After several years of cost growth, program delays and constant criticism, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is making an unmistakable turnaround toward program success. Costs are dropping dramatically for both the aircraft and engine. In May, the Department of Defense announced a $4.5 billion reduction in program cost. The engine manufacturer has reduced engine costs by almost $3 million per engine over the past two years. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel testified to Congress in April that the F-35 is “on track” and its costs “are coming down.”
Today, the operators, both pilots and maintainers, are expressing high confidence in the performance and maintainability of the F-35. I met with them recently at Eglin Air Force Base, where operational testing takes place. To a person, they talk enthusiastically about the unprecedented increases in capabilities over the current generation of fighter aircraft. They are eager to get the F-35s to the field soon.
This turnaround may appear surprising to many, but it is not uncommon for military aircraft that push the state of the art in many areas of technology simultaneously, as the F-35 is doing. The F-15, F-16, F-22, V-22 and C-17 all had similar growing pains during their development programs. The C-17 was nearly canceled because of development and early production problems; now it is the gold standard for strategic airlift around the world.
I predict the F-35 will enjoy the same success over time. The fundamental problem has been its concurrency of design, development and early production. The services were overly optimistic in laying out a development program that assumed success at every milestone and had no margin for the problems that inevitably emerged. Having agonized through those problems with their cost and schedule penalties, the F-35 program is on the cusp of high performance and high efficiency. Frank Kendall, the DOD’s top acquisition official, recently said the F-35 today “is not the program I saw in 2010. ... It’s not one of my problem programs.” That’s high praise from a former critic of the program.
What makes this turnaround all the more impressive is the commitment of industry partners and the three services that will operate the F-35 to continue to reduce cost and improve performance. All three services are fully committed to the F-35 as the backbone of their force structures. They realize the value of the F-35 in dealing with the anti-access and area denial capabilities of emerging potential adversaries in the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. They know the unique stealth features of the F-35, coupled with its firepower, are absolutely needed to deter and defeat all adversaries quickly and decisively.
But they also know that to accomplish its missions quickly, the F-35 must be built in quantities sufficient to deal with multiple contingencies around the world and apply overwhelming force in every scenario. To continue to reduce cost and fill the forces of the U.S. and international partners, the F-35 production rate must increase. At this stage of its maturity, an increase in annual production rate is the only way to decrease unit costs so that the F-35 becomes affordable for all.
More importantly, increasing production rates is the right step to begin the huge potential return on investment that awaits the F-35 program. Like the F-16, one of the fighters it is intended to replace, the payoff for the development and early production costs of the F-35 lies in exploiting the production phase with large, annual buys over many years, to generate a large return on the nation’s investment. We failed to exploit our investment in the development of the B-2 bomber and F-22 fighter aircraft because we lowered annual production quantities to the point where unit costs increased precipitously making further production unaffordable. Both programs anticipated larger production runs that would have lowered unit costs to affordable levels. Let us not make that mistake with the F-35.
The F-35 program is now poised to provide the returns on investment that were intended at its outset. The war fighters of our nation and 10 or more of our allied nations want and need the F-35 for their security in a hostile world. Now is the time to take advantage of the program’s turnaround and significantly increase the annual rate of production.
John Michael Loh is a retired four-star general, a former Air Force vice chief of staff and former commander of Air Combat Command. He consults for several defense companies including Pratt & Whitney.