogue, Kendall has subsequently backed off, saying “I feel much more comfortable” about the F-35.

Throughout the history of the F-35 program, many military-industrial-complex-careerists — especially from F-35 builder Lockheed Martin Corp. and the senior ranks of the military services — have leapt to its defense, only to have been proven full of what the late Army general Norman Schwarzkopf used to call “bovine scatology.” However, there are others, such as the pilots who spoke frankly to Pentagon testers about the characteristics and performance of the aircraft after flying it at Florida‘s Eglin Air Force Base, and the maintenance personnel and factory workers who work on the F-35 and its intricacies every day, who deserve none of the calumny that I and others cast at the airplane (and who sometimes speak to us, albeit privately). None of them is to blame for this fighter fiasco.

The F-35 also appears to be emerging more or less unscathed from the cuts the Defense Department is required to make under the Budget Control Act of 2011. Due to the widely-dreaded sequester, various F-35 accounts would be in line for significant cuts. But Pentagon witnesses at that April 24 Senate hearing made clear that any reductions in the F-35 program will be held to an absolute minimum. Other programs may even be called on to transfer money to it through the reprogramming process.

But dodging budget cuts is not the real check on whether the F-35 is “moving in the right direction.” The real test is two-fold:

1) Are the costs really “coming down?”

2) How does the aircraft perform?

The flight-test program is hardly mature. The plane is only about 40% through its scripted, contract-specification verification (developmental) flight testing. According to the GAO, that will explore only 17% of the F-35’s capabilities.

The more-rigorous battlefield testing (the very first and partial phases of operational test and evaluation) will not start until 2016; when the results of those tests are available in 2019, we will be able to move beyond assurances and use actual data to assess just how well the F-35 actually performs.

The statements by Hagel and Bogdan that F-35 costs are coming down, and the new program cost reduction announced in the Pentagon’s SAR, are the critically-timed firebreaks. Huge and growing costs have been the biggest roadblock to the program’s future, especially on Capitol Hill.

The GAO has said the cost for each F-35 has grown from $81 million in 2001 to $161 million in 2012. That the cost growth has been halted generates new enthusiasm in the Pentagon and at Lockheed, and is sure to dominate the F-35 debate on Capitol Hill.

But the contention that costs are coming down — and that there is solid reason to expect long-term reductions in per-plane spending on the F-35 program — are assessments that can be evaluated today.

We don’t need to wait until 2019 for test results.

We’ll start that process Tuesday.

Part 1: The New Era of Good F-35 Feelings

Part 2: Alphabet Soup: PAUCs, APUCs, URFs, Cost Variances and Other Pricing Dodges

Part 3: The Deadly Empirical Data

Part 4: Different planes, common problems

Part 5: On final approach to fighter fiscal sanity