Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Is the F-35’s success the “Pentagon’s best kept secret”?

It seems to be since rarely do you see anything positive in the defense media about the aircraft.  But in fact, as I pointed out recently, the testing is going gang-busters and the aircraft remains ahead of schedule. 

Loren Thompson writes in Forbes about this phenomenon of ignoring the F-35’s progress to instead concentrate on the negative.

If you pay any attention to media coverage of the F-35 fighter program, then you know the Pentagon’s biggest weapons program is “troubled” (to use the favored adjective of reporters).  Flight tests are lagging, costs are skyrocketing, and overseas partners are beginning to get cold feet.  So the Joint Strike Fighter, as it used to be called, is looking like another black eye for the Pentagon’s fouled up acquisition system, right?

Wrong, as he notes.  He also notes why you continue to hear this factually incorrect litany repeated again and again:

For instance, Pentagon officials recently disclosed that the cost of building and operating the F-35 had risen to $1.5 trillion — without mentioning that a third of that total is unprovable estimates of future inflation and two-thirds of supposed increases from the program baseline reflect changes in how costs are calculated rather than real increases.  Officials also didn’t mention it would cost two or three times more to stick with the current fleet of fighters, given the cost of maintaining aging aircraft.  Most news accounts just cited the trillion-dollar price-tag, preferring to stick with the “troubled program” theme.  Easy to write, no thinking required.

Easy stories to write and, in the era of defense budget cuts, one which supports the popular premise that this program is a dog and thus ripe for cutting.

But it isn’t a dog.  It is progressing rapidly and well, much to the chagrin of the critics (the same core of critics who once called for the scrapping of the F-15 as “too costly and complex”, called the M-1 tank “a loser” while touting the M-60 as all the MBT we needed and claim legacy aircraft are the answer to our future national security.)

Thompson, as you see above, gives the “trillion dollar” cost some context.  Context you’ll never see in most articles that mention the trillion dollars.

He also mentions the flight tests – details that never find their way into the critics articles.  For instance:

By the end of this year, the most common version of the plane — the one that will be used by the Air Force and exported to most foreign customers — will be 45 percent of the way through all its flight tests.

That’s very impressive.  Yet virtually unknown to this point.

Most likely you’ve heard all the “concern” about the software.  Again, a mostly unknown fact that disputes the concerns:

Another concern has been delays in software; however, as of today 95 percent of the plane’s airborne software is either being used in flight tests or being tested in labs.  No show-stoppers in sight, either in the hardware or in the software.

Thompson also hits the cost “problem”.  Hint, rising costs aren’t the fault of the contractor and could be easily remedied:

The factor that usually trips up new weapons programs is cost, because while nobody in Congress understands how to measure the stealthiness of an F-35, everybody thinks they understand a price-tag.  Pentagon leaders have thoroughly confused this issue by making it sound like the cost of F-35 is going up while actually taking huge amounts of money out of the program each year.  In 2011 they cut 122 planes and $10 billion from near-term spending plans for the program; in 2012 they cut another 124 planes and $9 billion; and now in 2013 they have proposed cutting 179 planes and $15 billion.  Cutting the rate at which F-35s are produced definitely increases the cost of each plane, but during the Obama years the program has become more of a piggy bank than a money pit for Pentagon planners.

He goes on to point out that even with these continual cuts by Congress, by the 10th production lot, the aircraft’s unit flyaway cost will be comparable with that of an F/A 18 or F-16.

Another canard is that foreign partners are souring on the F-35.  Yet it appears precisely the opposite is true:

Norway’s defense minister stated in March, “We remain confident that the F-35 represents the best capability for the best value possible.”  Australia’s air force chief said last week that the 100 F-35s his nation needs are “still affordable” within a budget range established in 2003.  The United Kingdom has shifted the variant it plans to buy while remaining dedicated to the program.  Even Italy, the country which faces the direst financial circumstances among the original partners, has said that while it will trim its purchases of the plane, it still intends to build them indigenously for its military.

Meanwhile, Israel, Japan and Singapore have all indicated an interest in purchasing the F-35, while Asian observers say South Korea may soon become its newest customer.

Israel is negotiating a second squadron in fact.  What does Israel, a country that always does its homework before it commits to a weapon system, know about the F-35 that the critics seemingly don’t know?

That the F-35 is developing into the game-changer it was touted to be.

Not that you’d ever be able to convince the critics.  But then, the Pentagon could do a little better job of making all of this clear too, couldn’t it?

Update: No surprise, critics don’t agree with Thompson and attempt to refute what he says by casting aspersions instead of facts.


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