Wendy Jordan, Senior analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense, talks “turkey” about the F-35 in her new report, “The Unaffordable F-35.” The report comes completely from unclassified, open sources. Jordan emphasizes that the report examines the F-35 project from the perspective of taxpayers. The report doesn’t get into the capabilities or technology of the project, but rather if it is a logical expenditure from a taxpayer’s perspective.
Jordan swoops into the history of joint fighters, including the TFX program — fighters developed for and intended for multiple branches of the armed forces. The TFX program fell apart as a joint program because the Navy and Air Force have very different fighter requirements, like the Navy’s need of carrier take off. The Air Force ended up purchasing the F-111 Aardvark for itself.
The F-35 is sort of a successor project. Again, you have all the branches in the mix to develop a fighter craft for the next generation. Since each of these branches of the military all have their own requirements for a fighter aircraft, the project is very complicated and has had several overruns.
Jordan contends that the revolving door of the Pentagon bureaucracy militates against a cohesive and coherent approach to development and acquisitions projects on the size of the F-35 program. Each successive generation of Pentagon decision-makers feels itself more capable than its predecessors of managing a project like the Joint Strike Fighter and has high hopes of achieving cost-cutting economies of scale. To date, such an approach has never worked.
In 2001, it seems, the GAO did a baseline total program cost estimate – development, procurement, etc. — and the total cost of the program, they found, absent personnel, would be $233 Billion. In March of 2012, the GAO’s baseline was changed to $395.7 Billion. That’s a $162.7 billion dollar difference over around 11 years. The underlying assumption was that the IOC, or initial operational capability, was that the Air Force would have the F-35 in Fiscal Year 2005. The USMC thought they’d get theirs in FY2006, and the Navy in FY2008. This March, in the President’s Budget Request, the USAF has revised its numbers to FY2016, the USMC in FY2015, and the US Navy to FY2018.
What was done in those additional 11, 9, and 10 years? Redevelopment. Jordan and her colleagues found that at least $39 Billion has been spent above what was believed to have been development costs. Why? The services have changed requirements. This has been true of every high tech weapons development. Because technology evolves over the lifecycle of a project, any long-term endeavor requires updates in requirements.
Are we, as taxpayers, doomed to shoulder the costs of such projects forever? Who knows?! However, alternatives exist. Perhaps there is hope. (read more in the report). Some of the planes, such as the EA-18G Growler, are meant to be replaced by the F-35. Turns out a lot of the planes doing things the F-35 is meant to do, are still pretty darn good. Like the modern variants of the F-15 and and F-16, the F-18 Super Hornet, and the F-22. Looks like the USAF could buy all its currently planned to modernize the fleet for $4.2 billion, but they want to spend all their money on the F-35.
What can you do? Call your senator. Urge him or her to put money into the currently available and currently deployed, less expensive technology.