Throughout his presentation, Bogdan repeatedly hammered the point that the F-35’s eight international partners — the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Italy, Turkey, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands — are losing patience and becoming increasingly alarmed by the trends in the program.As most of you know, the F-35A is the Air Force version of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the F-35B is the Marine Corps version of the Joint Strike Fighter, and the F-35C is the Navy carrier launched version of the Joint Strike Fighter. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor, and in order for all three versions of the Joint Strike Fighter to reduce costs per unit, the schedule for all three must improve. Scheduling delays and design flaws have turned the JSF program into the biggest runaway train wreck in modern DoD acquisition, if not of all time. The only version of the F-35 that everyone appears to agree is truly needed is F-35B, the vertical takeoff and landing version. The F-35A is the single most important of the three versions because current plans call for building thousands of these aircraft, and alliance interest is primarily for this version of the aircraft. The US Navy is the only purchasing client in the world for the F-35C, and my sense for the last year is that the US Navy would bail out of the program if they could.
“The cost is up by tens of billions,” Bogdan said. “Our partners are starting to put really big dollars into this program.” By the time F-35 reaches lot 8 low-rate production, more than half of the aircraft will be for non-U.S. customers. “They need to know where their money is going,” he said.
Adding insult to injury, the JSF program office classified all documents as “U.S. only,” which upset partner nations. Even if they are all buying the same aircraft, each country has its own air-worthiness qualification processes and other administrative procedures that require they have access to the aircraft’s technical data. JSF officials are working to re-classify the documentation, Bogdan said. “These airplanes are important to them [our partners], politically.”
Pressure to keep allies happy might be one reason why the U.S. Navy will not be allowed to dump the F-35C. It has been known for years that some Navy leaders would prefer to continue to buy the F/A-18 Super Hornet, and not have to bother with the expense and trouble of having to bring a new type of aircraft into the inventory.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert insisted that the Navy is fully on board.
“We need the F-35C,” he said at the Credit Suisse conference. “It has to be integrated into the air wing.” He said the Navy has not yet decided how many it will buy, however. And he recognized that the Navy ultimately has no choice but to buy the F-35C. “If we bought no C's, it would be very detrimental to the overall program” and to international partners, he said.
In public statements, it has become very common to hear Admirals say the Navy 'needs the F-35C,' but it has become uncommon to hear any Admiral praise the aircraft. Why the Navy needs the F-35C is never addressed in context, primarily because the well documented problems of the F-35C make it clear that the Navy needs are not yet met by the F-35C at this time, and it is unclear if some of those problems can ever be truly fixed. Anyone who has read the latest annual report released by the Pentagon’s director of test and evaluation, J. Michael Gilmore, - not to mention the latest GAO report on the Joint Strike Fighter, knows that the Joint Strike Fighter program still has very serious problems. The GAO report in particular is the kindest report to date for the Joint Strike Fighter program, but after reading that report my primary takeaway is that the Joint Strike Fighter is at least as technologically and electronically complicated as even our most sophisticated Unmanned Aviation platform concepts. Quite honestly I find it hard to believe that any aircraft with so many technological moving parts will ever be reliable on any modern battlefield. The Joint Strike Fighter is a logistical nightmare, and is literally a helmet malfunction away from being a mission kill during wartime - with hundreds of proverbial helmets built into the aircraft.
LT. General Christopher C. Bogdan is emphasizing the multinational partnership of the program for a good reason, and the reason is specific to bringing down the cost of the F-35A. Stable funding across all 3 models of the Joint Strike Fighter is required if the F-35A price is going to have any chance to drop to $90M per aircraft. That means the Navy must stay completely invested in the R&D of F-35C, and must - at least initially - buy F-35C aircraft at the scheduled rate to maintain stability in the production schedule. When Adm. Jonathan Greenert mentions the Navy still hasn't determined how many F-35Cs the Navy will purchase, the implication is the CNO is looking for the bare minimum threshold the Navy must spend to stay invested in the program.
What is important about the comments of both LT. General Christopher C. Bogdan and Admiral Jonathan Greenert is that when it comes to the F-35C, the F-35C is now being purchased by the Navy primarily for reasons of National Security Policy and not for any reason related to maritime policy or strategy. The Navy is now required to continue to pay for the F-35C for purposes of cost consideration of the entire program - all variants, and that consideration is primarily being driven by the multinational character of the program. It is now fair to say that Navy budget spending for the Joint Strike Fighter is now more important to the Department of the Air Force and the Department of State than it is for the Department of the Navy, because it is more important for the National Security Policy of the United States for the F-35A to be affordable to multinational partners than it is for the F-35C to fly off US Navy aircraft carriers.
While it is extremely frustrating that the Navy is essentially being forced to spend huge sums of money on an aircraft the Navy no longer appears to want, it is also valid that the Navy be forced to continue investment in the Joint Strike Fighter for National Security Policy purposes - even when that purpose is primarily for insuring the cost of the platform is affordable to allies. It is completely legitimate that the Navy buying the F-35C is the right thing for the National Security interests of the country even while buying the F-35C itself is not good for advancing naval aviation. This is not a zero sum game.
It would be a mistake to interpret validity and legitimacy as good or bad, because the context matters. National Security Policy trumps maritime strategy, even if I would like to see maritime strategy have more influence in the crafting of National Security Policy. In my opinion if (and this is a BIG "if") the cost of the F-35A comes down to $90 million per aircraft because the Navy spends money on the F-35C, and if international partners ultimately buy a bunch of F-35As at that price, then the Navy's investment in F-35C is simultaneously a poor investment for the Navy and a good investment for the country. What makes all of this really frustrating though is that a poor investment for the Navy and a good investment for the country is the best case outcome of the Joint Strike Fighter as things are today, and it should be noted there is no evidence to date that this represents the most likely outcome. At this point, all it takes is one country to bail out and the whole plan falls apart.