Trillion Dollar Baby: Lockheed, Boeing and the JSF

The F-22 Raptor, a highly advanced but deeply flawed fighter aircraft, arrived promising a huge advance in air combat technology . It soon became an albatross around the collective neck of the U.S. Air Force. The stealth fighter was a joint project between prime contractor Lockheed Martin ( LMT ) and Boeing ( BA ), and it was supposed to ensure decades of air superiority for the United States. While it appeared unstoppable on the drawing board, reality soon shattered those dreams.

The Raptor ended up as a delicate, unwieldy and astonishingly expensive airframe designed for a primary role - air superiority, or combat against other fighter jets - that the Air Force hasn't really needed in decades. It requires 30 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight time, giving it a per-hour operating cost of $44,000, according to a Pentagon report published by the Washington Post . The project was eventually canceled, and only 187 of the $135 million fighters have been built - the last finished production at Lockheed's Marietta, Georgia factory just a few days ago .

So what is the Pentagon planning to replace this lethally sophisticated, fragile and costly jet?

It's the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II, often dubbed the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) because of the experimental program which led to its development. The Lockheed design was selected over Boeing's X-32 prototype back in October 2001.

The F-35 represents a more versatile design - it's slated to take over most air combat roles in nearly every branch of the military, replacing aging warhorses like the F-15 Eagle, the F-16 Falcon and the F/A-18 Hornet. But because the Pentagon is buying so many more - nearly 2,500, in fact - the cost of the program is exponentially higher. Where the F-22 program ended up costing about $66 billion, the JSF program is slated to spend almost $400 billion on the fighters. Over the course of its projected 50-year life, it is likely to cost $1 trillion or more.

And the F-35 is turning out to have some issues as well. A leaked report titled the "F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Concurrency Quick Look Review," dated November 29, 2011, leaked to the public this weekend. While the report didn't identify any "fundamental design risks," it found that a combination of issues posed a "cumulative concurrency risk " which "results in a lack of confidence in the design stability."

The report's authors - led by Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's chief procurement man - wrote that they "[support] serious reconsideration of procurement and production planning." The 'Concurrency' part of the title refers to the way the jet is being produced: In order to get the jets in the air sooner, they're produced while final testing is conducted, which means that a significant portion of the early production run will have to be retrofitted and fixed up every time a flaw is discovered.

It's not all bad news for Lockheed - for one, they're still getting paid - and foreign allies like Israel and Japan are planning to snap up the new jet. Boeing, meanwhile, is looking at ways to keep the F-15 running as the mainstay of the USAF by dramatically increasing the lifespan of the 40-year-old airframe.

The next generation of manned fighter will almost certainly be provided by Lockheed Martin. It's hard to safely predict how many will be built and where they'll be sold. The armed forces continue to invest heavily in unmanned aerial vehicles like the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. There are reasons, however, to be concerned about the future of unmanned combat aircraft after Iran claimed to have downed an advanced Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel controlled by the CIA in northeastern Iran. The Iranian government claims credit for its crash, either through anti-aircraft fire or hacking, while the U.S. cites an unspecified malfunction.

However, the biggest single factor to consider when looking at the future of air combat manufacturing won't have anything to do with avionics, combat roles or even safety records. With debt continuing to pose a larger problem for the U.S. than foreign jet fighters, and the Pentagon's budget under tight scrutiny, White House policy - and party control of the purse strings in Congress - will probably be the single most important influence over where government money flows for future projects.

For now, despite the JSF's flaws, Lockheed Martin seems to hold the upper hand, simply because so much money has already been sunk into the program.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.