The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the world.
Organization: US Military
Project type : Development of a multirole fighter aircraft and associated systems
Project name : F-35 Lightning II
Date : Jan 2021
Cost : $1.7T
When procuring defence systems one of the key strategic decisions needing to be made comes down to ‘quantity’ versus ‘quality’. Should you buy a smaller number of super high-tech (but expensive) equipment that can out-smart the enemy, or, should you buy a large volume of cheaper equipment in the hope that you can overwhelm the enemy? It’s a question empires and nations have faced for millennia. Granted the technology has evolved from chariots and spears to drones and missiles, but the same basic question exists – within the available budget should you focus on quantity or quality?
A modern day example of the question was faced by the US military as it looked to replace its aging fighter aircraft fleet. The F-16s, F/A-18s and designs of the 1970’s have limited life expectancy left. Technology has obviously advanced significantly and the nature of defence needs have shifted as conflicts take new forms.
Within the older fleet, the F-16 (the ‘fighting falcon’) was one of the workhorses. Designed to the ‘quantity’ over ‘quality’ strategy, more than 4,500 have been built since the design first took to the air. A multi-talented aircraft the F-16 has been used in a variety of roles and serves as one of America’s primary defence exports as well. It’s design and manufacturing costs however were carefully managed so that the aircraft would be relatively cheap to build, operate and maintain.
The replacement aircraft is the much vaunted F-35. Following in the footsteps of the F16, the F-35 was intended to be “quantity” over “quality”. As you can probably guess, the fact that this story is filed in the ‘Catalogue of Catastrophe’ section of this blog, things did not go to plan. The unit cost per aircraft is considerably higher than planned, the aircraft has fallen short of performance goals and the program is significantly behind schedule (depending on how you measure things the delay is about 10 years). At the end of the day, the F-35 has become the single most expensive defence project of all time (currently the program as a whole is projected to have a total cost of $1.7 Trillion US dollars), but failed to fully deliver on its goals.
The origins of the project’s problems are in large part strategic in nature. Although the original strategy was grounded in the ‘quantity’ over ‘quality ethos, the project was allowed to bloat. Expanding beyond its original goals, the F-35 grew to become a replacement for a much wider range of aircraft types. Among others that list included the A-10-Thunderbolt (close ground-support), the Av-8B Harrier (short-take-off and vertical landing attack), the GR8-Tornado (fighter-bomber) and the F/A-18-Hornet (fighter / attack). Each of those aircraft had its own role and replacing the diverse set of roles with a single basic design represented a significant engineering and management challenge.
To rise to the challenge three primary versions were developed: The conventional F35A for the air force, the short-take-off / vertical-landing F35B for the marines and the carrier optimized F35C for the Navy.
From one perspective having three versions share a common architecture sounds like a cost effective approach. However as with so many things, the devil is in the details. As the F-35 became a do-it-all Swiss army knife of the sky, the underlying architecture was stretched thin. In response, the US military forces had to decide if commonality would be sacrificed, operational capabilities compromised or both.
In a complex system like the F-35 such decisions are hard to make and the resulting engineering even harder to implement. The net result is increased cost. As the program worked its way forward costs climbed faster than an F-35 with afterburner cranked to 11 and as a result, the ‘quantity’ strategy was the F-35’s first operational kill. Early plans called for thousands of aircraft to be built and for the aircraft to be sold to friendly nations around the world. As costs mounted, the numbers have been trimmed back and interest from overseas has dwindled.
At the end of the day the aircraft is operational, but the accrued complexity and the compromises made along the way have resulted in a jet that seems to fall short of what was planned. Senior levels of the US military structure are deeply unhappy. In Jan 2021, the acting Defence Secretary is said to have called the aircraft a “piece of …” and in Mar 2021, the House Armed Services Committee Chairman reportedly labelled the program a “rathole”. Such harsh criticism from within has shifted the narrative as some in the military ponder if it is time to stop investing in the program.
Contributing factors as reported in the press:
Allowing a disconnect between strategy and execution. Requirements bloat. Trying to have a common architecture meet too many divergent requirements.