Amidst heavy criticism—and in the middle of a Presidential race that will be key to its future—the beleaguered F-35 Lightning II program keeps marching on: Lockheed Martin has completed the fighter's first weapons test, successfully dropping a 2,000-pound bomb from its left internal weapons bay over the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake's test range.
The multi-role stealth jet taken heavy criticism during the last year, under accusations of multiple delays and overspending. The first units—including the training planes now at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida—have already been grounded five times. Admittedly, this is normal for a jet fighter still in development, but critics say that going this far over budget is not.
With the program's cost now estimated at $1.5 trillion, the criticism has been so strong that its future has even been questioned during the Presidential race. The $1.5 trillion includes the manufacturing of 2,443 aircraft for the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, as well as maintenance over the next 50 years. When deployed, years after its original projected date, the F-35 will become the backbone of American air superiority.
But analysts fear that costs will keep increasing, and neither Obama nor Romney has a clear plan to keep that cost under control. John Lehman—Mitt Romney's top defense adviser—have been on the record admitting that they don't know yet what changes they would to introduce:
At this point, it's not possible to say. A lot is going to depend on whether they get the costs under control, particularly the flyaway costs. Until you know how much it's going to cost, you don't know how many you're going to fit into the program. That's why it's so essential to keep the Super Hornets in production so the mix can be flexed depending on how the F-35 actually pans out.
Obama's former Defense Secretary Robert Gates—who also had that position under George W. Bush's administration—fired the F-35 program manager last year. Obama was able to halt some of the spending when the Pentagon stopped the development of a second engine for the plane.
But neither of the candidates really seems to know what to do with the F-35 program exactly.
Perhaps this successful test will ease the criticism a little bit.
The test plane was of the conventional takeoff and landing variant. The pilot, U.S. Air Force Maj. Matthew Phillips, released a 2,000 pound GBU-31 BLU-109 Joint Direct Attack Munition while cameras recorded the event in super slow motion for analysis along telemetry information transmitted by the bomb itself. According to Lockheed Martin, the test was completed successfully.
Note: Like is a blur! While this is the first drop from a F:35A, it's not the very first F-35 drop.