Is the F-35 a “great national scandal”?

Tue, 10/15/2013 - 1:16pm
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

In government, the left hand often doesn’t know what the right hand’s doing. Case in point: Days after the DoD got all warm-and-fuzzy over its working relationship with Lockheed Martin and the F-35, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) called the Joint Strike Fighter “one of the great national scandals.”

I’ve written extensively about the F-35 and its numerous setbacks, cost overruns, and controversies. The fact that DoD has scuttled or scaled back various “silver bullet” aerial systems in favor of a single fighter – the “backbone of America’s tactical aviation fleet for decades to come” – is problematic. In essence, we’re putting all our eggs in one basket – and due to recent performance reductions, the F-35 has become a jack of all trades and master of none.

But a “great national scandal”?

The F-35’s repeated cost overruns “have made it worse than a disgrace,” noted Sen. McCain. “It’s one of the great, national scandals that we have ever had, as far as the expenditure of taxpayers’ dollars are concerned,” he said.

I would take it one step further. Because of our long-term (read: total) commitment to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the program could seriously hinder our national security for the greater part of the 21st century, and by the time a J-20 or PAK-FA shoots down its first JSF, it will be too late to reverse course.

The F-35 is arguably superior to most of the aircraft it replaces – the F-16, A-10, F/A-18, and AV-8B (Harrier) jets – even if the JSF costs a fortune compared to these legacy systems. But the Joint Strike Fighter isn’t the “premier air-superiority weapon” – that sobriquet belongs to the F-22 Raptor, which the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act capped at 187 planes, effectively killing the program.

Even former Defense Secretary Robert Gates – one of the F-35’s biggest proponents – touted the F-22’s aerial superiority.

He described the Raptor as a “silver-bullet solution for one or two potential scenarios — specifically the defeat of a highly advanced enemy fighter fleet.” Gates had also assured us that China wouldn’t enter the “fifth-generation” of fighter aircraft before 2020, but the PRC’s reveal of the Chengdu J-20 two years ago turned that spitball prediction on its head.

Our own “air-superiority weapon”, the F-22, compares somewhat favorably to the J-20 and Russia’s forthcoming fifth-generation fighter, the PAK-FA, but the F-35 comes up short.

Air Power Australia – one of the F-35’s biggest critics – previously noted that “The stealthy PAK-FA, albeit in an early phase of development, is showing naked air combat power in the form of extreme plus agility and persistence that … will likely soundly defeat the Raptor but will certainly annihilate the F-35 and the Super Hornet.”

But that’s not the point – at least if you subscribe to Secretary Gates’ somewhat optimistic logic that “it is ill-advised, if not suicidal, to fight a conventional war head-to-head against the United States.”

If we’ve entered a new phase of history where asymmetrical warfare has rendered conventional warfare obsolete, then the F-22’s aerial superiority capabilities are superfluous. A “Swiss Army Knife” like the JSF would suffice. But the F-35 is woefully unsuitable for a shooting war with a nation-state sporting J-20s or PAK-FAs.

The F-22 is banned from export (a policy which led Japan to develop their own stealth fighter). The J-20 and PAK-FA are not. So it’s conceivable that these foreign, 5th-gen fighters could find their way into the arsenal of regimes hostile to the United States.

All of this would be amenable (or at least less painful) if the F-35 was a bargain, but based on the program’s rocky history (and murky future), the JSF may go down as one of the most expensive mistakes in American history.

As far back as 2010, Secretary Gates fired the JSF program manager over egregious cost overruns, and the program triggered a “Nunn-McCurdy Review”, a mandatory congressional process for cost overruns in defense programs of greater than 15%. An internal Pentagon memo stated that “affordability is no longer embraced as a core pillar,” and indeed, the JSF exceeded its original cost estimates by more than 50%.

By 2012, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the F-35’s unit cost had almost doubled, an increase of 93% over its baseline 2001 projections. And to top it off, the FY2012 Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) report recommended reducing the F-35’s performance requirements, including transonic acceleration and sustained g-forces, diluting the JSF even further.

Essentially, the “backbone of America’s tactical aviation fleet for decades to come” has become a bloated mess – an inferior aerial supremacy weapon and an expensive one at that. It’s certainly not “less than half the total cost of the F-22,” an absurd prediction by Sec. Gates. And the JSF could still become a victim of sequestration.

We owe it to our military to provide them with the best equipment that money can buy. Touting an overpriced Swiss Army Knife that doesn’t compare favorably to its colleagues in the sky is a disservice to our brave men and women in uniform. The greatest military in the world deserves better than that.


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