Our incoming president’s willingness to boldly challenge the status quo is arguably the main reason he was elected. And no defense project is more representative of a disastrous status quo than the 20-year-old Joint Strike Fighter program — the F-35. The F-35 program showcases all that is wrong about our military’s vendor-dominated, crony-capitalist procurement system. Unless dealt with decisively, its massive cost and its lack of capability will have a dramatically negative impact on our military’s effectiveness for decades to come.
Therefore, President-elect Trump’s willingness to publicly call out this $1.5 trillion program is good news. However, getting involved in negotiating a better price on incomplete, crippled fighters will not save taxpayers any money in the long run — because the prices being negotiated between Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon are prices designed to fool the public about the F-35’s true costs. Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon both know that any “discount” or price reduction negotiated in public will quickly be made up on the back-end, where a plethora of upgrades, airframe life-extension programs, and uber-expensive spare-parts purchases over the life of the program will easily generate over $200 million for each plane delivered. Consequently, if Trump expends presidential prestige to save a few percent off the top, it won’t solve the underlying problem. Instead, he will only validate a failed program that is a big part of the swamp he is eager to drain as part of his plan to restore our depleted military.
In place of counter-productive price negotiations, within hours of taking office President Donald Trump could use the extraordinary influence of @realDonaldTrump to tweet 127 power-packed characters: “20 years and the F-35 is still not working. Program a mess. Plane a mess. Time to stop buying F-35s! New, better planes needed!”
More than any other single action, this tweet would signal that a new sheriff is in town — a sheriff committed to taking on the entrenched special interests that have corrupted the Pentagon.
Twenty Years of Failure
Just as Donald Trump turned out to be 100 percent correct about the bloated, $4 billion Air Force One program, he would be justified in calling foul on Marine Corps and Air Force claims that their F-35s have achieved Initial Operating Capability (IOC). Contrary to recent statements made by the executive officer of the F-35 program, Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, the F-35 is not back on track. It’s time to face the facts: Because of fatal mistakes made during the conceptual design process well over 20 years ago, the F-35 will forever be crippled by intractable weight and heat issues that ensure that the program will never deliver a reliable, cost-effective fighter.
Further evidence of this was revealed on Wednesday, when Inside Defense exposed the fact that the Navy’s F-35C model has design defects that can cause pilots to suffer disorientation and severe pain when undergoing carrier catapult launches. As it stands, Navy pilots have determined the F-35C is not “operationally suitable” for carrier launches. New design changes to the F-35C will be required that could take years — and even our carriers may need to be modified to fix the problem. This issue has been known about for years, but until now it has been concealed from the public.
So, instead of an on-track program, what we have is a pattern of deceptive statements and actions designed to create the illusion that the F-35 program is on track. The goal of this deception is to provide the political cover necessary to allow the F-35’s supporters in Congress to continue to fund the purchase of hundreds of incomplete, combat-incapable planes — each of which will require many years and many tens of millions of dollars of structural repairs, structural rework, systems-stability and functionality fixes, engine modifications and retrofits, and more. And that is just to get the planes to where they should have been when we took initial delivery. Never before have we seen a warplane granted so many waivers and reductions in key performance standards. Never before have we taken delivery of so many planes so far from being complete and so far from being ready for combat.
The F-35’s severe, ongoing problems with weight have resulted in indefensible decisions affecting plane safety, reliability, and durability — the most egregious example being the removal of hundreds of pounds of equipment designed to keep pilots from dying in fiery explosions. Some of the safety equipment removed includes the fuel tank’s ballistic liner, critical fueldraulic fuses, the flammable coolant shut-off valve, and the dry bay fire-extinguishing unit. The unprecedented and pervasive presence of flammable hydraulic fluid, flammable coolants, and fuel throughout the plane makes the F-35 a flying tinderbox. But without these risky weight-reduction measures, the F-35 will not be able to meet even its bare-minimum contractually mandated range goals. It should be unacceptable to ask American pilots to fly these fighters.
Other bad design decisions executed in the name of saving weight have focused on reducing the airframe’s weight. For example, load-bearing structural bulkheads originally supposed to be made from fatigue-resistant titanium were swapped out with fatigue-prone aluminum bulkheads. Now, we have aluminum bulkheads suffering stress-induced fatigue cracks that will require heavier bulkheads in future F-35s and weighty retrofit kits for those that have already been built.
