When General Mark Walsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, appears before Congress this Friday, he will be hard pressed to defend the service’s proposals to retire a slew of attack and surveillance aircraft and proposed cuts to the Air National Guard. One program that the budget ramps up, however, is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). After years of scathing reviews by government auditors and congressional skeptics, the JSF may have finally evaded its greatest threat – the cost overruns and delays that once placed the entire program at risk.
Not long ago, the JSF program was in serious trouble. The Government Accountability Office published a series of reports highlighting the program’s cost overruns, testing failures, and difficulties in applying research to production. Media coverage of the program was brutal: “Trillion-Dollar Jet on the Brink of Budgetary Disaster,” read a 2012 headline from Wired Magazine. A year later, the most generous commentary that Bloomberg could offer was that the “flawed” program was “too big to kill.”
In response to these stinging rebukes, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired the Pentagon’s manager for the program, a two-star general, in 2010, and then oversaw a dramatic restructuring that added time for development and postponed the acquisition of some 400 aircraft. In 2012 and 2013, the Pentagon withheld billions in payments to the largest contractors working on the JSF, Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney.
These types of changes are often the death knell for a major program, especially at a time of budget cuts. In this case, they bought enough time for the JSF to turn a corner. The Joint Strike Fighter is no longer just “too big to kill,” but starting to deliver on its promises.
For the first time since it began reporting on the program a decade ago, the GAO has identified significant progress. In testimony delivered on June 2013, Michael J. Sullivan reported that in the prior year: “The program met or substantially met most of its key management and development testing objectives for the year. We also found that the program made progress in addressing key technical risks, as well as improving software management, manufacturing, and supply processes.”
In his most recent annual report, the Pentagon’s Director for Operational Testing and Evaluation (DOT&E) found that in 2013 the aircraft “nearly matched or exceeded flight test sortie goals,” and made its planned progress in flight sciences testing. Meanwhile, on the production line, labor hours per aircraft are falling and deliveries are accelerating.
Despite this progress, both GAO and DOT&E warn of significant risks and challenges for the Joint Strike Fighter. Recent setbacks include the discovery of bulkhead cracks on test aircraft in February 2014, and operational tests on mission systems and weapons integration are falling behind schedule. Nonetheless, few aircraft testing efforts proceed flawlessly—identifying problems before a system becomes operational is precisely why testing occurs in the first place.
The more important point is that the structural problems that caused significant cost overruns and delays are in the process of being fixed. Even the Joint Program Office, has claimed progress. Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bognan recently noted, "The basic design of the F-35 is sound, and test results underscore our confidence in the ultimate performance that the United States and its international partners and allies value so highly.”
The fact that the program is finally overcoming these major hurdles should allow the debate to return to the strategic rather than the budgetary significance of the F-35. The achievement of air superiority is still a central tenet of the American way of war—and is perhaps more important now than ever, in an era in which Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has warned that the “proliferation of more advanced military technologies by other nations… means that we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”
While the Joint Strike Fighter program is moving forward, our allies are coming aboard. Israel, Japan, and South Korea are all keen to field the aircraft, and eight partner countries continue to provide vital contributors to the Joint Strike Fighter’s development. One of these countries, the United Kingdom, already has pilots training on the aircraft in the United States.
Even though it has survived major turbulence, the Joint Strike Fighter cannot be certain of future funding. If full sequestration returns after 2015, the Defense Department would have little choice but to cut the F-35 buy rate. The F-35 program has made hard choices to implement needed reforms, and America and its allies will ultimately be more secure as a result. Whether the administration and Congress can work together to ensure that this vital asset remains a budgetary priority, unfortunately, remains to be seen.