WASHINGTON — The F-35 joint strike fighter has been branded a trillion-dollar black hole of a program, a boondoggle for contractors, and "The Plane That Ate the Pentagon."
Hogwash, says the man in charge of the program, despite a series of design challenges, including cracks on the Marine's F-35B model and software issues, that remain for the stealthy fighter.
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the head of the F-35 joint program office, came out forcefully Tuesday in a press event with reporters in defense of his program, citing constant drops in the cost of the jet and schedule certainty since a major rebaselining of the jet.
"It is a fact this program is over budget from 2001's baseline. It's just true," Bogdan said. "We will never underrun that number. We will never save that money. It's gone. What matters is since that time, what's happened to the cost on the program? It's gone down, not gone up.
"Judge the program today, not where it's been, but where it is and where it's going."
Bogdan pointed out that this year's selected acquisition report (SAR) found no change in RDT&E funding, while noting it drove procurement costs down by $3 billion, something he attributed to both not pushing planes out to the right and driving down the per unit cost.
According to figures provided by Bogdan, the average cost-per-unit in low-rate initial production lots six, seven and eight, the last three lots on contract, have fallen like this:
- F-35A conventional takeoff and landing model: $117 million, $112 million, $108 million.
- F-35B "jump-jet" model: $145 million, $137 million, $134 million.
- F-35C carrier variant: $134 million, $130 million, $129 million.
Those figures Include engines, profit for contractors and adjusts for inflation.
The one area the SAR did not show good news for the program was operations and sustainment (O&S), something Bogdan blamed on them not adjusting for inflation.
"Inflation could potentially mask any true cost reduction and that's exactly what happened this year," Bogdan said. "We had a bigger cost reduction, a true cost reduction, than what was shown in the SAR because of inflation rates, because they readjusted them. The estimate has gone down, from last year to this year, $540b to $535b in base-year dollars."
While the program is trending in the right direction, Bogdan did admit to having some concerns over the jet.
The biggest concern, he said, is keeping software development on track. With around 8 million lines of code on the plane itself, software has always been a challenge for Bogdan's team. In particular, getting the sensor fusion algorithms on the plane to work correctly remains a focus.
Bogdan's second concern revolves around keeping the jet on projected growth curves for reliability and maintainability. While the F-35A and F-35C models are "very close" to those curves, the F-35B model is lagging behind.
The F-35B is also the focus of Bogdan's other major concern, one which is less nebulous than software or cost.
During repeated testing of the F-35B, program officials have discovered cracks in the jump-jet model after about 4,000 hours of flight time. (Each F-35 is projected to operate for 8,000 hours over its career.) In particular, bulkhead 496 — a major load-bearing part of the fuselage — has shown a propensity for cracking, Bogdan said.
The cause? The structural changes that were made in 2005 when officials decided the F-35B model was too heavy to be operational and began to pull 3,000 pounds out of the design. That was achieved, in part, by switching material from titanium to aluminum and thinning out sections of the structure.
"Some of that, unfortunately, is coming back to bite us now," Bogdan said.
Because the damage is showing up at about half the life of the jet, it is not something that should impact the Marines for years, and will not impact the initial operating capability coming up this year. But, Bogdan conceded, it is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Bogdan noted that the F-35A/C models have shown no major findings that would require significant structural changes, even after 10,000 hours of testing. The JPO plans to test up to three lifetimes, or 24,000 hours, on each jet.
The program head also listed a series of smaller concerns, including the redesign of tires on the B model and making sure the fixes to last year's engine mishap are implemented fully. But on the whole, he said, the program is moving beyond the mistakes of the past.
With 109 jets on the ramp, Bogdan said, "we have flown 28,500 hours of flying time. We've done it fairly safely, and we've done it in a way that is providing at least some level of capability, training and learning to the war fighter."