Just under half of the $100 million a piece F-35 Joint Strike Fighters delivered by Lockheed Martin thus far are non-operational, according to statements made by Vice Adm. Mat Winter, head of the Defense Department’s F-35 Joint Program Office.
The F-35 program, which has received significant political support thanks to development and manufacturing operations tied to the program employing people in nearly all of America’s fifty states, has suffered repeated delays, setbacks and cost overruns since its inception. Now, with only 51% of the 280 aircraft delivered actually functional, much of the blame can once again be placed on mismanagement of the program at its onset.
The culprit behind many of the non-operational F-35s was a policy called “concurrency,” wherein F-35 production began before testing of the aircraft was completed. The idea was to get the ball moving on construction of the advanced fighters before the anticipated decades long shake down process was completed, then the early iterations of the jet would be brought back in for upgrades once testing of the final version of the platform was complete.
After years of issues, however, the value of the concurrency approach doesn’t seem to be there. Because most of the first generation aircrafts are not even operational, and budgetary concerns have prioritized the construction of new jets over the refit of old ones… it’s difficult to see what value the U.S. military actually got out of the 140 or so F-35s that have been delivered but can’t actually take to the skies. It’s possible that they could be refit for use, while others may eventually be cannibalized for parts as the functional F-35s begin to wear down components, but either possibility represents a massive waste of money.
Most of the defects Lockheed has been tasked with addressing have come as a result of the aircraft’s advanced stealth capabilities, according to the company’s vice president.
At a price tag of between $100 and $120 million each, somewhere between $1.4 and nearly $1.8 billion worth of 5th generation fighters have now been built to do nothing more but sit on the tarmac and collect dust – waiting for a time when they will either be disassembled back into the components they came from, or will undergo mechanical refits to turn them into functioning aircraft. While it was always expected that the early generation F-35s would require refits, it seems unlikely that having just about half of the entire global fleet of F-35s non-operational was ever a part of the plan.
The biggest concern for the future of the F-35 program, however, isn’t the mistakes of the past, it’s the expenses of the future. Winter is currently working to negotiate the price of the next batch of F-35s set to be built, and despite the production’s track record of setbacks and failures, Lockheed, it seems, is still negotiating with the upper hand, knowing all too well that, at this point, the program is considered by many to be “too big to fail.”
“The price is coming down, but it’s not coming down fast enough,” Winter said. “I will tell you that I am not as satisfied with the collaboration and cooperation by Lockheed Martin. They could be much more cooperative and collaborative, and we could seal this deal faster; we could. They choose not to, and that’s a negotiating tactic.”
Feature image courtesy of the Department of Defense