October 26 marked the 20th anniversary of the announcement of Lockheed Martin as the winner of the multi-national Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.
Lockheed Martin had bid its X-35 concept against Boeing’s X-32 for the contract which had the potential to provide more than 3,000 fighters for the US DoD, seven international partner nations, and many more foreign military sales (FMS) customers.
The JSF was designed to replace a number of aircraft, including the F-16, F/A-18A-D, AV-8B/Harrier, A-10, and Tornado IDS/GR4 in service with the US, UK, and partner nations. The US had specified a single aircraft design to meet the requirements of the US Air Force, US Navy, and US Marine Corps which would be capable of conventional takeoff and landings (CTOL), aircraft carrier operations (CV), and short take-offs and vertical landings (STOVL) respectively.
Apart from these demanding requirements, it was also to have a maintainable very low observable (VLO) shape and materials, internal weapons bays, the latest advanced embedded sensors, be capable of employing current and future advanced weapons, and be able to be networked into current and future joint forces. And it was supposed to be no more expensive than then-current 4th generation fighters!
Contracts were awarded to Lockheed Martin and Boeing in 1996 to build two prototypes each to compete in a flyoff. Lockheed Martin built the X-35C which represented the CV with a wider wingspan with folding wingtips and a beefed up structure and landing gear, and the X-35A/B which initially represented the CTOL variant and, after 28 flights, was fitted with a lift-fan, aft swivel nozzle, and roll posts to prove the STOVL requirement.
The winner was announced in a Pentagon press conference on the afternoon of October 26 after a competitive fly-off between two examples of each aircraft. “Both proposals were very good, both demo programs were very good,” then US Air Force Secretary Jim Roche announced. “But on the basis of strengths, weaknesses, and degrees of risk of the program, it is our conclusion…that the Lockheed Martin team is the winner of the Joint Strike Fighter program on a best value basis.”
The JSF Program had three tiers of partners. The UK is the only Tier 1 partner, Italy and The Netherlands are Tier 2 partners, while Australia, Canada, Norway, Denmark are Tier 3 partners. Turkey was a Tier 3 partner, but was removed from the program in 2019 after acquiring a Russian S-400 SAM system which could potentially compromise the F-35’s VLO secrets. Canada paused its planned buy in 2015 and instead has re-competed its fighter program, with a decision due in 2022.
The first production F-35, an F-35A designated AA-1 flew in December 2006, the first F-35B, BF-1 in June 2008, and the first F-35C CF-1 in June 2010. Visually, the production-representative aircraft differed from the X-35 prototypes in having a longer and deeper fuselage, the horizontal stabilisers moved further aft, and the diverterless intake redesigned.
The issues with the JSF program since that time have been widely reported over the years, especially in the first decade. Despite the best intentions, no program of this scale goes perfectly smoothly and sticks to schedule, but the JSF has fared far worse than most.
Early weight growth problems – primarily with the F-35B STOVL version – added two years to the program, while ongoing software, structural, sustainment, helmet, overheating, fuel system, and production concurrency issues saw the JSF program ‘re-baselined’, and the F-35A’s planned USAF initial operational capability (IOC) slip from a planned 2010 to 2016.
The USMC declared its F-35Bs had reached IOC in July 2015, albeit it with an interim Block 2B software load that didn’t enable all of the capabilities and weapons planned for IOC. The USAF followed suit in August 2016, also with an interim Block 3i software load, and the US Navy in February 2019 with the full Block 3F (for Final) load.
It is planned that software and hardware block upgrades will be released to the global fleet of F-35s every five-to-eight years, while sub-block software patches will be released every 18 months to two years.
But the one issue most commentators have focused on is the overall cost of the program. Initially projected to cost US$200bn for the systems design and development (SDD) and subsequent production of a planned 2,443 aircraft for the US DoD, that cost now looks to be closer to US$400bn, while the projected lifecycle cost of the program until the type’s withdrawal has been pegged at a staggering US$1.7 trillion! As far back as 2012, then Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has already dubbed this blowout as “acquisition malpractice”.
The schedule slips have affected the partner nations, with them partially-contributing to Australia’s planned F-35A introduction being delayed from 2010 to 2018, and IOC slipping from 2012 to 2020. But partner nations and FMS customers have financially fared better than the US, mainly because they have shared in the industrial supply chain of the program, and most have bought their aircraft late enough in the build run to enjoy the economies of scale that annual builds of 100 or more aircraft brings.
The current unit acquisition cost of an F-35A of about US$78m (A$104m) is roughly the same as that of 4-4.5 generation fighters like the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, F-15EX Eagle, Dassault Rafale, or Eurofighter EF-2000. For operating costs, smaller air forces are better able to centralise and concentrate their training, maintenance, and aircraft configuration-management compared to the huge and widely-dispersed US DoD.
But 20 years later, and despite annual build rates of more than 140 F-35s, ongoing technical issues covering aircraft structures, software stability, and sustainment mean the program is still yet to achieve its all-important Milestone-C approval which will allow it to proceed to full-rate production.
To date, about 720 F-35s have been delivered to the US and all active partner nations, as well as three FMS customers – Israel, Japan, and South Korea. Belgium, Poland, and Switzerland have ordered the F-35A, competitions in which the F-35A features are underway in Canada and Finland, and Singapore and the UAE have been approved to buy the jet.
In Australia, the RAAF has received 41 of its planned 72 F-35As to date, down from an initial program of record of 100 jets, and will retire the last of its F/A-18A/B Hornets by the end of 2021. The forthcoming Project AIR 6000 Phase 7 is expected to consider an additional squadron of F-35s, or the retention and upgrade of the 24 F/A-18Fs, or a move to advanced uncrewed combat aircraft such as Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System-based Loyal Wingman, or a mix of some or all of these.