This past weekend, CBS 60 Minutes did a segment on the F-35 fighter program. The basic facts are these: the program is seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Yes, you read that right: Not $163 million, but $163 billion. The lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, is essentially unapologetic about the delays and cost overruns. Why should they be? The general in charge of the F-35 acquisition program said we’re going to buy thousands of the plane over the next two decades. Talk about rewarding failure!
If we continue like drunken sailors to throw money at the F-35, it’ll be an effective fighter jet. But the biggest issue is that we don’t need it. Predator and Reaper drones are just the beginning of a new generation of pilotless aircraft that promise to be more effective. Why? Because we need not risk pilots getting shot down. Also, when you combine long loiter time over targets with super-sensitive sensors, drones reduce collateral damage while increasing the odds of “one shot, one kill.”
Proponents of the F-35 like to brag about its (costly) stealthy features, its (costly) cameras and sensors (especially the computer- and sensor-integrated helmet worn by each pilot, which creates a virtual reality and visual scape for that pilot), and its survivability vis-a-vis Russian and Chinese fighters (which are largely still on the drawing boards in those countries). But the truth is that an updated generation of F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, and F-22s are more than capable of defending America and projecting power. (The Vietnam War proved that, in aerial combat, pilot training and skill matter more than technology. That’s why the U.S. military established realistic training at “Top Gun” schools.)
The F-35, given the amount of money thrown at it, doubtless has some improvements over planes such as the F-15 and F-18. But at a price tag of at least $400 billion to purchase the F-35, and $1.45 trillion over the life of the program to operate and maintain them, it has simply become far too prohibitive for the United States to afford, especially in a climate of fiscal austerity.
Based on its track record, it’s probably safe to say that the F-35 will soon be a decade behind schedule and $200 billion over budget, even as it’s increasingly rendered irrelevant by improvements in drone technologies. So why are we buying it? Simply because the program is too big to fail. The Air Force, Navy, and Marines are all counting on it.
Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin has distributed its subcontractors across the USA, making it exceedingly difficult for Congress to cut the program without hurting jobs in virtually every Congressional district. Indeed, in an awesome display of chutzpah, you can go to the Lockheed Martin website to see how much your state is involved in building the F-35. Clicking on the “economic impact map,” I see that for the State of Pennsylvania, for example, the F-35 creates 759 jobs and an economic impact of nearly $51 million.
For the DoD, the F-35 may have ridden off the rails, but for Lockheed Martin the F-35 will continue to soar into the stratosphere as a major money-maker for decades to come. In the battle between DoD program managers and Lockheed Martin, the winner and “top gun” is as obvious as it is depressing. Score another victory for Lockheed Martin! But please avert your eyes as America itself goes down in flames.
Update: Another critical perspective from “War Is Boring” on the F-35 program that also takes “60 Minutes” to task for relying only on government sources for their (weak) critique. Here’s an excerpt:
“But where was the long list of design and quality-control issues with the aircraft, 12 years after development began? What about discussing the many alternatives to this under-performing machine, such as F-22s and drones plus rebuilt F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18s? Why not point out how many experts in the defense journalism and analysis worlds see the JSF program as detracting from America’s security rather than enhancing it?”
Those are very good questions.
Update 2: For military/contractor perspectives, check out this video, which includes testimony by test pilots that is generally favorable to the F-35 program (at least from a technical sense).
Update 3: Winslow Wheeler reveals the high cost and serious limitations of the F-35 here and here. Wheeler knows his stuff. He’s the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, part of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) in Washington, DC, and is the author of The Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages National Security (US Naval Institute Press) and Military Reform: An Uneven History and an Uncertain Future (Stanford University Press). Another critical article is by the legendary Chuck Spinney here with the telling title “F-35: Out of Altitude, Airspeed, and Ideas — But Never Money.”
Update 4: An excerpt from Franklin C. “Chuck” Spinney: “But the F-35 program is not at serious risk, despite all the hysterical hype in the trade press — not by a long shot. The F-35′s political safety net has been front-loaded and politically engineered (the general practices of the power games are explained here) with exquisite malice aforethought. Domestically, the F-35 employs 130,000 people and 1300 domestic suppliers in 47 states and Puerto Rico. The only states missing the gravy train are Hawaii, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Internationally, there are already cooperative development/production plans involving nine countries, and more are in the offing. Given the intensity of the geographic carpet-bombing of contracts around the globe, can there be any question why the Secretary of the Air Force said in September, ‘Simply put, there is no alternative to the F-35 program. It must succeed.’ If you think that is an accident, dear reader, I have a Brooklyn Bridge to sell you.”
Update 5: I’ve worked on two Air Force software programs. Both were overly complex and plagued with coding problems that drove up costs and extended schedules while degrading performance. The software on the F-35 is yet another example of this, as this report indicates. The F-35 continues to slip in schedule as costs rise due to software flaws, even as reports emerge that the software is vulnerable to hacking. In trying for leading edge abilities, the contractor has found the bleeding edge, as they say in the military, but what is being bled is the American taxpayer.
Update 6: More problems for the F-35, including oil leaks and one plane bursting into fire as it was taking off, are leading to more countries questioning their commitment to the plane. For a program so deep into testing and initial production, such problems are worrisome indeed.
Update 7: The latest from Winslow Wheeler on the F-35 (July 11, 2014); see his article A Big Week for the F-35? (pasted below):
“Even if the mainstream U.S. media has been late in coming to the story, the largest defense program in U.S. history is facing two critical events this coming week.
“As major British media has been reporting for some time, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may be facing a major international marketing embarrassment: It has failed to show up for two of three scheduled (and much ballyhooed) public demonstrations in the United Kingdom. Now, it may miss the main event, a flying demonstration before the world’s aviation community at the Farnborough International Airshow, starting Monday. You see, the F-35 is grounded-again. An engine blew up on take-off at Eglin Air Force Base on June 23 and reportedly burned up much of the plane’s flammable, plastic composite rear fuselage and tail. No F-35s are flying until inspectors know what the problem is and can say it’s safe to fly-at least in the very limited regimes the F-35 has been cleared for. Moreover, even if the F-35 is released to participate at Farnborough, there may be a new problem: weather predictions for next week in England are not good, and the F-35 has real issues flying near thunder- and rainstorms; it even has problems with wet runways.
“Stuck at home or coddled in UK hangars, the timing could not be worse for F-35 advocates. This Tuesday, the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC-D) will mark up its 2015 Defense Appropriations bill, and more than the usual routine approval of the Pentagon’s F-35 budget request is at stake. As pointed out in two timely commentaries (one by the Center for International Policy’s William Hartung and a second by Taxpayers for Common Sense’s Ryan Alexander), the House Appropriations Committee larded onto the already gigantic $8.3 billion request by adding four unrequested F-35s, costing an extra $479 million.
“The four added planes are clearly at risk given the F-35’s self-embarrassment at Eglin, surely inspiring the F-35 talking points Lockheed is planting on the Members of the SAC-D well beyond their usual spinmeister fantasies on cost and performance. Worse, there could-at least theoretically-arise a critic of the F-35 in the membership of the SAC-D who might try to take real action on the F-35, beyond the rhetorical hyperbole that critics like Senator John McCain (R-AZ) have been hurling at the F-35. Imagine the shock and awe if some Member were to offer a meaningful amendment requiring the F-35 to be tested-actually imposing “fly-before-buy”-before a few hundred more mistake-laden jets are produced.
“Not to worry: the F-35 defenders are rushing to the rescue. Beyond whatever election year financing promises major F-35 contractors Lockheed-Martin, Northrop-Grumman, and Pratt & Whitney may be distributing to keep the program on track, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has just completed a baby-kissing exercise for the airplane. Travelling to Eglin Air Force Base where that F-35 destroyed itself, Hagel declared“This aircraft is the future of fighter aircraft for all our services,” thereby removing any notions that his junket might have some useful purpose other than showing fealty to the beleaguered F-35 program. Any expectation that he went to Eglin to exercise oversight of the F-35’s recurring embarrassments, as one might expect from a functioning Secretary of Defense, has been thoroughly excised. That leaves it up to the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“The SAC-D has many important defense spending decisions to make. None will be a better test of whether the committee is willing to conform DOD program ambitions to Pentagon budget realities than this point in the endless F-35 drama. Of course, the easy road beckons; defense business-as-usual will be happy to shower the Members with handsome signs of approval, material and otherwise.
“Unfortunately, more of the same simply accelerates the decay of our defenses at ever-higher expense.
“All eyes are turning to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee. Thus far, political support for the F-35 has rolled over every ground truth, but realities like multiple groundings occurring amidst a continuing torrent of technical failures and cost overruns have a relentlessness all their own. Perhaps the only real question is when, not if, the politicians in Congress and the Pentagon will succumb to the inevitable tide. If next week does not end up as a tipping point for the F-35, it will come. It will come. And, that will be long before we buy the 2,433 Lockheed and its other boosters dream of.” [End of Wheeler’s article.]
Update 8 (9/8/2014): Professor Mark Clodfelter in Air & Space Power Journal notes that the U.S. Air Force today is “purchasing far more remotely piloted than manned aircraft,” making it “remote” that the service will buy 1,763 F-35s at “flyaway costs of roughly $185 million each.” Meanwhile, the Navy version of the F-35 now exceeds $200 million in “flyaway cost,” with the Marines’ short takeoff and vertical landing variant (the F-35B) approaching $300 million per plane. And these per-unit costs are only due to rise as various countries buy fewer planes than currently projected.
I can still recall being on active duty twenty years ago when the Joint Strike Fighter, progenitor to the F-35, was sold as a “low-cost” (at about $35-50 million per plane) multi-role combat jet in the tradition of the F-16. Since then, “low-cost” has become high-cost as the F-35 program spun wildly out of control.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan, USAF, the F-35 program’s chief. He admitted that “basically the (F-35) program ran itself off the rails.”
Yet despite the fact that the F-35 is the equivalent to a derailing and runaway train, the passengers on board remain captives to it, with some of them smiling all the while.
Update 9 (11/7/2014): The AF is now claiming that A-10s need to be eliminated to free up maintenance staff for the F-35. If the venerable A-10s are not mothballed, initial operational capability (IOC) for the F-35 will be delayed, according to Lt Gen Bogdan.
The AF has never liked the A-10, since it was designed to provide close air support for ground troops. As Winslow Wheeler notes, “The simple truth is that the Air Force does not think the close support mission for troops in combat is a prime responsibility. It never wanted to buy and operate the A-10 in the first place, and it protests that other — unsuitable—aircraft are good enough for the job.”
The AF also knows that Congress as well as soldiers love the A-10. Chances are that the A-10 will be preserved by Congress, which gives the AF the perfect excuse when IOC for the F-35 is delayed. See, the AF will say — We told you we needed those A-10 maintainers for the F-35. That’s the reason why the schedule has slipped yet again. It’s your fault, not ours.
Perhaps the AF believes this is a clever gambit, but what’s being sacrificed (along with credibility) is combat effectiveness. And that may prove a deadly price for our troops to pay.