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The bleak state of the F-35

Getting the F-35 program on track will require billions more dollars, years more development, and no shortage of "risk" in the development of software and the potential costs to operate and sustain the aircraft, expert witnesses told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. The points of disagreement are over the specifics -- how many billions, how many years, how much "risk" -- but even a representative from F-35 builder Lockheed Martin conceded that the jets still have a long way to go before they fulfill DoD's original dream of being advanced, ubiquitous and relatively cheap.

Although the defense, government and industry witnesses did have some good news for the SASC --  the arrival of new aircraft, the successful completion of test flights, and the continued promise that the F-35 will be a "revolutionary" aircraft when it finally becomes operational -- Thursday's panel was mostly a study in frustration.

DoD's top weapons-buyer, Ash Carter, is frustrated at how little of what DoD pays per plane actually goes to assemble the plane; much of the cost goes to "overhead" or other administrative expenses. DoD's top testing officer, Michael Gilmore, is frustrated at the program's unrealistic set of testing goals: Officials initially assumed they'd only have to repeat different kinds of test flights about 15 percent of the time and 20 percent of the time, where actually the program has required 35 and 60 percent of those kinds of repeats. One of DoD's top cost czars, Christine Fox, projects that the operation and sustainment costs of the F-35 will be so high it could be unaffordable. Everyone is frustrated about that.

And yet the U.S. and its allies are stuck. They have no choice but to pay the money, accept the delays, and press ahead with the F-35 program. Lawmakers repeatedly asked Carter if there was an alternative to the F-35, and he said DoD reviewed potential alternatives after the program's Nunn-McCurdy breach and concluded no, there isn't. (The Air Force's top weapons-buyer, David Van Buren, told lawmakers the Air Force might have to consider a life-extension program for its F-16s to keep them flying until the F-35A arrives.)

If there's a silver lining, the witnesses said, it's that the "prize" the F-35 represents, as Carter put it, is worth the cost and delays: An incredible new warplane that will outmatch anything else in the sky -- except the F-22, Sen. Saxby Chambliss insisted -- and will bring about better, easier collaboration with the U.S. allies that also buy it. And although those international customers are as frustrated as DoD with the delays and cost increases, they remain committed, Carter said; some have delayed or shrunk their planned purchases, but that's because of local budget problems, not because of skepticism about the F-35.

So how did all this happen? The whole point of the Joint Strike Fighter program was to be economical and convenient, right? Carter said there were two major problems: First, the unlimited defense budgets in the decade after 9/11 meant that DoD and its contractors always had the option of solving problems with more money, and after several years of that, "it was natural that some fat crept into all our activities over that period," he said.

Second, the "novel," joint nature of the JSF program office itself, which was not run by one of the service's systems commands, may have meant it had a lot of problems with the complex engineering needed to develop the F-35, Cater said. Naval Air Systems Command and the Air Force's Aeronautical Systems Center, by contrast, have decades of experience with complex projects, and, looking back, Carter said he wasn't sure whether creating a new joint program office was the right call. It's an amazing concession, and you could also argue it's revisionist history: The services would have howled and screamed if one of the others' systems commands got to run the JSF program. The Navy has always been the most reluctant about the F-35, and you can imagine what it might have done if the Air Force got to develop all three versions of the jet.

That's all ancient history, and the program office is "strong" now, Carter said, so that's all taken care of. It thinks it knows what it has to spend and do to get the program back on track, and DoD remains locked into its planned total of 2,443 jets. The only way to get them, officials agreed, is to keep plugging along.

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