Time to Get Serious About the F-35 Program

When the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) competition was awarded to Lockheed Martin in late 2001, there was much excitement. The time was right to begin with a next generation fighter program to replace aging fleets in the U.S. and among its allies abroad, and -- of equal importance -- to keep the defense advanced technology base moving forward and avoid the risk of an international brain drain and military-industrial complex atrophy.

The F-35 program that emerged proposed to build a dual-role tactical aircraft capable of both air-to-ground (strike) and air-to-air (fighter) combat operations. It is a fifth-generation aircraft designed to incorporate the most modern technology such as thrust vectoring, composite materials, stealth technology, advanced radar and sensors, and integrated avionics to greatly improve pilot situational awareness.

The operational requirements of the F-35 program required 70% to 90% commonality among three versions of the aircraft -- one for each of the Air Force (F-35A), Marine Corps (F-35B), and Navy (F-35C). As a result, many of the high-cost parts -- including the basic engine design, avionics, and major airframe structural components -- are common to all variants.

Unfortunately, the F-35 program has encountered a number of significant challenges since its inception. It has been plagued by cost overruns that escalated the per-plane cost from US$75 million to an estimated US$160 million. Scheduling difficulties have seen peak production delayed by over 5 years.

Because it was designed as an interoperable multi-role next generation aircraft with three variants utilizing common components, patience was needed and modest delays, technical hiccups, and costing issues were expected. But at this point, the F-35 program is taking on the collective appearance of one that was, and is, very poorly managed. Given its high profile and importance, it is too big to fail.

The F-35 software has more than 30 million lines of code. Some errors in the Block 2B and related software code led to navigation system and weapons targeting inaccuracies, sensor false alarms, and the inability to detect and survive enemy defenses including friend-or-foe identification. While the upgraded 3I version of the software can take advantage of the revisions to the 2B package, the 3F block software (full operational capability version) requires considerable independent testing and is likely to be delayed until at least 2018.

The autonomic logistics information system (ALIS) monitors all operations, maintenance, prognostics, supply chain, customer support services, training and technical data within the aircraft, and -- it, too -- has suffered from technological deficiencies that have resulted in a number of its capabilities being either delayed or deferred to later builds. The system has also come in larger and heavier than specified in the original design.

Not to be left out, the high tech helmet -- designed to display integrated sensor, aircraft control, and weapons targeting information -- initially gave false alarms and target tracks and contained a night vision camera that failed to meet specifications. Although these issues have largely been dealt with in recent production versions, the helmet itself now appears to be too large for the cockpit, making scanning the airspace below and behind the pilot particularly difficult.

During high-speed maneuvers, the F-35 suffers from “wing drop” which causes the aircraft to drop and roll to one side. Add-on parts were designed to address the problem, but these produced a corresponding decrease in maneuverability, acceleration, and range.

The most recent report released by the Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation has highlighted additional problems including safety of the ejection seat system for smaller pilots and vulnerability to lightning strikes.

A number of other components -- such as the avionics processors, landing gear tires, thermal management systems, ejection seat assemblies, cockpit display electronics unit, igniter-spark in the turbine engines, and the on-board oxygen generating systems -- require more maintenance than desired, resulting in longer downtime and increased operational costs.

Each of these issues caused component costs to come in above initial estimates and resulted in additional delays to testing and production, which -- in the classic spiral of production chain challenges -- has further increased costs.

Several measures were taken to reduce some of these expenses. In 2012, the decision was made to delay purchase of 179 aircraft to beyond the original 2017 time frame. Procurement funds were also transferred to the research and development budget in an effort to move the project forward more quickly.

Add to this various performance, range, and stealth issues, as well as a small weapons capacity, that the F-35 program had to compromise on over the development and testing cycle.

Despite being the most expensive weapons systems ever developed, the F-35 program has neither achieved its ambitious goals nor confronted associated deficiencies and challenges in order keep the public and politicians -- even some of its most ardent supporters -- on side. Patience is running out in many quarters, and with it goes public support for increased defense spending during this time of great geopolitical challenges.

We need to see the next president and Congress, as well as international partners, providing clear development and operational targets that have unavoidable serious consequences if not met. For their part, program managers within the military and their contractors need to make significant and rapid progress on outstanding issues over the coming year or they run the risk of the next administration making an undesirable decision about the program's future for them.

