Senator Joe Lieberman assembled quite a panel at this morning’s hearing of the Senate Armed Services AirLand subcommittee to discuss the Joint Strike Fighter program and the Navy’s “fighter gap.” According to the Air Force and Navy officials, the JSF program is performing pretty well, apart from some minor delays and cost overruns, so any potential fighter gap is easily manageable.
Vice. Adm. David Architzel, the Principal Military Deputy to the Navy assistant secretary for acquisition, said he’s confident that the most recent restructuring of the JSF program will deliver an aircraft without further cost increases or delays in delivery. The Navy expects the first flight of the F-35C carrier variant no later than May.
“We’ve turned the corner on production line delays,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford, the service’s top buyer, who expects to take delivery of the first test aircraft this year. The jump in the JSF’s price tag and the delays were due primarily to small design changes, which while minor, rippled through the production line causing excessive “churn and stress.” That production line is now well on the way to “maturing,” he said. He declared the F-35 airframe itself as solid; although the plane’s software package has proven a bit more problematic.
Marine Corps aviation chief, Lt. Gen. George Trautman, who has already taking delivery of his service’s test aircraft, said the important part that JSF critics miss is that there are no major technical or manufacturing issues with the jets. The Marine’s F-35B short take off and landing version has been flying since June, is performing well, and the expected initial operational capability (IOC) date is December 2012. By then, the Marines expect to have 10 F-35Bs in the Block IIB configuration; the version currently being test flown is the Block .5.
Trautman expects to field a fully operational squadron of F-35Bs, following block upgrades of avionics and software, by 2014. This claim led Lieberman to ask if the Marines were taking a risk by fielding a squadron of Block IIB aircraft instead of waiting for the Block III version, like the Navy and Air Force. Trautman said the F-35B is so much more capable than the AV-8 Harrier squadron it will be replacing that “it's an easy decision to make.” It will give Marine air component commanders their first ever stealthy STOVL aircraft operating off Marine amphibs.
The Air Force will have to wait a little longer for their IOC date, which is scheduled for the first quarter of 2016, said Maj. Gen. Johnny Weida, director of Air Force operations and plans. For the Air Force, IOC is defined as 12-24 Block III versions of the F-35. The Navy projects its F-35C IOC that same year.
As for the Navy’s looming fighter gap, Trautman admitted that the models used to calculate that gap are a bit shaky and susceptible to wide variations, depending on the inputs. He thinks that with careful management of the legacy F-18 fleet, by which he means service life extension, close air support burden sharing between the Navy and Marines, and finding “depot efficiencies,” that fluctuating fighter gap number can be trimmed to no more than 100 in 2018. If JSF can be kept on track, that number can be reduced even further, he said.
The Air Force and Navy officials backed up Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ assertion that an alternate engine for the F-35, the F-136, is unnecessary. It would require spending at least $2.5 billion over the next five years to develop the alternate engine, Architzel said, money that would then be unavailable to buy more F-35s.