Thirteen seems to be a lucky number for the F-35 fighter, according to Loren Thompson in Forbes.
After a dozen years of struggling to make the program meet government expectations, 2013 was the year everything came together for contractor Lockheed Martin.
Lockheed Martin addressed technical risks, and flight-testing progressed at adequate levels. The cost of each fighter dropped. New management teams built a strong working relationship with government customers.
When marking the history of the Pentagon’s biggest weapon program, 2013 will be seen as a turning point, Thompson writes. It was the year the effort certainly took off, and the F-35 program became “unstoppable.”
Success of the F-35 has tremendous consequences for both America and its allies. The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps are each looking to the F-35 to maintain a majority of tactical air power through the next few decades.
The military will buy more than 2,400 units for reconnaissance, to destroy targets with precision, and secure enemy airspace. Success of the entire future U.S. military operations depend on the readiness of the F-35, Thompson says. The same is true for allies.
Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Israel, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, Turkey and the United Kingdom are all awaiting the F-35 as the next-generation fighter in their arsenals.
Different F-35s, different challenges
Political headwinds faced the F-35 for much of its history. As a replacement for the Cold War fighter fleet, the program needed to build three distinctly different variants for each branch of the U.S. military service purchasing the F-35, yet keep them sufficiently similar to keep economies of scale in development, production, and operation.
For example, the Marine F-35 must take off and land vertically while Navy form must endure the stress of a catapult launch and pitching carrier deck landing. The Air Force version of the F-35 needed flexibility to meet the requirements of overseas allies.
The resulting “fifth-generation” fighters would be affordable, rugged, with the versatility, situational awareness, maintainability and potential for integration with the remaining joint effort.
Affordability of the F-35 is essential if it will dominate the tactical-aircraft global market, as did Lockheed Martin’s F-16. If F-35’s are to meet expectations for the rest of the decade, the Air Force version of the fighter must cost a customer no more (adjusted for inflation) than a current F-16. That is for a superior product compared to the excellent F-16 in not only air-to-air and air-to-ground, but also reconnaissance missions.
For all the elements to come together, as well as development of advanced training and upkeep systems would be the biggest challenge in military innovation history, and with a price-tag to match, says Thompson.
Faltering in the years after receiving the development agreement on October 26, 2001, would have Lockheed Martin’s prospects suffer for a generation, not to mention the ripple effect for sub-contractors like electronic supplier Northrop Grumman, and engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney of United Technologies.
At the end of 2013, it seems that Lockheed had succeeded in several areas, Thompson says:
Rigorous testing proved to be the metric by which the F-35 meets performance objectives, as three variants of the plane will be subject to more than 8,000 flight tests.
The program exceeded 10,000 hours of flight-testing in less than a year, conducting more tests than in the last six years combined; more than half completed with no major problems. The test flight schedule eliminated some of the fears that the F-35 would go into production without sufficient testing. The Marine version experienced 500 vertical landings, proving its capability in taking off safely in locations without available airstrips.
Production of the F-35 is ramping up slowly — 11 planes delivered in 2011, 30 for 2012 and 36 for 2013. All three military branches are now using functional versions of the F-35 at training bases. Many deliveries of initial orders to allies have already taken place and are in operation in the United Kingdom and The Netherlands.
The hundredth plane rolled out of the F-35 assembly plant in Fort Worth December 19. Lockheed Martin officials expect rollout of the first European F-35’s from the Italian assembly facility next year.
In that first batch of F-35’s, there were 44 Air Force variants, 42 Marine variants, 14 Navy variants and 5 for allies.
Cost is essential in having the joint force acquire all the F-35s they need, as well as keeping overseas allies satisfied.
The fighter’s “unit recurring flyaway cost” – an incremental cost associated with producing each additional unit — has declined with each of the seven production runs, bringing it down to half of the cost of the first lot.
The industry now produces F-35 airframes and engines at prices below government estimates. As the government begins shrinking projections of operational costs for all 2,443 F-35s over a 50-year life cycle, sustainment costs drop from $1.1 trillion in “then-year” dollars down to $857 billion.
The relationship between Lockheed Martin and government administrators of the F-35 program have improved in 2013, as a result of a new management team and the smooth flight-testing progress.
Both reducing risk and the price was already well under way prior to Lorraine Martin becoming program director and the March selection of Orlando Carvalho as head of the aeronautics unit, the relationship advanced significantly on their watch (some insiders give credit for the shift to a customer-friendly approach to Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson).
Through a global recession, the F-35 program—originally a joint development between three U.S. military services and allies overseas — not one of the participants backed out of the program. In fact, even Israel and Japan have joined.
South Korea became the latest partner to order F-35s, admiring its stealthy design and other survivability features. As it stands, Thompson writes, the F-35 approaching the “gold standard” reputation for tactical aviation in the Western Pacific, and Persian Gulf allies are reportedly clamoring for access to the fighter.
With hitting new milestones every month, the F-35 program faces only one crucial issue: budget constraints that could hinder the government from ramping up annual production to genuinely economical rates.
The original plan was for significant cost savings realized by accelerating production for economies of scale, but program manager Lorraine Martin pointed out that rates have been flat for the last four years. Concerns about program maturity have always dogged the program, but now the issue turns to government spending limitations.
Martin says the cost of F-35 can match the price tag of current fourth-generation fighters only with higher yearly rates of production, something that does not sit well with contractors.
It is the same story aerospace engineers have been telling since the 1930s; costs are closely linked to the rate of production and the rise of experience. This dynamic—similar to Moore’s law for the semiconductor industry – is a truism throughout the manufacturing sector.
As the F-35 program accomplishes all its performance goals, one question remains — will taxpayers, and warfighters appreciate all the world’s most advanced fighter has to offer by bringing them in at a reasonable pace.