The Joint Strike Fighter (pictured) -- or the F-35 Lightning II, to give it its proper name -- is a plane that divides defence commentators. Some say the aircraft, the most expensive United States defence project in history, is the future of air warfare, and the US and its allies will control the skies with its low radar visibility and high-tech information processing software. Others say it is a piece of junk that is already uncompetitive. We can defer to air warfare experts on which view is correct, or whether the truth lies somewhere in between.
What is not in dispute is that the aircraft's builder, Lockheed Martin, has comprehensively triumphed over taxpayers and governments. The JSF program, as the US Department of Defense has itself acknowledged, was out of control from the awarding of the contract to Lockheed Martin in 2001, with commitments from the British, Australian and Canadian and several European governments, until at least 2010, when the program was the subject of a brutal Pentagon memo
describing its extensive flaws and ballooning costs.
By that stage, the program was 57% over budget and six years behind schedule, and had incurred what is called a Nunn-McCurdy breach, the point at which costs go so far beyond budget that the Defense Secretary has to provide an explanation for it or risk the program being defunded by Congress. By that stage, too, the Pentagon had actually acquired F-35s before they were even flown. The head of the program was sacked, the plane delayed yet another year, and Lockheed Martin "punished" with more than half a billion dollars in withheld bonuses -- though the overall project will now cost over US$390 billion.
Both the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin now insist that is ancient history. The Pentagon says the program is under control, and is scaling up to eventually purchasing 100 F-35s a year. Australia now says it will have 70 of the planes -- it has already purchased 12, and will pick up another 58 for $12 billion. The Royal Australian Air Force says it eventually wants about 100 of them.
The problem is, the F-35 program is not under control, even according to the US government. In September, the Pentagon Inspector-General issued yet another
in a long line of scathing reports about the program, having found over 700 separate problems with the program's administration that led to over 300 findings. "The F-35 Program did not sufficiently implement or flow down technical and quality management system requirements to prevent the fielding of nonconforming hardware and software," the Inspector-General found. "This could adversely affect aircraft performance, reliability, maintainability, and ultimately program cost."