60 Minutes: F-35 Over Budget & Behind Schedule
On assignment for 60 Minutes, David Martin of CBS News reported about the F-35, the most expensive weapon system in history. The cost was about $400 billion for 2,400 planes, twice the cost to put a man on the moon. Defense spending has been cut during ongoing budget negotiations, meaning the military will be getting smaller, but these planes have been expected for years and could be a boon in air defense.
However, Martin said the planes are seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. So far, it is not living up to the high expectations. Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan is the man who oversees the project, and he told 60 Minutes that the project has gone off the rails.
Bogdan sat with 60 Minutes and said that the program he took over a year ago is no longer paying for mistakes he said have made by Lockheed Martin. He said that relations between the two are dysfunctional, and the worst working relationship he had seen in his history of acquisitions.
60 Minutes: F-35 Pentagon Vs Lockheed Martin
Planes on an assembly line in Fort Worth, Texas, cost $115 million each, and that’s a price that needs to come down if the Pentagon is going to get its 2,400-plane order. Bogdan said that Lockheed Martin will not make its profit if the company does not delivery quality on schedule.
“If they want what I call ‘winner’s profit,’ they have to act like and perform like winners,” Bogdan said. The planes are being tested currently and may be in service by 2015. They are anticipated to replace current jet fighters, with models for the Army, Navy, and Marines.
Lieutenant Colonel David Berke said this is a game changer in terms of handling and the plane’s capabilities, compared to the current fleet. Berke said that the standards for evaluating air combat have changed, and these planes are designed to evade radar and come equipped with information technology unlike anything that has come before.
60 Minutes: US Fighters Vs Russian T-50 Vs China’s J-20
Air Force chief General Mark Welch said that the F-35 is critical for the US to maintain air superiority in future military conflicts. Though terrorist enemies like Al Qaeda and the Taliban do not have plane fleets, Welch told 60 Minutes that he is looking ahead to future potential conflicts, noting developments by China and Russia in terms of air fighters.
He said that any older fighter, like those from the current fleet, might not stand up against the Russian T-50 or China’s J-20. An older plane “will die before it even knows it’s in a fight,” he said. Information technology and stealth capabilities will give the US “an astounding advantage in combat.”
Marine lieutenant general Robert Schmidle said that these planes give the US an amazing range in terms of detecting enemy aircraft first, possibly giving the US 10 times the advance warning of any enemy.
60 Minutes: F-35 Pilot Helmet Cameras
Cameras, radars, and antennas can scan 360 degrees around the plane, helping to identify threats and determine altitude and speed of nearby planes, directly into pilots’ custom helmets. Lockheed Martin test pilot Alan Norman showed 60 Minutes how the system uses a special blindfold so a pilot can only see what cameras could show a pilot, though what David Martin saw in that helmet is apparently classified.
Bogdan agreed that the specialized helmet with its computer system cost over half a million dollars, but 60 Minutes have learned that there have been malfunctions with helmets and other aspects of the planes, with up to half of the existing fleet grounded at any given time.
The planes are subjected to a battery of 56,000 tests, checking speed and functionality. Colonel Rod Cregier is running the government’s test program, determining whether the contractor delivered what was paid for.
60 Minutes: Lockheed Martin F-35 Response
Along the way, surprisingly basic problems have cropped up, such as wingtip lights that do not meet FAA standards, preventing it from doing test flights at night. The tires must be tough but bouncy, and they have been wearing out three to four times as quickly as was expected.
Schmidle and Bodgan both recalled incidents with errors that had been discovered. Lockheed Martin declined an on-camera interview and instead responded via email, agreeing that the project has faced “developmental and cost challenges,” which they are working on.
Only about 35 planes are produced per year, which makes me skeptical that these are going to be up and running in 2015. Previously, simulators were used in place of flight testing. Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, said that the US was buying these planes a year before they could flight test them, making it impossible to do a test flight first, like you would test drive a car.
60 Minutes: F-35 Production Sunk Costs
Kendall considered this “acquisition malpractice,” issuing a memo calling out “flawed…assumptions…,” “unrealistic…estimates…,” and “…a general reluctance to accept unfavorable information” as reasons why the program is $160 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule.
He went on to tell 60 Minutes that the F-35 program is now under control, and he has since agreed to resume production in 2015, though he noted that the software needs to continue to be improved. The US is expected to be purchasing up to 100 planes per year by 2018.
Bogdan said that the sunk costs are a reality, and American taxpayers should expect to be paying handsomely for them for years to come. They sound like powerful machines, but a lot has changed about technology in seven years, for example. How outdated might they be in another four years?