Unfortunately, cracked bulkheads are not the only casualty of the weight pogrom. The Department of Operational Testing and Evaluation (DOT&E), which answers to the secretary of defense, has issued reports that are full of descriptions of cracks in engine parts, failed turbine blisks, cracks in the floor, root-rib cracks, and the like. In 2004, the F-35’s F135 engine was also subjected to an extreme weight-reduction program. Not coincidentally, according to an April 2015 Government Accountability Office report, it has very poor reliability — “less than half of where it should be.”
The Pentagon’s Sugar-Coated Assessments
Complementing the extreme, unsustainable weight-reduction efforts have been a raft of deceptive statements designed to fool the public as to the true state of the program. The most blatantly deceptive statements are the declarations by the Marine Corps and Air Force that their variants — the F-35B and the F-35A, respectively — have achieved Initial Operating Capability (IOC). In fact, they have not.
Moreover, it is shocking that best-practices protocols of the rigorous operational testing followed by every major fighter program — including the F-15, the F-14, the F-18, the A-10, the F-16, the A-6, the F-4, and even the F-22 — were ignored. That Congress continues to let the service chiefs and Lockheed Martin get away with their fictional IOC declarations is another sign that congressional obeisance to Lockheed Martin has destroyed its ability to provide effective oversight of our country’s defense.
Despite the thoroughly discredited set of exercises the Marines tried to pass off as “operational testing” in May 2015, no service has been so foolish as to attempt to undertake the standard Initial Operational Testing & Evaluation (IOT&E). In fact, the services accidentally forgot to order the equipment that would allow them to even attempt the IOT&E. They understand that going through the IOT&E could kill the program. Instead, the plan appears to be to continue to avoid IOT&E like the plague for as long as possible, while continuing to buy as many F-35s as possible.
Further evidence of a what a sham the Air Force and Marine Corps IOC declarations are is revealed in a DOT&E memo. In it, we find that on the battlefield F-35s are not an asset. In fact, America’s new fighters will actually have to be protected in combat. Because of numerous performance deficiencies and limited weapons capacity, the so-called operationally capable F-35 will need support to locate and avoid threats, acquire targets, and engage enemy aircraft. Unresolved deficiencies in sensor fusion, electronic warfare, and weapons employment continue to result in ambiguous threat displays, limited ability to effectively respond to threats, and, in some cases, a requirement for off-board sources to provide accurate coordinates for precision attack. In short, the F-35 — a flying tinderbox — will need to be nursemaided by other aircraft that are actually combat capable.
An August 9, 2016, DOT&E memo put the nail in the coffin with this damning statement: “In fact, the [F-35] program is actually not on a path toward success, but instead is on a path toward failing to deliver the full Block 3F capabilities [i.e., full combat capabilities].”
This statement distills to just a few words what independent airpower analysts and all the DOT&E reports have been trying to tell us in gory detail — the F-35 is a failing program and the IOC being touted by the Air Force and Marines is nothing more than PR puffery designed to please Congress and the big defense contractors, the future employers of a whole lot of generals and admirals.
A Plane so Advanced, It’s Obsolete
After two decades, the F-35 absolutely, positively has not achieved Initial Operating Capability. By contrast, both the F-15 and the F-16 achieved IOC in eight years or less — with full production following quickly. But falsely declaring IOC is only the tip of the iceberg of what Lockheed Martin and its supporters in the military have done to prop up a program that by any reasonable measure is already a failure. Indeed, it has become standard operating procedure for the F-35’s flaws and problems to be kicked down the road to be fixed in the future.
In order to protect the F-35 from cancellation, the Pentagon has lowered key performance requirements and helped Lockheed cheat so that it could continue the charade that the F-35 will actually meet its bare-minimum threshold ranges. And embarrassing, inexcusable design mistakes continue, such as the F-35B not being able to carry the number of bombs it was supposed to.
