Gates' Bad Bet on F-35

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates rankled the Air Force’s fighter fraternity by terminating the top-line F-22 Raptor, he tried to sooth the hurt by promoting the slower, less-capable F-35 as a good fill-in.

After deciding to cap F-22 production at 187 stealth jets, he traveled to Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., that April 2009 to  assure the service’s future leaders at the air war college that America would maintain critical edge in air superiority, a must to winning any war.

“In assessing the F-22 requirements, we also considered the advanced stealth and superior air-to-ground capabilities provided by the fifth-generation F-35s now being accelerated in this budget,” he said.

Today, Gates has lost that gamble — at least for now. Development of the Joint Strike Fighter, as it is also known, has fallen so far behind schedule, with huge cost overruns, the defense secretary ordered the firing of the F-35 program manager.

The risk in Gates’ decision is hammered home by this stark fact: the Air Force estimates it could be short 800 fighter-bombers by 2024.

On Capitol Hill last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard the horror story for the military’s most expensive aircraft ever at nearly $300 billion for about 2,500 planes. The F-35, now at $112 million per copy, double the 2001 price, is no longer considered what it was supposed to be: an affordable.

Sen. John McCain, the committee’s top Republican, embarrassed Gates at the hearing by quoting his comment last August after meeting in Fort Worth, Texas with F-35-maker Lockheed Martin executives.

“His impression is that most of the high risk elements associated with JSF’s developmental program are largely behind us,” Gates said then. “There was a good deal of confidence on the part of leadership here that the manufacturing process at the supply chain — that the issues associated with all of these have been addressed, or are being addressed.”

Just months later, Gates was firing the Air Force program manager.

“It’s a bit frustrating to hear the secretary of defense as short a time ago as last August to tell us that everything is OK, when we are reading in media reports that they are not,” said McCain.  “The taxpayers are a little tired of this. And I can’t say that I blame them.”

Ashton Carter, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, had an explanation: Gates was misled.

Lockheed and the Air Force program office gave a rosy outlook. But an independent cost analyst  inside the Pentagon, Christine Fox, told Gates’ staff a more dire story in a paper called the  “Jet Estimate.”

“There was a wide discrepancy between those two, and that we were trying to understand why it is we had one picture on the one hand, and one picture on the other hand,” Carter said. “We came to the view, and Secretary Gates came to the view, that the Jet Estimate was credible, was carefully done, and should be the basis for our budgeting and program planning going forward.”

Carter called the steep cost overrun, “unacceptable to the taxpayer, and to the war fighters of the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines, and all the international partners that are depending on this aircraft.”

He said Gates is withholding $614 million from Lockheed-Martin to force it to share in the cost of a development program 13 months behind schedule.

The services are now projecting initial operational capability of 2012 for the Marine Corps and 2016 for the Air Force and Navy.

While Carter portrayed a Gates-ordered restructured program as getting on the right path, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a longtime JSF critic, says it still faces “significant risks.”

Michael Sullivan, GAO’s acquisition team director, said manufacturing problems at the Lockheed plant resulted in late deliveries of test aircraft. Only 10 percent of planned test flights were completed in 2009. One reason for cost increase: Lockheed estimated in 2001 it needed one million labor hours to complete development. That number today is two million.

Sullivan said that once serious developmental flight testing begins, history shows new flaws will be discovered requiring more production design changes.

What went wrong? One big problem is that airframe components came together in Dallas for assembly — called “traffic” — did not fit. “The design of the pieces has to be changed,” Carter said. “There has been a lot of changed traffic on the line …. Everybody else waits around while those changes are made. So it introduces inefficiency on the line.”

Costs also went up in part, because the short-take-off and vertical landing version became too heavy, lengthening the development program, which pushed up labor costs. “They were not foreseen,” Carter said.

Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, asked if Lockheed low-balled its bid to win the huge contract, knowing it could make a bigger profit by charging a higher price later on.

Carter was diplomatic. “It’s a pattern that would match that, but I can’t speak to that intent,” he said.

If the F-35 Lightning falls further behind, it will not only be bad news for the Air Force and it’s fighter gap. The Navy estimates it could be short 250 fighters in five years.

Levin called it “a shortfall that’s large enough that if it were realized could cause us to tie up aircraft carriers at the pier for lack of aircraft to send with them.