By Ethan Rosenkranz
For some time now, the Navy has been signaling its waning interest in remaining a part of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter club along with the Marine Corps and Air Force.
Last week, Politico, citing an unnamed congressional source, reported that the Navy has requested a three-year pause in acquisition of the F-35C—the carrier-launched variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. Unfortunately, the Office of the Secretary of Defense has reportedly blocked the Navy’s proposed break in procurement and is insisting that the service continue with previously planned purchases.
This proposal by the Navy to slow acquisition of the F-35 is welcome news to the Project On Government Oversight, which has been raising concerns with the Joint Strike Fighter program for a number of years. POGO, along with Taxpayers for Common Sense, has recommended that the Navy and Marine Corps end procurement of the F-35 and instead purchase additional F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.
And, of course, the Air Force should also terminate procurement of its variant of the F-35 and replace it with lifetime extensions of and upgrades to F-16s, F-15s, and A-10s. All three models of the F-35, not just the Navy and Marine Corps versions, are unaffordable and unacceptable in terms of their performance.
The F-35 has been plagued by development problems, cost overruns, and delays that have left it almost a decade behind schedule. The F/A-18E/F on the other hand is fully operational and can fulfill the Navy’s performance needs for strike aircraft for the foreseeable future. While the F-35C’s aircraft carrier suitability is a matter of some controversy, as was expressed in the recent report by the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the F/A-18E/F has proven its carrier suitability.
The Super Hornet costs far less to procure with a price of around $65 million each compared to as much as $299.5 million per F-35C. The Super Hornet also costs significantly less to operate and maintain than the F-35, which is officially predicted to cost $1.1 trillion to sustain over its entire lifetime (even if its advocates are trying to suppress that cost estimate with various analytical and budgetary gimmicks).
The one advantage that proponents of the F-35 point to is its so-called “stealth,” which should be understood to consist of a limited detection range in the presence of some radar at some angles (and complete detectability to other radars or at other angles for any radar).
The Navy, however, may not want the extra cost and very limited tactical advantage of whatever additional “stealth” the F-35C might prove to have above the F/A-18. A widely reported piece by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, called into question the service’s need to procure a stealthy fighter:
Maintaining stealth in the face of new and diverse counterdetection methods would require significantly higher fiscal investments in our next generation of platforms. It is time to consider shifting our focus from platforms that rely solely on stealth to also include concepts for operating farther from adversaries using standoff weapons and unmanned systems—or employing electronic-warfare payloads to confuse or jam threat sensors rather than trying to hide from them.
Admiral Greenert concluded by pointing out that, “We appear to be reaching the limits of how much a platform’s inherent stealth can affordably get it close enough to survey or attack adversaries.”
POGO and Taxpayers for Common Sense are not alone in calling on the Navy to terminate the F-35C and instead rely on the available and affordable Super Hornet. Other analysts from organizations across the ideological spectrum have issued similar recommendations, including the National Taxpayers Union, U.S.PIRG, the Center for American Progress, the Cato Institute, and the Project on Defense Alternatives. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) also recommended forgoing the Navy and Marine Corps variants of the F-35 in his 2011 Back in Black report.
In addition, others have recommended the termination of all three F-35 models, including the Domenici-Rivlin Commission and the Center for Defense Information (which is a project at POGO). The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has published reports on deficit reduction that routinely list cancelling the F-35 as a significant deficit reduction option.
With so many problems plaguing the F-35, the notable attention these concerns are receiving in the press, and with budget pressures mounting, the Navy is clearly seeking a way out of the F-35C, but has yet to do so forcefully.
Indeed, just four months ago, the Navy issued a solicitation notice to purchase additional Super Hornets, but withdrew it two weeks later meekly explaining that, “The posting was the result of pre-decisional and internal budget discussions and was posted erroneously.”
Yet, according to Reuters, the Navy still wants to purchase F/A-18E/Fs (or EA-18Gs, the electronic warfare variant): “Navy officials have said they would like to keep buying Super Hornets and Growlers, but cannot afford to do so given tough budget pressures.”
Still, the Navy’s many proponents on Capitol Hill may be getting the message. Interestingly, the most recently enacted spending bill, H.R. 3547, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, provided $75 million in unrequested funding to begin the process of purchasing twenty-two additional Super Hornets in 2015—Super Hornets that the Pentagon, but clearly not the Navy, had avoided requesting for fear of undermining the faltering Joint Strike Fighter.
With the Air Force and Marine Corps unwilling to step away from the F-35 and the Navy reluctant to insist on what many in the service would clearly prefer, Congress just might initiate a series of events that could begin to effect some change. A “pause” in F-35C procurement could be the beginning of that process. The end—while predictable—is not yet clearly apparent.