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Contemplating the death spiral

All that stuff from Wednesday about the Air Force's total commitment to the F-35A? That still stands. But a set of new updates indicates the foundations beneath the airmen and their jets may be already starting to crumble.

Item one: Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, on a visit to Australia's capital, Canberra, acknowledged to reporters that DoD may have to cut or delay its planned buy of F-35s, even as the Air Force keeps its full and complete fidelity to the jet. He said he didn't know what that might mean for the costs and schedules of the 100 copies that Australia wants to buy -- and, by extension, the other members of Club F-35 -- although one likely answer is they would be later and more expensive.

Item two: AvWeek's Bill Sweetman has followed up on his earlier report about the tasker from Navy Undersecretary Bob Work ordering officials to do the numbers on what would happen if the F-35B and C were curtailed or cancelled. Here's how Sweetman put it: "'This relook must consider every plan and program,' Work wrote. 'Even cuts to long-planned buys of JSF must be on the table.' The team was also tasked to define 'the key performance differences between the Block II F/A-18E/F with all planned upgrades, F-35B and F-35C.'" Planning for something doesn't mean it's going to happen, but it is politically telling: Secretary Panetta and other top leaders have said, for example, they aren't making a backup plan in case the Doomsday Device budget sequestration takes effect, probably in part because if they planned for it, it might send the message that it was an acceptable outcome.

So if you wanted to read it this way, you could take the Navy's decision to plan for cuts or delays as a message that it considers that a valid option -- though service officials would certainly insist they're just doing their due diligence here. It's not surprising from the service that was always the most skeptical about a Joint Strike Fighter, and which has the most fallback options in case one does not materialize as planned. The Navy could happily keep buying and flying Super Hornets for another decade or beyond, and keep trying to get the stealthy unmanned attack jet that Work and others believe is the key to the long-term relevance of the aircraft carrier. The Air Force and the Marines, however, have no such luxuries.

All this again raises the prospect for an F-35 death spiral that could begin as soon as this year: Faced with the Big Crunch and some kind of headline-grabbing problems -- suppose there's another astronomic cost increase, or the F-35B's planned shipboard tests don't go well -- the Building begins slicing jets off the top of its program. The tremors start immediately: Simple mathematics mean the cost per jet, already high, must climb further. The F-35's many allies in Congress prevail on the Pentagon to keep it going, but the writing is on the wall: With years still left in development and no further appetite for Washington's arms-sales roller coaster, international partners begin dropping out to cut their losses. (The Aussies, to return to them, already are thinking of rejoining the Super Hornet bandwagon.) The F-35's cost per unit increases again. The Navy ditches the C, which eliminates the Royal Navy's membership in the club -- an event that might even be welcomed in Austerity London.

Now the Air Force and Marines need to cut their planned buys again, but they still cannot countenance losing their As and Bs -- they literally have no choice but to buy ever fewer of them, no matter the price. The services will have flown their legacy aircraft into tatters and accept smaller fleets just to be able to keep operating.

History holds some grim lessons here, as the Military Times' Bill McMichael wrote in 2009: He quoted defense analyst Barry Watts of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, who observed that the U.S. had four 'stealth' aircraft programs before the F-35: The F-117; the A-12; the B-2 and the F-22. Taken together, these represented a requirement for 2,378 aircraft. How many actually entered service? 267.

Can the Pentagon avoid repeating its mistakes yet again? What do you think?

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