The JSF Numbers Game

Start thinking about two sets of numbers. They are:

  1. 5-16-47
  2. 2-12-16

The first series of numbers is good. The second series of numbers is disturbing.

I’ll explain.

Number 1 is the original production rate for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Look it up here (see the chart on page 6). This means the  plan was to buy 5 this year, 16 next year, and then make a huge leap to 47 in 2009.

Number 2 is the new production rate, as described in this year’s updated spending forecast (see the chart on page 7). So now the US military is buying 2 F-35s this year, 12 next year and only 16 in 2009.

Consider that huge gap in 2009. The old plan called for producing 47 aircraft. The new plan would buy only 16.

Recall that the original business case for the Joint Strike Fighter rested foremost on affordability. A huge driver of affordability is production rate. The more that can be produced, the greater the economies of scale and so forth. If production rate falls, the average unit cost of each aircraft will likely go up.

Under the new spending plan, the US military won’t approach the original number for 2009 until 2012. (Also, to make even this schedule work, please assume the flight test phase on the weight-optimized aircraft goes off without a hitch.)

So what does this mean?

  • First, it means the US military may not be able to enter full-rate production for JSF until two or three years after 2012, unless the program decides to lower the threshold for what the term "full rate production" means.
  • If JSF full rate production is delayed by two or three years, the air force has a new reason to extend F-22 full rate production by two or three years. Recall that the air force wants to keep an active full-rate production line for a fifth-generation fighter, so it follows that a delay for JSF requires an extension of F-22. At current production rates on F-22, a two-to-three year delay could mean an extra 40-60 aircraft.
  • The first export versions of JSF may still be available in 2014, but the average unit production cost must be significantly higher than in the original plan.

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