Joint Strike Fighter Now Focus Of Budget

Last Updated Sep 2, 2009 6:45 AM EDT

With the end of F-22 Raptor production the only tactical aircraft left in production for the U.S. military is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The Obama Administration and Secretary of Defense Gates seem to recognize that they are putting all of their eggs in one basket and seem to comprehend the problems that the Air Force and Navy will face if there are further delays to the program.

At the same time in a further bid to save money in the budget they are also fighting with Congress on the second source of an engine for the fighter. The primary engine is from Pratt & Whitney but Congress has been funding development of another one by Rolls-Royce and GE. In the 2010 budget Gates requested no funding for this program. At the current time both the Senate and House kept it funded in their version of the bill. President Obama threatened a veto over the F-22 but did not strongly for this program so while there is a chance he would veto the defense funding bill it is less then with the F-22.

To illustrate the concern with the F-35 program Gates visited the Dallas plant of Lockheed Martin to discuss the program and give a pep talk about it. He reiterated the importance of the program and the need for it to stay on schedule and produce on time. There has been concern expressed by the GAO and other parts of the government that it will be hard for such a development program as this not to experience further delays.

At the same time work continues on the alternate F-136 engine for the aircraft. Rolls-Royce is planning an expansion of a plant in Virginia to make turbine blades for the engine. Supposedly they and GE have made an offer to the U.S. Government to agree to a fixed price contract for the engines rather then a cost plus one. This would keep the costs down and transfer a great deal of risk from the Government to the companies for a new development program like this.

This kind of deal may really be oriented towards Congress in a bid to keep them funding the program. One of the biggest supporters for this engine was Senator Kennedy (D-MA) due to the need to keep the GE engine plant in that state. Now he is dead and the new Senator may not be there for key votes.

In the end the JSF will become the focus of the budget as it is the only large tactical aircraft program left. It has the possibility of not meeting the schedule that Gates is demanding as well as not necessarily costing what it is currently estimated. If it is delayed several months it may leave a significant gap in the United States' military aviation capability due to the aging F-15 Eagle fleet. There also may not be enough of the new aircraft to meet the needs of the Air Force, Navy, USMC, the Air National Guard and Allies.

The JSF illustrates the problems faced when only one program is being developed to meet a need. Unfortunately in this time of budget constraints no nation can afford the luxury of developing two high end aircraft like this. The U.S. also now has only the F-18 in production but that would require the Air Force to adopt them. The other option is to buy an aircraft from overseas like the Gripen or Eurofighter. Some Congress would not support that. The easiest solution would have been to keep the F-22 in production until the JSF reaches a steady state but Obama and Gates threw away that option fairly quickly. In the end schedules better be met.

  • Matthew Potter

    Matthew Potter is a resident of Huntsville, Ala., where he works supporting U.S. Army aviation programs. After serving in the U.S. Navy, he began work as a defense contractor in Washington D.C. specializing in program management and budget development and execution. In the last 15 years Matthew has worked for several companies, large and small, involved in all aspects of government contracting and procurement. He holds two degrees in history as well as studying at the Defense Acquisition University. He has written for Seeking Alpha and at his own website, DefenseProcurementNews.com.