The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is supposed to be the future of manned fighter aircraft for the US military, which—drones notwithstanding—still relies on a complement of decades-old designs. As the plane nears its projected delivery date of 2016, it's become the most costly weapons project in US history, and it still can't pass its performance tests.
Part of this is due to the fact that the F-35 is designed to allow for three variants, one each for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, which means compromises are inherent to its design. The Pentagon initially argued that such a Swiss Army knife solution would cut costs, but according to a new report from the Rand Corp., such an approach is proving to be far more costly—and less effective—than if the military simply designed and built three different planes.
The procurement process for the Lockheed Martin F-35 has already become a well-known disaster. As Bloomberg notes, "the Pentagon projects a price tag of $391.2 billion to build a fleet of 2,443 F-35s, a 68 percent increase from the projection in 2001, measured in current dollars. The number of aircraft the Pentagon plans to buy is 409 fewer than called for originally."
Even then, the question has been whether or not the three-planes-in-one strategy will save on the total life-cycle cost—including R&D, manufacture, and operating and support costs—versus building three separate designs that better fit each branch's needs. The report estimates that while costs will initially be less, nine years after milestone B, higher operating and support costs will contribute to the F-35 program costing some $250 billion more than an alternative. Oh, and the plane's design is still a compromise.
Indeed, our analysis indicates that JSF may cost the services the same or more in total LCC than if they had pursued separate, single-service programs, which might have produced differing designs better optimized to meet their unique individual service operating environments and requirements.
The report looks at a 50 year history of Defense Department plans for joint strike fighters, which are designed to fit the very different needs of the different branches of the armed service. Currently, those needs are covered by a wide range of aircraft with more specific capabilities, including the F-15, F-16, F/A-18, and F-22, the newest fighter in the US fleet.
Developing a new plane is far from cheap, and over the years the DoD has tried to offset those costs (or at least appear to) by pitching various joint fighter programs. What the Rand Corp. study finds is that building a plane for multiple purposes is almost always more expensive in the long run than developing airframes that can do more specific jobs.
"Under none of the plausible conditions we analyzed did JSF have a lower LCC estimate than the notional single-service programs," reads the study, referring to the F-35 program.
Why is that? Myriad factors contribute to Rand Corp.'s conclusion, including the fact that the different branches of the military have increasingly disparate needs for their aircraft, increasing development time. Joint fighter programs also lead to reduced competition, which, combined with "a reduction in the number of major fighter aircraft prime contractors from eight in 1985 to only three today," "may discourage innovation, and makes costs more difficult to control."
Finally, there's the simple fact that with one plane, design flaws, maintenance concerns, or supply issues all have a bigger impact on the fleet. From the report:
Having a variety of fighter platform types across service inventories provides a hedge against design flaws and maintenance and safety issues that could potentially cause fleet-wide stand-downs. Having a variety of fighter platform types also increases the options available to meet unanticipated enemy capabilities.
Overall, it's a damning report, and the situation doesn't look good. Rand Corp. notes that Lockheed Martin is now the only manufacturer developing a next-generation fighter. And because of the slow production of the F-22, which is meant to be a faster air-superiority fighter, the F-35 will see itself in roles it wasn't designed for, as a great post at War Is Boring explains. It's an important concern, for as popular as drones have become, fighter jets will be a part of military strategy for the foreseeable future.
The Rand Corp. report doesn't have a solution for the F-35 program—the DoD is too heavily invested at this point—but it does end on a straightforward conclusion: "Informed by these findings, we recommend that, unless the participating services have identical, stable requirements, DoD avoid
future joint fighter and other complex joint aircraft programs."