The F-35 program could cripple U.S. defense for decades to come.
“You could argue it [the F-35] was already one of the biggest white elephants in history a long time ago,” stated former U.K. defense chief Nick Harvey in a May interview. Harvey then doubled down, saying there is “not a cat in hell’s chance” the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) would be combat-ready by 2018. While it is noteworthy that a person of Harvey’s stature would level such harsh criticisms, his statement merely reflects the conclusions of reports by the U.S. Defense Department’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional Research Service, and various independent air-power analysts: The F-35 program is a mess; it is unaffordable and will not be able to fulfill its mission.
Indeed, it could be argued that the biggest threat the U.S. military faces over the next few decades is not the carrier-killing Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile, or the proliferation of inexpensive quiet diesel-electric attack subs, or even Chinese and Russian anti-satellite programs. The biggest threat comes from the F-35 — a plane that is being projected to suck up 1.5 trillion precious defense dollars. For this trillion-dollar-plus investment we get a plane far slower than a 1970s F-14 Tomcat, a plane with less than half the range of a 40-year-old A-6 Intruder, a plane whose sustained-turn performance is that of a 1960s F-4 Phantom, and a plane that had its head handed to it by an F-16 during a recent dogfight competition. The problem is not just hundreds of billions of dollars being wasted on the F-35; it is also about not having that money to spend on programs that would give us a far bigger bang for the buck.
The Joint Strike Fighter program formally began in January 1994 as the Joint Advanced Strike Technology program, with the goal of producing a lightweight, low-cost fighter for the Air Force, the Marine Corps, and the Navy. Twenty years and hundreds of billion of dollars later, we have a program that has yet to deliver one combat-capable squad. In fact, the program has yet to deliver a stable design. F-35s delivered to date could still need air-frame modifications, not to mention having unstable avionics and weapons systems. Claims that the Marine variant, the F-35B, will achieve initial operating capability (IOC) sometime this year are being questioned by those who cite the most recent DOT&E report as showing that by historical standards the F-35 is not IOC ready. Close-air-support capabilities falsely advertised as being able to replace those of the A-10 are not scheduled to come on line until 2021. Given the JSF program’s history, it would be criminally naïve not to expect more schedule slips.
Ironically, a March 2000 GAO report noted that the DOD had designated “the Joint Strike Fighter program as a flagship program for acquisition reform.” Adding to the irony, the same report states: “To that end, the [JSF] acquisition strategy is designed to ensure a better match between the maturity of key technologies and the aircraft’s requirements.” For those who have followed the development of the JSF, that last statement constitutes humor of the blackest variety, as F-35 development has been the archetype of paying huge sums of money for immature technologies with unproven combat value matched to unstable requirements.
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acting undersecretary of defense for acquisition, has called the way the F-35 program has been conducted “acquisition malpractice.” Lieutenant General Charles Davis, a former program executive officer for the JSF, has stated that the F-35 program was “doomed the day the contract was signed.” The cost growth of the program has been breathtaking. In 1994, the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy versions of the JSF were being projected to cost $28 million, $35 million, and $38 million per plane respectively — $45 million to $61 million in today’s dollars. Flash forward to January 2014, when a detailed analysis of F-35 unit costs — an analysis that does not include the development costs — conducted by senior defense analyst Winslow Wheeler put the current unit costs at $190 million for the Air Force variant and about $270 million for the Marine and Navy variants. A 2013 Congressional Research Service report substantially concurs with Wheeler’s analysis, stating that the F-35’s “unit cost is approaching that of the F-22.”
Claims that such unit costs are only low-rate initial production (LRIP) costs, and that the learning curve will lead to lower unit costs in the near future, are false. Learning-curve cost reductions are dependent on having a stable design and a stable production process that meets statistical quality-control standards. Regarding design, the F-35 will not have a stable design for many years to come. Regarding F-35 manufacturing processes, the May 2015 GAO report reveals that only 40 percent of the manufacturing processes necessary for F-35 production are considered to be meeting statistical standards. According to the report, “The best practice standard is to have 100 percent of the critical manufacturing processes in control by the start of low-rate initial production, which began in 2011 for the F-35 program.” So once again we find the rules being changed or ignored on behalf of the F-35. With LRIP design and manufacturing nowhere near what they should be in terms of stability, any talk about near or even mid-term price reductions has zero credibility.
A $32,000-per-flight-hour cost estimate for the F-35 is also unrealistic. The September 2014 GAO Report excitingly titled F-35 Sustainment: Need for Affordable Strategy, Greater Attention to Risks, and Improved Cost Estimates noted that the JPO (Joint Program Office) regularly underestimates operations and support costs such as scheduled and unscheduled maintenance, inspection, and depot maintenance. In particular, the report concludes that “the JPO estimate does not include a reasonable assumption” for F-35 depot maintenance and that operating and support costs are being significantly “underestimated.” Given the utter unreliability of past F-35 cost estimates, and 30 million lines of source code, we could easily see costs per hour of flight approaching those of the F-22, which has only about 2 million lines of source code — about $68,000. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were an early partner in the F-35, but massive cost increases and a decade of delays are causing their patience to wear thin. “It’s unbelievable,” said an official on the IDF General Staff. “First it was $40 million to $50 million, and then the Israel Air Force told us $70 million to $80 million. Now, we’re looking at nearly three times that amount, and who’s to say it won’t continue to climb?”
