Although American warriors have returned from Iraq and many are re- turning from Afghanistan, our nation still faces serious and continuing security threats. The return – and painful loss – of U.S. combat troops should serve as a reminder that as a nation, we have a solemn duty to provide our military professionals with the best tools available to accomplish their missions at the lowest possible loss of life. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter falls squarely into that category.
Simply put, the multirole F-35 is a critical element in the struggle to safeguard national security. The most technically advanced multirole fighter aircraft in the world today, it represents an indispensable leap in capability and survivability over the current generation of fighters it is designed to replace. With advanced stealth and fully integrated avionics systems, the F-35 will enable pilots to penetrate into hostile territory, secure vital airspace or support ground forces with precision strike capabilities and then return safely.
Like other military systems procured over the past half-century, the F-35 is being tested, refined and produced simultaneously in a process known as “concurrency.” By interrelating testing and production, the F-35 program achieves efficiencies that help control costs, drive refinements and speed the delivery of aircraft to our armed services. Concurrency has been a key element in the strategy for bringing this new aircraft into our nation’s fighter force in a timely manner and at the lowest possible cost to the taxpayers – until now.
Unfortunately, today some argue that there is too much concurrency in the F-35 program and claim that production should remain at a low rate. Despite the fact that the program exceeded its flight test goals for 2011 and is ahead of the planned flight test goals for 2012, some contend the F-35 is not yet ready to begin high-rate production. This flawed argument injects significant operational risk above the already negative impacts from three previous years of program reductions that moved 425 aircraft deliveries to later years.
Continuing to keep F-35 production at low rates will be a costly mistake. F-35 cost is based on consistent and predictable increases in production rates to maintain program affordability. Those increases allow the fixed production costs to be spread over more units each year, lowering the incremental cost per plane. Suppliers will make the necessary capital investments in the equipment needed to build the F-35 only if they believe the program will continue to grow at a balanced pace from testing through production.
Many of today’s pilots are flying multirole fighters that were designed – and in some cases built – before they were born. While these aged aircraft were the most capable of their generation, their airframes are wearing out, and they cannot be retrofitted to equal the F-35’s stealth and avionics capabilities. Worse is that these fighters can only be operated at increasing cost – in force size and support assets – all while raising a conspicuously high level of risk in the threat environments of today and tomorrow. Continuing down this path will not only seriously increase taxpayer expenditures, but also cost the lives of numerous pilots and compromise national security.
The F-35 program, from its inception, was designed to strike an appropriate balance on concurrency that enables the fielding of needed fifth-generation capability at an affordable cost. Noteworthy development to date, combined with multiple reductions in production ramp rates, already have reduced the concurrency risk. But continuing to suppress the production rates will – without question – increase unit costs in the near term and drive potential international customers toward “cheaper, later” production models down the line. It will delay delivery of the critically needed operational F-35 and further aggravate total force-structure shortfalls for active, National Guard and Reserve forces and their old, less capable legacy fighters.
Bottom line: Department of Defense-directed F-35 concurrency is a good idea that can drive down cost. Currently, nothing in F-35 flight test, software development or factory production indicates a necessity to further hold back production at low rates. Fielding the F-35 sooner rather than later is crucial to the security of United States and our allies.
Retired Gen. John D.W. Corley served as the U.S. Air Force vice chief of staff, commander of Air Combat Command and senior uniformed acquisition official. Retired Gen. William R. Looney III commanded the U.S. Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command and the service’s Aeronautical and Electronics Systems Centers. Both are consultants to Lockheed Martin, prime contractor for the F-35.