Proposed F-35 Cuts Could Put Program at Risk

An F-35B Joint Strike Fighter test jet about to enter hover mode.

Late yesterday afternoon, news broke that a presidentially-mandated panel is recommending the military slash numerous big-ticket weapons programs, including the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, as part of an overall proposal aimed at dramatically reining-in government costs.

The panel calls for the Air Force and Navy to half their planned F-35A and C-model buys through 2015 and for the Marines to completely lose their short takeoff and vertical landing F-35B.  The greatly reduced numbers of JSFs would be supplemented by purchase of "new" F-16s for the Air Force and F/A-18EF Super Hornet buys for the Navy.

These recommendations fly in the face of all the planning done by the Air Force officials in recent years who have put all their eggs in the F-35 basket and refused to consider buying new versions of F-16s or F-15s. Navy officials seem to have hedged their bets a little by recently buying an mix of 124 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers to offset a looming fighter gap.  Obviously, the Marines would be in the toughest spot if the recommendations become reality with their aging fleet of F/A-18 Hornets, AV-8B Harriers and EA-6B Prowlers that are all supposed to be replaced by the F-35B.

All of this begs the question; if (and it's a big, big if) these cuts are approved by decision-makers will they throw the F-35 into the death spiral that program-watchers have warned about for years? Reduced buys mean cost hikes which in-turn lead to more reduced buys from international partners, etc.

Teal Group Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia sees all of this as a "seriously worst-case scenario, but it's a dire prospect."

If this nightmare scenario for the F-35 does come to fruition, the fate of the program could indeed hang on the international partners' resolve to stick with it, according to the analyst.  

"If it went ahead (I doubt it, but you can't write off the possibility) then much would come down to the international partners," Aboulafia said.  "If they kept the faith, the program could keep costs from skyrocketing, and avoid a death spiral.  If they don't, the program would definitely be at risk.  However, eliminating the B version would also save development and production costs, and probably keep the program from following the F-22 death spiral model."

Other proposed weapons cuts include: Capping the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor by at 288 aircraft instead of buying the planned 458, eliminating the Marines' amphibious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and canceling the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, the Joint Tactical Radio and the Army's Ground Combat Vehicle.

-- John Reed

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