Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Joint Strike Fighter

I wrote this years ago, but I haven't posted anything in a long time, so I figured I better put something up.

OK. Lets start off with some basic facts that we can all agree on.

1. The F-35/JSF program is intended to build a family of fighter planes for the U.S. Air Force,Navy, Marine Corps, and Britain's Royal Navy. When the project got started, the Air Force wanted about 1,700 cheap bombing trucks to replace F-16s and A-10s; the Navy wanted 480 "first day-of-the-war" deep-strike stealth bombers to compete with the Air Force in strategic bombing; and the Marines wanted to replace aging Harriers and conventional F/A-18s with 609 short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) JSFs that will operate from big-deck amphibious assault ships.

2. The Pentagon wants to build the planes using the same avionics, egines and basic airframe along with other expensive structural components in order to produce three variations with 80 percent "commonality"-- and is trumpeting big cost savings from this approach. The commonality is supposed to keep support costs down in the long run. Theoretically, if a damaged Navy airplane had to land at an Air Force base, all the spare parts would be there. The next time British and American forces fought together, each could support the other's planes.

3. Even so, the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) pegged the cost of the F-35/JSF at more than $200 billion over 25 years in 1997. The goal is to sell about 3000 airplanes to US and Britian and 3000 more to other countries like Canada and Australia.

4. The original per-plane cost of the JSF ranges from 28 million per to 36 million per. This is really important. The USAF wants to use the F-35/JSF to replace the F-16 and the A-10, which are old and getting older, and it already can't afford to buy F-22s which are way too expensive. Its vital for Force Structure that the US produce the JSF airplane on budget. Otherwise we have no airplanes for vital missions and no way to afford them. Keep that in mind as we discuss cost overruns later on.

5. Lockheed Martin now has the contract to proceed with production of the plane, contract was awarded in October, 2001. The first operational aircraft are expected in about 2008.

Right from the get go, the procurement process has me worried.

Bush’s Administration has strong ties to major defense contractors, especially Lockheed Martin, which is ranked number one on the Pentagon’s list of top defense contractors. Lockheed Martin vicepresident Bruce Jackson was not only a finance chair of the "Bush for President" 2000 campaign, but Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynne, served on Lockheed Martin’s board of directors. And Bush's current Secretaries of the Navy (Gordon England), Air Force (James G. Roche), Transportation (Norman Mineta), and an Undersecretary of the Air Force (Albert E. Smith) are all former top executives at either Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman. On to actual numbers and facts.

Before the prototype had been demonstrated, just looking at the specifications and project plans in 1998, the DoD's Cost Assessment Improvement Group (CAIG) estimated the most likely cost of the JSF program to be about 25% above what the Joint Program Office estimates, and the Joint Program Office estimates are above those of the contractors. On 8 February 1999, Defense Daily reported that Lockheed Martin's X-35 was facing $200 million in cost growth.

In March 1999, the Congressional Budget Office reported to the Senate Armed Services Committee that JSF costs might be underestimated by as much a 50%; in March 2000, the General Accounting Office told Congress the development program should be lengthened to reduce technical/cost risks: "To allow the JSF to proceed as planned-without maturing critical technologies-would perpetuate conditions that have led to cost growth and schedule delays in many prior DoD weapons system acquisition programs."

In late March of 2002, Pentagon Acquisition Chief Pete Aldridge suggested that the Navy and USMC might cut the number of STOVL JSF jets from 609 to 350 and the numbers of the carrier version from 480 to 430. (The Navy has tended to favor two-engine jets anyway and indications are is hedging its bets by hanging onto the F/A-18 Super Hornet.)

A smaller number of units in the production run often increases costs per unit which in turn can decrease the number of units in the production run. This relationship between cost and number of units that ends in a gigantic cost for a tiny final production run is often known as the Defense Death Spiral. One week after the Navy started rumbling about buying fewer JSF jets, the USAF started making the same noises.

The GAO claims DoD restructured the program so that the final decision will be made with even less information than originally planned, and the program has migrated toward the traditional ultimately costly practice of developing technologies and products concurrently. This is what has happened with the F-22: The Air Force misrepresented the YF-22 demonstrator as a general prototype, even though its stealth, full engine power, and integrated avionics-were not part of the YF-22 and were being developed separately.

A GAO report in May of 2000 entitled "Joint Strike Fighter Acquisition: Development Should be Changed to Reduce Risk" says that "the aircraft being produced in the concept demonstration phase are not intended to demonstrate many of the technologies considered critical for achieving Joint Strike Fighter program cost and performance requirements. Instead, many of these technologies -- such as avionics, flight systems, manufacturing and producibiltiy, propulsion, suppportabiilty and weapons delivery system -- will only be demonstrated in laboratory or ground testing environments. Therefore these critical technologies will be at low levels of technical maturity when the engineering and manufacturing contract is scheduled to be awarded."

