The F-35 Fighter Program: America Going Down in Flames

f35
W.J. Astore

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.]

Coddled indeed!

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.

38 thoughts on “The F-35 Fighter Program: America Going Down in Flames

  1. Our country has a decaying and obsolete physical and social infrastructure that requires reinvestment. We need a billion dollar “strike fighter’ like we need a hole in the head. Are the Taliban going to fear another American plane? of course not. Did the Chinese show big interest in building aircraft carriers until Obama announced his military “pivot” to the Pacific?
    The drone program is an offensive program that is just making more enemies for us and its sole purpose is to further our corporate-military push for world domination. To offer drones as a reason to kill this absurd strike fighter program is to argue to sustain the militarization of our foreign policy which I am sure you do not support. Our continued expansion of all weapons programs is just driving more destablization and rearmement throughout the world. What we need is a return to a rational foreingn policy based on world disarmament not ‘Pax Americana’.

    • As you know, I’m not a big fan of drones. My point in mentioning them is that their presence obviates the need for the F-35. To ignore them is to ignore reality (god help us).

      • Let us who seek a truly peaceful world order “ignore” drones and leave the “reality” rationale to the military-industrial complex. The only reality drones have is to make it easier for them to wage aggressive warfare with little push back from the citizenry because none of ours get slaughtered only those”furrinrs”. Our job as skeptics, in labor of democracy and justice, is to clearly point out that aggressive warfare kills and entangles us in foreign places where we have no real business being.

      • Well, maybe. But rhetorically (and rhetoric is all about persuasion) it’s important to note that the F-35 has largely been rendered redundant and unnecessary by the rapid maturation of drones. If we can save a trillion dollars by making this point, I think arguing in terms the MI Complex can understand may be fruitful in an “ends justify the means” way.

      • I believe this advanced fighter aircraft has been obsoleted not merely by drones but more so by real politic. No other country in the entire world is, or has shown any intent , to spend as much of GDP as we do on advanced war making hardware. ( with the exception of North Korea who has enslaved their citizenry for this aim)
        Like drug addicts, other countries, like those in the Middle East, are addicted to using the money they get from us for oil l to buy our military hardware. Makes them feel grownup and keeps our armament industries busy, which pleases our politicians from those districts. We are the largest arms exporters in the world. It’s about the only domestic industry that hasn’t been outsourced to China or Bangladesh. Our existing arsenal has had clear superiority since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We deserved a “Peace Dividend” then but it has yet to be paid to us. I sincerely do not feel that it is up to the peace minded to try to use logic on the military- industrialists to trade off one aggressive weapon system for another. We must stay focused on arguing that national goals must be prioritized for international peace and domestic justice, not new weapons.

  2. Thanks to CyberWorld espionage capabilities, “our enemies” are probably examining all the schematics for this fighter right now, looking for ways to neutralize its capabilities. If the money being thrown into this program was redirected to renewable energy programs it would 1.) provide MORE jobs, spread across the nation; 2.) slow the human degradation of the environment being produced by dependence on fossil fuel combustion; and 3.) bring us closer to true “energy independence” and allow us to kiss goodbye “our allies” like the ever-so-democratic Saudis. But unfortunately the opinion-shaping machine operating on behalf of those gargantuan fossil fuel corporations have convinced the American public that “solar ain’t practical” and wind turbines “are ugly–not in my backyard will they be erected!” Ignorance and inaction bring consequences. Melt on, ice caps. Slip under the sea, Louisiana and Florida…and eventually New York City.

  3. The picture of America’s newest and most expensive flying murder weapon reminds me of a scene from the movie Robocop wherein a deranged former city councilman holds several of his colleagues hostage and demands a new car as part of his ransom conditions. When asked what kind, he replied: “one that goes real fast and gets really shitty gas mileage.”

    Of course, when the intended peasant targets of this aircraft invent the flying equivalent of the I.E.D. for the cost of a pizza, the United States will no doubt add yet another pointless and meaningless defeat to its clueless credit. Which thought reminds me of a political cartoon I saw many years ago featuring some African natives standing around a heavily armed U. S. fighter aircraft stranded on the runway with arrows and spears sticking out of its flattened tires.

    Then again, we have that whole Diminishing Marginal Utility thing which during America’s lost War on Southeast Asia resulted in hideously expensive aircraft-carrier battle groups sailing halfway around the world to blow up bamboo bridges that the impoverished “enemy” had repaired and back in service the next day.

    And to think that forty years ago we walked upon the moon.

  4. The F-35 JSF aircraft designs will not meet specification nor the operational requirements laid down in the JSF JORD (Joint Operational Requirements Document) by significant degrees, noting that these operational requirements and resulting specifications, themselves, were predicated on the capabilities of the cold war threats from an era past and subsequently subjected to the illogical and deeply flawed process known as CAIV (Cost As and Independent Variable).

