All In!

By Rebecca Grant

Of course naval aviators are not in it alone. The U.S. Air Force is, in poker parlance, "all in" on the F-35 as well. With the termination of F-22 production, looming retirements of F-15s and F-16s, and no new bomber program, the Air Force has all its chips riding on the JSF. Simply put, as 2010 begins the stakes for the F-35 have never been higher.

Naturally, the Pentagon's strategy of putting the F-35 in the spotlight has attracted critics. "It will shrink our air forces at increased expense, rot their ability to prevail in the air and support our ground forces, and will needlessly spill the blood of far too many of our pilots," panted Winslow Wheeler and Pierre Sprey. 1

Cooler heads described the F-35 as almost an inevitable target for budget cuts as it competes with other program priorities. "F-35 blots out the sun," said Dr. Andrew Krepinevich, head of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.. 2 His colleague, Dr. Barry Watts, pointed out that history is not on the side of the F-35. According to him, the original buys for the first four stealth aircraft-F-117, B-2, A-12, and F-22-totaled 2,378 planes. What did the nation get? Barely 1/10th that number, 267 aircraft-59 F-117s (now retired), 21 B-2s (minus one that crashed), no A-12s, and when production ends in 2011, just 187 F-22s. 3

The F-35, it should be stressed, is not on the verge of collapse. Pentagon support for the airplane remains strong. "My view is we cannot afford, as a nation, not to have this airplane," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said during a visit to the F-35 production line in late August 2009.

Leaving aside the rhetoric, following are the main risks affecting the fighter and why the Navy and Marine Corps have so much riding on its success.

Acquisition Strategy

The Pentagon is all in with the JSF because it will soon be the only game in town. For the first time since the 1920s, America will have just one new fighter type in production after buys of the F-22 and Super Hornet conclude with no other fighter or bomber on the books. As a result, risk elements that only interested the professionals now have all Washington watching.

The prime issue boils down to the fact that to save money, the F-35 program was designed to be "concurrent," which means that the services will take delivery of their first low-rate production jets while flight tests are in full swing. According to the official schedule, about five lots totaling 110 F-35s will be delivered before operational testing officially concludes in the middle of 2014. By then, as many as 438 additional aircraft will have been ordered, with many delivered and more in some stage of completion.

Cost has been a key variable of the Joint Strike Fighter program since its inception. The concurrent acquisition plan was designed to help hold down costs by moving to higher annual production quantities more quickly. Ramping up steeply from the first few aircraft to a production line running near economic order quantities was part of the plan. This acquisition strategy is not a new development by any means; it was conceived during the Clinton years, and approved again under the George W. Bush administration.

But when the events of 2009 transformed the F-35 from model joint program to make-or-break fighter, two concerns were magnified. One arose from a simmering internal Pentagon battle over costs to complete a phase called System Design and Development (SDD). This is the phase-once called engineering and manufacturing development-where the program turns the winning prototype into an aircraft ready for full-rate production. Usually it entails many design changes and debate about cost and schedule. Beginning in 2008, a DOD-led Joint Estimating Team (JET) projected the F-35 program would require additional funding ranging from $2.4 to as high as $7 billion to complete an extended test plan preferred by the JET team.

Not surprisingly, Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn ordered a new review of projected costs to complete the SDD phase after he took office in early 2009. The second review, dubbed JET II, delivered more bad news and pegged the potential near-term cost increase at $16 billion. "The JET II study shows both some schedule slips and cost increases, which we should do everything we can to avoid," acknowledged Dr. Ashton Carter, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. 4

However, the Pentagon review team's numbers were quite different from those of the joint program office and the industry team. According to a November 2009 Lockheed Martin statement, the estimating team's figures for costs to complete the phase were 170 percent higher than Joint Program Office figures (and 300 percent higher than contractor estimates). 5

The Pentagon acknowledged the gap, characterizing the estimating team's efforts as "a work in progress," according to DOD spokesmen Geoff Morrell. 6 The estimating team "provides us a worst-case assessment of how the program will likely develop. And that is balanced against, on the other extreme, the Program Office's assessment of it, which is generally much more optimistic," Morrell explained.

