May 23, 2008 (by Eric L. Palmer) - "Since I can't put the exploding-head guy from Scanners in a reply field, you will have to assume that he is here." So went a comment in the Aviation Week Blog by aerospace writer Bill Sweetman in a discussion about the F-35 program.
Flight number 18 of the AA-1 F-35 test aircraft
This program does have its polarized views, it’s moderate views and everyone will claim they are the moderate voice of reason.
The F-35 program still has a lot to figure out. And the marketing effort by Lockheed Martin is going full steam to keep up. So much so it's hard to escape it. While reading the print copy of The Australian
a few weeks back, right across the opposite page from a news piece on the F-35 was a very large Lockheed Martin F-35 advert stating the importance of the program: "It's A Matter Of Commitment". As if the general public, concerned about anything but Defence spending would know. But there it was.
A week ago while contributing to a humble news piece for Flight Global, on the Dutch goings-on with the F-35 program, when my story went up, there, splashed right in the middle of the article was… a big Lockheed Martin F-35 advert. So no matter what the status is of the F-35 program, we all know the marketing effort is going full speed.
Funny things aside, the program still has a lot to figure out. And while you expect bold statements from a piece of advert copy, when it comes from others that are not advertising people, then one has to wonder what is happening. For example: The head of the F-35 JSF
Program Office General Davis was interviewed some time back for an Australian news piece. Here unfortunately the news media source must have thought he represented the U.S. Air Force. He does not. Michael Moseley is the General in charge of the USAF as an F-35 customer. General Davis is only the current military program manager for the jet. All program managers want their program to come in for the big win. General Davis is no different. And even in the face of the fallout from the recent U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) report that stated that the program will go over cost and possibly slip on schedule, Davis stated that a Pentagon report showed that the exact opposite was true and that he disagreed with the GAO assessment. "We do not agree with that estimate, there is no basis for that estimate, and we do not support it," Davis said.
What makes this troubling is that the fuzzy math that states the F-35 program is running near or under costs comes into problems when one adds things like the alternate engine program and increased SDD
(System Development and Demonstration) costs. Most of the claims of "savings" are predicted in the long term. Where General Davis may have some explaining to do comes as the result of a JSF team meeting in April where it was discussed that a year may be added to the SDD phase. A "final decision" on this won't come until autumn 2008. If it happens, costs will go up.
Part of the other problem with predicting cost of the program is that officials parrot the production plan. When one looks at where all the partners are now, the reality is different than the plan. Again, even if there were no technical problems, the F-35 can only stay on cost if there are a sizable amount of orders. Looking at the current status of the team members tells a different story.
USAF-Can now only afford 48 aircraft per year when full rate production starts in 2014. A buck doesn’t buy what it used to and the USAF is in financial hot water trying to recapitalize all of its airframes and not just fighters.
U.S. Navy-Less orders and… PowerPoint warriors in a problematic ship building era love an Excel spreadsheet friendly aircraft: The Block II Super Hornet.
USMC- At the mercy of U.S. Navy to determine numbers of aircraft.
Australia-States they are committed to the program, however they purchased 24 Super Hornets as part of a hedge against F-35 delays. Sounds in the wilderness hint at 32 more Super Hornets being possible if there are further delays to the F-35 combined with trying to refurb enough old classic F-18 Hornets. It is also possible that the fully planned number for 100 F-35s may be reduced.
Canada- States that their next fighter will be a competitive process. Should they go with the F-35, Canadian production slots have been reduced to 65 from the original 88 stated in public briefings. A gain of 5 considering Lockheed knew for some months now that Canada was quietly committed to 60 in the JSF plan.
Denmark-Competition for the next fighter.
Italy- Moved some orders "to the right". Israel
may pick up some of these.
Netherlands- Competition for the next fighter.
Norway- Competition for the next fighter.
Turkey- So far looks good for 100.
U.K. Probably a reduction in the total number. The current health of the upgrade path of the Tornado and Typhoon are being brought into question. With the MOD going wobbly and cutting at will, what will be the shape of the UK fighter force before F-35 even makes it’s debut?
So from above, right now there is no proof with the current money problems in the U.S., that USAF will ever see 1700+ F-35s. If the plan doesn’t do 1763 for the USAF, if it doesn’t do 2443 for the whole of the U.S. Military, if it doesn’t do the full plan, the price of the aircraft will go up.
What is also of interest is that Lockheed is trying to boost team members to make orders on the plan by claiming a fixed price for the aircraft. This may be interesting since there is still a long way to go in testing and development of the aircraft. Cost and price are two different things. Buyer beware and it comes with a disclaimer: "That the fixed price would only be able to be offered if consortium numbers and schedules are maintained, and that it would likely add additional costs should partner nations start deferring or reducing their buys."
It gets more of a concern if the Short-Take-Off-and Landing (STOVL
) variant doesn’t deliver. Traditionally, Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP
) isn't authorized until a platform proves itself, yet some STOVL F-35s have already made it to LRIP without proving if a representative of a fielded combat jet can do all of the demanding flight performance required. The program won't see an attempt at vertical landing until middle 2009 or later. The Joint Program Office may have just “certified” the Pratt & Whitney F-135 engine for STOVL flight, but the full performance envelop through real flying has not be demonstrated.
Just as worrying is software. The definitions of Block I, Block II and Block III software have been remade. In just two years, the Block I aircraft lost its air-to-air capability and its strike capability has been restricted. It is a similar story for Block II and Block III.  This will be the biggest chunk of software to make it into a combat aircraft. What will Block I, II and III expectations look like in the coming years?
As for Lockheed, they seem happy. Recently the U.S. government released funds for more production of aircraft. "We're seeing excellent progress on our production line, with 17 preproduction aircraft in assembly flow, the first two production-model F-35s already under way and unprecedented assembly quality across the board," said Dan Crowley, Lockheed Martin executive vice president and F-35 program general manager.
Long-lead funds of $197 million for LRIP 3 were released on May 14 for at least 18 additional F-35s. The LRIP I contract for the first two F-35A production aircraft was finalized and issued in July 2007.
Lockheed said the first F-35A test aircraft has exceeded performance and reliability expectations. The inaugural flight of the first F-35B is on schedule for late spring/early summer.
 ABC news, 730 Report, April 10, 2008, YouTube video
Carlo Kopp, Accessing Progress on the Joint Strike Fighter
, Air Power Australia, May 17, 2008