In a year where the Department of Defense struggled to address a global pandemic, uncertainty at home, and multiple security challenges abroad, the F-35 program stands out as a success story. The aircraft continues to provide exceptional capability for three U.S. Armed Services and more than a dozen foreign operators. In the face of COVID-19 slamming their supply chains on the home front, the F-35 industrial team still managed to produce a near-record 123 fighters. 2020 also saw the roll-out of the first version of the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN), the new logistics support program. This is a remarkable record for any large, complex defense program in normal times, much less while struggling to deal with the human and economic toll caused by a global pandemic.
COVID-19 has brought heartache and death to this country. It has also disrupted the operations of businesses large and small. The Department of Defense (DoD) has struggled along with every other organization to protect its people while conducting the necessary business of defending the nation, maintaining force readiness and ensuring the continuation of modernization efforts. In addition, the U.S. military deployed to support state and local governments with their pandemic responses and even helped with the development of COVID vaccines.
The defense and aerospace industry also responded to the challenges posed by the virus. Protection of its workforce was and remains the number one priority. At the same time, industry knew that it had to continue to make progress on programs and plans to equip the military.
An example of how well DoD and the defense industry has coped with the ravages of the pandemic is the Lockheed Martin F-35 program. For example, the pre-COVID plan called for producing 141 F-35s in 2020. This was revised downward in May to between 117 and 123, as DoD planners and industry saw what was happening. The Lockheed Martin team was proactive in changing its production plans and cleaning methods to protect workers. Nevertheless, the program reached its new goal, delivering 123 aircraft, including nearly 50 to foreign partners and countries using the Foreign Military Sales system. 2020 also saw the delivery of the 500th F-35 and the completion of more than 250,000 flight hours across the global fleet.
The cost for the F-35 continues to decline, with the price for the benchmark F-35A projected to drop to under 80 million dollars by 2021. According to industry sources, the F-35’s reliability continues to improve. The newest production aircraft average greater than 70% mission capable rates, and some are consistently near 75%.
Last year saw F-35s from all three Services participate in numerous exercises and training events. One of the most noteworthy of these was Project Convergence, an Army Futures Command program designed to help develop an artificial intelligence and machine learning-based battle management system to direct a host of new weapons systems, such as the Extended Range Cannon Artillery. In a major exercise, the ability to conduct fire missions based on sensor data from Marine Corps F-35Bs passed to Army long-range artillery was demonstrated.
Having declared the carrier-variant of the F-35 — the C model — fully operational, the Navy and Marine Corps spent 2020 getting ready to deploy it aboard U.S. aircraft carriers. Together with deployments of advanced versions of the Boeing F/A-18E/F, the Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye, the Bell Boeing CMV-22B Osprey, and the new Boeing MQ-25 aerial refueling drone, the F-35C will transform the carrier air wing.
Despite limitations imposed on close contact because of the pandemic, countries acquiring the F-35 continued to induct aircraft, stand up units and conduct training missions during 2020. In July, Italian Air Force F-35s returning home from an air policing mission in Iceland stopped in the United Kingdom to train alongside Royal Air Force F-35Bs.
The U.S. has also participated with many partner countries and overseas allies in training exercises with the F-35. Last October, the Israeli Air Force and U.S. Air Force conducted a joint exercise in Israeli skies.
Defying COVID, the United Kingdom sent its newest aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, to sea for a pre-deployment exercise in late 2020. Not only did the Queen Elizabeth demonstrate its ability to operate the short-takeoff and landing variant of the F-35, the F-35B, it also hosted a squadron of U.S. Marine Corp F-35s in a clear demonstration of how the F-35 enhances interoperability with allies.
In 2020, more countries also entered the Joint Strike Fighter community. In a landmark agreement, the United States will sell the United Arab Emirates up to 50 F-35s, along with advanced unmanned aerial systems and air-delivered munitions. An agreement between Warsaw and Washington for Poland to acquire 32 F-35s was signed in early 2020.
Given the impacts of COVID on virtually all the Department of Defense’s activities, it would be surprising if there were no problems with the F-35 program. One such virus-related impact was the need to delay a decision on full-rate production, previously planned for March 2021 to a later date. This was not due to problems with the F-35 itself, production lines, or deployment of software. Rather, it reflected problems in operational test and evaluation, as the need for social distancing made it difficult to complete a number of required test and evaluation activities.
In addition, the pandemic forced delays in completion of the Joint Simulation Environment (JSE), an extremely sophisticated virtual testing regime being built to assess the performance of advanced aircraft, particularly the F-35. According to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a combination of technical challenges and the impact of COVID‐19 was delaying the maturation of the JSE. This will prevent the completion of F‐35 Block 3F software’s Initial Operational Test & Evaluation by the original target date of March 2021.
2020 proved the resilience of the U.S military and the defense and aerospace, industrial base. Despite the COVID-19-created delay in fielding the JSE and conducting the full operation test and evaluation program, F-35s continues to roll off the production line, enter service and perform extraordinarily well in exercises and on operational deployments. All in all, 2020 can be recorded as a remarkable success for the F-35 program.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.