Until recently, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter had been having a pretty rough time.
In 2012, its estimated average "program acquisition unit cost" was reported to have doubled, from the $81 million per copy anticipated in 2001 to $161 million, flight tests revealed deficiencies in achieving the F-35's modest performance requirements, and scheduled full-rate production was delayed to 2019.
In 2013, the pace of negative events and reports has only increased. So far, the F-35 has been grounded not once but twice (with different components showing signs of failure). Also, not one but two reports from the Defense Department's director of operational test and evaluation (DOT&E) documented serious problems: Existing deficiencies, such as the inability to land safely on aircraft carriers, have not been resolved, and new issues, such as lower than predicted acceleration, are cropping up -- just as the more challenging flight tests are beginning.
Even the F-35 program manager, Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, was quoted in Australia being volubly caustic toward the F-35's two largest contractors (Lockheed-Martin and Pratt & Whitney), saying they were trying to "squeeze every nickel" out of the program, not controlling their costs. Then this week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released this year's annual review of the program. It reported that the first four F-35 production contracts have overrun their targets by $1.2 billion; above that, the F-35s built before 2016 will need an additional $1.7 billion to fix the problems uncovered, so far, by testing. In addition, the amount needed to sustain the F-35 will climb to almost $14 billion in 2018, while the Pentagon is supposed to absorb cuts required by budget deals. As GAO also points out, the program faces a conundrum: Reducing production to save money will actually increase the unit cost of each F-35 built, thereby making the already unaffordable program that much more unsustainable.
And yet, it would seem that in other respects, the F-35 defenders are circling their wagons.
Lt. Gen. Bogdan is a more complicated personality in the F-35 saga than his highly quotable statements about greedy contractors might make him out to be. On inspection, he is an uncompromising defender of the F-35 -- he has trashed unwelcome reports on the F-35's ineffectiveness and, more importantly, tried to intimidate subordinates who have unflattering things to say about the plane.
Speaking at a conference of DOD bigwigs funded by Credit Suisse and McAleese & Associates, Bogdan dismissed one of the DOT&E reports as "premature," and then he went even further. One of the pilots quoted in the report had the strength of character and intellect (based on a few hundred hours of operational aircraft flight experience) to express concern that the design of the F-35 cockpit restricted pilots' ability to see threats to the rear, saying "aft visibility will get the pilot gunned [down] every time." The comment addressed a real flaw in the F-35's airframe design, and it came from an experienced operator. What was Bogdan's response? He told the press at the bankers' conference that "we can always put that pilot in a C-2 [cargo aircraft]...where [he] won't worry about getting gunned down."
Sure, general, that's just what DOD needs more of: Washington-based bureaucrats talking down to servicemen in the field with the character to express their experience-based concerns about defective equipment. Donald Rumsfeld did the same thing in 2004 when a reservist in Iraq had the gall to suggest that soldiers should not have to scrounge in scrap heaps to improvise "hillbilly armor" to survive in their vehicles in combat. Saying, "You go to war with the Army you have," Rumsfeld told the soldier to suck it up.
Lt. Gen. Bogdan, welcome to your own personal alcove in Donald Rumsfeld's hall of conceit.