Monday, November 23, 2009

Truth and Consequences

Proponents of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter received another scare recently when $232 million in funding for vital tooling was placed in jeopardy as part of ongoing federal budget negotiations. While this funding will probably be restored, it could have severely and artificially compromised future production F-35 capacity, which in turn would raise unit costs of the aircraft and slow fighter deliveries to the U.S. and especially its allies.

Why raise an issue that may be on the road to being solved? Because it’s emblematic of the “zero sum” reality inherent in the budgeting process. There is no shortage of priorities, including national defense, yet hundreds of millions of dollars may be wasted on funding an unwanted, unnecessary, under performing alternate engine, in turn, potentially compromising 50-80 airframes, a significant number especially at a relatively early stage in the aircraft’s marketing life.

In light of the latest F136 engine failure and resultant ceasing of all testing, the fourth engine incident in just 52 test hours, the F136 team will be unable to resume testing until early 2010. This means that production F136 engines will not commence delivery in 2012, thus dispensing with the current baseline schedule and necessitating a new (and further elongated) path forward. It has been reported that the alternate engine team is working on a replan for their engine.

Program slippage on this scale is no academic exercise; it will affect nearly every aspect of the F-35, from cost to risk mitigation. And international customers, who play a crucial role in lowering overall unit costs for everyone including the American taxpayer, will have to wait even longer to have an option in propulsion selection.

Full competition between the F135 and F136, the whole premise for having two engines in the first place, will now slip to 2016 deliveries. And even that timeline presupposes that the root causes of multiple F136 test failures can be fully ameliorated without a fundamental redesign and that they will sustain no additional significant test failures in the months and years ahead. The jury is still out.

The F135 continues to perform extremely well, successfully powering the first flight of Lockheed Martin’s AF-1, the first production representative CTOL airplane to fly. The F135 engines also successfully powered BF-1 from Lockheed Martin’s facility in Fort Worth, Texas across country to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland for continuation of flight test. The F135 propulsion system is also poised to perform the first in-flight STOVL conversion very soon.

President Barack Obama has stated repeatedly that he would veto the federal defense budget bill if F136 funding impacts F-35 acquisition. Surely this is now beyond the shadow of doubt. Though the authorization bill has passed, President Obama could veto the appropriations bill, should it contain wasteful F136 funding.

The F-35 is an official program of record. It shows every sign of being an extremely successful fighter, serving three U.S. armed forces and potentially dozens of allies worldwide. Why some in Congress would choose to fund the F136 engine that falls farther behind the proven reliable F135 seemingly by the day is simply beyond us.

Some might say that all engines go through a difficult gestation. But it’s worth reiterating that during a similar 12-month period to the F136’s four failures in 52 hours, the F135 accumulated 1133 hours with no failures. Try as some might to obfuscate, these facts remain the same.

-- Eagleblogger

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