In Vermont And Beyond, Where Does The F-35 Program Stand?

Jan 17, 2017

F-35 fighter jets are expected to be delivered to Vermont in 2019, but as President-elect Donald Trump mentioned in his press conference last week, there have been cost overruns and scheduling delays in the production of the fighter jet.

It was just over three years ago that the Air Force decided Burlington would be home to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This followed years of debate between those who wanted the jets and their economic boost here in Vermont, and those who opposed the planes and the impact their noise could have on local communities.

Phil Ewing, NPR's national security editor, joined Vermont Edition on Monday to look beyond Vermont and catch us up on the overall status F-35 program.

Over budget and behind schedule

"The aircraft has about doubled in cost per jet since the first estimates when the Pentagon got this program rolling, and it hoped to have operational versions of it in the field years ago," says Ewing. "The timetable has shifted so much that it just kind of depends on what slice of time you take, but it's safe to say that it has not gone as well or cost as little as the Defense Department originally intended."

"But at the same time, the Air Force and the other military services say that taxpayers are going to get what they pay for out of this program – that it will be worth the less-than $400 billion to acquire these aircraft and all the delays because they'll bring such transformational new capabilities to troops on the battlefield. Only time will tell as to whether that is true, but it has not gone the way the Pentagon hoped it would."

"It's safe to say that it has not gone as well or cost as little as the Defense Department originally intended." - Phil Ewing, NPR national security editor

Cause of the delays

"The Pentagon began this program as a way to try and save money, ironically," Ewing says. "The cost of combat aircraft in the 1980s became so intense that the Defense Department rationalized that a way to do it and save money would be to get the three military services that fly fighter jets – the Army, [the] Navy and the Marine Corps – all to buy versions of the same one and also to continue developing the plane even as it was being delivered in production."

Ewing compares this situation to getting a car that has the basic structure, but is missing critical parts – you at least have the vehicle, but you'd need to keep making additions and upgrades for it to properly function.

"It made sense at the time," Ewing says, "but that decision has really complicated matters in terms of fielding this aircraft. Because right now, one comes out of the factory and it can't do all the things that they eventually hope it will be able to do, which means it needs software upgrades, it needs changes to its structure, it needs intensive testing even past the point that the Air Force and the other services hoped it would be in service, and that's what has taken so long."

F-35s in Vermont

Ewing says military services are currently reporting they have many such issues under control, and he says there isn't information out there that would suggest a change in the planned timeline for Vermont to get its first F-35s in 2019.

"However, there's all kinds of unexpected things that have cropped up in the story of this fighter," Ewing adds. "Most recently, the fleet was grounded because a couple of airplanes had unexplained fires in the hot section of the airplane where the engine and the afterburner are. They had to ground them, they had to do an inspection, they had to figure out what was causing that. And eventually they got it fixed, but it meant that during those weeks and months when the airplanes couldn't fly, they couldn't test, they couldn't deploy, they couldn’t take all the normal jobs that they had to take as part of this process.

"Even though there's nothing to suggest there'll be a delay in them getting to Burlington by 2019, anything could happen between now and then, including more of those delays and updates that could stretch out the timetable."

"And so even though there's nothing to suggest there'll be a delay in them getting to Burlington by 2019, anything could happen between now and then, including more of those delays and updates that could stretch out the timetable."

The program's past and future

Ewing provided some historical context as to how the program got off the ground.

"The F-35 airplane came out of a competition that the Pentagon ran back in the year 2000 with Boeing. And they both had a chance to build what became this fighter, and the Pentagon chose Lockheed [Martin] over Boeing. And since then, Boeing has continued to produce its older model fighter aircraft, the F/A-18 and the F-15 Eagle, at its factory in St. Louis. But it's never been able to break out with another next-generation airplane just because the biggest one in the world was this F-35, and part of the deal was that a lot of the other militaries around the world would be buying it, which means Boeing was cut out of those markets."

Trump mentioned bringing competition to the program during his press conference remarks.

"What Trump has suggested is that he could force the U.S. military services to buy one of those older-model airplanes that Boeing makes – specifically the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which is what the U.S. Navy flies today, off its aircraft carriers," Ewing explains.

"[Trump] is trying to use the bully pulpit ... to get Lockheed to come down on the price for the next batch of aircraft that the U.S. buys. And he very likely will succeed."

According to Ewing, the U.S. Air Force has said those models are too old and they need the F-35, which has advanced stealth features and communication capabilities.

Other militaries around the world are also trying to buy the F-35s.

"The other reason why a lot of this is probably not going to be too dangerous to the program is if it goes away or if it's cut dramatically back, that means that most of the free world's militaries won't have an advanced new [fighter]," Ewing says. "The Brits, the Italians, the South Koreans, the Japanese, European military, the Israelis – they're all counting on this F-35. And so if it were cut in production or it were canceled, which again is very unlikely, then they would be in difficult straits, as well, just like the U.S.

"So he [Trump] is trying to use the bully pulpit and use his political brand as a deal-maker, as a tough negotiator, to get Lockheed to come down on the price for the next batch of aircraft that the U.S. buys. And he very likely will succeed, because Lockheed Martin doesn’t like us to be talking about the problems with this program. It wants us to be talking about how advanced and transformational this jet is."

Listen to the full interview from Vermont Edition above.