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The raison d’être for the F-35 is over 20 years old, but at first glance it seems sound. The F-35, operating as a stealth aircraft, will use its powerful low-probability intercept radar to fire its long-range air-to-air missiles at enemy aircraft, destroying them with near impunity. This is the same rationale as that of the F-22; and is dependent on three assumptions: 1) enough stealth to prevent the enemy from seeing and targeting the F-35; 2) a powerful radar that can see the enemy while remaining undetected; and 3) long-range missiles that have a very high single-shot kill probability even when facing sophisticated countermeasures. Unfortunately, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that in going up against tier-one powers like China and Russia it is not prudent to rely upon any of these assumptions for the F-35, especially the effectiveness of our beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles. Yes, the F-35’s technology at the right price might have briefly changed the game 15 years ago, but with decades of advance notice, our peer and near-peer competitors are already fielding planes and systems that would negate many of the F-35’s hypothetical advantages. Hypothetical, because they are not yet complete and have never been tested in combat against a peer competitor.
Despite claims by Lockheed Martin and Pentagon spokespeople about the wonders of situational awareness, most independent defense analysts are underwhelmed by potential F-35 capabilities that may or may not be achieved in the future. At a 2008 air-power conference, RAND analyst John Stillion, pointed out that as compared to existing Russian Gen 4+ Su-30s, the F-35 “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.” Since Stillion’s 2008 analysis, the performance specifications for the F-35 have actually been downgraded numerous times as costs have exploded. Ultimately, too many design trade-offs between the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, and a terrible design process, resulted in a mediocre air frame that is not good at anything other than harming U.S security interests and sucking up tax dollars. Trying to dress up this out-of-date platform with software-enabled features via millions of lines of buggy source code is like putting lipstick on a pig.
While there is uncertainty as to just how decisive beyond-visual-range combat will be, there is no doubt that current U.S. air-power doctrine is built around the assumption that BVR missile combat can be decisive. Air Power Australia, also a believer in the efficacy of BVR combat, has done sophisticated analysis, built on detailed accurate models, of the F-35’s stealthiness and BVR capabilities. This analysis shows that in BVR combat the Gen 4++ Su-35S can achieve kill ratios over the F-35 of 10 to 1 and perhaps even greater. In a dogfight, the F-35 will also be outclassed by the Su-35S. Using the same kind of analysis, the Russian PAK T-50, which is stealthy, will be even more dominant. Both these planes are faster, have much greater range, have supercruise capability (the F-35 does not), and carry double or triple the number of missiles — missiles that in some scenarios may actually be better than our missiles. Both have powerful active and passive sensors, infrared and electromagnetic, capable of piercing F-35 stealth and homing in on the F-35’s extremely hot and unreliable F-135 jet engine. Well understood anti-stealth tactics, combined with networked passive sensors, will allow peer enemies flying faster, aerodynamically superior planes to get the first shot in at ranges 30 to 40 percent greater than that of the F-35’s missiles. The point is that potential future enemies, given decades to prepare, have done so. That we would expect anything different is just plain silly.
After hundreds of billions of dollars and more than 20 years, we have yet to field one combat-capable plane in the F-35 program.
To summarize, after hundreds of billions of dollars and more than 20 years, we have yet to field one combat-capable plane in the F-35 program, and when we finally do it will not be able to fulfill its mission of maintaining U.S air-power dominance. In contrast, the F-16 program, from the time of its inception, including a competitive bakeoff, to initial operating capability took just five years. For $400 billion — the current estimated acquisition for cost for 2,457 F-35s – one could buy a powerful mix of some 5,000 air-superiority and close-air-support fighters sporting world-class weapons systems. Yet despite the disaster that the F-35 program is, the United States Congress continues to fund it. This can partially be explained by the fact that shutting down the program will cost tens of thousands of high-paying jobs, which have been cleverly distributed in hundreds of congressional districts — though it should be noted that the vast majority of the jobs, about 70 percent, are concentrated in just five states. Further, the direct job to indirect job multiplier of nearly four times that Lockheed Martin used to get to estimates of 125,000 F-35-related jobs is extremely high, and its source is biased. A more historically credible multiplier brings the F-35’s total job impact down to 50–60,000.
These massive job estimates incents Congress to give unwarranted credence to Pentagon and Lockheed Martin assurances that the F-35 program is going to yield a “game changing” fighter and that costs can be brought under control. After all, who wants to oppose jobs? Brazen claims of future F-35 dominance are legion, but real evidence to support such claims is nonexistent. Nonetheless, the fact that such claims are being made by people with a lot of gold braid carries a lot of weight. That it is politically expedient to believe such claims helps explain the F-35 program’s continued existence.
So where does that leave us? In business, there is the concept of a sunk cost. The idea is to disregard past investments, both financial and emotional, and make the decision on whether to continue with the project on the basis of what will yield the most value for the stakeholders going forward. Right now the F-35’s sunk cost is massive in terms of money, time, pride, reputations, and emotion. While it is likely that some of the technologies being incorporated into the F-35 are useful, incorporating these technologies into several superior platforms that optimally address the diverse requirements of the three jet-flying services has a much better net present value. Consequently it is time to pull the plug on the biggest threat to U.S military power — the F-35.
— Mike Fredenburg is a regular contributor to National Review and 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.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.