Is the F-35 Really Streaking by Its Troubled Past?

Is the F-35 Really Streaking by Its Troubled Past?

Lockheed Martin

In a radio interview aired during the Super Bowl halftime, President Trump again claimed that he has saved hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars by cracking down on the cost of the F-35, the controversial Joint Strike Fighter.

Since he did jawbone Lockheed Martin and costs are coming down on his watch, the President may well be entitled to some bragging rights. In fact, Lockheed, which builds the F-35, credited Trump with helping to “accelerate negotiations.”

Related: Air Force General Challenges Trump Over the F-35

But the savings realized in the deal to sell 90 new F-35s for $8.5 billion – “more than $700 million in savings over the last batch of aircraft delivered,” according to CNN – may have been in the works before Trump took office and may have more to do with volume and manufacturing efficiencies than anything else.

The cost of producing three versions of the F-35 – one for the Air Force, one for the Navy and one for the Marines -- “caused the program to spin out of control, raising the expected cost to $400 billion for 2,443 planes, The New York Times said. “The Pentagon restructured the project in 2011, and the price of each plane has gradually dropped since then.”

The good news for the F-35 doesn’t end with cost reductions:

  • In combat exercises underway at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, the F-35A (the Air Force version) scored a 15:1 kill ratio against F-16 “enemy” aircraft, according to the military aviation website The Aviationist.

  • The military weapons website Scout Warrior describes the F-35 as combat-ready and suggests that it “could soon be called upon to meet mission requirements in the ongoing air campaign against ISIS.” Scout Warrior cautions that while that prospect in not imminent and possibly years away, it is possible.

Related: The F-35 Just Aced a Big Test -- and Became Much More Dangerous 

Still, it is not all clear skies for the F-35. In a letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas last month, the outgoing director of combat testing at the Defense Dept. said the Joint Fighter still has “significant, well-documented deficiencies in critical combat capabilities,” according to Bloomberg.

Michael Gilmore, director of Operational Test and Evaluation since 2009, said that Defense has “no plan to adequately fix and verify” hundreds of deficiencies in the F-35, including “software, weapons accuracy, aircraft-carrier launching, the diagnostic system and reliability,” Bloomberg reported. Gilmore suggested that the Trump Administration needs to review the program rigorously.

In the 62-page report issued in December 2016, Gilmore said that even with the “risky, schedule-driven approach” of the DOD office running the Joint Strike Fighter program, “multiple problems and delays make it clear that the program will not be able to start IOT&E (Initial Operational Test and Evaluation) with full combat capability until late [2018] or early [2019], at the soonest.”