There is an old saying in the news business to the effect that bad news gets more attention than good news. There is some truth to this observation with respect to Pentagon acquisition programs. While it is important to inform the public about problems in military programs, focusing on challenges, rather than giving attention to successes, can give the impression that a platform or system is not performing well, and thus not providing value for money.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program is a case in point of this phenomenon. Press reports on the JSF program have been dominated by stories on high maintenance and sustainment, and problems with the supply chain. While none of these concerns are insignificant, what has not been made clear is how much progress the program has made on multiple fronts, including on lowering those costs and the contribution that the JSF is already making to U.S. national security, as well as that of allies and partners.
Basic facts and figures tell part of this good news story. Nearly 450 F-35s are now in the hands of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, as well as those of numerous allies. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have all declared the F-35 to be operational, as have a number of foreign operators, including the U.K., Israel and, most recently, South Korea. To date, both the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps, plus the Israeli Air Force, have used their F-35s in combat.
The purchase price of the F-35 has also been declining for years. Recently, the Pentagon signed an agreement for three production lots, a total of 478 aircraft, allowing the industry team to control costs by buying in economic quantities, and improving workflow management. As a result, the benchmark price for the F-35A, the Air Force’s variant of the JSF, will decline to $78 million per copy earlier than planned. The Pentagon had a goal of an average price for the F-35A that was higher: $80 million per copy.