The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is embarking on a 14-stop tour this year, coming out like a debutante at the ball as Pentagon officials seek to bolster the beleaguered image of the most expensive weapons system in history.
Although the $400 billion program has suffered years of delay and billions of dollars in cost overruns, one of the main problems the stealthy fighter jet now faces is its poor standing in the realm of public perception, defense officials say. But with the program showing signs of stabilizing and production ramping up, the Pentagon sees what marketing executives call a “branding refresh” opportunity and plans to showcase the sleek jet at a series of air shows and events across the country.
“The public perception and the reality are so different,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan told a congressional subcommittee Wednesday. “Getting out there and telling the story is part of what we need to continue to do.”
Changing the public’s perception, he said, won’t be easy. Past problems have “not been conducive to people believing what we say,” he said.
The first step in the good-news tour was the announcement that the costs of the plane are starting to come down. The cost of the Air Force’s variant of the plane is expected to drop from $108 million this year to $85 million in 2019. The total procurement cost dropped $7.5 billion, Bogdan told reporters Thursday, and the services have expressed such confidence in the plane that they decided to extend the operational life six years, to 2070.
Meanwhile, production is expected to increase. This year, Lockheed Martin, the aircraft’s manufacturer, delivered 45 planes. That could grow to 145 by 2020, Bogdan said.
“For a program that has had a tragic past, that is not a bad report card,” he said.
But Bogdan, the blunt and at times gruff program executive officer who promised to deliver the “good, bad and the ugly,” also noted continuing problems. Most notably, he said, there continued to be “stability” issues with the software. The F-35 is often called a flying computer because it uses 8 million lines of code.
That complexity has contributed to all sorts of glitches, the most recent being a problem with communication between the plane’s radar and its main computer.
A “mistiming” is causing the radar to shut off about once every four hours of flight time, he said at the congressional hearing. “That is not good,” he said.
Michael J. Sullivan, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office, called it “critical.”
“I don’t know if I’d want to be a pilot and watch the screen go blank,” he told Congress.
While the glitches would push back testing by a few months, Bogdan said that Lockheed Martin was working on a solution and that the problem should not have a significant effect on the program.
Over the years, the F-35 has suffered all sorts of problems, including glitches in its $400,000 helmet, ejection seat and engine. In 2014, an engine caught fire, forcing the Pentagon to temporarily ground the entire fleet. One of the main problems with the program was that defense officials decided to make three variants – one for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps – which became increasingly different and complex. The Pentagon also committed to buying the aircraft before it was fully developed, violating a procurement tenet: fly before you buy.
Critics have derided the program as the “plane that ate the Pentagon,” and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, has said that the high cost means that the Defense Department won’t be able to afford all 2,443 of the planes it initially planned to buy. So far it has delivered more than 170 of the planes to the Defense Department and foreign allies.
But last year, the Marine Corps declared its version, which can land vertically, as a helicopter can, ready for combat, a key turning point in the program. Later this year, the Air Force is expected to declare that its version is also combat-ready.