Lockheed Martin Corp. won the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when U.S. B-52 bombers were pummeling the Taliban and Pentagon spending was unleashed.
Ten years and $66 billion later, the aircraft is still in development, five years behind schedule and 64 percent over cost estimates. The Obama administration may cancel some models and also cut the Pentagon’s orders.
The plane, envisioned as the affordable stealth fighter for the U.S. and allies, has turned into a budget target.
“I’d blame the program’s setbacks on the fact that we lived in a rich man’s world,” said Jacques Gansler, a former Pentagon chief weapons buyer in the Clinton administration and now a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park. “There has been less emphasis on cost over the past 10 years,” he said.
During that decade, the F-35 cost rose along with the Pentagon’s overall budget for developing and buying new weapons, which increased 62 percent to $208 billion in 2011 from $128 billion in 2001. The jet has been bedeviled by a costly redesign, faulty cost estimates, fluctuating order quantities, and infrastructure built on assumptions of rapid production.
Even so, the plane has not failed or faced crippling technical problems in flight tests, and Lockheed says the jets are meeting test goals. Last month, the Marine Corps version, the most complex variant, demonstrated the first short takeoff and vertical landing on a ship.
Still, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month the U.S. may not be able to afford three variants, for the Air Force, Navy aircraft carriers, and the Marine Corps.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hailed the F-35 as a transformational family of airplanes for the U.S. and its allies in three variants built off a common chassis and assembly line. The jet would be the “world’s premier strike platform beginning in 2008,” said Pete Aldridge, the then-top U.S. weapons buyer, said in October 2001, at a Pentagon news conference.
Yet the program has been delayed by five years, and development costs have grown 64 percent to $56.4 billion since the program’s inception, according to data from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The overall cost, including procurement of about 2,400 U.S. aircraft, has risen to $382.5 billion, according to an independent estimate by the congressionally mandated Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office.
The Pentagon’s Joint Program Office led by Vice Admiral David Venlet, who oversees the JSF program, declined to comment for this article.
‘Affordable’ Stealth Jet
The idea of a common platform, affordable stealth jet for the Air Force and Navy took root in 1993, as the Air Force looked ahead to replacing its Lockheed F-16s and the Navy toward a successor for the Boeing Co.-built F-18s. The Pentagon in 1996 chose Boeing Co. and Lockheed to start design work.
Then-Pentagon weapons chief Paul Kaminski said cost was “an independent variable” -- an imperative in addition to the plane’s capabilities.
That focus on cost was lost early along the way, said retired Air Force General George Muellner, who managed the early stages of the JSF’s concept development.
The goal of producing the Marine Corps’ short-takeoff and vertical-landing, or STOVL, model -- the most complex configuration -- was “supposed to be several years behind” the Air Force’s simpler, lighter model, said Muellner, a former Vietnam combat pilot who worked at Boeing for 10 years after leaving the Air Force and retired in 2008.
Instead, after the Marines lobbied to have their model go first, the Pentagon in 2003 asked Lockheed to begin work on that jet. It also sought more software capabilities in earlier versions of the plane than originally planned, Muellner said.
That meant more people working at Lockheed’s plant, “increasing the burn rate per day” and stacking technical and program risks on “top of each other.”
Retired Air Force General Merrill “Tony” McPeak, who was the service’s chief when the program began, said creating a Marine Corps version cost a lot, for little gained.
“A lot of design compromises were made especially to give the Marine Corps the STOVL capability which, by the way, they’ve never used in combat,” he said. “And who says the Marines need a fast jet in combat?” said McPeak, now chairman of Ethicspoint Inc., a consulting firm in Lake Oswego, Oregon.
Tom Burbage, a former Navy pilot who led Lockheed’s JSF team, was at the company’s Fort Worth, Texas plant on Oct. 26, 2001, when the Pentagon picked the company’s proposal over Boeing’s.
