Thirteen is looking like the F-35 fighter’s lucky number. After struggling for a dozen years to make program realities match government expectations, in 2013 prime contractor Lockheed Martin saw everything come together. Technical risks were retired. Flight testing progressed rapidly. The price-tag for each plane continued declining. And a new management team discovered that its government customers weren’t so hard to get along with after all. So when the history of the Pentagon’s biggest weapon program is written, 2013 is going to look like the point at which the effort really took off — the year doubts melted away and the F-35 became unstoppable.
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(Disclosure: Many of the companies participating in the F-35 program, including lead contractor Lockheed Martin, contribute to my think tank; some are consulting clients.)
The program’s growing success has huge consequences for America and its allies. Three U.S. military services — the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps — are counting on the F-35 to provide the bulk of their tactical air power through mid-century. A total of 2,443 planes will be purchased to secure hostile air space, precisely destroy enemy targets, and gather diverse reconnaissance. It is no exaggeration to say that the success of U.S. military operations in future wars hinges on the availability of the F-35, and the plans of many allies do too. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Israel, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, Turkey and the United Kingdom have all signed up to make F-35 their next-generation fighter.
Despite its popularity, though, the program has faced political headwinds for much of its history. Because it was conceived to replace most of the Cold War fighter fleet, the effort had to produce three distinctly different variants for each U.S. military service buying the plane that were nonetheless sufficiently similar to afford economies of scale in development, production, and operations. For instance, the Marine version must be able to take off and land vertically, the Navy version must be able to withstand the stresses of catapult launches and arrested landings on pitching carrier decks, and the Air Force version must be flexible enough to meet the needs of numerous overseas allies.
The end result will be a fleet of “fifth-generation” fighters — affordable aircraft with unprecedented survivability, situational awareness, versatility, maintainability and connectivity to the rest of the joint force. The affordability part is crucial if the F-35 is to dominate the global market for tactical aircraft the way Lockheed Martin’s F-16 did, and the company now projects that if production of F-35s ramps up as expected for the remainder of the decade, an Air Force version of the fighter will cost no more in inflation-adjusted dollars than the latest F-16 does today. That’s for a plane that will perform far better than the world-class F-16 in air-to-air, air-to-ground, and reconnaissance missions.
Making this all happen, along with the development of advanced training and sustainment systems, isn’t just a big engineering challenge. It is the biggest challenge in the history of military innovation, with a price-tag to match. If Lockheed Martin had faltered in the years after it was awarded the development contract on October 26, 2001, the company’s future prospect would have been diminished for a generation to come. So would the prospects of key suppliers such as Northrop Grumman, which provides much of the on-board electronics, and the Pratt & Whitney unit of United Technologies, which manufactures the engines.
But as 2013 draws to a close, it is increasingly clear that Lockheed and its team-mates have succeeded. Let’s briefly consider some of the milestones the program has achieved in the year now ending.
Testing. Rigorous testing provides the most important measure of whether the F-35 program is meeting its performance objectives, and collectively the three variants of the plane will be subjected to over 8,000 flight tests. In September, the program surpassed 10,000 hours of flight testing, matching in less than a year the amount of airborne testing conducted in the previous six years. Half of the flight-test schedule has now been completed with no major problems identified, meaning that fears of commencing production before testing was completed have proven to be unfounded. The Marine variant has accomplished over 500 vertical landings, proving that it will be able to operate safely in forward locations where there are no airstrips.
Production. Production of the F-35 is gradually ramping up, with 11 planes delivered in 2011, 30 in 2012 and 36 in 2013. All three U.S. military services have now begun using operational versions of the fighter at training bases, and the first deliveries to allies have occurred (United Kingdom and The Netherlands, both of which are flying them). On December 13, the hundredth plane rolled out of the mile-long F-35 assembly plant in Fort Worth, and company officials say they expect rollout next year of the first F-35 from the final assembly facility in Italy where most European F-35s will be completed. Among the first hundred F-35s produced, 44 were Air Force variants, 42 were Marine variants, and 14 were Navy variants; five went to allies.
Cost. Cost trends are crucial in determining whether the joint force can acquire all the F-35s it needs and overseas allies remain engaged. The “unit recurring flyaway cost” of the F-35, meaning the incremental cost of producing each additional plane, has declined in each of seven successive production lots, so that it now stands at half of what it was in the first lot. Industry has repeatedly delivered F-35 airframes and engines for less than what the government estimated they would cost. As the program progresses, the government has begun shrinking its projections of what it will cost to operate all 2,443 F-35s across a 50-year life-cycle. The latest estimate cuts the sustainment cost from $1.1 trillion in “then-year” dollars to $857 billion.
Teamwork. Relations between Lockheed Martin and government overseers of the F-35 have improved in the last year, thanks in part to smooth progress in the flight-testing program and in part to the installation of a new management team by the prime contractor. Although progress in retiring risk and reducing cost was already well under way before Lorraine Martin was made program manager and Orlando Carvalho head of the aeronautics unit in March, the tenor of the relationship has advanced markedly on their watch (some insiders give Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson credit for the shift towards a more customer-friendly approach). Senior Pentagon officials say previous tension in the relationship has largely dissipated.
Orders. The F-35 program began as a joint development effort between three U.S. military services and overseas allies willing to provide funding. Despite delays and a global recession, none of the participants has backed out of the program and additional countries like Israel and Japan have joined. In November of this year South Korea became the latest ally to order the F-35, citing its stealthy design and other survivability features as a key factor in maintaining the regional military balance. It appears F-35 is well on its way to becoming the “gold standard” of tactical aviation in the Western Pacific, and press reports at year-end indicated Persian Gulf allies are now clamoring for access to the plane.
With the F-35 fighter successfully achieving new milestones every month, there is only one really big issue still confronting the program: whether budget constraints will allow the government to ramp up annual production to truly economical rates. The original business plan assumed big cost savings by accelerating production fast to a level where sizable economies of scale would be feasible, but as Lockheed Martin program manager Lorraine Martin pointed out the day the hundredth F-35 rolled off the line, rates have been flat at 30-36 planes for the last four years. Initially the rates were restrained by concerns about program maturity, but the issue now is government spending constraints.
Program manager Martin says getting the cost of F-35 down to where it matches the price-tag of existing, fourth-generation fighters requires higher annual rates of production. That isn’t just a view that contractors find congenial; aerospace engineers have been writing since the 1930s that the cost of aircraft is intimately connected with the rate of production and the accumulation of experience. This dynamic is widely recognized across the manufacturing sector (Moore’s law in the semiconductor industry is a special application of the same principle). So as the F-35 program accomplishes its performance goals, the biggest question left is whether taxpayers and warfighters will get the full benefits of the world’s most advanced fighter by acquiring it at a sensible pace.
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