On the last day of July, the Marine Corps declared its variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter had reached the milestone known as “initial operational capability.”
It’s important to understand what that really means and what it doesn’t. So let’s turn to that great beach read, “Joint Publication 1-02: Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms.” This weighty tome tells us initial operation capability indicates “the first attainment of the capability to employ effectively a weapon, item of equipment, or system of approved specific characteristics that is manned or operated by an adequately trained, equipped, and supported military unit or force.”
But what it does not mean is that the F-35 is fully operational. That is defined as the point “when all units and/or organizations in the force structure scheduled to receive a system have received it and have the ability to employ and maintain it.”
The first squadron to receive these minimally effective aircraft is in Yuma, Arizona. So Republican Sen. John McCain, who both represents Arizona and is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has to walk a careful line in his statements about the F-35. In 2013, he referred to the repeated cost overruns of the F-35 program as “worse than a disgrace,” but soon the F-35 will replace the F-18s currently flying out of the Marine base at Yuma. To his credit, he continues to raise his concerns, “about the capability and reliability this (sic) aircraft.” He goes on to say, “The Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive weapons system in history, and we must learn the lessons of past failures to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently and American aviators can safely and effectively perform their missions.”
I couldn’t agree more. There is ample evidence of the massive, and growing, cost of the F-35. In April of this year the Government Accountability Office released a new report on the long term costs of the F-35. Here is a summary of the forthright GAO review but this excerpt sums up the concerns:
Cost and affordability challenges remain. [The Department of Defense] plans to significantly increase annual F-35 funding from around $8 billion to nearly $12 billion over the next 5 years … reaching $14 billion in 2022 and remaining between $14 and $15 billion for nearly a decade. Over the last year, DOD reduced near-term aircraft procurement by 4 aircraft, largely due to budget constraints. While these deferrals may lower annual near-term funding needs, they will likely increase the cost of aircraft procured in that time frame and may increase funding liability in the future. It is unlikely the program will be able to sustain such a high level of annual funding and if required funding levels are not reached, the program’s procurement plan may not be affordable. DOD policy requires affordability analyses to inform long-term investment decisions. The consistent changes in F-35 procurement plans indicate that DOD’s prior analyses did not adequately account for future technical and funding uncertainty. (Emphasis added.)
Saying the current plan, “may not be affordable” is putting it mildly. The long-term sustainment costs of F-35 have been pegged by GAO at roughly $1 trillion. Think about that for a moment. It’s hard to wrap your mind around something costing a trillion dollars. And as good as the GAO is at costing these things out, I have no doubt this estimate will continue to creep upward. Can the Pentagon afford such a massive investment, for a plane designed to be in the inventory for at least 40 years, when the nature of warfare in 2025, much less 2055 is unknowable?
I certainly hope this initial operational capability designation doesn’t mean the Pentagon believes the F-35 is now eligible for Overseas Contingency Operations funding. The Marines asked to reprogram unspent contingency operations funds at the end of the last fiscal year to buy more F-35s. Thankfully, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee forcefully shut that down. But initial operational capability and Overseas Contingency Operations share one common root word: “operations.” People who care about fiscal sanity and sound budget practices should be watching for this.