By STEPHEN MANNING
The Associated Press
Sunday, December 3, 2006; 4:47 PM
ARLINGTON, Va. -- To the military and defense firms that make it, the F-35 Lightning II is a "next generation" fighter jet, a technological leap meant to replace several aging fighters and help America maintain its dominance in aerial warfare.
The Pentagon plans to buy thousands of the new stealthy jets, to be flown by three branches of the military and by eight foreign countries. And despite being the most expensive Pentagon spending program ever, with a total cost of about $275 billion, each plane is supposed to be relatively cheap to build, a rarity in defense spending.
But as the first F-35 prepares for its inaugural flight sometime this month, it takes off into some cloudy skies. The program's cost has grown substantially while the number of planes to be built has dropped. Congress has shown a willingness to make cuts, and the coming leadership change at the Pentagon may muddy the plane's future.
Although officials from the Pentagon and the lead contractor, Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Corp., say they are optimistic about the plane's future, they acknowledge the risk of the jet falling into a defense "death spiral," a cycle of cuts and higher costs that beset one of the F-35's closest fighter jet kin.
"You get into this classic problem of the airplane continues to get more expensive, and therefore you buy less airplanes, and it gets more expensive and you buy less airplanes," Lockheed F-35 program head Tom Burbage said at a briefing this fall at the company's offices near the Pentagon in Arlington. "We are trying to get out of that spiral."
The jet program is at a vulnerable moment in its 10-year life, shifting from the costly research and development phase to the infancy of production. Under the Pentagon plan, spending on new F-35s is projected to average more than $1 billion per month by 2012, a clip expected to last for more than ten years. Up to 2,500 planes would be built for the United States alone.
The project's large price tag makes it a tempting target for lawmakers _ it narrowly avoided deep cuts this fall in Congress and saw its initial production numbers scaled back. Budget watchdogs warn that the Pentagon is rushing the F-35 into production without first proving its advertised capabilities.
Some military analysts say the early erosion is a worrisome sign.
"Every time critics succeed in getting it cut, the average cost of the airplane goes up," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the nonpartisan Lexington Institute, who predicts the number of F-35s made for the U.S. military could eventually be cut by up to a third. "What is beginning to happen to the F-35 is precisely what happened to the F-22."
The recent resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also clouds the picture of the F-35, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group. Rumsfeld was a foe of the F-22, a high-performing plane popular with the Air Force. His departure could shift more funds to the costly F-22 at the F-35's expense.
"The real danger is if the F-22 gobbled up the cash," Aboulafia said.
The F-22, conceived to fight the now defunct Soviet Union, is another technologically advanced jet and a cousin to the F-35. But the program has been sharply scaled back. Initial plans called for 750, but only 183 are slated to be built, with each plane costing around $350 million, including development costs.
The F-35 is a similar jet, with the same stubby nose and twin tail fins, advanced radar, stealth design and other fighting capabilities. But it is also designed for greater versatility; It will be one of the first to allow a pilot to easily shift from bombing runs to aerial combat on the same mission. It will replace several older fighters, including the Air Force's workhorse F-16.
First proposed in the 1990s, the F-35, also called the Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF, was a new tack in defense contracting. It is a single plane to meet the different needs of three military branches, a rarity for big weapons deals. That meant a jet with three variations _ an aircraft carrier plane for the Navy, an Air Force jet that uses a runway and a Marine Corps plane that can take off and land vertically. Countries such as Britain, Australia and Canada also plan to fly the F-35.
Each variation uses the same research process and can be constructed on the same assembly line. That emphasis on cost was rare for bid defense programs, said Jacques Gansler, the former undersecretary of defense in charge of contracting during the late 1990s.
"It is going to be a very expensive program, but it is a low-cost airplane," said Gansler. "It is hard to put those words together, but the reality is that it is a low-cost airplane times a large number of airplanes."
Yet that cost savings has already shrunk. Upfront development costs make up a major portion of the cost of a new fighter, meaning if fewer are made, the per plane cost is higher. The F-35 cost $45 billion to develop _ a figure that is up 84 percent from 1990s estimates. Problems with weight and other factors helped drive up the price.
Meanwhile, the number of F-35s dropped. More than 2,800 were planned when Lockheed won the contract in 2001, at a price between $37 million and $47 million depending on the version. By the end of 2005, only 2,450 were envisioned, at a cost of between $44.5 million and $61.7 million each, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.
In September, Congress approved funding for only two of the five first jets requested, although it did budget to buy parts for 12 more. An earlier Senate proposal would have blocked funding of all five
Lockheed and defense officials say it is important that Congress allowed production to begin, but they stress that future reductions could be costly.
"You can easily make JSF an unaffordable airplane," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles Davis, the F-35's program officer.
But there are concerns the F-35 is moving too fast. In a report in March, the GAO said the Pentagon planned to produce 424 planes through 2013 before all the flight testing was finished. If early problems arise, the program could face delays and even greater costs, the GAO concluded.
Davis said those fears are exaggerated, that much of the ground testing already done on the F-35 should reduce the risk of problems arising later. He said the F-35 team has closely analyzed woes that beset the F-22, such as software errors and development problems, to avoid any repeats.
Despite the challenges, Davis predicts the plane will meet its goals. But it depends on how well the F-35 performs, both in the skies and at the bottom line.
"We control our own destiny," he said. "I hope that if we are able to deliver on schedule, to deliver on budget, to keep the performance going that we won't be handed cuts just because cuts need to be made."