“We all knew it’d be a long program and it’d be a challenge to get all the development done,” Burbage, now Lockheed’s executive vice president for the F-35 program, said in an interview. “But I think we’re definitely behind” by a few years compared with the 2001 plan, he said.
At the start, development costs were estimated at about $34.4 billion and overall program acquisition was $233 billion, according to the GAO. Within a year, the Navy decided it needed fewer of the aircraft-carrier model and cut its requirement by 409 jets, reducing the total U.S. order to 2,457 from 2,866.
Lockheed, meanwhile, expanded its engineering team in the first year to accommodate the seven countries that signed up as partners, in addition to the U.S. and the U.K., which began the program, Burbage said. These included Australia, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Denmark and Norway, and the aerospace industry in each country is a supplier to the program.
Anticipating production orders for as many as 1,200 U.S. jets by 2016, Lockheed prepared for “rapid manufacturing,” Burbage said. Lockheed’s subcontractors include Northrop Grumman Corp., BAE Systems Plc of London. The engine is made by United Technologies Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney unit.
Current plans project 400 airplanes on order by 2016, whereas Lockheed now has contracts for 98 jets and is negotiating for the next production lot, he said.
In 2003, estimates based on the Air Force designs showed that the Marine Corps version may “miss the weight projections,” and the Pentagon called for advancing work on the Marine plane and using that to improve the design on the two other models, Burbage said. The Marine jet needed to shed about 3,000 pounds, he said.
In April 2004, the company “stopped, shut down our supply chain and went into an 18-month design phase” resulting in a complete redesign of the jet’s wings, Burbage said.
“After two-plus years designing a plane, building staff, and reaching a spend rate of $300 million a month, going back and doing remedial work on STOVL was extremely punitive to the program,” said John Young, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer in the Bush administration. That, he said, “eliminated any hope of developing three planes for the cost of one.”
The program required a new “bill of materials, brand new parts and starting some new suppliers,” Burbage said. Development costs rose 30 percent to $44.8 billion and projected overall cost to $244.8 billion.
That kind of upheaval was avoidable, had Boeing and Lockheed been asked to fly prototypes of their designs instead of “proof of principle demonstrators,” said Young, now head of JY Strategies LLC, an Arlington, Virginia-based consulting firm.
In 2007, the Pentagon under Young’s direction ordered a “midcourse risk reduction.” That move cut back test planes and testing regimen to save money, Michael Sullivan, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office said in an e-mail. Still, overall costs rose another 13.7 percent to $278.5 billion.
In 2009, after President Barack Obama’s administration took office, fresh estimates found that the average procurement unit cost of the plane had increased 58 percent, to $79 million in 2002 dollars, triggering another restructure of the program, according to the GAO.
The Pentagon in June 2010 estimated the program’s total cost to be about $382 billion, taking into account an extension of development phase of the program, additional tests and delayed production.
Program officials were “aware of these risks as early as 2001, but chose to accept optimistic assumptions,” Sullivan said. The promise of an affordable jet was “miscalculated.”
In 2010, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates withheld $614 million from Lockheed and tied it to specific goals. He also put the Marine variant on probation for two years to improve the plane’s reliability.
Last year’s restructuring added about 2,200 more test flights and as many as 10,000 test points, Burbage said. The additional time for tests may influence lawmakers and defense officials into thinking “we shouldn’t build more planes in higher quantities until I get that testing done,” Burbage said.
The restructure and subsequent tests have shown “no major or insurmountable technical problems,” Vice Admiral Mark Skinner, the Navy’s top procurement officer told Congress yesterday. Lockheed was ahead by 9 percent on its test goals, Burbage said. Since tests began in December 2006, all three variants had flown 1,412 times, he said.
Now, the program is heading into a global budget storm, which adds uncertainty to the order outlook as lawmakers and officials in the U.S. and allied nations seek to cut spending.
“We do now have a family of three airplanes that are unique and highly capable,” Burbage said. “Our biggest challenge now moves from the technical to the political.”