When the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) competition was awarded to Lockheed Martin in late 2001, there was much excitement. The time was right to begin with a next generation fighter program to replace aging fleets in the U.S. and among its allies abroad, and -- of equal importance -- to keep the defense advanced technology base moving forward and avoid the risk of an international brain drain and military-industrial complex atrophy.

The F-35 program that emerged proposed to build a dual-role tactical aircraft capable of both air-to-ground (strike) and air-to-air (fighter) combat operations. It is a fifth-generation aircraft designed to incorporate the most modern technology such as thrust vectoring, composite materials, stealth technology, advanced radar and sensors, and integrated avionics to greatly improve pilot situational awareness.

The operational requirements of the F-35 program required 70% to 90% commonality among three versions of the aircraft -- one for each of the Air Force (F-35A), Marine Corps (F-35B), and Navy (F-35C). As a result, many of the high-cost parts -- including the basic engine design, avionics, and major airframe structural components -- are common to all variants.

Unfortunately, the F-35 program has encountered a number of significant challenges since its inception. It has been plagued by cost overruns that escalated the per-plane cost from US$75 million to an estimated US$160 million. Scheduling difficulties have seen peak production delayed by over 5 years.

Because it was designed as an interoperable multi-role next generation aircraft with three variants utilizing common components, patience was needed and modest delays, technical hiccups, and costing issues were expected. But at this point, the F-35 program is taking on the collective appearance of one that was, and is, very poorly managed. Given its high profile and importance, it is too big to fail.

The F-35 software has more than 30 million lines of code. Some errors in the Block 2B and related software code led to navigation system and weapons targeting inaccuracies, sensor false alarms, and the inability to detect and survive enemy defenses including friend-or-foe identification. While the upgraded 3I version of the software can take advantage of the revisions to the 2B package, the 3F block software (full operational capability version) requires considerable independent testing and is likely to be delayed until at least 2018.

The autonomic logistics information system (ALIS) monitors all operations, maintenance, prognostics, supply chain, customer support services, training and technical data within the aircraft, and -- it, too -- has suffered from technological deficiencies that have resulted in a number of its capabilities being either delayed or deferred to later builds. The system has also come in larger and heavier than specified in the original design.

Not to be left out, the high tech helmet -- designed to display integrated sensor, aircraft control, and weapons targeting information -- initially gave false alarms and target tracks and contained a night vision camera that failed to meet specifications. Although these issues have largely been dealt with in recent production versions, the helmet itself now appears to be too large for the cockpit, making scanning the airspace below and behind the pilot particularly difficult.

During high-speed maneuvers, the F-35 suffers from “wing drop” which causes the aircraft to drop and roll to one side. Add-on parts were designed to address the problem, but these produced a corresponding decrease in maneuverability, acceleration, and range.

The most recent report released by the Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation has highlighted additional problems including safety of the ejection seat system for smaller pilots and vulnerability to lightning strikes.

A number of other components -- such as the avionics processors, landing gear tires, thermal management systems, ejection seat assemblies, cockpit display electronics unit, igniter-spark in the turbine engines, and the on-board oxygen generating systems -- require more maintenance than desired, resulting in longer downtime and increased operational costs.

Each of these issues caused component costs to come in above initial estimates and resulted in additional delays to testing and production, which -- in the classic spiral of production chain challenges -- has further increased costs.

Several measures were taken to reduce some of these expenses. In 2012, the decision was made to delay purchase of 179 aircraft to beyond the original 2017 time frame. Procurement funds were also transferred to the research and development budget in an effort to move the project forward more quickly.

Add to this various performance, range, and stealth issues, as well as a small weapons capacity, that the F-35 program had to compromise on over the development and testing cycle.

Despite being the most expensive weapons systems ever developed, the F-35 program has neither achieved its ambitious goals nor confronted associated deficiencies and challenges in order keep the public and politicians -- even some of its most ardent supporters -- on side. Patience is running out in many quarters, and with it goes public support for increased defense spending during this time of great geopolitical challenges.

We need to see the next president and Congress, as well as international partners, providing clear development and operational targets that have unavoidable serious consequences if not met. For their part, program managers within the military and their contractors need to make significant and rapid progress on outstanding issues over the coming year or they run the risk of the next administration making an undesirable decision about the program's future for them.