Sunday, July 17, 2011

F-35 - Past, Present ... Future?

As you all know, the F-35 project was created on the 26th October 2001, when Lockheed Martin won the Joint Strike Fighter competition, beating rivals Boeing with their X-32.

The aim of the competition, and subsequent contracts, was simple - replace the current disparate families of aircraft operated by the US Navy, US Airforce and US Marine Corp with one single, maintenance friendly family of aircraft.

The aircraft was to replace the F-16, F/A-18C/D and E/F, the Harrier II, and the A-10, and also be exportable to other countries in an export-friendly variant.

The original commitment from the US DoD was for the purchase of 2,443 aircraft, with the price point of $30M set when the JSF project was initiated in 1996, and even then the project cost was raising eyebrows, with warnings that commitments to numbers would have to be cut if the per-unit cost rose much above the planned price. However, when Lockheed won the contract, the per-unit cost of the F-35 was set at an average of $69M, well above the 1996 price - but the argument was made that the aircraft was more capable, and the commitment to the purchase stood.

Last year, the GAO revealed that the F-35s per unit cost had doubled in real terms, from $69M per aircraft to just over $138M on average, leaving the DoD with a bill of $340B for their commitment. Quite an increase, and one which has put Lockheed on notice.

Lockheed only survived an outright program cancellation under US law (Nunn-McCurdy provision) by replacing a high level oversight officer from the DoD, otherwise they would have fallen foul of the 25% increase cap.

In April 2011, a report was leaked which suggested that the per unit cost of each F-35 variant was as follows:

F-35A - $111M
F-35B - $109M
F-35C - $142M

Excluding engine costs, which are $15M for the A and C versions, and $32M for the B version.

And the cost is still rising - Lockheeds prices for the Lot 5 buy are $6M higher per unit than that for Lot 4.

With the F-35B being put on a 2 year probation in 2010, and the USMC shifting some of its F-35B purchases to F-35C models, as well as various international buyers reducing their buys or suspending their purchases altogether, the F-35 project as a whole is in hot water.

A figure worth noting is that the F-35 project is already at forecasted double the cost of the entire F-22 Raptor programme, including that aircrafts 187 unit total purchase. The JSF is turning out to be one expensive aircraft.

Attributions: Facts and figures for this post was taken from various sources on the internet, including the GAO, DoD and Lockheed. However, it was an article in this months Airforces Monthly that led me to write this post, and as such this post bears some similarity to that article.

The F-35 was never meant to replace the F/A-18 Super Hornet. It was meant to be used in conjunction, providing stealth capabilities when needed.

In the future, a carrier air wing will consist of the Lightning II, the Super Hornet, and the EA-18G Growler. Each one has it's role to play.

Do they need a VTOL variant? Probably not. But without one, they would be limited to operating from the 12 current aircraft carriers in the fleet and not the 10 LHDs they could also be launched from. Given that the LHD is the flagship for every Amphibious Ready Group and is tasked with delivering the US Marine Corps to their destination, you would be effectively cutting the force capability in half.

Now do the cost overruns mean doom for the project? Only time will tell. More importantly, can this aircraft compete with the Sukhoi PAK FA or Chengdu J-20?

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