The last thing a military awash in red ink needs is an expensive next-generation fighter jet.
But as Washington struggles with budget cuts and Ogden's Hill Air Force Base faces employee furloughs, the Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35 — the most expensive military armament project in history — struggles to get off the ground.
In February, all F-35s were grounded after one suffered a cracked turbine blade. Then on March 11, a warning light forced an F-35 en route to Nevada to land in Lubbock, Texas. It remained grounded for weeks, with more technical glitches when it tried to leave. As of March 29, it was still stuck there.
The idea behind the F-35 is that the venerable, 40-year-old F-16 and the 30-year-old F-18 workhorses need to be replaced with cutting-edge technology, especially radar-evading stealth.
But critics says the F-35 is trying to do too many things and doing none of them well. A single design is expected, with little adaptation, to reach 1.6 times the speed of sound, be adaptable for vertical takeoff and landing, and hide from radar with stealth technology.
The cost of the F-35 program has risen to $396 billion, even before flying or maintaining the planes, a costly controversy in its own right. To put that in context, the devastating spending cuts under the sequester, which then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned in 2011 would “hollow out” the military, require $500 billion to be cut over nine years.
“In the mid- and late 1990s, the Pentagon was told this plane would be a performance disaster and its costs would be multiples of what they were then estimating,” said Winslow Wheeler at the Project on Government Oversight, one of the program’s fiercest critics. According to Wheeler, concerns came from multiple sources as the project developed, both internally and externally. “But they ignored the warning.”
After years of bailing out banks deemed too big to fail and dodging entitlements too big to touch, critics argue that a budget-busting Pentagon program is taking its own turn on that infamous stage. And in doing so, they fear, the program is diverting vital funds from training, maintenance and other vital military procurement programs.
In 2001, the program was scheduled to take 10 years and produce planes at $69 million per unit, according to a new report by the General Accounting Office. By 2012, development had ballooned to 18 years and the cost to $137 million per plane.
A 2012 Government Accounting Office report compared the F35 program to the other top 20 military procurement programs. “The Joint Strike Fighter program alone is expected to account for 38 percent — or almost $246 billion — of the future procurement funding needed,” the GAO report stated. “This amount is enough to fund the remaining procurement costs of the next 15 largest programs.”
Add in money already spent, and the program now stands at $396 billion — if the projected number of planes are bought. That’s just to build and buy. The cost to maintain and operate them are also high, now estimated at more than $1 trillion over their 50-year lifespans.
That’s a lot of eggs in one troubled basket, critics say.
“What they should do is kill the program,” Wheeler said, extend the life of current fighters and launch a new program with different planes better tailored to particular needs. “They could get far greater numbers for far more effective airplanes for far less money."
“At some point,” Wheeler said, “they will appreciate that this program has to be killed, but that decision is some years out. Between now and then, the plane will twist slowly in the wind as they grimly try to hold on.”
At the moment, no one is happy — not the Pentagon, not the contractors, not the test pilots, and not the allies who are rethinking purchase plans.
As design flaws lead to griping and delay, they also breed discontent. In February, an internal report was leaked to POGO, which put it online. The report cites numerous concerns, including visibility fears of test pilots. “The headrest will impede aft visibility and survivability during surface and air engagements,” one pilot said, adding, “Aft visibility will get the pilot gunned every time.”
Early last month, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, took shots at Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney, the two main contractors, implying they were not doing enough to contain costs — adding to the open friction between the Pentagon and the contractors.
Back home at a press conference in Washington, Bogdan looked past design and construction, calling maintenance and operations “the big gorilla” and suggesting that if those costs cannot be controlled they would "potentially be unaffordable.”
One option to reduce costs is to simply build fewer planes. But this solution risks setting off a “death spiral.” Affordability after development hinges on volume. The cost per unit climbs each time a sale is lost, forcing prices up and jeopardizing other sales as well.
Canada is reported to be very close to canceling its order for 65 of the planes, and last year Italy slashed its original order. Canadian officials have danced around the issue, but in February Boeing — which lost out to Lockheed in the original F-35 contract — was pitching Canada on its Super Hornet, an advanced version of the F-18. The cheaper, proven alternative, Boeing argued, promised half the sticker price and half the projected operations costs.
The lure of the Super Hornet raises the question of whether this next generation fighter is actually filling a necessary niche in the Western military arsenal. The answer, argues Chris Harmer at the Institute for the Study of War, is no.
Harmer, who spent 20 years as a naval aviator before joining ISW, argues that stealth technology is overrated and that the plane is being built for combat situations that will rarely if ever arise.
Harmer concedes that the F-35 is a leap forward. “But what kind of a performance increase did we get, and what did that cost us?” he asks.
“The vast majority of what our fixed-wing aircraft have been doing is close air support in what is known as ‘a permissive threat environment,’ ” or a space where there is no integrated air defense system, or IADS.
“You don’t need a Rolls Royce solution to go get the groceries,” Harmer said.
Harmer argues that the military has rarely faced an IADS in recent years, but when it does, it prefers to take them on with “stand-off” weapons, such as cruise missiles, which cripple the air defenses before planes move in
“If we are spending twice as much on F-35s as we are for F-16s, we are going to end up with fewer flight hours available, fewer airplanes available, and a decreased ability to surge in case of a requirement,” he said.
“Budgets are the very definition of zero sum,” Harmer said.
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.