As the Defense Department’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget is being readied for Congress, a darkening shadow falls on the most expensive weapon system in history, the F-35 Lightning II Stealth fighter. The F-35 program produces aircraft for the U.S. Navy, the Marine Corps, and the U.S. Air Force. Each service has a variation unique to its operational needs. That, combined with the aircraft’s highly sophisticated stealth and weapons capabilities, adds significant complexity to the endeavor.
Nonetheless, there is an expectation of performance required to justify the cost. But anticipated performance has fallen short of promises, and operating costs have remained high. Extreme Tech’s Joel Hruska’s unflattering commentary said, “There have been so many problems with the F-35, it’s difficult even to summarize them. Pilot blackouts, premature part failures, software development disasters, and more have all figured in various documents over the years.”
Describing one of the more recent failings, Bloomberg News Pentagon correspondent Tony Capaccio explained, “The 25mm gun on the Air Force models of the Joint Strike Fighter has ‘unacceptable’ accuracy in hitting ground targets and is mounted in a housing that’s cracking, the Pentagon’s test office said in its latest assessment of the costliest U.S. weapon system.”
Additionally, the General Accountability Office, in its recent assessment of the F-35 program after approximately 500 F-35s have been delivered, concluded: “However, the F-35s in the field have not met the standards for reliability and maintainability, indicating that the program is not delivering aircraft of the level of quality expected.” For the taxpayer, none of this is good news. The F-35 was slated to replace legacy F-16 Falcons, F/A-18 Hornets, AV-8B Harrier vertical takeoff and landing fighters, and the venerable and effective ground-attack A-10 Warthogs.
The accompanying graphic portrays the stark magnitude of the cost-versus-performance dilemma faced by the Defense Department and the services in continuing with the F-35 program. The bar chart — often referred to inside the Pentagon as the “tornado chart” — shows the F-35 program compared with the other top 20 Major Defense Acquisition Programs listed by program cost in millions of dollars.
When putting the F-35 procurement cost, including engines only, next to the other programs, the F-35 total program cost at nearly $400 billion is roughly twice the nearest other program and $10 billion more than the top three U.S. Navy shipbuilding programs. The F-35 costs $44 billion more than the bottom 11 programs combined. The expense would be justified if the F-35 were performing, but the program is falling short.
The failure to meet expected performance goals is being reflected in veiled references by the services to look for alternatives. Notably, the Air Force is pursuing complementary programs, such as the Boeing F-15EX, a modernized, more capable F-15E.
Furthermore, at a virtual conference sponsored by the Air Force Association, Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown suggested that the Air Force might buy fewer fifth-generation jets than the planned 1,763. In his coverage of Brown’s comments, Marcus Weisgerber from Defense One described an alternative program:
“Brown sparked some alarm when he first discussed the tactical aircraft review with reporters last week. In that meeting, the general raised the possibility of buying a newly-designed fighter jet to replace old F-16 fighters — a job the F-35 is supposed to be filling. ‘I want to be able to build something new and different that’s not the F-16, that has some of those capabilities, but gets there faster and features a digital approach,’ Brown said at the time.”
Make no mistake about it: If the Air Force is looking for a replacement for the F-16 “that’s not an F-16” and it’s not an F-35A, there’s a big problem. And another damning assessment came from Brown:
“’I want to moderate how much we’re using those aircraft,’ the general said. ‘You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. This is our high-end, we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight … We don’t want to burn up capability now and wish we had it later.’”
The F-35 was not supposed to be the “high-end.” As David Axe put it in Forbes: “The Air Force alone wanted nearly 1,800 F-35s to replace aging F-16s and A-10s and constitute the low end of a low-high fighter mix, with 180 twin-engine F-22s making up the high end.” The F-35 was supposed to be the workhorse that would have stealth for both air-to-air engagements and highly accurate air-to-ground capability for close air support to protect ground forces.
Does the F-35, with its flaws, have enough capability to justify its cost? That will be determined in the crucible of the congressional budget process.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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