Indeed, the F-35 fighter program appears to be in a rough spot if you’re searching the headlines, with skyrocketing costs for production, flight tests behind schedule and even reports that project partners across the globe are getting a little shy. But, is this the whole story?
In fact, it’s not even partially accurate. About flight tests—they are ahead of schedule and have been for three years running strong. Costs for building an F-35 are decreasing while global partners are seeing a marked increase in customers, including South Korea, said to be next in line, making them quite pleased.
Not even the weakened global economy has deterred support for the program. This past March, Norway’s defense minister said, “We remain confident that the F-35 represents the best capability for the best value possible.” And, just last week, Australia’s air force chief reported that the 100 F-35s his nation needs are “still affordable” within a budget range established in 2003.
As for the United Kingdom, it has shifted the variant it plans to buy while remaining dedicated to the program. Even Italy, which is struggling with extreme financial difficulties, has said that it intends to scale back on its purchases of the plane, it still intends to build them indigenously for its military.
Other key international players are looking forward to getting in on the market. Countries such as Israel, Japan and Singapore have an interest in purchasing the F-35, and Asian sources indicate that South Korea may be the next consumer. It is anticipated that international interest is so strong that other countries are likely to buy as many F-35s over the next five years as the U.S. government, possibly even purchasing more than the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps combined.
The short and true story about the F-35 is that it is far from a “troubled” program. Its trajectory into the global economic orbit is that soon it will not only be the most widely used fighter in the world for decades to come, it also will be ranked as one of America’s biggest export items.
But, it isn’t just sales that are taking the F-35 to great heights—there is data to back up the overall success of the aircraft. The F-35 may soon be regarded as the most capable, cost-effective tactical aircraft in the history of warfare. This claim is backed up by the progress of the flight-test program, falling production costs, and as mentioned previously, many other countries have high interest in acquiring these planes.
The flight tests are steadily verifying all the performance features of the aircraft, surpassing its goals for flight testing over the last three years by doing 15 percent better than planned in 2011 and 20 percent better than planned so far in 2012. The three versions of the F-35 have now flown more than 2,000 times, collectively. By year’s end, the most widely distributed version of the plane will have completed 45 percent of all its flight tests.
Chatter about costly fixes that may be required if F-35s are built prior to full testing, suggesting that costly fixes may be required once a need is discovered in the testing process. But, that concern doesn’t seem valid. Wikipedia reports that the price-tag for correcting problems uncovered in testing is $1.3 billion, which is less than one-half of one-percent of the production cost for 3,000 domestic and foreign fighters. Another concern has been delays in software; however, as of today 95 percent of the plane’s airborne software is either being used in flight tests or being tested in labs. So, hardware and software appear to be working for the program and not much against it.
As for the flight-test schedule being behind—that’s quite untrue. Here are a few facts:
- On January 18 the Air Force version performed its first night flight;
- On March 22 it conducted its first night-time refueling mission;
- On April 21 it completed its first aerial-refueling mission while carrying weapons;
- The Marine version accomplished the same refueling with weapons on board two week earlier; designed to land on a dime almost anywhere, the Marine variant has performed over 500 short takeoffs and over 300 vertical landings.
And now about those production costs—Pentagon leaders have an uncanny ability to confuse a budget so that when all is said and done, it’s nearly impossible for anyone but a Pentagon leader to understand what it really means. For instance, Pentagon officials recently disclosed that the cost of building and operating the F-35 had risen to $1.5 trillion. They released this estimate without mentioning that a third of that total is unproven estimate projections of future inflation and two-thirds of supposed increases from the program baseline. Mostly these numbers reflect changes in how costs are calculated rather than real increases. Officials also didn’t mention it would cost two or three times more to stick with the current fleet of fighters, given the cost of maintaining aging aircraft.
So, here are a few facts on costs:
- In 2011 they cut 122 planes and $10 billion from near-term spending plans for the program;
- In 2012 they cut another 124 planes and $9 billion;
- And in 2013 they have proposed cutting 179 planes and $15 billion.
Cutting the rate at which F-35s are produced does increase the cost of each plane, but during the Obama years the program has become more of a piggy bank than a money pit for Pentagon planners.
When you look at the costs to build each new plane, it is sharply decreasing. The “unit recurring flyaway” cost for the most common variant of F-35 fell below $150 million each in the third low-rate production lot and will fall below $100 million in the fifth lot currently being negotiated. By the time its gets to the tenth production lot, the recurring flyaway cost of the most common variant will be approaching what legacy F-16 and F/A-18 fighters sell for today.
As a means of comparison, the price-tag on legacy fighters doesn’t include all the equipment they will need in combat (the F-35 price-tag does), and older fighters don’t have the F-35′s stealth—a value that is immeasurable in combat.
So despite all of the tales of fear and failure, the F-35 fighter program, the Pentagon’s biggest weapons program, is transforming into a real American success story. This is one of the Pentagon’s best kept secrets, and now you know.