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Does Congress have a grasp on the reality of the JSF program?

September 6, 2007 (by Eric L. Palmer) - Recently a Lockheed Martin official at an Australian defense conference, stated that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program is "a tough task". The question is: Does the U.S. Congress understand this?

This program has no equal in procurement history either in the cost of the program or how it is being performed. Other programs like the Littoral Combat Ship or any number of other programs like the JASSM cruise missile may have problems. The obvious is: Those programs are not the JSF. Other lesser efforts going over budget is nothing new in the development of military programs. Some programs end up being cancelled. There is the usual crying and sunk costs but it is dead and people move on.

The JSF program doesn't have any option of failure even if it made an effort. It is just way too big. The stakes are way too high and numerous corporations, suppliers, corporate, political and military leaders are too far into the program to survive fallout from cancellation. The reputation of everyone that has signed their name to this program is at stake. Besides the obvious loss of jobs with all of the worldwide employees tied to this project, failure would have a large impact on customer confidence of U.S. aerospace firms. This would also be a stark warning to any future joint weapon systems solutions.

With the announcement that the JSF program has set up a "Tiger Team" to better clarify early customer orders by quantity and type, comes the announcement that it is part of a cost savings measure.[2] One of the prime goals of JSF is to deliver an "affordable" stealth combat airframe to the customer. An initial goal of the aircraft was that it was going to be a primary information consumer. One can consider that since the use of network centric warfare was maturing, that costs could be kept down if it received a lot of its situational awareness from other platform sources.

Somewhere along the line in the early planning, this changed to where the aircraft would also be an important information gatherer on the network. The justification for this was the improvements in sensors, computers and software, and the rising cost and tactical availability of large, vulnerable, information gathering support aircraft. [3] The U.S. needed a humble yet stealthy platform to replace the F-16, F-18 and Harrier and to deliver it from the experience in Allied Force 1999: Kosovo, where the enemy air defence threat was never nailed down completely. And while the over all air campaign can be labeled a success, it offered the view of what happens to over all mission effectiveness when legacy (non-stealth) aircraft are engaged by air defence radars at an annoying rate. [4]

The U.S. Navy, stung by the cancellation of the A-12 stealth strike fighter, still needed a stealth strike platform to fly off of the carrier. Where in the case of the Air Force, the JSF would not be the sole stealth strike platform, it would be for the Navy. The Marines have obviously hitched their wagon to Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) operations for good. A STOVL JSF besides being new and providing more situational awareness than the Harrier, would provide more survivability. Even a few years ago after the JSF program had been launched, the Marines had concerns about introducing an EA-35. [5] This would be a dedicated electronic warfare aircraft. Around the same time the Air Force floated the idea of wanting to field the STOVL variant in addition to the conventional take-off variant. [6] These ideas didn't go any further, but it demonstrates a lot of expectations for a platform that was only supposed to be an affordable combat aircraft with affordable stealth capability. One can see that meeting the expectations of just the three prime U.S. users had potential to increase the features on the aircraft and have a potential to drive up program costs. This has a potential to come into conflict with the other requirement of JSF, that it be desirable enough for export customers.

As part of the plan, the original specifications of the aircraft are negotiable so as to make sure a product can be delivered. When the STOVL variant of the aircraft had a weight growth problem in development, a team was assembled come up with solutions. The performance of this team: SWAT ( STOVL Weight Attack Team ) was an excellent example of teamwork with a common goal. In the end this produced the weight reduction to the STOVL variant, however the JSF team had to go to the customer and announce that they had a choice: Either the internal payload requirement of the aircraft would have to change to two each 1000 pound weapons vs. the original two each 2000 pound weapons, or the STOVL variant would be at serious risk. This is an example of how the program was planned: To allow changes to the original specification in order to meet over all development goals. The success of this effort had a few negative affects. Besides the obvious internal payload reduction of the STOVL variant, the efforts of the SWAT team would mean that some of the common production methods to all three aircraft types would have to change in order for STOVL to work. This would drive JSF program costs up. This is one example of how an effect on one variant type has an effect on all variants. [7]

