The F-35 joint strike fighter, doubtlessly the single most notorious program in the history of defense acquisition, is a study in extremes. The jet is technologically groundbreaking, but is associated with a long history of technical problems during development and testing. Involving three US military services and nine partner nations helped make it the largest and most expensive acquisition in Pentagon history, but public opinion of the jet is low, with some analysts and media outlets repeatedly slamming it as a catastrophe.
"So much is riding on its success. It is simultaneously too big to succeed and too big to fail," said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a member of the Defense News advisory board.
The history of the joint strike fighter program is long and fraught with challenges. Lockheed Martin and Boeing were chosen in 1997 to take part in a demonstration phase, with Lockheed picked in 2001 to produce the F-35. From there, the program grew into a case study of how not to do defense acquisition.
The F-35 incorporates a number of cutting-edge technologies, including stealth, supersonic speed and sensor fusion, as well as service-specific capabilities such as vertical takeoff and landing or the ability to land on a carrier. Developing and integrating those capabilities helped contribute to cost growth. Its schedule was also highly ambitious, resulting in a high level of concurrency between flight testing and production—something Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top weapon's buyer, famously labeled "acquisition malpractice" during a 2012 speech.
Repeated schedule slips and cost overruns culminated in a Nunn-McCurdy breach in 2010, after which the program was rebaselined. Since then, the relationship between the military and Lockheed has improved markedly, as has the performance and cost of the jet. The Marine Corps and Air Force have already introduced the jet into their operational fleets, and the Navy plans to declare initial operational capability in 2018. However, obstacles still remain, including a recent supply issue that led 15 F-35s to be grounded in September, and long-term challenges with its software and logistics system.
The huge buy-in from both the US military and international governments put huge pressure on other defense aerospace firms to cement contracts even as the market dwindled. Because the joint strike fighter was slated to replace a variety of planes, including the AV-8B Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet, F-16, A-10, the remaining military aircraft competitions — such as the fights to build the B-21 bomber and the T-X trainer competition — became more heated and have sometimes resulted in high-profile bid protests.
Global participation in the program has influenced international sales as well. The F-35 hasn’t lost a fighter competition so far, landing 11 committed customers to date and leaving a smaller potential customer base for fourth-generation planes such as Boeing’s F-15 and Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale.
Although the acquisition strategy will go down in history as a misstep, the weapons system itself will be seen as successful, said American Enterprise Institute analyst Mackenzie Eaglen, who called the program "a mixed bag."
"There are big gets in the program on networking, on sensor fusion, on meshed stealth and automated logistics. If all of those go in our favor, it’s a remarkable capability," she said. "But still, even when it’s fielded, I still don’t know that everyone will say we should have done it exactly like we did it, and we should have paid what we did."
This article is part of a larger Defense News 30-year anniversary project, showcasing the people, programs and innovations from the last three decades that most shaped the global security arena. Go to defensenews.com/30th to see all of our coverage.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.