    The designs of all three JSF variants are presenting with critical single points of failure while even the most basic elements of aircraft design (e.g. weight, volume, aerodynamics, structures, thermal management, electrical power, etc.) will almost certainly end up in what Engineers call “Coffin Corner”.

    In essence, the unethical Thana Marketing strategy is using to sell the JSF, along with the acquisition malpractice of concurrency in not only development, the production and testing but the actual designs of the JSF variants, themselves, have resulted in the JSF marketeers writing cheques that the aircraft designs and JSF Program cannot honour.

    For more information on why the F-35 can’t cut it into the modern battlefield.

    http://www.ausairpower.net/jsf.html

  5. The United States does not need this jet fighter or any other, unless it plans to fight the Korean War again. The United States does not need any military bases outside the country. We have no real interests a military should influence, if we are who we pretend to be. No one is going to attack us with a WW II army. So we don’t need that either. Climate Change and ocean acidification are the monsters in the closet, and they will eat us if there is another half-big war.

  6. Pingback: The F-35 Fighter Program: America Going Down in Flames | Beat the rich

  7. Colonel Astore’s post is a welcome addition to the growing list of technically-based complaints against the program. However, relying on 60-Minutes for “truth in journalism” is a fools’ errand. The last thing 60-Minutes did right was their exposure of the tobacco industry and even then there were enough flaws in their processes to have its producer resign in disgust…

  8. To be effective drones require perfect weather. Anything over a light breeze reduces their effectiveness considerably. In no way will they replace aircraft support for troops, or front line fighters in anything but the most distant scenarios. The point here is that a super fighter has no useful purpose. We don’t fight dogfight wars anymore, and are unlikely to ever again. And the aircraft that did the job of close air support.the one that was perfect for the job, the A-10, has been discontinued.

    All this is of course academic: the US has no right to be in any situation that currently requires such technology. The answer to our technical “problems” of the F-35 is to close our bases and bring our troops home to the US and stop funding ridiculous super toys with no purpose, and put those trillions to work rebuilding the American infrastructure, and making America the country it should be.

  9. I think most observers miss the purpose of the F35 program, and the F22 as well. I believe their main “mission” is to save the Air Force, for at least a few decades. It seems fairly clear that unmanned aircraft are the future of air combat. Unmanned spells the end of the Air Force as we know it. I believe that by pouring so much money into the two programs the Air Force is trying to guarantee their existence. After all, if we pour 1.5 trillion dollars into the F35, plus whatever the F22 program is going to wind up costing (what? maybe another .75 trillion?) how could we possibly consider dumping them in a few years time even if they become functionally obsolete. The two programs are planned to last for 30 to 40 years, that’s plenty of time for the current and next generations of Air Force brass to make it to retirement. The fact that the contractors are making a tidy profit just sweetens the deal for congress and the Air Force brass.

    And since someone else has quoted a line from the movie “Robocop” I’ll throw out another one that seems to fit the F35 program quite well, “We had guaranteed military sales, renovation contracts, spare parts for twenty-five years, who cares if it works?”

    • Dan Smith, the USAF was commissioned as a response to the Soviet threat, with strategic, tactical and reconnaissance mission combinations to designed to counter Russian forces. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the actual Mission of the USAF ended. This is one reason why so many Air Force Bases were closed in the past two decades. Though the airlift capabilities of USAF Cargo and Passenger aircraft are still desirable as Rapid Response assets for the other branches, that alone does not justify segmenting the services, nor do these capabilities warrant the full complement of these aircraft. I agree with you that the Air Force has been rendered obsolete.

      • Glad to see all these references to “Robocop.” Not because of the movie per se, but because of the concept of robotic warriors itself. The Boy and Girl Geniuses at DARPA are very seriously working on robots. They’d have us believe their intended purpose is to rescue injured humans from dangerous environments, like a collapsed construction project or compromised nuclear power plant. Without a doubt they are salivating over the idea of a practically unstoppable machine (a ‘Terminator,’ to bring in another movie reference) to go after the designated bad guys and mop up. Now, let’s all take a deep breath and envision the not so distant future when your local or state police department has such technology. Not a pretty picture for political dissidents, is it? But wait, there is some hope: at the risk of being on the receiving end of brickbats, allow me to call upon yet another movie reference: in “Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi” Imperial Storm Troopers were defeated by the low-tech Ewoks. George Lucas, showing us the way yet again!!

    • Yes, indeed. “Who cares if it works?” My Taiwanese wife’s favorite line from Robocop.

      And let us not forget, as well, the comment of Omni Consumer Products’ CEO when his drug-running thug associate asks him if he has access to military weaponry: “We practically are the military.” Even truer today than when Dutch director Paul Verhoeven made his satirical masterpiece in 1987. The U.S. military has become, essentially, a money laundering front for the corporate oligarchy that in fact owns and operates the political puppets who only serve as its public face.

    • jaydi. If you are not joking and really don’t know. A billion is a thousand one millions. At age sixty five, with just one of those millions, you could retire and live comfortably until you died and another 999 people could do the same.

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