The F-35 is a complicated program.
That’s not really news, I know. Technologically, the jet may be the most advanced piece of hardware the military has ever played with, requiring millions of lines of code and all sorts of gadgets spread over three physically different models. Economically, it’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a program, with a trio of Pentagon services, eight partner nations who each have an economic hand in the program, and three foreign sales customers.
(Incidentally, if you want a remind on just who the international partners are, you can always check out our interactive map of the F-35 global footprint.)
Keeping track of everything that’s going on is a challenge in the best of times. Luckily for you, we here at Intercepts are ready to help.
Below are slides that were part of a presentation made by Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program manager Lorraine Martin at this year’s Air Force Association Air & Space Conference, held just outside Washington. This gives you a sense of the overall status of the F-35 program. Think of it as a handy snapshot of where the program is in September of 2014.
This first slide shows the F-35 “Master Schedule” for the program. Treat this as a best-case scenario: if everything goes as planned, these are the major program milestones that will occur through the end of the decade. You’ll notice the three major software drops for 2B, 3I and 3F, as well as the IOC dates for the Marines, Air Force and Navy all listed.
There are two risks to the timeline shown here, one short-term and one long-term. The short-term risk comes in the form of delays to testing caused by flight restrictions the fleet has been operating on since July, the result of a fire that heavily damaged an F-35A. Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program head, has said he needs planes flying unrestricted tests by the end of the month in order to make sure everything stays on track. (Engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney feels it has a fix that should be ready to go shortly.)
The long-term risk? Sequestration-related budget challenges. So far, the F-35 program has, in the words of Bogdan, been “literally unscathed” in the ongoing budget fights — but there is no guarantee that will always be true. Enough funding changes — or worse, partners cutting orders or dropping from the program entirely — and this schedule will start slipping quickly to the right. The positive news for this timetable? Pentagon leadership is apparently pledging to continue its protection of the jet in the budget.
EDIT: After this was posted, a reader chimed in and pointed us towards a program schedule from 2007. Compare and contrast!
Ok, so we know the projected timeline for the F-35 program. What’s going on right now?
This second slide shows the production and basing status of the jets. As you can see, there are currently eight locations in the continental US that have F-35 models on hand. The largest is Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, with 49 training jets.
The key in the right hand corner lets you know which colors symbolize the F-35A, B and C models, but you’ll note both Eglin and Lockheed’s Ft. Worth plant have a couple of international jets listed as well. Right now, Eglin has received most of the partner jets, but that will change down the road: Luke AFB will eventually be the center of training for international pilots.
This final slide shows a checklist of major milestone the F-35 program has hit in 2014. You’ll note the mention of first carrier ship trials — that is one of the things Bogdan said has slipped because of the limitations on flight tests. Expect those trials to occur before the end of the year aboard the USS NIMITZ, located on the West Coast.
One major program aspect not mentioned here: the decision to compete sustainment for the jet on a global scale, which Bogdan unveiled in Defense News over the summer.
As critics of the jet are quick to point out, of course, all this nice planning can quickly go astray. The fighter is notoriously late and over budget, and despite the requests of Bogdan and others, that history cannot be ignored. There also remains a healthy skepticism that the F-35 will never produce the projected production run of 2,400+ planes, especially with the Pentagon already looking at a new next-generation fighter,
But program supporters do have a point that they have stayed largely on track since Bogdan took over in 2012. The biggest milestones are coming up, as the jet will no longer be a developmental program for the Marines come their IOC in 2015. What happens after that? Well, it’s anyone’s guess, but we’ll keep you covered.
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