There's an interesting post by my colleague Phil Ewing over at our sister site DoDBuzz on what a lot of us have been saying for a while now about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: The plane pretty much has to work because, at this point, it's the only thing going. Especially for the the U.S. Air Force, who has famously gone, "all-in" on fifth generation fighters. Or more accurately, the F-35.
For a while, the service fought hard to buy as many F-22 Raptors as possible. That fight all but ended when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley. After that, the Air Force put up and shut up when Gates said he was capping Raptor buys at 187 jets.
A few generals in the Air National Guard expressed interest in buying heavily updated fourth-gen fighters like Boeing's F-15SE Silent Eagle as a bridge between the rapidly aging fighter force of F-16s and F-15s and the trouble-plauged F-35. While that idea was also picked up by some lawmakers (including ANG-champion, Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords), the Pentagon and Air Force brass were largely able to silence that idea. All attention was to be focused on equipping the service with 1,763 F-35As.
In a time of hefty budget cuts, the Air Force remains focused on getting the F-35s to its fleet. There may simply be too much institutional inertia to cancel the program, keep the soon-to-close Raptor production line open (and reopen lines for sensitive long-lead parts) and/or start buying hundreds of modified "legacy" (ugh) designs like the Silent Eagle, Boeing's stealthier F/A-18EF Super Hornet or Block 60 F-16s to offset delays with the F-35 or serve as a bridge to sixth-gen fighters.
The Marines are pretty much all-in on F-35, too. As for the Navy, sea service officials say they are dedicated to the JSF but some doubt these claims because of things like this or this. Now, Georgia Senator and Lockheed supporter Saxby Chambliss (R) is telling Defense Secretary Leon Panetta not to buy any more Super Hornets and to focus on the F-35.
UPDATE: Just yesterday, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley was quoted in Australia's Canberra Times newspaper as saying that cuts to the F-35 fleet or further restructuring of the delivery schedule can't be ruled out as part of the Pentagon's quest to save billions of dollars in the coming years. It'll sure be interesting to see if this happens. If so, what's the contingency plan, I'll bet its an increased number of Service Life Extensions for the air service's fighter fleet. This comes as Australia is considering limiting the number of F-35s it buys to 14. Oh, and don't forget the Navy study that's looking into reducing buys for the sea service and Marine Corps.
Meanwhile, Lockheed and the JSF program office just confirmed that the F-35A and B-model jets' forward wing root ribs are being redesigned to last longer. Program officials say this as a minor problem that won't take additional funding to fix.
Remember, the fewer planes that are sold means that costs go up. The more costs rise, the more customers rethink their purchasing plans leading to talk of the famous "acquisition death spiral."
Readers, what do you think: Can good program management right the good ship S.S. F-35?
If costs are brought under control will the JSF be able to boost our warfighting ability significantly and serve as a knowledge base for the development of sixth-gen fighters?