That was essential because the Pentagon needs a lot of F-35s. It is supposed to replace thousands of legacy aircraft including the F-16, a workhorse of the Air Force fleet, and every fighter jet owned by the Marine Corps. The F-35 was pitched as the answer because it was supposed to be affordable — in the relative terms of fighter jets — and could be acquired in larger quantities than the F-22 Raptor, the Air Force’s new high-performance fighter.
Pentagon officials accepted Lockheed’s claim that computer simulations would be able to identify design problems, minimizing the need to make changes once the plane actually took to the sky. That, in turn, led to an aggressive plan to build and test the aircraft simultaneously.
Cautioning that all of those assumptions were flawed, Spinney and other defense analysts urged the Pentagon to see the plane in flight before committing to buy it. But senior Defense Department officials in the George W. Bush administration did not heed the warnings.
Within months, the program began veering off course.
The Air Force, Marines and Navy all sought additional modifications to meet their needs, reducing commonality among the three models. A bigger problem was the fundamental concept of building one plane, with stealth technology, that could fly as far and fast as the Air Force wanted while also being able to land on the Navy’s carriers and take off vertically from Marine amphibious assault ships.
Instead of meeting the original plan of being about 70 percent similar, the three versions now are 70 percent distinct, which has increased costs by tens of billions and led to years-long delays. “We have three airplane programs running in parallel,” Bogdan said. “They are very, very different airplanes.”
Even with three variants, the plane’s design has forced serious compromises. To remain stealthy, bombs and missiles must be placed inside a weapons bay, which limits the volume of munitions that can be carried. The use of a single engine, required for the Marine version, restricts speed.
With an even more complex engineering challenge than initially envisioned, Lockheed and the Pentagon took a hands-off approach to managing the program, according to several people involved in the process.
An electrical engineer who worked as a manager at Lockheed’s F-35 program headquarters in Fort Worth beginning in 2001 said the development effort was beset with “tremendous organizational inadequacies” and “schedule and cost expectations that never were achievable.” In his unit, he said, there were no firm development timetables and no budgets. “It was all on autopilot,” he said. “It was doomed from the beginning.”