The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive defense acquisition in human history, but while this stealth fighter may represent the peak of the Pentagon’s poor spending practices, it has also brought about significant changes in the way America goes about purchasing new fighters.
With the Air Force developing a new air superiority system of aircraft in the NGAD program and the Navy simultaneously developing its own next-generation fighter currently known only as the F/A-XX, America is once again on the hunt for capable new fighters. And it would seem these efforts have been directly informed by what went wrong in the F-35’s acquisition process.
The F-35 may be an incredibly capable fighter, but it has also proven to be a financial boondoggle the US hopes never to repeat.
The Joint Strike Fighter concept was a huge technological gamble
The F-35 program was incredibly forward reaching at its inception. When Boeing and Lockheed Martin started working on their Joint Strike Fighter designs in the late 1990s, industry experts weren’t sure it was even possible to deliver what the Pentagon was asking for. A single stealth fighter design that could operate from runways and aboard carriers was already a tall order—but making one that could fly at supersonic speeds and land vertically was downright unheard of.
“If you were to go back to the year 2000 and somebody said, ‘I can build an airplane that is stealthy and has vertical takeoff and landing capabilities and can go supersonic,’ most people in the industry would have said that’s impossible,” Tom Burbage, Lockheed’s general manager for the program from 2000 to 2013, told the New York Times.
“The technology to bring all of that together into a single platform was beyond the reach of industry at that time.”
The goal was enormous, but the Pentagon believed (perhaps rightfully so) that it was worth the high cost of admission. Unfortunately, the price soon proved even higher than expected… and the DoD itself made a number of decisions that compounded the problem.
Taking deliveries on F-35s before the aircraft had completed testing (a strategy they called “concurrency”), for instance, turned out to be a serious mistake. The Pentagon also gave Lockheed Martin ownership of the entirety of the program, including developing and providing all the training gear, maintenance equipment, logistics, and more—leaving the company little reason to keep costs low.
The F-35 may be an incredible aircraft capable of doing things no tactical jet has ever been able to do before, but its reputation as a financial disaster is so pronounced that some have taken to calling the aircraft itself a failure. That public perception may or may not yield changes in the total number of F-35s the US ultimately purchases down the road, but it has already resulted in dramatic changes in the way the Pentagon is going about developing its next slew of stealth fighters.
New trillion-dollar fighter programs have to remain viable for decades to be worth the money
The F-35 was meant to be a single fighter that could meet the very different needs of at least three different branches of the military (as well as foreign partners) for a half-century to come, if not even longer. With a total acquisition cost of over a trillion dollars, the aircraft has to be effective for that long in order to justify what’s being spent on it.
This problem isn’t unique to the F-35, of course. Most of the Air Force’s workhorse platforms are long-dated designs. The F-16, which remains the backbone of the Air Force with around 1,300 airframes in service, first took to the skies more than 48 years ago. The F-15, which is seeing renewed life in the updated F-15EX, is a design that first flew even earlier—it’ll cross the 50-year mark this summer. According to Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, about 44 percent of the Air Force fleet is already flying beyond its design service life.
The Air Force’s newest and most capable fighters are no exception, The F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter first flew in 1997 and 2006 respectively. That means the F-35, America’s most modern fighter that has yet to even enter full-rate production, is a design that was largely complete 16 years ago and will likely continue flying for another half-century to come.
And it’ll have to in order to justify all the money being spent on it. New fighter programs, however, are working very differently.
The Air Force wants new fighter designs every 5-12 years
In order to keep pace with rapid developments in air defense technologies and increasingly capable foreign fighters, Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper says the branch wants to move away from massive programs that span decades and move toward smaller orders of new fighters—just 50 to 100 or so—every five to 12 years.
This would allow the United States to field fresh fighter designs every decade, incorporating the latest design and aviation technologies into new airframes, and forcing oppositional forces to continuously adjust tactics and potentially even equipment in order to keep pace. These rapidly fielded designs wouldn’t have to last 50 years with new designs coming shortly thereafter, so the Air Force could save billions in sustainment costs across the fleet.
Rapidly fielding new fighter designs has become increasingly viable as digital design and testing technologies continue to mature. Designs can now be rigorously tested in a virtual environment, with other technologies like 3D printing being leveraged for real-world technology demonstrators, taking a process that used to take years and consolidating into a matter of mere months.
This dramatic shift in timeline would also allow for more variety in fighter designs, with firms constantly pitching and prototyping new aircraft in pursuit of the next fighter contract that’s tantalizingly just years away, instead of once or twice a century.
Splitting contracts will open doors for smaller firms to compete to field the best possible new fighters
The Air Force’s next air superiority fighter that’s being developed under the NGAD program is already progressing very differently than the F-35, thanks to the decision to split its contract into three different competitions.
Unlike the F-35, with Lockheed Martin in control over every facet of the program, the Pentagon has separated the NGAD program into design, production, and sustainment contracts. That means one firm could design the aircraft, but another one may end up actually building them in production. And yet another may secure the sustainment contract needed to maintain these new jets.
That allows for much broader competition (few firms could design, mass-produce, and sustain a fleet of fighters, but many firms could very capably do just one of these three). It’s possible that America’s next air superiority fighter could be designed by Lockheed Martin, built by Northrop Grumman, and sustained by another firm like General Dynamics. This forces companies to not only offer the most capable designs, but also the most competitive approaches to production and maintaining them as well.
Some firms that lack the infrastructure to support the production of new fighters could even potentially win the design contract on new fighter programs under this model. That means smaller firms with big ideas would finally have a seat at the table when it comes to new fighter designs.
The F-35 may be America’s last trillion-dollar fighter
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may have offered revolutionary new capabilities, but a great deal of its development and acquisition process remained firmly rooted in the analog era—and in this case, analog means expensive. In a very real way, the F-35’s secret weapon has been a big pile of money to burn all along.
By embracing the full breadth of digital tools at its disposal, the Pentagon now hopes to build upon the shoulders of technological giants like the F-35 and F-22 to create new generations of fighters that are more capable than ever without torching a mountain of taxpayer dollars or spending decades in development.
But just as importantly, the Defense Department is clearly leveraging lessons learned in the F-35 process, and the changes they’re making promise to make America’s fighter industry more competitive than it’s ever been. When the brightest minds in the nation are competing to see who can design the best fighter, you’re sure to get some incredible options… but when the runners up know they’ll have another shot in just five or so years, there’s real incentive to continue maturing designs and technologies for that next competition.
Firms may even pop up to compete specifically in one realm of fighter contracting—specializing in design, production, or sustainment specifically to make their proposals more promising, cost-effective, and efficient. The F-35 may not have been any of those things… but thanks to the “flying quarterback in the sky,” it may be the last fighter acquisition boondoggle the US sees for a long time to come.