By Gordon England
May 7, 2012
Excerpts from Defense News
Why is the F-16 fighter jet so successful, with 4,500 airplanes delivered and, 30 years later, still in production, while the F-35 is a continuing struggle?
I was heavily involved in both programs, to include industry and government, and here are my observations — and some lessons learned from the F-16 — that could be helpful for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.
Both programs started with the same objectives:
Incorporate new and decisive technologies to keep America well ahead of potential adversaries.
Keep total program cost low by overlapping development, test and production.
Reduce support costs compared to the airplanes being replaced.
Promote international involvement to strengthen coalitions and to share costs.
Implement rapid production ramp-up with accelerated fielding to get the capability to those depending on it.
Since it involves three different configurations with a high degree of commonality, the F-35 is a more complex undertaking than the F-16, but they are still comparable programs, as the F-16 also incorporated a host of new technologies for its day, like fly-by-wire digital flight control…..
DoD is overly concerned with the cost of concurrency, even though it has always been the plan for the F-35 to repeat the proven F-16 approach. Unlike serial programs, where development — test — production nicely dovetail one after the other, concurrency is where they overlap.
Based on their statements and testimony to the U.S. Congress, today’s DoD officials believe that F-35 concurrency adds unbounded and unaffordable retrofit costs to incorporate fixes for problems found in later tests into earlier production airplanes.
They intend to keep F-35 production at very low and costly production rates until at or near full specification performance is demonstrated. For the F-35, final testing is not scheduled for completion until 2017.
By contrast, from the start, the F-16 went to high-rate production; 352 airplanes were on firm order within four years and three years later, more than 500 had been delivered worldwide.
This fast production was based on several important decision criteria. First, there was confidence that the early configuration of the F-16 would be superior to the F-4 Phantom it was replacing, even though the performance specification had not been fully demonstrated through testing. Contractor and government tests were in parallel, and results were shared to gain quick confidence in the basic airplane.
Second, low cost could only be achieved through high-rate production.
Third, service leaders knew that the airplanes would be continuously upgraded, so there was never a final configuration for production.
Lastly, there was never a plan to retrofit older airplanes as newer capabilities were added. Rather, each airplane configuration was fielded for a mission suited to its performance. And when retrofit was initiated, it was accomplished as part of a scheduled block change to keep the cost low.
To date, there are 138 versions of the F-16, as well as 15 block changes, with each block a decisive improvement in capability.
The contrast with the F-35 is striking. In the past two years, DoD planners have cut 426 F-35s out of the five-year defense plan. Assuming those numbers remain firm, it will now take the F-35 program about 17 years to deliver what the F-16 achieved in seven. No wonder the F-35 unit cost is not coming down as fast as originally planned.
Based on the success of the similar F-16 program, it’s clear to me that avoiding concurrency is not a good decision. It sacrifices the substantial savings available from efficient, higher production rates to save relatively smaller estimated retrofit costs. It guarantees higher production costs to avoid the expense of retrofits that may, in fact, never be incorporated. It just doesn’t add up…..
In addition to the cost of upgrading older airplanes, the services also will need to spend more for their maintenance. The F-35 will save substantial sums in lifetime support costs compared with the multiple legacy airplanes it will replace, but these savings are only realized when the F-35 is deployed, so time is money….
This is the right time to gain unit cost savings from higher F-35 production rates. It is the wrong time for DoD to be making profound program decisions based on a flawed understanding of concurrency.
With DoD budgets already shrinking, DoD quickly needs to change its F-35 management philosophy.
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