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Special Hearing on the F-35

by Dan Barrett / /

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) convened a hearing to specifically address development issues regarding the F-35’s costs and timeline to military service. Being the largest military acquisition program in history, currently projected to cost at least $300 billion (although a more exact cost estimate was not produced during the hearings), the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project has been suffering development problems for at least the last two years. Ranking member McCain and Chairman Levin decided to bring in DoD procurement and cost officials to explore the delays and pending cost increases for America’s newest air superiority aircraft.

Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Aston Carter broke the JSF’s service life into 3 stages: Development, Ramp up to Production, and Full Production.

Development

The debate centered on the development phase, which was initially changed to be 30 months longer than originally planned but later, with a new production plan in place, has shrunk to 13 months. The time gap was filled with more test aircraft produced and by adding a more dedicated software integration program. The overall number of planes ordered has remained the same at 2,852 (all three variants included) but delivery will be delayed on the initial service craft, 122 planes between FY 2011 and 2015.

300 JSF’s are to be produced for testing purposes with $50 billion set aside for System Development and Demonstration (SDD). DoD Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Director Christine Fox cited a $2.8 billion in increased development funds. Hopefully, this will improve the lagging test sorties, of which only 10% have been completed thus far.

Ramp up to Production

Many of the issues facing Congressional leaders, concerned with cost overruns, and military planners, worried about a Fighter Shortfall, point to military contractors as a source of the F-35’s woes. The bidding system in place was not law by the time the JSF program was running. Many of the cost estimates and accountability measures are either based off the old system or being caught up at a delayed pace. Senator McCaskill went so far to ask for specific individuals to blame for the delays. The only individual mentioned was the fired Major who ran the program until earlier this year.

Even with the delays and finger pointing, Carter gave a basic time-line for the JSF. 2011 would see both Marine vertical take-off and hardened Navy version testing and the first training squadron’s creation. In 2012, the Marines plan to have enough F-35’s to reach Initial Operational Capacity (IOC) and the Navy and Air Force will reach their IOC’s in 2016.

The dates for deployment remain unchanged as testing continues. Carter explained the lower number of planes produced initially will save taxpayers money because if flaws are found in the first line, the costly errors will be fixed on fewer planes instead of on entire squadrons.

Full Production

Aircraft production prices usually have a steep initial cost but as more planes stream through the production line, the costs begin to decrease. Spending will then change emphasis from production to maintaining the fleet once enough fighters are in service. Michael Sullivan of the Government Accountability Office cited maintenance hours ranging around 2.5 million hours to create and produce a modern attack aircraft – more than doubling a 2001 number of 1 million hours to achieve the same feat.

Taxpayer Costs

According to Fox, the F-35 was estimated to cost at $50.2 million in 2001, $69.2 million in 2007, and currently $80-95 million (all in 2002 dollars) per aircraft. In other words, if the F-35’s were rolling off the assembly line today, they’d have a price tag of $112 million each (assuming everything goes according to plan). Taxpayers would be paying about $319 billion for all 2,852 F-35’s in today’s dollars.