A powerful editorial in the current issue of Aviation Week calls for the Department of Defense and the military services to take a hard look at other options besides the F-35 for keeping the U.S. and allied nation's armed forces equipped with top line fighter jets.
Given the fiscal and other damage resulting from years of rising costs and delays, AVWeek -- usually not one to rock the aviation industry and defense boats too hard -- says it's time for a new plan to replace the old plan of buying 2,000 plus F-35s at soaring prices, when they're finally tested, proven and available.
Before going farther down this cracked and broken path, the Pentagon needs to take a hard look at the consequences. On schedule and affordability, the JSF program is already a failure. In terms of capabilities and the long-term benefits of commonality, the jury is still out. And even if the F-35 delivers on everything it promised, the world has changed since 2001.
One problem is the lack of competition. Including the F-22, Lockheed will have been the sole U.S. producer of all-new fighters for 50 years by the time a “sixth-generation” aircraft comes along —no earlier than 2030 — with significant consequences for the industrial base.
... One bold plan might be for President Barack Obama or Republican rival Mitt Romney to commit the Pentagon to competing the purchase of its next 300 fighters. It would shake things up, although it is questionable the Pentagon could stage a meaningful competition between the F-35 with its estimated costs and promised abilities and the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 with known costs and available capabilities. And the value of new tails must be balanced against the impact of reducing F-35 procurement, potentially causing partners to defect, production rates to drop and costs to soar.
There must be a hedge against further problems. The U.S. should keep producing F/A-18s for the Navy, upgrading F-16s for the Air Force and promoting the F-15 and F-16 internationally so a fallback option remains open. Then, the Defense Department must revisit how to evolve tactical aviation through the 2020s and sustain the industrial base to keep competition alive for the next fighter.
We'll ask Lockheed Martin and Department of Defense to comment on this editorial.