It’s been a tough few weeks for the F-35 fighter program.
What was supposed to be a much-touted international debut at Britain’s premier air shows turned into a PR nightmare after the Pentagon grounded the fleet in the wake of an engine fire.
Despite a race to get the planes back in the air, it remained unclear at presstime on July 11 whether four F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing jets would make the Royal International Air Tattoo and the Farnborough International Airshow. A jet that was to have been the star of both shows instead became the butt of jokes and raised new questions about whether the jet is worth the massive investment.
Missing the air shows or arriving late was a public relations disaster, but it is inconsequential over the long term. Even though 100 jets have already been delivered, the program is still very much in development. Whether the fire represents a serious flaw or was simply an anomaly, it’s far wiser to delay a PR flight than risk losing a jet over the ocean — or worse, in the midst of one of the world’s largest air shows.
Any ambitious development effort on this scale is bound to experience problems. JSF has already overcome numerous setbacks that critics said were show-stoppers. It will overcome this one, as well — and likely many others, besides, before it is successfully fielded.
Launched nearly two decades ago, JSF is the world’s largest and most complex military program ever. Changing requirements and mounting engineering challenges have slowed schedules and spiked costs over time, but the Pentagon and its partners have made cost control a top priority.
The program has been restructured, oversight has increased and testing requirements improved. The US and its eight partner nations have ratcheted up the pressure on prime contractor Lockheed Martin and its partners, like engine-maker Pratt & Whitney, to deliver on cost and schedule.
Now, with 60 percent of development testing completed, the program is moving through test goals and demonstrating real capability and declining cost. That’s a success story.
It was that growing confidence in the jet that led officials to decide it was time for the F-35 to make its international debut in Britain, America’s first and leading international partner on the fighter. Indeed, London’s unwavering commitment to F-35 is said to have kept the program alive in Washington.
JSF’s competitors have good reason to snipe about the cost overruns and program delays. They dedicate considerable energy into undermining the fighter program and questioning its cost and utility, because each nation that signs up to buy the jet is one less customer for their existing fighters.
Those planes are already struggling on the global market. And there is a struggle within partner nations themselves, given the massive size of the program, where JSF spending is crowding out other acquisition priorities.
For all its challenges, the JSF remains a critical program that delivers game-changing capability. The key for the US and its partners is to complete development and then field it — in numbers great enough to ensure reasonable production and operating costs.