By Nick Schwellenbach
America’s fighter and attack aircraft fleet is aging. Unfortunately, the only real program in place to address this issue – the F-35 “Lightning II” Joint Strike Fighter – is producing overpriced aircraft with fundamental design problems that will make them inferior weapons. The program should be cancelled. America’s current fighter and attack jets should be refurbished, and the military should start new programs that are not excessively expensive. This would provide better national security and free up funds for vital domestic programs.
Unaffordable Even with Recent Assertions of Cost Reductions
The F-35 “faces skyrocketing costs, expensive retrofits and unacceptably poor performance,” according to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in March. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a senior member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the program “both a scandal and a tragedy” and said in 2011, “If things do not improve – quickly – taxpayers and the warfighter will insist that all options will be on the table.”
The program’s estimated costs have increased more than 50 percent – approaching $400 billion – and the per-unit cost has almost doubled while the number of aircraft on order has been slashed by hundreds. Cost estimates may rise further if additional technical issues are discovered during further testing. The program cost estimates do not include the price of operating and maintaining the F-35 over several decades, a price tag the Pentagon pegs at more than $1 trillion over several decades.
Lately, the Defense Department and Lockheed Martin, the lead contractor designing and building the jet, have trumpeted progress in somewhat bringing down estimated operation and maintenance costs as well as production costs – but many have cast doubt on these assertions.
An Inherently Inferior Aircraft Design
If the aircraft were a good design, it might be worth sorting out the cost issues to salvage the program. But the F-35 is a flawed concept and it is underpowered and overweight – it is not likely to be an effective combat aircraft.
Veteran defense reporter David Axe wrote a widely circulated article in August that stated, “Owing to heavy design compromises foisted on the plane mostly by the Marine Corps, the F-35 is an inferior combatant, seriously outclassed by even older Russian and Chinese jets that can fly faster and farther and maneuver better…. And future enemy planes, designed strictly with air combat in mind, could prove even deadlier to the compromised JSF.”
This is due largely to design compromises introduced because the aircraft is being designed for all three air forces in the U.S. military: the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. The compromises mostly are due to the Marine’s variant.
Given these design characteristics, RAND Corporation defense analysts wrote that the F-35 has “inferior acceleration, inferior climb, inferior sustained turn capability” – therefore it “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.” They wrote further that the “F-35A is ‘Double Inferior’ relative to modern Russian/Chinese fighter designs in visual range combat” and is substantially inferior to the aircraft it is replacing in several ways. The aircraft’s stealth rating has also been downgraded – meaning it isn’t as stealthy as it was intended to be.
Others Have Proposed Cancellation
The Rivlin-Domenici Debt Reduction Task Force floated the idea of canceling the F-35. “The tough choices to terminate or delay several investments would focus on programs that provide an excessive hedge for potential adversaries or are significantly underperforming relative to expectations,” the Task Force wrote in its November 2010 report. “Investment priorities could include deferring or terminating such programs as the F-35 fighter jet.”
Numerous organizations on the left and right have recommended canceling one or two of the F-35 models, leaving the A model intact. However, economies of scale would be worse with just the A model, potentially driving up per unit costs even higher. Again, the fundamental design compromises would still exist.
“If the Pentagon decided to meet sequester requirements by preserving force structure, without accepting reductions in readiness or its civilian workforce, the Joint Strike Fighter program would have to be canceled,” according to analysts representing the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Center for a New American Security, and the American Enterprise Institute. This option was presented in the Defense Department’s Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR) this year.
Some Options Moving Forward
The U.S. should stop throwing good money after bad. There is a way to both save money and use existing dollars to get a more effective air force while also freeing up funding for needed domestic programs.
The F-35 program should be canceled. Money should instead be budgeted for extending the life of existing aircraft, and a certain number of new F-16s and F/A-18E/Fs should be purchased in the interim. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), “If equipped with upgraded modern radar, precision weapons, and digital communications — new F-16s and F/A-18s would be sufficiently advanced to meet the threats that the nation is likely to face in the foreseeable future.” The savings would be substantial. CBO estimated in 2011 that “net savings would be $78 billion if the entire planned fleet of F-35s – not all of which would be purchased by 2021 – was replaced with F-16s and F/A-18s.” However, any potential upgrades to these aircraft should be evaluated by the Pentagon’s weapons tester and their costs independently estimated before being advanced. CBO is likely to include a new estimate of savings with this option in its new report on deficit reduction options slated to be released in October.
There is also a need to extend the life of the A-10 attack aircraft, including potentially pulling some mothballed A-10s out of the U.S. government’s aircraft boneyard in the Southwest (where they are protected from corrosion in the dry climate).
In the long run, two new programs should be initiated for air-to-air and air-to-ground aircraft as opposed to the failed plan to combine both functions in one aircraft, resulting in design compromises that make the JSF inferior for both roles. Two of America’s most successful aircraft – the F-16 and A-10 – were designed to be cheap and effective and they have been. Robert Dilger, a retired Air Force colonel, and Pierre Sprey, an aircraft designer on the F-16 and A-10 programs, have developed an acquisition blueprint for the Air Force that is along these lines that should be considered.
A common argument used against canceling any weapon system is that billions have already been spent, also known as “sunk costs.” However, it does not make sense to continue wasting money on an obviously flawed program that has such high stakes. But the money spent would not all be lost. Technology developed during the course of the program was bought and paid for by the government and can be applied in new programs if it makes sense.
All the money annually spent (over $8 billion) on the Joint Strike Fighter could pay for somewhere near 100,000 elementary school teachers, health care for 1 million military veterans, health care for 4 million low-income children, or Head Start for 1 million children, according to the National Priorities Project’s trade-off calculator. Although canceling the F-35 would not free up all this annual funding if older aircraft are refurbished and new F-16s and F/A-18s are purchased, a substantial amount could still be directed toward these domestic needs.
Replacing the F-35 with cheaper long-term replacement programs and the interim solution of refurbishing and buying new aircraft that currently make up the backbone of the U.S.’s tactical aviation fleet would allow the U.S. to free up funds for domestic priorities here at home while ensuring the U.S. military has the air power it needs.