Don't expect a final resolution anytime soon. Debate over the aircraft's near-term cost issues may well continue, even if the Pentagon adds money to the program. It's not unusual for a weapon system program office and an independent OSD body like the Joint Estimating Team to disagree for years on true costs for production, resolving them only in final lot prices during full-rate production. Productivity estimates in labor rates are a typical source of ongoing disagreement, and they crucially affect cost and schedule estimates. In fact, many times cost gaps continue as the government and prime contractor negotiate prices for additional lots of aircraft right through a mature program.

Flight Testing

Meanwhile, the second serious point of debate is a pure what-if: What if flight testing uncovers problems with the F-35 that are difficult to remedy?

The Pentagon's acquisition strategy for the fighter includes early initial operating capability dates of 2012 for the Marine Corps, 2013 for the Air Force, and 2014 for the Navy. These dates will arrive before developmental flight testing is complete. The risk is that flight tests could turn up substantial requirements for fleet-wide modifications, creating costs in time and dollars. This has been a major worry in successive annual reports from the Government Accountability Office. "The biggest problem will be that they'll wind up costing a lot more because they are going to find problems when they test them," said Mike Sullivan, the GAO's director of acquisition, in 2009. "And those changes are going to have to be cranked back into the design of the aircraft. That's all going to be expensive, and they'll probably get delivered later." 7

Money aside, the next issue would be what becomes of production aircraft that roll off the line before some significant issue is discovered. At worst, many production aircraft may end up not being used by warfighters without expensive retrofit.

No one can predict what will happen in flight testing. However, the F-35 program has plenty of tools in hand to attack the test phase. The biggest one-and one the Lockheed Martin-led industry team won't let anyone forget-is the testing of avionics components both in the lab and in flight. The airborne flight test technique has been common practice on several other programs. In this case, it has put the team well ahead on key component testing. A highly modified Boeing 737 flying test-bed (called the cooperative avionics test bed, or CATbird) hosts avionics, sensors, and even a 13-foot canard replicating the F-35 wing leading edge. All JSF sensor systems are integrated and validated on the test bed aircraft before being flown on actual F-35s. In short, not everything depends on the flight test aircraft flying sorties and working through test points.

Granted, every aircraft program needs something fixed out of flight test. On the F-22 circa 2003, it was, notoriously, the cockpit canopy. On the F/A-18E/F circa 1996, it was a wing-drop problem that cropped up early in the flight test program. The key is that both aircraft programs identified the problems and were working on solutions well before they declared initial operational capability in 2005 and 2001, respectively. That will be the task for the F-35, too.

Still, is stretching out flight testing and holding off on procurement an option? That is hard to say, for slowing the program at this point would convert a potential test risk into a guaranteed force structure risk. The Navy's strike-fighter shortfall could top 200 aircraft after 2017. Service life extension of selected F/A-18Cs could help contain the gap if the Navy chooses that path. Perhaps the services would have taken the delay option a few years ago when additional F-22 or F/A-18E/F production were viable options. Now, the Pentagon decision to go it alone with the JSF locks in the schedule or forces a drastic shortfall. "There is a lot of pressure on this building to make sure we get this right," acknowledged DOD spokesman Morrell. 8

Beyond the Two-War Measure

Long-term, there is yet one more concern. Are all 2,443 F-35s scheduled for the United States still needed? The program began as a joint advanced strike technology research competition back in 1994. At the time, the force structure was centered firmly on planning for two near-simultaneous major theater wars, and the JSF program was sized accordingly.

The Pentagon, however, has backed away from the two-war sizing metric for strike fighters. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General James Cartwright, told a Senate panel in July 2009 that while fifth-generation fighters were needed for all three services, "the number of those fighters probably does not need to be sufficient to take on two simultaneous peer competitors." 9

Could this lead to cuts in the overall 2,443 buy? Like everything else, support for the aircraft is conditional on having enough money for immediate priorities. When asked about adding money to the program if necessary, Secretary Gates delivered an important reminder: "Every dollar additional to the budget that we have to put into the F-35 is a dollar taken from something else that troops may need." 10

For the Navy and Marine Corps, it's important to remember that the overall Department of the Navy buy for the F-35 has already been reduced twice. It started in the neighborhood of 1,089 aircraft, then was shaved by the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review and lowered again in QDR 2002, which deleted more than 400 F-35s. As it stands now, the Marine Corps and Navy are buying relatively small fleets of 320 F-35Bs and 360 F-35Cs, respectively, although the mix is subject to change by the Department of the Navy. Both are highly specialized aircraft that differ from the conventional-variant developed for the Air Force and several allies.

