The hottest word currently being spoken in offices and around dinner tables in the US is “sequestration.” Not since the seminal juror movie 12 Angry Men has the word enjoyed such buzz. While there are many ongoing debates concerning the political ramifications of this government budget-reduction action (that went into effect on March 1), today we would like to discuss one item in particular: its possible effect on military aviation.
The US Military’s newest airborne weapon system, the F-35 Lightning II, is a fifth-generation jet fighter. Along with the other next-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor, these planes were procured with the intent of fighting the next generation of worldwide threats. The F-22 has been in the US Air Force’s lineup since 2005; the F-35, planned as three main variants for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, had its first test flight in 2006 but has since been mired in production delays and ballooning budget overruns. Mark Thompson penned a timely article in the February 25 edition of Time, “The Most Expensive Weapon Ever Built”. His article states that the cost of the program has nearly doubled in the last 12 years, from approximately $200 billion in 2001 to nearly $400 billion today. Add to this the changing landscape of war, in which the next generation of threat and action has shifted from the large (tanks, aircraft) to the small (mobile assault groups, improvised weapons, drone missions). Mr. Thompson posits that the current US strategy of pivoting to threats across the Pacific Ocean could leave the shorter-range F-35 in danger of irrelevance, whenever it does become combat ready. Another article this week, “Half-inch crack blamed for F-35 fighter jet grounding: sources”, details a report of a 0.6” engine blade crack located on February 19 by electromagnetic testing which has grounded all 51 operational F-35 jets. Metallurgical and fractographic analyses have since led to the determination that thermal creep, resulting from the test engine being run for a long time at high temperature, was the cause of the detected crack.
So how does the sequester factor into this? The government-imposed budget cuts will require over $500 billion in spending cuts by the Pentagon (or approximately cuts of 10% per yearly budget for the next 10 years). While this may not impact the F-35 in the short-term – Mr. Thompson states that the Pentagon authorized nearly $5 billion of further funding for the aircraft just before the original sequestration deadline on January 2 – the cuts will cause the schedule of new aircraft acquisition and testing to slip, assuredly raising costs in the long-term.
While all of the above issues may be pressing for the new fighter jet, we would like to focus on a secondary issue brought up by Mr. Thompson. The production delays of the new fighter have forced the military to spend over $5 billion to extend the service lives of the current aging fleet of vehicles, in the forms of reduced flights, inspections and scheduled maintenance. These combat-ready weapon systems may not be as fortunate to have pre-sequester dollars earmarked for them. Even the F-35, being built at the same time it is being re-designed, has already seen significant repair expenditures on the planes currently in use for testing and training (to the tune of $373 million). If there were ways to help the military forecast its maintenance needs based on design, materials, and operation, it would greatly reduce this back-end cost. Indeed, any company interested in reducing maintenance and improving service life of their products would benefit from these capabilities.
VEXTEC’s Virtual Life Management (VLM) technology is a suite of software we have developed that can be implemented at any point in the life-cycle of a product, whether that product is a $120 million military airplane, a connecting rod in a commercial diesel engine, or a biomedical implant wire. VLM offers its users the unique capability to understand (in a virtual environment) the fleet-wide effects of proposed changes in a product’s design, material supplier quality, end-user operational severity, and a host of other factors. We have numerous success stories on our “Case Studies” page, and would be happy to talk with those whose budgets are currently being “sequestered” in their own companies.