The global war on terror(GWOT) : specifically for the U.S., the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have had an impact. The cost of running both wars has affected traditional big platform purchases. More of the budget is put into "boots on the ground", out-sourced security and logistics providers, and numerous soft money programs to aid rebuilding efforts in the war zone. Traditional big money weapons programs still rule, just that there is less money in the food chain for those kinds of programs. [8]. Before GWOT, the weapons industry had just made a major readjustment from the end of the cold war. With the addition of GWOT, a variety of programs that any other time would have no problem, have been cancelled, at risk of cancelling or held down to a dribble with a slow funding rate that in-turn because of manpower and material costs rising over time, put it at the risk of being cancelled.[9] That doesn't count programs that have been deferred for a long time like the effort to replace air refueling tankers. The war effort means that Congress has extra considerations when dealing money out for JSF.

The Navy and Marines have requested the arrival of their JSF aircraft be delayed due to lack of money to run other priorities. This is a flip-flop from a few years ago when they stated they must have JSF to cut operational costs.[10] Also the Navy and Marines are still deciding how to address the total composition of how many and of what type of JSFs to take to war. [11]

The Air Force, in trying to have enough money to run it's day to day operations, has asked for the rate of production of it's JSF's to be reduced as it has no leeway in it's budget for program cost growth. [12] Congress, because of various defense priorities, has proposed reduction of the rate of JSF production in order to save money.[13]. This comes at a convenient time for them to where they can point at a recent Government Accounting Office (GAO) report that states there is risk involved with building too many aircraft too quickly with so little aircraft testing on the books.

While one may think this sounds practical, the JSF business plan's cost success model demands that the production rate not be reduced. It is yet to be seen if Congress, can keep up with their see-saw efforts of JSF production funding. Total program costs will go up if the original production schedule is not maintained. Just as the C-5 upgrade costs were pointed at going up because of long lead times of expensive metals/material and manpower costs, so too will JSF costs go up if the production is dragged out. Concerns on items like raw material availability which may risk JSF cost growth, exist. [14] The real wild card in JSF development will be software. While there is a robust software plan, the complexity of it and history of previous military aviation software programs like the C-17 and F-22 show that there can be some future unknowns down the path. [15]

The idea that it is necessary to have two different engine providers for the JSF program has become a political football. Pratt and Whitney was selected to be the original engine provider. Soon afterward it was suggested that an alternate engine effort by the GE/Rolls-Royce team would be needed to maintain logistical stability and security of the program. Regardless of the practicality of this effort, it will drive the total costs of the program up. Maybe not significantly but cost efficiencies are not just about one thing but many in the whole program. Add to this issue, the STOVL aircraft is yet to fly. The full decision of which engine is better for this variant is undecided. It is quite possible that during STOVL flight testing, one engine may prove to be better than the other.[16] The challenges that an engine has to encounter for STOVL operations are a lot more severe.

Now back to the "Tiger Team" that has to sort out the number and type of orders that can be counted on early in the program. The duality in the purchase plan is that a JSF purchased early in the program will cost more than a JSF purchased later in the program. Yet production numbers have to stay with the plan in order for the original cost model, not counting other cost influence, to be good. An early JSF program manager stated that costs with the original business plan would flatten out around the time 1600 airframes were built. Also part of cost for the customer is that unit cost while important isn't as important as the total package cost which includes everything to use the aircraft. While true about most military purchase programs, it is even more evident when the JSF sales pitch claims much less logistics overhead to sustain the aircraft. [17]

Now it is reported that funds for the JSF program may be running low. This of course will drive requirements for more savings of money. Then there is the recent announcement of a electrical power shortage in the aircraft that had to be fixed.[18] This fix is an additional cost. The JSF team is now looking at pulling two test aircraft off of the JSF test schedule as a cost savings measure. There is some argument if this is the best thing to do. Other reasons for running low on money include: Delays in the release of engineering drawings that slowed design and early production, cost growth among suppliers, the above mentioned efforts to reduce the JSF STOVL weight and "fix flaws in its wing assembly". [19] Loren B. Thompson from the Lexington Institute estimates the total program cost now at $338 billion. [20]