The report continues: "Should any of these technologies be delayed, or worse still, not be available for incorporation into the final joint Strike Fighter design, the impact on the program would be dramatic ...DoD could expect an increase of several billions of dollars." See "Production Sharing" further down for more on this.

It is important to remember that the X-32 and X-35 JSF prototypes were even more limited as concept demonstrators than was the YF-22, so the risks created by concurrency could be even greater, and at the moment the F-22 is the most expensive plane the US has ever created, except for the B-1 Bomber. The winner of the JSF "competition" -- Lockheed Martin -- was determined by a flyoff demonstrating only low-speed handling, STOVL capability, and producibility with at least 70% parts commonality; the YF-22 supersonic cruise demonstrator demonstrated aerodynamics of high-speed, high-G maneuvering, and high alpha, low-speed maneuvering in mock dogfights.

PRODUCTION SHARING = COST OVERRUNS?Although Lockheed Martin is the integrating contractor, it will not be the only company assembling the plane. The last time it did this was in the 50's, I belive, when it built F-104s. Instead there will be a large network of sub-contractor relationships.

This is one of the tactics that the Pentagon uses to ensure wide political support for expensive weapons systems. If factories in a many states are receiving millions in defense contracts, Congressmen and Senators are loathe to put those projects in jeopardy. However, spreading the work out means that Lockeed has to integrate components from different manufacturers, which adds a layer of complexity to the project.

The complexity is added by the fact that these components are concurrently developed. See above for more on concurrent development. This is often the case for military contracts and the JSF is no exception.

Both GE and Pratt and Whitney will build the JSF engines. Raytheon will compete to produce the radar system, even though Northrop-Grumman already has a partnership with Lockheed Martin. General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products was selected as the gun system integrator.

Another 12 contractors are involved in addition to those already named, including Ball Aerospace, Honeywell, and Harris Corporation. If the F-35 is turned into a jobs program for the Military-Industrial complex, it is likely to result in cost overruns and design problems. See Defense Death spiral, above.

The Marine Corps version of the JSF will have vertical and short take off capability, like the current AV-8B. This adds weight, reduces range and payload, and has forced the Marines to forego a gun integral to its version of the JSF. The Marine tradition of emphasizing close air support for its ground forces -- for which a gun would be key -- seems to be over. [The Marines may add a gun pod to swing out on a trapeze from the bomb bay, which of course adds further weight and reduces further the range and/or payload.]

Clearly, there are severe costs, beyond just money, for the vertical and short take-off capability the Marines want. In terms of weight, range, and payload, the Marines' version of the JSF portends to be the least capable, while also the most expensive. The Marines also do not have the luxury of a fallback position -- The USAF will at least have the F-22 and the Navy can make do with the Super Hornet, but those Marine Harriers are not going to last.

CONCLUSION: The Air Force will need large numbers of JSFs--on the order of 1,400 to 2,300 airplanes, depending on the specific airplanes the JSF replaces in the fighter force structure. Similarly, JSFs will need to be procured at high rates--probably in excess of 120 aircraft per year--as F-16s are retired in large numbers. Accommodating the budgetary impact of such procurement rates within the constrained Air Force budgets of the future represents a major challenge, one that the Air Force had not met in the last 40 years.

And here's the kicker. Even if the F-35 program is a textbook perfect example of reformed procurment, it won't achieve one of its major goals: the 30-year service spending plans, even if executed with no slips, and no overruns, will not modernize the force.

Despite spending between $258 billion $338 billion on new aircraft, the average age of tactical aircraft in 2026 will be higher than it is today (currently, 13 years for the USAF, 10 for the Navy -- both numbers higher than service goals). These plans do not include the $1,344 billion needed for structural mods to current aircraft.

When I consider all of these factors, it makes me worry that the JSF will be over-designed, over-budget and under-produced.

Some Source Material:


RoseCovered Glasses said...

I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak. I believed another Vietnam could be avoided with defined missions and the best armaments in the world.

It made no difference.

We have bought into the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). If you would like to read how this happens please see:

Through a combination of public apathy and threats by the MIC we have let the SYSTEM get too large. It is now a SYSTEMIC problem and the SYSTEM is out of control. Government and industry are merging and that is very dangerous.

There is no conspiracy. The SYSTEM has gotten so big that those who make it up and run it day to day in industry and government simply are perpetuating their existance.

The politicians rely on them for details and recommendations because they cannot possibly grasp the nuances of the environment and the BIG SYSTEM.

So, the system has to go bust and then be re-scaled, fixed and re-designed to run efficiently and prudently, just like any other big machine that runs poorly or becomes obsolete or dangerous.

This situation will right itself through trauma. I see a government ENRON on the horizon, with an associated house cleaning.

The next president will come and go along with his appointees and politicos. The event to watch is the collapse of the MIC.

For more details see:

Post a Comment