General Defends Embattled $850 Billion F-35 Program
Policy + Politics

General Defends Embattled $850 Billion F-35 Program

The man in charge of the Pentagon’s $391 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is sick of the intense criticism his embattled program has received over the past few years. He says the aircraft is in much better shape than the public has been led to believe. 

For years, the F-35 has raised eyebrows for its enormous cost overruns, schedule delays and significant technical and design problems. The aircraft—which is supposed to be a flying super computer that operates at a higher level than anything the Pentagon has ever seen—has been plagued with so many issues that have forced critics to question whether the weapons program will ever be worth the money. 

Related: How DOD’s $1.5 Trillion F-35 Broke the Air Force 

In contrast to most of the media attention the F-35 has received, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan is painting a much brighter picture of the JSF. The Marines’ version of the plane, he says, will be ready to fly in combat by this summer. 

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, the general defended his program’s price tag—saying the costs have come down in the past few years since he took over the position in 2012. It was originally estimated to cost a total of $1.1 trillion but that has since dropped to about $850 billion over the 55-year life of the program. 

The cost for each individual aircraft has come down by about $10 million.

According to DOD officials, the Marine Corps’ version of the F-35 costs $134 million, compared to $145 million in 2012.

The Marine’s F-35, which is expected to be ready for combat by July 1, will launch with some deficiencies in its software system that will prevent it from using all of the system’s capabilities. Still, Bogdan said the Marines are moving forward despite the remaining software problems.

Related: 5 Expensive Weapons Programs No One Wants

The issues occur in the software program that’s supposed to help pilots communicate and respond to what’s happening on the ground and in the air. The problem is when four F-35’s are flying together, the systems don’t sync properly, so the pilots in each jet might see the same situation differently.

“It creates an inaccurate picture for the pilots,” Bogdan said.

Bogdan claimed the tech issues aren’t severe enough to keep the aircraft off the battlefield. He noted that the Marines are aware of the problems and can still operate the F-35 sufficiently.

“They understand the limitations and have operational workarounds to ensure they have the capability they need,” Bogdan said. The issues are still being worked on, but they won’t likely be corrected until early fall.

Related: World’s Most Lethal Drone Just Flew Over Florida

Though the general painted the problem as a small roadblock, the Defense Department is sending the manufacturer Lockheed Martin a stiff penalty for the delays and deficiencies. 

DOD officials say Lockheed will have to forfeit at least some of the total $300 million it received in incentive fees to finish the software packages on time.

If the Marine’s F-35 is ready for combat by July, it will be an enormous victory for the program—which has been hammered with criticism from lawmakers, the media (including this reporter), experts and even some inside the Pentagon—whose views on the F-35 are dramatically different (and more pessimistic) than the general’s assessment.

Earlier this month, the Defense Department’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) released a scathing update on the F-35 that revealed a litany of problems with it—from engine issues, to safety issues—as well as the software issues that the general discussed. The report painted a much more serious account of the F-35’s problems than Bogdan acknowledged. The DOT&E report also accused officials of unfairly documenting the F-35’s test results.

“Not all failures are counted in the calculation of mean flight hours between reliability events, but all flight hours are counted, and hence component and aircraft reliability are reported higher than if all of the failures were counted,” the report said. 

Related: 12 Weapons That Changed Everything

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) a nonprofit watchdog group, released its own harsh analysis of the report.

“The problems described in the DOT&E report show that the F-35 has reached a stage where it is now obvious that the never-ending stream of partial fixes, software patches, and ad hoc workarounds are inadequate to deliver combat-worthy, survivable, and readily employable aircraft,” POGO said. “This year’s DOT&E report also demonstrates that in an effort to maintain the political momentum of the F-35, its program office is not beneath misrepresenting critically important characteristics of the system.”

Still the general blamed the backlash from the report on the media who read and interpreted it without the proper context.

Bogdan did, however, acknowledge that the program isn’t perfect and that there is still a laundry list of concerns he has about the aircraft—chief among them--the software, though there are a number of other problems that need to be fixed with the aircraft’s engine, tires and structure. But he doesn’t lose sleep over those, he said.

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: