By ADAM CLARK ESTES
It’s not news that the Pentagon’s fated F-35 program is riddled with dilemmas. For more than a decade, it’s bumped into roadblock after roadblock. When the planes aren’t grounded, they’re forbidden to fly in bad weather, combat missions or at night. Vanity Fair just published a lengthy look at just how bad a mess it is.
It’s a frustrating read as it catalogs problem after problem with the program and the complicated politics that dictate its future. Perhaps refreshingly, the challenges laid out seem to stem not from corruption but the overwhelmingly complex task of making the Air Force, Marines and Navy happy while also doling out capital to as many congressional districts as possible, through spending on contractors.
Again, we already knew there were problems. But that doesn’t make the specifics any easier to swallow. Vanity Fair’s Adam Ciralsky walks through the challenges one-at-a-time. Problem number one: these planes are friggin’ expensive:
According to the Government Accountability Office (G.A.O.), which is relatively independent, the price tag for each F-35 was supposed to be $81 million when the program began in October 2001. Since that time, the price per plane has basically doubled, to $161 million. Full-rate production of the F-35, which was supposed to start in 2012, will not start until 2019. The Joint Program Office, which oversees the project, disagrees with the G.A.O.’s assessment, arguing that it does not break out the F-35 by variant and does not take into account what they contend is a learning curve that will drive prices down over time. They say a more realistic figure is $120 million a copy, which will go down with each production batch. Critics, like Winslow Wheeler, from the Project on Government Oversight and a longtime G.A.O. official, argue the opposite: “The true cost of the airplane—when you cast aside all the bullshit—is $219 million or more a copy, and that number is likely to go up.”
A lot of that money is supposed to go towards innovative new technology. Which brings us to problem number two: the innovative new technology doesn’t work. Ciralsky goes over the fancy helmet-mounted displays that purportedly give the pilots x-ray vision:
Pierre Sprey… contends that, even if designers can deal with latency and jitter, the resolution of the video is “fatally inferior” compared with the human eye when it comes to confronting enemy aircraft. “Right from the start, they should have known there would be a huge computation problem and a huge resolution problem,” says Sprey. “Why do drones shoot up wedding parties in Afghanistan? Because the resolution is so poor. That was knowable before the helmet was built.” The helmet-mounted display, says Sprey, is “a total fuckup from start to finish.”
When they were lining everything up a decade ago, the government didn’t spread out responsibility very well. Problem number three: the government’s getting stuck with the bill again and again. Ciralsky quotes Gen. Christopher Bogdan who heads the Joint Strike Fighter program:
“Most of the risk on this program when we signed this contract in early 2001 was on the government squarely. Cost risk. Technical risk. Perfect example: in the development program, we pay Lockheed Martin whatever it costs them to do a particular task. And if they fail at that task, then we pay them to fix it. And they don’t lose anything.”
To be fair, the planes do fly, but they’re far from combat ready. The F-35s have been on the disabled list for years, despite the $1.5 trillion dollars that’s being invested in the program. It’s just one problem after another after another.
It’s not just the generals running the program that are responsible, either. The politicians who approved funding for the fleet did their best to spread the Defense Department dollars around the country. Problem number four: politically minded spending does not build good aircraft. In fact, Ciralsky says it’s quite the opposite:
The political process that keeps the Joint Strike Fighter airborne has never stalled. The program was designed to spread money so far and so wide—at last count, among some 1,400 separate subcontractors, strategically dispersed among key congressional districts—that no matter how many cost overruns, blown deadlines, or serious design flaws, it would be immune to termination. It was, as bureaucrats say, “politically engineered.”
Now time will tell whether the F-35 will become the fighter jet for America’s future—they really are neat when they work!—or just another political boondoggle. The Marines say they’ll have their fleet combat ready by 2015, while the Air Force and Navy need a few more years. Then again, it wasn’t long ago that they were saying the same thing about 2012. [Vanity Fair]