Monday, February 11, 2013

F-35: The price of cutting the program is more expensive than the program

Retired Marine Corps Brig Gen. Stephan Cheney has his say about the F-35. He makes the case that it is critical to our military's future. He also says:
The F-35 has had schedule delays and cost overruns, for which there are a number of causes. Chief among them is concurrency, the practice of moving forward with production before development and testing is complete. As a result, new planes may roll off the assembly line already in need of significant retrofitting – an unintended consequence of the plan to field the aircraft quickly and efficiently.

 For many, the solution to the F-35’s rising costs and technical setbacks is to cut back or even cancel the program. This is the kind of knee-jerk reaction we must avoid. We must weigh consequences, costs, and alternative solutions, all in the light of strategic requirements rather than jumping to conclusions. 
I disagree with one aspect of his defense of the F-35.  Concurrency costs are not "an unintended consequence" of the plan to field the aircraft quickly.  They are, in fact, planned costs, and they've come in under budget so far as we reported here.   There are nothing at all "unintended" about those costs. They are anticipated - the trade off - for fielding the aircraft more quickly. The trick, which apparently they're accomplishing so far, is to spend less than you budget.

But his other point is spot on.  Every program - every program - has teething problems.  There isn't a single one that proceeds according to plan right out of the gate.  So while the program did indeed have it's ups and downs in the beginning, it seems to have reached its stride if last year is any indication. The testing program stayed ahead of plan for the year.

The reason the "knee-jerk" reaction gets more attention than it should is because of the fiscal mess the government finds itself in.  And we have precedent for cutting aircraft programs - look at the B-2 and F-22 programs.  But those cuts have left us dangerously vulnerable as technology and capabilities advance past the point that 4th generation fighters can compete.

Those that understand this particular truth keep sounding the warning klaxon about the danger of cutting the number of F-35s, or heaven forbid, cancelling the program.  At the moment we're barely keeping up with the power curve.  Cancel or curtail it and we condemn those young pilots of the future with inferior equipment even as we put them in harm's way.

There are some things that must be paid for - this program is one of them.


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