Second, major scenarios are important, but they are not the only drivers of procurement. For the Navy and Marines, strike-fighter force structure depends on the number of carrier and Marine air wings and the tasks assigned to them. Tempo plays a part as well. The last 20 years have proven that shaping, presence, no-fly zones, stability operations, and homeland security air sovereignty missions are vital missions, too. Beyond this, projected annual flying hours, mission profiles flown, and requirements for training, test, and attrition reserve affect the overall force structure.

With the F-35B, the Marine Corps has bet the house on strike-fighter modernization. Chances are future Marines will want more, not less, from the plane. The Marine Air-Ground Task Force is likely to use the F-35B in ways barely imagined when the program began. For example, its day/night electro-optical and infrared sensor will allow an F-35B to see over the next hill and transmit a picture of what is there to a Marine on the ground with a handheld data device-even if surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and antiaircraft defenses are hanging around.

The Navy's F-35C puts the carrier air wings back on the roster for first-night attack of the most demanding targets. In an air and sea battle, F-35s will be the key ingredient in netted strike-group defense to maintain decision superiority.

Yet with just 680 Lightning IIs on the schedule, there is no margin for error. To keep the F-35s in service for their full service life will demand every last jet in the current program.

Nor is there much room to vary the mix. Marine Corps doctrine demands the short take-off and landing variant, and so far no one in Washington has mounted a strong argument against their concept of flying F-35Bs from amphibious ships and advanced land bases. The Navy has resisted the prospect of vertical landings by F-35Bs on big-deck carriers because of interference with deck operations. The hot downwash from an F-35B may be considerably less than a Harrier's, but it is not a factor many air bosses want to deal with. Likewise, the carrier air wings need the special structural strength and increased wing area of the F-35C, which will have the longest range of any JSF variant.

F-35 for the Long Term

A Chinese general recently bragged that China would develop its own fifth-generation fighter within eight to ten years, much shorter than the time-span anticipated by Secretary Gates in summer 2009 budget hearings. Asian military expert Rick Fisher told the Washington Times the statement revealed "unusual transparency" on the part of China's military. One rather suspects the Chinese might enjoy rattling the cage with claims like this, but if they come to fruition, deterring China to maintain a healthy security balance in the Pacific will get that much harder.

Long-term, the Pentagon can't rule out the need to deter or duel with a formidable foe sometime during the 30 years the F-35 will be in service. The fast pace of budget changes in 2009 left little time for recasting war plans. In joint operations, the decision to field a small, U.S.-only fleet of 187 F-22s ups the pressure on F-35. Barely 100 of the small fleet of F-22s will be available for front-line combat missions at any one time. For the Navy, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets will remain important in the strike-fighter role as will EA-18Gs for electronic warfare and battle management. But more and more, tasking and overall operational concepts for achieving decision superiority will fall to the F-35.

What that means is the joint force will actually need more of the aircraft on hand for shaping, deterrence, and combat when theater war plans are reformulated. Once the plans are adjusted to account for fewer F-22s, it's likely that future combined forces air component commanders will beef up the numbers of F-35s flying offensive counter-air missions and strike packages for destruction of surface-to-air missiles, for example.

This won't be the rollback onslaught of old. It will be a campaign heavily dependent on keeping and using information superiority, which means scooping up and relaying vital data on everything from missile launches to pop-up surface-to-air missiles to the needs of joint tactical air controllers on the ground. F-35s will have to enter denied airspace and collect and relay information on emerging targets and enemy moves that threaten aircraft or ships.

