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If Not The F-35 Then What?

Veteran newspaper reporter George C. Wilson asked in a recent column that appeared in CongressDaily why rush the F-35 into production? In that gentleman's eyes the program is experiencing delays in testing and development as well as overall cost to product and operate. In Wilson's view it might make sense to save the whole $298 billion planned to procure the F-35 since there may not be the necessary threat to justify its purchase.

Wilson compares the F-35 to a similar program from the 1960's where an attempt was made to develop one aircraft for the U.S. Air Force and Navy. This TFX program did result in the F-111 supersonic bomber used by the Air Force and Australia. The Navy rejected the aircraft and went on to purchase the F-14 Tomcat long range fighter. The F-111 had a drawn out development and the desire to have it due multiple missions for different services increased this and the cost increases reflected this.

In the upcoming 2011 defense budget the F-35 program will be restructured again to delay production and extend development. Money will have to be reprogrammed from buying aircraft to paying for this development extension. Lockheed Martin (LMT) the lead contractor on the program has offered up taking some money out of its fee from the development phase but the extended production run will only add money to the back end. Lockheed will make up some of the money lost in 2011 - 2013 through these quantities.

Of course the question to ask if Wilson's suggestion was acted on would be what to do for a new fighter? The F-35 is it. It will replace F-16, A-10, F-18 and AV-8 aircraft in service with the U.S. Air Force, Marines, Navy and allied inventories. The F-22 is a purer, long range fighter that was supposed to replace the F-15. Now less then 200 will be built and they cannot supplant the large numbers of other aircraft. It also doesn't exist in a carrier based version so it cannot do the F-18 or AV-8 mission. There had been attempts to restart the F-15 production line in the early part of this decade but nothing came of that. Perhaps the F-18E/F/G could be built for the Air Force as well as the Navy and Marines?

So if an existing aircraft cannot be produced to replace the aging F-16, F-18 and AV-8 force then a new replacement program will have to be started. Even if there are no advanced requirements but a straight replacement there will be the great cost of beginning again a development program and ramping up a production capability. It would also make little sense in building a new aircraft without adding advances in sensors, weapons, survivability and electronics. This will increase the cost to both produce and operate the aircraft.

There is no doubt the U.S. and its Allies need several thousand new aircraft over the next twenty years. If not the JSF will it be an already available system like the SAAB Gripen or Eurofighter Typhoon? Is it feasible to move out on a whole new program? It might make the most sense to keep going on the F-35 and adjust quantities as necessary to meet budgetary needs. If there is not a new system then the cost to keep the older Eighties and Nineties systems going will increase and the numbers decline. In the end the U.S. will have less capability at a high cost.

This is one of the basic conundrums of defense acquisition. What to build, when and at what cost? Admiral Sergiy Gorshkov who ran the Soviet Navy for forty years used to say "Better' is the enemy of 'Good Enough'" but for the JSF there is no good enough right now in series production.