An aerial refueling test of the short takeoff/vertical landing F-35. Lockheed officials say that with computer-aided design and flight simulation technology, they will avoid many of the problems that delayed the F-22. But some experts are less sanguine. LOCKHEED MARTIN
A team of crack Pentagon cost analysts and technical experts has begun a close review of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 joint strike fighter program that is expected to produce a sharply higher cost estimate.
Just a year ago the Joint Estimate Team told senior Defense Department officials that getting the F-35 into service would cost at least $15 billion more than expected.
That forecast was sidestepped by Pentagon officials as they prepared the 2010 defense budget. But a similar or worse projection this time could present defense planners with difficult choices in the fall as they prepare the 2011 budget proposal.
With the F-22 program slated for cancellation, the F-35 is the biggest, highest-profile and most expensive weapons system in development. It’s also expected to be the primary combat aircraft of the U.S. armed forces for decades to come.
The Pentagon has "got a lot of eggs in that one [F-35] basket, and we can’t afford to have more delays and rising costs," said Todd Harrison, an analyst with the influential Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
With the Pentagon and the military services working on 2011 budget requests, Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn last month directed the cost analysts to re-examine the F-35 and prepare a hard-nosed assessment.
Some members of the cost estimating team visited Fort Worth recently to meet with Lockheed officials and get progress reports.
"I think they came with some skepticism and left with confidence in the program," said Tom Burbage, Lockheed executive vice president and F-35 program general manager.
The full team of analysts is due back soon for an in-depth review of the program.
Like virtually every other big weapons program, the F-35 has been beset by delays and rising costs since the Lockheed-led team won the development contract in late 2001. The most recent estimate is that it will cost $299 billion to develop and buy more than 2,400 F-35s for the U.S. armed forces, a nearly 50 percent increase since 2001.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has expressed strong support for the F-35, but a significantly higher cost estimate would undoubtedly increase scrutiny of the program. The Pentagon and Congress would have to make hard decisions to adjust the F-35 development and production schedule or reallocate funds from other programs in an already tight defense budget.
"If policymakers act on negative [cost] projections, it could have bad consequences for production plans and result in slower employment growth" at Lockheed’s Fort Worth plant, said Loren Thompson, defense analyst with the Lexington Institute and a consultant to Lockheed and other defense contractors.
Lockheed executives and their counterparts in the F-35 Joint Program Office, which manages the program for the government, have said last year’s projection by the estimating team was too pessimistic. They have said all along that the F-35 will have fewer technical and development problems than past aircraft programs.
"As of right now we’re looking at a situation that is not as bad as the original" 2008 cost estimate, Thompson said.
Lockheed officials say that with modern computer-aided design and flight simulation technology and using lessons learned from the F-22 program, they will avoid many of the problems that delayed the F-22 and drove up costs.
But few people outside Lockheed and the program office are that confident.
"If you look at past history," Harrison said, "these independent cost estimates tend to be more accurate than the program office."
F-35 development is going well, Burbage said. Few problems have popped up in test flights since an early, major electrical problem. Software and sensors for weapons, targeting and communications systems are working well in laboratory tests and in the modified Boeing 737 that is serving as a flying laboratory.
But there have been relatively few flight tests, which are the most tangible sign of progress. Flight testing continues to lag well behind the revised schedule set forth a year ago and even behind plans of a few months ago.
Test airplanes are taking longer to complete and are requiring more upgrades and modifications after initial flights. Critical flight testing of the short-takeoff and vertical-landing capabilities of the F-35B, originally set to begin in March or April, is now to begin in October.
Lockheed officials say they won’t be able to prove skeptics wrong until a significant share of the 5,000-plus hours of flight testing has been completed, a goal that is a year or more away.
"I think everyone would like to see us move faster on flight tests," said Burbage, but the planes can’t be flown until they’re ready.
Lockheed and its partners, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems, are making steady progress, if not always as rapidly as planned, Burbage said. "We have areas of dramatic progress and we have areas of challenges."
F-35 testing progress Two F-35B tests planes — the BF-1 and BF-2 — are being prepared for vertical flight testing in the fall at the Navy’s Patuxent River, Md., flight test center.
The BF-2 has flown eight times since July 13 and nine times overall.
The BF-1 has not flown since 2008 but is due to resume flights any day now.
The AF-1 (first A model, conventional takeoff and landing) is being prepared for a flight test, probably next month.
The BG-1 (ground, structural test model) has completed all structural testing with no failures.
The AG-1 (static test) is undergoing testing at BAE Systems in Brough, England.
The AA-1 (original design prototype) is no longer used for flight tests but is used for pilot training.