Among heavy criticism and in the middle of the Presidential race, the beleaguered F-35 Lightning II program keeps marching on: Lockheed Martin has completed the fighter's first weapons test, successfully dropping a 900-kilogram bomb from its left internal weapons bay over the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake's test range.
The multi-role stealth jet has been under 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 which is still in development.
With the program's cost now estimated at $US1.5 trillion, the criticism has been so strong that its future has even been questioned during the Presidential race. That amount includes the manufacturing of 2,443 aircraft for the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. When deployed, it will become the backbone of American air superiority for decades.
But analysts fear that costs will keep increasing and neither President Barack Obama nor Governor Mitt Romney have a clear plan to keep that cost under control. John Lehman — Mitt Romney's defence guy — have been on the record admitting that they don't know yet which kind of changes they are going 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 defence Secretary Robert Gates — who also had that position under the George W. Bush 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 none of the candidates really seem to know what to do with it exactly.
Things marching on
Perhaps this successful test will ease the criticism a little bit.
The test plane was of the conventional takeoff and landing variant. The pilot, US Air Force Maj. Matthew Phillips, released a 907-kilogram 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.