The F-35 Lightning II program is too big, important and politically connected to fail. As of today, it’s in no real danger.
That’s despite another report from Congress’ watchdog this week jammed with eye-popping numbers and warnings about the program’s long-term prospects.
The Government Accountability Office even went so far as to recommend that DoD “analyze cost and program impacts from potentially reduced future funding levels” – in other words, plan now in case you get less cash than you say you’ll need to keep this party going.
“This sensitivity analysis should determine the impact of funding on aircraft deliveries, unit costs, and total tactical air force structure resulting from at least three different assumed annual funding profiles, all lower than the current funding projection,” GAO wrote.
If there’s one thing the F-35 needs just as much as continued political top cover, it’s cash.
As we’ve observed before, the F-35 plan in effect today assumes it’ll get about $13 billion per year until 2035, separate and apart from the rest of the defense budget. Plus the Air Force must not only buy F-35As in full-rate production, but also its new KC-46A tankers and new bombers at the same time. If Pentagon officials are worried about a steep drop-off in budgets – apart from sequestration, of course – that’s not reflected in today’s plans.
Here are a few data points from GAO’s report, numbers that taken together give a sort of snapshot of the behemoth program:
• 2,457: The total number of F-35s the U.S. government wants to develop and acquire through 2037. That is down from the initial program goal, in 2001, of 2,866 aircraft.
• $395.7 billion: The latest estimate for the total cost to develop and buy the F-35. That’s up from an estimate of $278.5 billion in the 2007 baseline and up from the original program estimate of $233 billion in 2001.
• $1 billion: The cost overruns on the first four annual procurement contracts; taxpayers’ share of that is about $672 million. That adds about $11 million to the price of each of the 63 total aircraft under contract.
• $373 million: Additional costs of “concurrency” – modifications to aircraft DoD has already bought that were made necessary by discoveries in testing that came after they were built.
• 365: The number of F-35 the Pentagon plans to buy (for about $69 billion) before the program’s developmental flight tests are finished.
• 179: The number of aircraft the Pentagon will delay through fiscal 2017 to reduce “concurrency” risks. Here’s what GAO said about that:
This marked the third time in as many years that near-term procurement quantities had been reduced. Combined with other changes since the 2007 revised baseline, total JSF procurement quantity has been reduced by 410 aircraft through fiscal year 2017. Since the department still plans to eventually acquire the full complement of U.S. aircraft—2,443 production jets—the procurement costs, fielding schedules, and support requirements for the deferred aircraft will be incurred in future years beyond 2017. The new plan also stretches the period of planned procurement another two years to 2037.It continued: "With the latest reduction, the program now plans to procure a total of 365 aircraft through 2017, about one-fourth of the 1,591 aircraft expected in the 2002 plan."
• $35,200: The Air Force’s target cost per flight hour for its F-35A. That’s compared to about $22,500 per flight hour for an F-16 today – though program and Pentagon officials say it’s apples-and-oranges trying to compare F-35 costs to “legacy” aircraft.
“Comparative data for the Navy’s CV and Marine Corps’ STOVL with the legacy aircraft to be replaced was not available,” GAO wrote.
• 6: Number of primary test objectives the F-35 completed in 2011, out of 11.
• 972: Number of test flights F-35s completed in 2011 – more than double that of the year before. The program completed has more than 21 percent of its total 60,000 planned test points.
• 24 million: Lines of code “necessary for the JSF’s capability,” GAO said; that includes 9.5 million aboard the aircraft itself. The F-35 needs three times as many lines of software code as the F-22 and six times as many as the F/A-18E and F Super Hornet.
• $80 million: The cost to bring the F-35’s initial pilot helmet into spec while at the same time developing “a second, less capable helmet” that crews can use as a stopgap. Whichever helmet ends up in use, it won’t be “integrated into the baseline aircraft” until 2014 or later, “increasing the risks of a major system redesign.”