While the officials spoke about the progress on all three variants, they also acknowledged there will likely be more difficulties ahead. The radar-evading aircraft, which was originally billed as an “affordable,” had grown in cost and complexity, while the date for fielding the aircraft has slipped a number of times. Estimates suggest that the craft will not be operational until 2018, eight years behind initial estimates. The total programme cost is now estimated at about $400 billion, while the cost of sustaining the aircraft over their expected 30 year life is expected to run over $1 trillion, a figure that has led to headlined dubbing it – whether fairly or not – the “trillion dollar fighter.”
But the planes problems are not over yet. They are likely to continue as the military moves the aircraft from development and testing and into operations, officials said. “I guarantee you we will discover other things,” said Rear Admiral Mark W Darrah, the head of Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. “Once at sea, we re going to make new discoveries, just like every other platform.”
It’s not just technical problems that may challenge the new aircraft. Critics of the Joint Strike Fighter point out that countries like China are developing and acquiring weapons that will push aircraft carriers so far out to sea that the F-35, which has a range of 1,000km (600 miles), will not be able to strike inside enemies’ borders. And then there is a new class of advanced pilotless drones being developed, such as the X-47B, which may be able to do some of the same missions, but without risking pilot’s lives.
But for now at least the programme continues and officials say things are back on schedule. Rear Admiral Randolph Mahr, the deputy head of the Joint Strike Fighter programme, says that an initial batch of operational STOVL aircraft will be delivered to the Marine Corps by the summer of 2015, as currently planned. “The Marine Corps is holding us to that date,” he said.
Any delays to that delivery – or others – are not likely to go down well. The US Defense Department is facing funding cuts as part of a budget deal known as sequestration. While cutting an expensive aircraft programme may look like an attractive option, many analysts warn this will result in a “death spiral,” where reducing the number of aircraft pushes the unit price up, making it even more costly.
Despite its problems, the F-35 so far appears to have avoided the axe amid the current budget turmoil. The president this week requested $8.4 billion to continue the Joint Strike fighter during the next fiscal year, leaving the aircraft safe … at least for now.