Why is the F-16 fighter jet so successful, with 4,500 airplanes delivered and, 30 years later, still in production, while the F-35 is a continuing struggle?
I was heavily involved in both programs, to include industry and government, and here are my observations — and some lessons learned from the F-16 — that could be helpful for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.
Both programs started with the same objectives:
å Incorporate new and decisive technologies to keep America well ahead of potential adversaries.
å Keep total program cost low by overlapping development, test and production.
å Reduce support costs compared to the airplanes being replaced.
å Promote international involvement to strengthen coalitions and to share costs.
å Implement rapid production ramp-up with accelerated fielding to get the capability to those depending on it.
Since it involves three different configurations with a high degree of commonality, the F-35 is a more complex undertaking than the F-16, but they are still comparable programs, as the F-16 also incorporated a host of new technologies for its day, like fly-by-wire digital flight control.
Both programs experienced their share of early development problems. At the outset, F-35 designers struggled with too much weight for the short-takeoff version. We forget today that F-16 designers struggled with canopy, engine and cockpit issues. Yet compared with the F-16 timeline, the birthing pains of the F-35 are well in its past. Even so, the F-35 program is still being slowed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), moving forward inefficiently at best.
DoD is overly concerned with the cost of concurrency, even though it has always been the plan for the F-35 to repeat the proven F-16 approach. Unlike serial programs, where development — test — production nicely dovetail one after the other, concurrency is where they overlap. Based on their statements and testimony to the U.S. Congress, today’s DoD officials believe that F-35 concurrency adds unbounded and unaffordable retrofit costs to incorporate fixes for problems found in later tests into earlier production airplanes.
They intend to keep F-35 production at very low and costly production rates until at or near full specification performance is demonstrated. For the F-35, final testing is not scheduled for completion until 2017.
By contrast, from the start, the F-16 went to high-rate production; 352 airplanes were on firm order within four years and three years later, more than 500 had been delivered worldwide.
This fast production was based on several important decision criteria. First, there was confidence that the early configuration of the F-16 would be superior to the F-4 Phantom it was replacing, even though the performance specification had not been fully demonstrated through testing. Contractor and government tests were in parallel, and results were shared to gain quick confidence in the basic airplane.
Second, low cost could only be achieved through high-rate production.
Third, service leaders knew that the airplanes would be continuously upgraded, so there was never a final configuration for production.
Lastly, there was never a plan to retrofit older airplanes as newer capabilities were added. Rather, each airplane configuration was fielded for a mission suited to its performance. And when retrofit was initiated, it was accomplished as part of a scheduled block change to keep the cost low.
To date, there are 138 versions of the F-16, as well as 15 block changes, with each block a decisive improvement in capability.
The contrast with the F-35 is striking. In the past two years, DoD planners have cut 426 F-35s out of the five-year defense plan. Assuming those numbers remain firm, it will now take the F-35 program about 17 years to deliver what the F-16 achieved in seven. No wonder the F-35 unit cost is not coming down as fast as originally planned.
Based on the success of the similar F-16 program, it’s clear to me that avoiding concurrency is not a good decision. It sacrifices the substantial savings available from efficient, higher production rates to save relatively smaller estimated retrofit costs. It guarantees higher production costs to avoid the expense of retrofits that may, in fact, never be incorporated. It just doesn’t add up.
The result is that the overall savings originally expected of the F-35 program in terms of higher production rates and faster fielding are not being realized.
The decision to keep production at very low rates carries other cost penalties. The OSD decision to delay full-rate F-35 production occurred after suppliers had already spent billions of dollars defining and automating their manufacturing processes to meet expected early, large-volume production. These costs are now amortized over far lower upfront quantities.
And with F-35 fielding now stretched further into the future, the services will feel more compelled to extend the life of the older legacy airplanes. That is a double cost negative.
In addition to the cost of upgrading older airplanes, the services also will need to spend more for their maintenance. The F-35 will save substantial sums in lifetime support costs compared with the multiple legacy airplanes it will replace, but these savings are only realized when the F-35 is deployed, so time is money.
Savings Needed Now
This is a critical time for the F-35. The Navy has too many carriers it can’t afford and the Air Force has too large a bill for refueling tankers and the development of a new bomber. This is the right time to gain unit cost savings from higher F-35 production rates. It is the wrong time for DoD to be making profound program decisions based on a flawed understanding of concurrency.
My recommendation is to take F-35 decision-making out of the hands of well-intentioned but misguided financial analysts. With a new incoming service acquisition executive for F-35, there is opportunity for dramatic improvements. The executive will need full authority. But even that will not be enough. It is now time to put more of the procurement, test and fielding decisions back into the services, more in line with how the F-16 was managed by the U.S. Air Force Systems Command. The JSF Program Office should concentrate on nurturing and expanding international sales.
In that regard, it is also time to give international partners more say in the program. International sales account for about 40 percent of planned deliveries over the next decade. These international customers have the same budget difficulties as DoD, and many have invested heavily in the program, yet they have no advance say in DoD planning.
The F-35 program needs these added sales quantities to keep unit costs affordable for all users. To maintain and expand these sales, DoD should be more proactive in dealing with existing and potential international customers.
DoD also needs to work with Congress to bring the test community back under DoD control. An eight-year test program seems excessive in terms of achieving the proper balance among test time, cost and fielding benefits.
The F-35 contractor designers and government engineers who evaluated the early proposals promised more than they could deliver on the timeline of the contract. Too much was promised too soon. Eleven years later, with much of the development and test now complete, it is a different story. Production capability has been proved by actual deliveries. In terms of development maturity, the F-35 is at least at par with the F-16 at its four-year point.
When comparing concurrent production, however, the F-35 is being artificially confined to low production rates at a point when the F-16 was already roaring ahead.
Without substantial numbers of F-35s, the U.S. Air Force could shrink to a marginal fighter force and risk losing future air supremacy. The U.S. Navy will lose “first-day capability” and will be forced to put its expensive carriers in harm’s way. The U.S. Marine Corps will be unable to confidently support its forward-deployed forces from amphibious ships.
With DoD budgets already shrinking, DoD quickly needs to change its F-35 management philosophy.