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Joint Strike Fighter Problems Reaching Critical Mass

Administration claims jet procurement "on track."

12:41 PM, Mar 1, 2010 • By JOHN NOONAN
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Bill Sweetman, the veritable godfather of aviation reporting, has an interesting story up on efforts to push the Joint Strike Fighter out the door on time.

If February was a bad news month for the Joint Strike Fighter, with the program boss fired, a 13-month delay in test and a two-year slip in Air Force initial operational capability, look out for March. A Government Accountability Office report is rolling down the tracks, along with a Selected Acquisition Report (SAR) which, as we told you in Defense Technology International a month ago, is almost certainly going to record a critical Nunn-McCurdy breach...

The core of the problem could be what Lockheed Martin says it is:  simply delays in building aircraft. Bob Cox of the Fort Worth Star Telegram has a detailed story based on Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) reports.

They portray a manufacturing disaster, with tasks running months behind schedule and suppliers unable to meet deadlines because they were not given final designs in time. To get airplanes in the air, parts were removed from airframes further back on the production line - which in turn have to be repaired in the same time-consuming out-of-sequence manner. And the delays are already rippling into low rate initial production, with the first two deliveries slipped into the last quarter.

That's a bit in the weeds. The layman's run down is this: The fighter is, and has been, plagued by delays, cost overruns, spats with allies, all underscored by the fact that the JSF isn't that great of a jet. The Russian PAK-FA, which took to the skies this month, is already purported to be a superior air-to-air platform -- though it won't be fully operational for a few years. Moscow has no problem exporting their best gear to second and third world nations, and the Russians take particular delight in providing nations hostile to U.S. interests with advanced weaponry. Considering that proclivity to sell to bad guys, we could be facing the PAK-FA in air-to-air combat in under a decade.

So will we be ready? The F-35's long list of failures is opening up some critical planning issues, problems that could end up critically degrading America's abilities to fight and win wars a few miles down the road. The Obama administration is taking a colossal risk in canceling the F-22 program and sticking all their eggs in the Joint Strike Fighter basket. The F-22 was intended to assure America's air supremacy -- the very cornerstone of every major military operation since the early '80s -- for the next two decades. Though we'll be fine for the next few years, shutting down the Raptor's assembly lines could open a sizable capabilities gap within a decade or so. Meanwhile, Lockheed and the Department of Defense, in light of this growing and serious problem, can only offer tepid assurances that the F-35 is "on track."

Sweetman counters: The Donner Party was on track. They were not on schedule.

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