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is now at a critical stage. That of where the following things intersect: Some JSF development and cost problems, an air power road map to replace aging military aircraft that has been grossly underfunded for years, a congress and senior leadership that is over-focused on the anti-terrorist threat and nation building, and a war that is consuming a large portion of the budget including absorbing portions of current military operating budgets.[21,22] All of this, if it is not controlled, will put the JSF program at grave risk. To be fair to the JSF program, almost every major weapon system this large will have problems of some kind and the whole team has tremendous amounts of talent. Congress will have to decide if they want JSF to enjoy success or pretend that it is just like any other military procurement program, which it is not. There are plenty of warning signs to avoid the coming storm.

- End Notes -

[1] Unattributed, Joint Strike Fighter, 'a tough task', Sydney Morning Herald, August 22, 2007, Tom Burbage, general manager of program integration for the JSF at Lockheed Martin in the United States, said the project was behind schedule and working through difficulties, but continuing to gain ground.

[2] Amy Butler, JSF Stakeholders Plan Collective International Buy, August 24, 2007, Aerospace Daily & Defense Report,

[3] Greg Goebel, The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), accessed September 1, 2007,"The initial design assumption was that the JSF would be a consumer of sensor data, obtaining information from specialized intelligence-gathering aircraft, satellites, and other sources. This approach promised to keep costs down. However, as the pieces began to fit together, something different emerged. This was partly due to the "bottom-up" realization that the new technologies being developed for the JSF were far more powerful than had been considered; and to the "top-down" realization that the numbers of expensive specialized intelligence-gathering aircraft would be small, while there could be thousands of JSFs." One may have to consider that with additional systems come additional software. The JSF will have a significantly larger amount of software than any other combat aircraft that has to be coded correctly and work. Software problems offer more chance for cost growth in the program.

[4] Dr. Benjamin S. Lambeth, Kosovo and the Continuing SEAD Challenge, Aerospace Power Journal, Summer 2002

[5] Graham Warwick, JSF Team Rejects Dedicated EA-35, Flight International, December 12, 2006

[6] David A. Fulghum and Amy Butler, Fighter Fights, November 14, 2005, Aviation Week & Space Technology

[7] Joe Pappalardo, Weight Watchers, Air and Space Magazine, October-November 2006, "Design and assembly changes, mostly related to the SWAT recommendations, have cost about $4.8 billion—part of a $6.2 billion replanning to accommodate the additional design cycle required to make the improvements. The replanning forced an 18-month slip in F-35 deliveries. According to a 2006 Government Accountability Office report, since inception, the development costs of the JSF program have increased 84 percent and its timeline slipped by about five years. The STOVL’s final delivery deadline has been extended two years, to 2012."

[8] Megan Scully, Traditional Warfare Remains Focus Of Weapons Budget, Congress Daily, February 7, 2007

[9] C-5 transport upgrades, E-10 (E-8 JSTARS replacement), B-52 stand off jammer, C-130 upgrades and replacement, Commanche helicopter, Littoral Combat Ship to name but a few programs that have been cancelled or had the threat of cancellation hanging over them.

[10] Jason Sherman, Pentagon Mulls JSF Delay, original article in Defense News Daily, August 22, 2006, "...freeing up more than $1 billion between fiscal years 2008 and 2013 that officials hope to redirect to other naval priorities..." - Which is interesting as an March 18, 2004 article in Congress Daily, Navy, Marine leaders urge no delay in Joint Strike Fighter program , states that the U.S. Navy and Marines urge no delay in JSF so as to save them money sustaining older aircraft types. Quote: "England said additional delay would mean the naval services would have to keep flying older aircraft, which are getting increasingly expensive to maintain. "I very much encourage you to keep the program on schedule," he said.Clark echoed that concern, noting that the one-year delay already initiated "cost me at least $1 billion." He noted that the early model Navy F/A-18 Hornets that the JSF would replace are getting old and their operating costs increase 13-20 percent each year."Those costs will impact my ability to transform the Navy," Clark said."

