Back in the early days of the F-35 program, the powers that be were full of excitement and optimism as they looked toward the future. The plane they were developing would create jobs in nearly every state in the U.S., it would be the most advanced airframe ever to take to the skies, and it would out-stealth, out-fight, and out-bomb anything the world could throw at it.
Of course, in the years since, much of that optimism has fallen by the wayside, as its broad manufacturing footprint has ensured enough political support (and fear of lost jobs) to squash any attempt at reigning in the exorbitant costs associated with the program as it grew more and more bloated and behind schedule. Depending on who you ask, the F-35 is either the most capable aircraft any nation’s military has ever fielded… or it’s a flying hunk of junk that can’t win in a dogfight against fighters a generation behind it. The truth, of course, is likely somewhere in between, but there can be no debate about the massive, and still growing, cost of the program.
Back in those early and optimistic days, the U.S. government made a decision intended to help curb those costs: they told Lockheed Martin to begin production of the F-35s before they’d finished testing them. This procurement model, called “concurrency,” allows the manufacturing base to get a head start on production while Lockheed worked the kinks out of the various iterations of the Joint Strike Fighter to be delivered to the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. The plan, at the time, was to go back and simply update the first few batches of fighters after the designers identified any flaws that may arise along the way.
And boy were there some flaws – some 213 of them to date, including hardware and software changes necessary to bring those early F-35s up to the current standard. The cost of updating those early air frames has continued to rise despite inconsistent defense funding in recent years, of course, to the point where literally hundreds of F-35s that were already bought and paid for, will likely never be updated into combat-capable aircraft, or at least, won’t be any time soon.
Currently, nearly 200 F-35s are listed as non-combat rated and in need of update, ringing in at a total of about $40 billion worth of advanced military hardware left to rot on the tarmac with no savior in sight. Due to consistent financial restraints within the military, funding is being allocated toward the development of new, combat-ready aircraft, and the funds that would have gone to updates for those in need of them has been reallocated elsewhere, as a part of trying to reduce the costs of procurement of more planes.
In effect, the Pentagon has had to resort to purchasing F-35s in lots, because as any salesman will tell you, buying in bulk is always cheaper than buying just a few. Unfortunately, that means the military must allocate every available dollar to those large, bulk purchases, otherwise the cost per plane goes up, and the U.S. ends up with fewer overall aircraft for a higher price.
This decision is not a “done deal,” however, and there remains a chance that the government will broker a new deal with Lockheed or reassess their financial position when (if) the government passes the defense budget for the fiscal year we’re already nearly a full month into. According to at least one Air Force official, they intend to update “all aircraft in question,” which could be true in either regard… the only real concern, is when.
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense