Rough Week for F-35

Big news week for the F-35. As my colleague Colin Clark reported over at DOD Buzz, Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale came out and said the obvious: “If there is cost growth, I think we will just have to reduce the buy.” Hale made those comments at this week’s annual Precision Strike Conference.

Will there be cost growth? Yes. Air Force Secretary Mike Donley confirmed the program is headed for a Nunn-McCurdy cost growth breach. And, as Pentagon acquisition history shows over and over as weapons costs grow, the number bought drops. So now it becomes a question of how big a price tag. Colin quotes a congressional aide: “You are looking at least $112 million JSFs, with estimates as high as $137 million – average unit procurement costs.”

The Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, Ashton Carter, issued an acquisition decision memorandum slipping full rate F-35 production by 13 months to late 2015 (although Bill Sweetman at Aires blog says 2016 is more likely). A congressional aide emailed Colin:

“A 13-month slip seems very optimistic when press reports today suggest they are already at least 11 months behind the 2008 schedule. How did they get from the JET 30-month slip to 13? Maybe I’m too cynical, but this seems overly optimistic. The phrase ‘lipstick on a pig’ comes to mind. The JSF is still an ugly, stinking pig,”

Carter held an unusual conference call with reporters to try and reassure the world everything will be okay. Colin reporting again:

“First, we now have a realistic plan going forward, not a blindly optimistic one but not a fatalistic one either,” Carter said during the conference call. The government, working with Lockheed, was able to “reduce the slip in development from 30 months to 13 months,” Carter said.

Worried about all these ominous reports on the program’s status, F-35 supporter Sen. John McCain asked Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to schedule a hearing next week to get some clarity on what’s going on here. Wouldn’t we all like to know what’s going on with the Pentagon’s costliest weapons program. Hopefully next week’s hearings will provide some answers.

Of course, not everybody thinks the program is in trouble. Defense industry insider, analyst and consummate F-35 optimist Loren Thompson says everything is just fine:

“The problems, such as they are, arise mainly from a disagreement between the Bush and Obama administrations about how much up-front testing is required, combined with some excessively pessimistic forecasts about how much the program will cost to execute over the next few years.

F-35 still looks like the future of tactical aviation, a fighter so stealthy, agile, versatile and effective that buying anything else would put countries at a severe operational disadvantage in the future. The program isn't imploding and the defense department isn't having doubts about whether it should still be funded.”

If proven wrong, he vowed to dip his laptop screen in melted brie and eat it. Now that’s confidence.

-- Greg

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