Secretary Gates gave the F-35 tough love and a vote of confidence in his Jan. 11 announcement. Yes, unit costs are up, but there’s a blast of realism to the schedule and decisions, and adding $4.6B to the SDD – test and design – phase is a vote of confidence. Here’s 3 reasons why.
STOVL stays. “I think that the Marine Corps made a compelling case that they need some time to try and get things right with the STOVL. And we will give them that opportunity,” Gates said in response to press questions. The joint utility of STOVL has always been questionable and all the more so now that Britain’s Royal Air Force has backed out in favor of the carrier variant. But with two years to go, the STOVL is set up to succeed, not fail.
Strong management. As Wall Street knows, management matters. Under the pressure of the last year’s Nunn-McCurdy breach, F-35 got a strong new team in spring 2010, namely Vice Admiral Dave Venlet, who’d run Naval Air Systems Command, and Larry Lawson, who’d turned around the F-22 program for Lockheed Martin by delivering zero-defect aircraft. Gates’ announcement – the SecDef talked about propulsion and structures – gave off the aura of very detailed briefings. Evidently they’ve taken a hard look at the program and come up with a detailed action plan. Most encouraging are the sensible details like the decision to decouple STOVL variant testing and the quasi-admission that service initial operational dates have yet to be decided. That means the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps will have to evaluate what truly constitutes initial capability, which in fact gives them needed flexibiilty as they bring on the jets.
USAF and Navy need F-35. Despite the stern words like “probation” and “reversing” cost growth the Department is still all in on F-35. With the F-22 cancelled for petty reasons there is no other stealthy, survivable new fighter program out there. (Except maybe for that roll-out from China as pictured in Bill Sweetman's Aviation Week article….)