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Comment: F-35: it's not for children

From this point forward, the F-35 programme starts growing up, or it begins falling apart.

That is the only way to interpret the move last week by the House Armed Services Committee, which for the first time has proposed to restrict F-35 funds if the Lockheed Martin-led industry team fails to meet schedule and cost targets.

If Lockheed fails to deliver aircraft on time this year, or misses test goals, Congress could slash development funding by 25% and procurement funding by nearly one-third.

The rule could devastate the programme or, maybe, be the motivation lacking for so long within the F-35 programme to deliver aircraft on time and on price.

Until now, the programme's cost-plus contract structure seems to have bred a culture of non-performance. An entire year of flight testing was lost because Lockheed failed to deliver flight-test aircraft on time.

But the House committee has not acted punitively nor is it setting up the F-35 programme for failure. The performance targets are based on a restructured schedule that reduced Lockheed's flight-test target in fiscal year 2010 from 1,243 sorties to 394. According to Lockheed's own executives, that is an achievable target.

Whether one likes it or not, the F-35 is the most critical combat aircraft programme in the world today. Let's hope Lockheed gets the message - and grows up.

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