The Joint Strike Fighter: A single plane for all our armed forces

December 04, 1996|By Jeffrey Record

IN A MOVE toward awarding the most lucrative military contract in history, the Defense Department recently selected Lockheed Martin and Boeing as the final competitors for the supersonic, radar-eluding -- yet frugal -- "Joint Strike Fighter," with the winner to be selected in 2001.

The decision underscores the Pentagon's commitment to stringent budgetary discipline and a revival of the old idea of producing a single plane that the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps can all use.

Avoidable cost overruns and sloppy management have been common features of defense contractor performance in recent decades. They are no longer acceptable in an era of budget scarcity and unfolding technologies that permit significant reductions in the expense of designing and testing new weapons.

These considerations may have played a role in the Pentagon's elimination from the JSF competition of McDonnell Douglas, what with its management turmoil, technically complex FSF design proposal and cost-overrun record with its C-17 cargo plane.

A formidable challenge

The JSF challenge is formidable. Thirty-five years ago Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was pilloried by the military services for his determination to build a single fighter plane for the Air Force and Navy. The infamous TFX -- designated the F-111 when it entered production in 1967 -- proved an auditor's nightmare and unsuitable for the Navy's rigorous requirements for carrier landings and take-offs. Only 562 were ever built.

In contrast, the Defense Department plans to build a total of 2,978 JSFs, including 942 modified for use by the Navy and Marine Corps (which wants a version capable of vertically taking off and landing). The target procurement price: $145 billion, an average of $45 million to $61 million per plane, depending on the version.

Can such an affordable, generic fighter be built?

A history of waste

Service rivalries and congressional addiction to defense budget pork have traditionally worked against the generic approach by promoting budgetary waste and unnecessary duplication of effort. An excellent example is the Navy's recent $80 billion decision to buy up to 1,000 F/A-18E/F Super Horney fighters, a decision which a just-published assessment by Ohio State University's Mershon Center condemned as "buying junk" for "political and economic reasons."

The F/A-18E/F is, among other things, inferior in range and munitions capacity to the F-14s and A-6s it is designed to replace, and only marginally better than the still relatively young earlier versions of the F/A-18. The Navy, which no longer faces any credible challenge to its high seas supremacy, should live with the perfectly adequate aircraft it already has until the JSF becomes available.

The most instructive precedent for the JSF is not the ill-fated TFX, but rather the spectacularly successful F-4 Phantom II. Designed in the late 1950s as a fighter for the Navy and Marine Corps, a slightly modified version was quickly adopted by the Air Force. More than 5,000 were produced from 1962 to 1979, including almost 1,100 for foreign air forces. Probably the most versatile jet fighter-bomber of all time, the F-4 vindicated the concept of one basic fighter aircraft design for all of the services flying fighters. The F-4 was also affordable, in part because of the huge buy stemming from the multi-service commitment to the plane.

Will the JSF prove as great a battlefield and budgetary success as the F-4? History shows a pattern among most aircraft programs of unplanned unit cost growth that is often accelerated by cost-induced program reductions and stretchouts. This is a case of budgetary salvation through mass production; any significant cut in the planned buy of 2,978 JSFs will raise the cost of each plane actually bought, as will slowing the rate of production (planned to peak at 158 a year) over a longer period of time.

Keeping the cost down

And money will be tight: the Air Force and Marine Corps have other important flying fish to fry (the F-22 fighter and V-22 vertical take-off aircraft programs, respectively), and the budgetary cancer that is the F/A-18E/F program could kill acquisition of a Navy JSF altogether, thus jacking up the price for the other services.

As the F-4 program teaches, the JSF's affordability will hinge in large measure on unflinching Defense Department and congressional support for keeping the buy large and on schedule. Failure of the Pentagon and Capitol Hill to do so will compel the contractor to increase unit costs to offset lost economies of scale.

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