It will take substantial numbers of F-35s in the air to contend with "red" enemy fighters operating in and around their own air defense zones. F-35 tactics will dictate having big groups of them flying on the first day of the war and as long as mobile SAMs remain an issue. For perspective, consider that the Iraqis managed 2,884 SAM launches in 25 days in 2003, peaking their fire with 190 launches on Day 15 of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The majority of those launches were from SAMs still unlocated after 12 years of operations nearby. The only way to take SAMs out is to find and kill them, and the F-35s will be plenty busy with that task.

Add on a prospective role in missile defense and the sortie numbers increase. Many future scenarios set in the Pacific or the Middle East feature volleys of ballistic and cruise missiles. Layered defenses from Aegis to Patriot will be in place. However, attack operations against ballistic-missile launchers or cruise missiles in flight will fall to the strike fighters.

Here again, the F-35's stealth and advanced sensors will make it a platform of choice. The sheer number of sorties needed to protect island bases and strike groups afloat can quickly overwhelm air campaign plans. The only recent precedent for a fighter-intensive campaign against missile launchers was the so-called Scud Hunt of 1991's Operation Desert Storm. It consumed more than 1,459 sorties in a mere six weeks, with marginal success. 11 While sensors and tactics have improved, so has the threat. The message here is that countering ballistic and cruise missiles could place almost incalculable extra demands on the F-35 force structure in decades to come.

A similar point applies to the F-35 in a lower-threat environment. Operations in Afghanistan today have full access to the airspace with minimal threats. The information flow among tactical airborne platforms is essential to provide information to ground forces, and specifically, to joint tactical air controllers preparing strikes.

What then of the Wall Street analogy too big to fail? The factors that made firms appear "too big to fail" included, in part, the unwillingness to uncover and deal with the mounting risk of investment decisions and practices. No one knew some big firms were in such deep trouble. In contrast, every aspect of the F-35 program will be in the spotlight as flight test progresses and operational deliveries begin.

There is no doubt the Pentagon is irrevocably all in with its investment on the F-35. As a result, the fighter is of singular importance in meeting future national security requirements. The key is the commitment of the industry teams, the Pentagon overseers, and the service customers to deal with and manage risk. 

1. Winslow Wheeler with Pierre Sprey, "What Now, Icarus? Is Western Combat Aviation Falling Out of the Sky?" Huffington Post, 28 October 2009.

2. Remarks to Bank of America Forum, 10 November 2009.

3. Watts quoted in William Matthews, "F-35 May be Cut by Half, Report Says," Marine Corps Times, 31 October 2009.

4. John Bennet, "Carter: Plan Afoot to Halt F-35 Cost Hikes, Delays," Defense News, 9 November 2009.

5. Lockheed Martin, "Background Fact Sheet on the Reported JET II Forecast of Higher Cost and Longer Development Time for F-35," Global Security Flash, 12 November 2009.

6. DOD Press Conference, 29 October 2009.

7. See Government Accountability Office, Joint Strike Fighter: Accelerating Procurement before Completing Development Increases the Government's Financial Risk, GAO-09-303, 12 March 2009

8. DOD Press Conference, 29 October 2009.

9. Testimony of General James Cartwright to Senate Armed Services Committee, 9 July 2009.

10. Jason Sherman, "New JSF Assessment Affirms Program Needs Additional Billions, Time," Inside the Air Force, 23 October 2009.

11. Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, Gulf War Air Power Survey, Volume V, Statistics (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992), p. 418. Most of the tasking fell to F-15Es and F-16s but a wide variety of aircraft flew missions, including 96 sorties flown by F/A-18s and 56 sorties by A-6s.

Dr. Grant is president of IRIS Independent Research, a defense-consulting firm in Washington, D.C., and also serves as director of the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, the research arm of the Air Force Association.

Dr. Grant is President of IRIS Independent Research, a defense consulting firm in Washington, DC. Admiral Nathman, a naval aviator, recently retired after 37 years on active duty in the U.S. Navy including service as Vice Chief of Naval Operations and Commander, Fleet Forces Command. Dr. Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public-policy research organization focused on national security and other areas of federal policy.

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