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F-35 Strike Fighter Success: Real or Simulated?

Amid bad news, Lockheed takes victory lap in the Beltway bubble.

WASHINGTON — They call Washington a bubble. A la-la land. Home of the “Deep State.” A long-forgotten 1980’s television series, ‘Tales of the Darkside,’ once described “a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit” as our own world. Sounds a bit like Capitol Hill.

Nowhere was that more evident than yesterday, as defense industry giant Lockheed Martin hosted an auspiciously-timed reception on the Hill to tout its multi-billion dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which as anyone reading in this space would know has been more than 16 years in development, and plagued by everything from poor performance reviews and cost overruns, to grounding over a lack of spare parts and tussles over technical data and cybersecurity concerns.

Then there is the expense to the taxpayer, which as of June is projected to be more than $406 billion to complete, and another $1.4 trillion over the life of the program to be maintained. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said at the time there was a 60 percent increase in the cost estimates from 2001 to 2012 due to three major restructurings of the program. But the military kept building more planes—even delivering them to partner countries—throughout the development stage, even though operational testing has yet to begin, and won’t, until late-2018, at the soonest. That’s left the taxpayer with at least $1.7 billion in retrofitting costs as plans change and more technical bells and whistles are put onto the planes. Spare parts are in short supply, and the funds to retrofit all of the older prototypes aren’t readily available. Marine Corps Capt. Dan Grazier at the Project for Government Oversight (POGO) reported in October, that may leave some 108 planes behind as “concurrency orphans,” not fit for service, ever. At more than $100 million per plane (the military has so far built more than 250), that’s a lot of coin to be left idle in a hanger.

Lockheed F-35 cockpit simulator. (Kelley Vlahos)

With all this bad news, and more throughout the month of October,  it’s probably no surprise Lockheed was in full-on marketing mode at the Rayburn House Office Building yesterday, complete with a cockpit simulator, a test pilot, and the head of the entire program available to ensure anyone who breezed through the continental breakfast reception that, contrary to everything you’ve heard, things were A-OK on the production line. In fact, at times it sounded like a victory lap.

“The jet we’re trying to get out there is out there,” said Lockheed test pilot Dan Levin, who cut his teeth on F-16s in the first Gulf War and says the capabilities of the F-35 far outstrip anything he has flown before. “It is more survivable, more stealthy, and more lethal…it’s just a more effective airplane; that’s what we want.”

But what “we want” and what exists today are two different things. As Grazier pointed out to TAC, the planned event was an exercise in the former, a carefully designed artifice that emphasized the hoped-for outcomes of the most expensive program in U.S. military history, while downplaying the very real problems as momentary turbulence. Even the simulator, the flashy draw at the corner of the room, boasted capabilities that recent reviews have said the planes don’t have quite yet.

“It was a great sales pitch, it was interesting, it was neat sitting in the cockpit,” he said afterwards. “But it was a display of the brochure promises, not the finished design. It was how they want it to perform, but not how it performs today.”

Today, Lockheed fully acknowledges there is a payload of problems. But how much damage these problems can do to the planned trajectory of the program depends on whom you talk to. On paper, at least, the outlook doesn’t look good. After Grazier’s “orphans” report, the GAO came out with another review saying 22 percent of the fleet had been grounded because of a lack of spare parts, with repair capabilities running six years behind. But even if the engineers had the parts, the DoD hasn’t written the requirements yet for repairing the planes, so there’s a lot of confusion about how and when repairs should occur.

More daunting are the issues revolving around the plane’s Autonomic Logistics Information System software (ALIS), which, as the cloud-based computer network that serves as the brain of the plane, is the very core of the F-35’s unique offerings. It is also what is making it a) behind schedule and b) most vulnerable. The GAO said ongoing costs for developing the ALIS (pronounced “Alice”) aren’t fully funded. There’s also the issue of Lockheed’s resistance to giving DoD all of the technical data necessary to getting ALIS working and maintained effectively (an issue over intellectual property and the parameters of contract rights). Holding out, coincidentally, would likely make Lockheed the sole source contractor for the program, forever.

Furthermore, since the plane’s entire functionality depends on “the cloud,” the risks of a cyberattack rendering one plane or an entire fleet, completely useless is absolutely real. “Given the jet’s low-observable characteristics, advanced defensive systems, and other sensors, a cyberattack would be an attractive option for any enemy force,” writes Joseph Trevithick, for The Warzone. “Why would an enemy use a $500,000 air-to-air or surface-to-air and put their personnel and equipment at risk in an attempt to down an F-35 when a simple worm may be able to do the same to a whole fleet of F-35s?”

When asked Thursday about these and other sticky issues, F-35 program executive vice president and general manager Jeff Babione, swung at each with relative ease. Cost? Lockheed has brought down the unit price for each plane 60 percent since the first lot and eight percent since the previous contract, delivering a “5th generation aircraft” at “4th generation cost.”

On the issue of the more than $1 trillion in lifetime costs: “It’s a world-wide program and the scope and scale has never been attempted before…with these complexities you’re going to have challenges.” However, “we’re going to take the same innovation” used to take down the per-plane expenses to “reduce the cost” of maintaining the program over time, he told TAC. Spare parts? “It’s still a relatively new airplane,” and “we’re still working with congress and the Joint Program Office” to identify the needs and make sure there is enough money for it.

“What we do know is that if you look year after year, the cost is dropping.”

The F-35 program is such a web of overlapping budgets and projections that it is difficult to tell if that is true, though the GAO’s report of 2012 to the present generally bears that out. Lockheed did get the unit costs down. Yet everything else is creeping up or open to interpretation.

Dan Grazier and a map of F-35-connected jobs and money in each state. (Kelley Vlahos)

But really, beyond the positive “update” Lockheed said it wanted to bring to Capitol Hill Thursday, what was this exhibition really about? Perhaps a little damage control, but more critically, it seems, to remind members of congress how much their own political assets are tied to this gargantuan program.

A map, generated by Lockheed and set on the table with the other handouts, shows how many suppliers and jobs—directly or indirectly—are tied to the F-35, plus economic impact, in each state. For example, in Florida alone, there are 18,480 such jobs and 98 suppliers with $2 billion impacted. The wealth, it would seem, is spread around and keeps everyone invested.

“If you start opposing the F-35 budgets your political opponent is going to say, ‘hey, I’m going to fight for those jobs,” noted Grazier. “(Lockheed) just wants to remind them of that.”

Whatever the case, this is just one more example of things not being exactly what they seem in the Beltway bubble. For a short while, in a brightly lit room at Rayburn, the F-35 was what it was promised. But, as Grazier points out, that assumption is just more than a little off the runway.

“If we can’t field a fully functioning fighter plane in less than 20 years, then there is something seriously wrong with our procurement system.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC