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“If you don’t follow the defense business closely, then you can be excused for believing that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is in trouble,” a Lockheed Martin consultant wrote five years ago, a few weeks before the program office director was fired in disgrace. His replacement found that the published schedule was 3-4 years adrift from reality.

Today, you could be excused for thinking that most of the F-35’s troubles are behind it. The schedule set at the end of May 2013 may survive its second anniversary, a first for the program. The Marines will likely declare initial operational capability this year, come hell or high water, and the latter is unlikely to be an issue at Arizona's MCAS Yuma. Progress reportedly is being made on sorting out the engine problem that caused last June’s runway fire.

It looks as if the F-35 could meet its key performance parameter (KPP) requirements, but that is a narrow definition of success. Development cost and schedule, and acquisition and operational expenses, were not KPPs. Those numbers are stabilizing (it would be a disaster were they not) but are not what the program aimed for.

Programmatic risk has become a reality that users must accept. The Netherlands is buying 37 aircraft rather than the planned 85; the money that would have acquired 60 F-15s for South Korea pays for 40 F-35As. The U.S. Air Force has put its badly needed F-16 upgrades on ice and is suffering readiness issues: The F-35 fleet, with a deficient diagnostic and logistics system, has a big appetite for experienced support people.

Cost will drive more JSF stories this year. The program has 700-plus international sales on its books, and relies on them to achieve planned production rates before 2020, but fewer than 5% are covered by signed contracts. Getting firm orders is an increasingly urgent matter. Denmark’s decision is due this year, as is a U.K. defense review that may indicate whether and when Britain plans to acquire most of its on-paper 138-aircraft fleet.

F-35 customers looking at budgets and schedules will want to know what the Block 4A/4B upgrade package will contain. Block 4A development starts next year and 4B becomes operational in 2024, making it the best capability before 2026. The wish list includes nuclear capability, Norwegian and Turkish cruise missiles, Brimstone and Meteor for the U.K., AIM-9X Block 3 for the U.S. Navy, “5th to 4th” communications and close-air-support systems for the Marines. Nobody is perfect, so 4A/4B will also fix discoveries from operational testing. Customers had better be ready to compromise.

The second class of risk, as the programmatic issue closes, is operational. Counter-stealth technology went from theory to big green pieces of hardware in 2013 with the appearance of Russia's 55Zh6ME radar complex, comprising a VHF active, electronically scanned array (AESA) networked with higher-frequency radars. Last year saw claims of stealth detection by the infrared-search-and-track community and radar developers, and the appearance of China’s analog to the 55Zh6ME. Nobody argues that stealth is dead, but has the operational advantage of the F-35 been eroded?

Expect more of the same in 2015: China is building its new, bigger Type 055 destroyer—it will not be surprising to see a low-band AESA on its aft deckhouse. Everyone and his aunt is selling digitized versions of the veteran Russian P-18 radar—counter-stealth on the cheap. In response to concern over low-band threats, Congress has extended the F/A-18/EA-18G production line and, with it, the debate over the future makeup of the carrier air wing.

The Marines will continue to mitigate operational risk by developing ways to use the short-takeoff, vertical-landing F-35B. The latest concept of operations seeks to place ships and main bases outside the range of mobile missiles while keeping refueling and rearming points close to the targets. Survival depends on moving those forward strips faster than the adversary can target them. 

The Marines’ plan highlights that the F-35 represents the continued preeminence of tactical fighters in the budgets of the Pentagon and other customers. That is not a program or operational issue but a strategic risk. The Third Offset strategy has already generated one paper that calls for reduced emphasis on 600-mi.-range fighters and more investment in bombers and UAVs. The Navy’s debate over its air wing, and the possible role of extreme-low-observables and long-range UAVs is part of that discussion, but will become more important as the Long-Range Strike Bomber program gathers speed.

We have passed at great cost through much of the era of programmatic risk with the F-35. Now, we are looking more at operational risk, with strategic risk on the horizon.

A version of this article appears in the January 15-February 2, 2015, issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.