Further F-35 Woes

by Michael Auslin

I wrote last week on the homepage about the Pentagon’s Frankensteins, the massive weapons-procurement programs of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship. Each has had enormous cost overruns and a new Pentagon report highlights the numerous development problems weighing down each program. Yet hardly had my article gone up before news broke that the particularly troubled Marines’ version of the F-35 (the ‘B’ model) has been grounded after a “propulsion line associated with the B-model’s exhaust system failed prior to takeoff,” according to Reuters. This is just the latest in a series of problems for the F-35B, and the story goes on to note that

the Marine Corps version of the plane flew more than planned but lagged its target for test points by 49 percent. Durability testing of the B-model had to be halted in December after multiple cracks were found on the underside of the plane’s fuselage . . .

The Pentagon has pinned much of the blame for the F-35′s woes on Lockheed Martin, the primary contractor, but in the latest incident, it is Pratt & Whitney, which builds the engines for the plane, in the hot seat. While this problem (it appears to be a detached fuel line) is likely easily solved, it underscores the continuing difficulties of building such a complex aircraft.

As I pointed out in my NRO article, development problems are common in all weapons systems, but the scale of what is facing the F-35 is raising major concerns in Congress and the Pentagon. Moreover, given that the F-35 is expected to be the single American jet fighter for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines in several decades, our allies are watching carefully for each new sign of trouble. Turkey is the latest country to delay its orders, following Canada’s recent decision. These two have been  production partners in the JSF from the beginning, so their vote of no confidence is particularly worrisome. Also undoubtedly watching closely are countries such as China, which already is suspected of having electronically stolen reams of data on the F-35 several years ago from another subcontractor on the project, BAE Systems. That has raised questions about how much the Chinese know about the plane’s capabilities.

The F-35 is clearly a case of too-big-to-fail, as the U.S. military would be left without any planned next-generation fighter should the F-35 program collapse. What is more likely is that Congress will attempt to “save” on the escalating costs by cutting the number of planned purchases of the plane. That would likely lead to a death spiral like the one that killed the F-22, whereby each cut raises the cost of individual units, leading to further cuts, and finally, a rump force (in the F-22 case, 187 planes, two of which have already crashed).

Proponents of the military’s current fighters argue that cutting the F-35 would not be such problem, since the Navy could continue to buy F-18s and the Air Force can rely on new F-15s and F-16s. That, however, would upend decades of commitment to stealth technology and raise fears that airframes designed 30 years ago might not be able to compete with newer Russian and Chinese fighter models, let alone potential stealth fighters from both countries.

What seems clear is that, without a dramatic upward turn in the F-35′s fortunes, a crisis may soon be reached that is as much political as industrial.

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