[11] Christopher P. Cavas, Navy argues against Marine variant of JSF, Marine Corps Times, May 1, 2007

[12] Giovanni de Briganti, Analysis: Fiscal Reality Catches Up with Joint Strike Fighter,, published September 10, 2006, "In the FY08 spending plan submitted to the Pentagon Aug. 15, the US Air Force has reduced its expected purchase of F-35s by 72 aircraft. It plans to use the money thus freed up to absorb cost over-runs in F-35 development that were revealed in April."

[13] unattributed, Reports: Cuts on the way to F-35 JSF R&D, Engine Programs, Defence Industry Daily, January 6, 2007, This item is common to several others over the years that highlights the up and down mood of funding the JSF program.Since this issue comes up every year with Congress one should expect annual instability.

[14] Government Accounting Office, Joint Strike Fighter: Progress Made and Challenges Remain , Report number GAO-07-360, March 2007, "DCMA also identified manufacturing operations as a high-risk area highlighting issues with parts delivery, raw material availability, and subcontractor performance."

[15] C-17 software problems continued for years after entering service until proper software simulators were funded to help the software upgrade process. The difficulty in development of F-22 software is well known. Part of the problem too is that development was dragged out for so long. JSF has much more software quantity than F-22 however, the JSF team has these two previous programs, as well as others, to look at for object lessons.

[16] unattributed, Joint Strike Fighter F135 Engine Burns Hotter Than Desired, SBAC, May 31, 2006, A page that looks at some of the development challenges of the PW engine. My thoughts on this are that JSF STOVL flight testing may show that either engine performs better than the other in this demanding role. Past programs like the Boeing 777 and others have shown that what the engine will do once it flys may be different than what happens during ground testing.

[17] Eric Hehs, Rear Admiral Craig Steidle JSF Program Manager,Code One Magazine, April 1997, Interview with Rear Admiral Craig Steidle the then director of the Joint Strike Fighter Program.

[18] Stephen Trimble, Power Failure, August 24, 2007, The Dew Line, He mentions that the only way he found out about the power failure was to question a government contract requesting a gearbox redesign of JSF engines.

[19] Tony Capaccio, Lockheed Martin wants to alter JSF testing to save money, August 29, 2007, Fort Worth Star Telegram via Bloomberg News, “Unfortunately, too often the solution to staying on schedule and under cost -- to include maintaining or building up management reserve funds for the inevitable unforeseen problems -- is to reduce test and evaluation.History is replete with the consequences of this misguided thinking,” The "fix flaws in it's wing assembly" is a direct quote from this article without any further details.

[20] Loren B. Thompson, F-35 Engine Follies, August 27, 2007, Monsters and Critics,

[21] Loren B. Thompson, The Slow Death of American Air Power, January 17, 2007, Issue Brief, Lexington Institute,

[22] Megan Scully, Air Force seeks to recover funds diverted to Army . CongressDaily, April 24, 2007 "Pentagon's unusual request to Congress for permission to transfer $1.6 billion from Navy and Air Force personnel accounts to pay for the Army's pressing operational needs overseas." Note: This includes the fact that if you talk to any person connected with aircraft operations and sustainment, they will say operating funds have been skimmed to pay for the war effort.

- Additional Reference -

Littoral combat ship could slip behind schedule as price tag nears $500 million Grace Jean, National Defense Magazine, August 2007

Four JASSM Failures Cast Doubt On Program''s Future
Amy Butler, Aerospace Daily & Defense Report , May 10, 2007

A-12 Avenger II - The Flying Dorito
The largest contract cancellation in DOD history
-accessed September 4, 2007


Opinions and conclusions reached are those of the author.

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