Because the Joint Strike Fighter’s development has been going on for over 20 years, much of its shiny new tech that looked so neat two decades ago is now old tech. One victim of old age is the Distributed Aperture System — the hard-wired design of which means that the F-35 is stuck with older infrared sensors with vastly inferior resolution to what is available today. Likewise, the F-35’s Electro-Optical Targeting Sensor is already obsolete and is ten years behind those being used by our F-16s and A-10s. Upgrading it will be difficult and costly.
After some 15 years of development, the F-35’s aging, increasingly unsupportable Integrated Core Processor computer system needed upgrading. Because of schedule pressures and the imperative to maintain the illusion of progress, the decision was made to port 20 million lines of buggy, immature code to the new architecture and then use that code as the base for coding new significant functionality. This resulted in severe, ongoing problems with the F-35’s avionics, its sensor fusion, and other unresolved deficiencies. Many of these deficiencies are not scheduled to be corrected until 2021.
Given all the above, how are we to interpret the announcement that a few combat-incapable, unreliable, extremely expensive to maintain F-35s are scheduled to be deployed to Europe later this year to help deter Russian aggression? Rest assured, Vladimir Putin is not impressed — and neither should we be. But even after many more years and many more billions of dollars, we still won’t have cause to be impressed. That’s because the rapid proliferation of new anti-stealth radars by peer competitors such as Russia and China will stop the F-35 from penetrating deep into peer competitors’ air space to strike at critical targets as its supporters claimed it would be able to do.
To make matters worse, the published $32,000-per-flying-hour cost is a made-up number; its real cost per flying hour will likely be closer to the $62,000 of the much less complex F-22. Its truly dismal sustained-sortie-generation rate of one sortie (mission) every three or four days means that, as is the case with our F-22 pilots, F-35 pilots will only get a fraction of the 30 to 40 hours of stick-time (actual flying time) per month necessary to gain and maintain fighter-combat mastery. The chunky F-35 will find itself facing faster, more agile, longer-range fighters carrying four times as many missiles. In going up against these planes — fighters such as the Russian SU-35S — our F-35 will find itself at a deadly disadvantage, despite its stealth.
It Takes a President
But enough about missiles and sorties, back to the cost question. Since most of the real costs will occur after U.S. taxpayers take delivery, the drama being played out in the media between Lockheed and the Pentagon is no more than political theater. What we really have is a briar-patch exercise: “Oh, you mean Mr. Pentagon! Please don’t force me to sell you these shiny new planes for a few percent less than we wanted!” cries Lockheed, knowing full well that each F-35 delivered will allow them to mainline taxpayer dollars for decades to come.
The real goal is to obscure the true cost of the program for as long as possible from taxpayers while pumping out as many revenue-producing airframes as fast as possible — knowing that even Congress will at some point become too embarrassed to continue to support the program.
So why, after 20 years, are we still dumping money into this plane? When asked this question, Ron Kollmansberger, an aerospace-engineering manager with decades of experience working on the F-15, the F-4, the A-10, and the CH-53E, had this simple answer: “This is a jobs program, not an airplane program.”
Ron’s answer cuts right to the heart of the matter. If not for its super-sized pork-barrel politics and a military-procurement culture that has gotten far too cozy with the defense industry to maintain any objectivity, the F-35 would be canceled in a heartbeat. Sure, there are a few F-35 critics in Congress, but no individual representative or senator has the clout to lead a successful charge against the F-35. Taking down the F-35 takes a president.
Starting on January 20, 2017, President Trump will be under the gun to get as much done as quickly as possible. While he won’t be able to restore our depleted military on Day One, he can send a strong message that restoring our military is more than just about repealing defense sequestration and spending more money — it’s about being smart in how we spend our money.
The F-35 is irredeemable. Contrary to the conventional wisdom on the Hill and at the Pentagon, there are practical solutions that can replace the failed Joint Strike Fighter project quickly while creating tens of thousands of jobs and filling America’s national-security needs (more about that in my next article). That said, no stronger message about reforming our broken defense-procurement process can be sent than by canceling the dumbest fighter program ever conceived.
Mr. President, please cancel the F-35.
— Mike Fredenburg holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering and a masters in production operations management and is a regular contributor to National Review. A past contributor to the California Political Review and the San Diego Union Tribune, he was the founding president of the Adam Smith Institute of San Diego.