A preliminary Pentagon cost estimate that the F-35 could cost as much as $17.1 billion more than currently planned is prompting calls from congressional sources for the program to be reassessed and restructured.
The congressional sources also wryly noted this seemed to raise questions about the wisdom of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recent trip to the F-35 plant in Fort Worth to show his support for the program. One aide scoffed that the new cost estimates were “no surprise to anyone who hasn’t drunk the JSF Kool-Aid.”
The new cost estimate comes from the JSF Joint Estimate Team, formed this summer by Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn.
Two congressional aides familiar with the program said the cost estimate seemed to indicate that the approach of developing, building, flying and testing planes as they come off the assembly line – known as concurrency – may pose too much program risk in the short term and should lead Defense Secretary Robert Gates to scale back the emphasis on producing and testing planes and trim the number of planes the Pentagon wants to buy in next year’s budget.
“Unfortunately, DoD has put all its eggs in the JSF basket and it is now too big to fail, just like Wall Street. The JSF program has shown no signs of getting back on schedule, and I think a Nunn-McCurdy is fairly likely. Gates should get out in front and restructure the program,” said one congressional aide.
A second congressional aide agreed that the push by the program office and Lockheed Martin to build, fly and test may be too aggressive. “I think what the JET is saying is, you know guys, you will just need more time to refine this configuration so you can be sure it all works the way it should,” this aide said, noting that the program has completed about 2 percent of flight tests for the 50 aircraft authorized so far.
At the same time, this aide questioned the $17 billion estimate, saying “it seems incredibly high to me.” The earlier estimate of $7 billion seemed much more likely to this aide, who noted that no one on Capitol Hill had yet been briefed on the new numbers.
For its part, F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin said that while it recognized "the Joint Estimate Team’s earnest efforts" it disagreed with the conclusions, said program spokseman John Kent.
"Lockheed Martin acknowledges that modest risks to our cost and schedule baselines exist, but we envision no scenario that would justify a substantial delay to completion of development or transition to production milestones. We are on track to field 5th Generation fighters to nine countries and 13 Services" Kent said in the statement.
"Eleven SDD aircraft have been delivered thus far and the remaining eight jets are demonstrating greatly improved span times as are the 31 LRIP aircraft now in production. We are below the USG’s Selected Acquisition Report estimate for production costs. Engineering development is 85% complete and yielding outstanding results in early ground and flight tests compared to legacy. Our test plans are based on detailed test requirements and build on the extensive investments in F-35 design architecture, systems engineering, risk reduction, and simulation facilities, as well as a rigorous disciplined verification plan, compared to legacy programs," Kent's statement said. "The program is early in the flight test phase, so it is much too soon conclude that the expected payoffs will not be realized."