Feature

How Not To Buy a Fighter

The F-35 isn't all things to all pilots.

By From the June 2013 issue

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It’s probably easier to put a man on Mars than it is to please the military with a new fighter jet. Every time someone tries—as our worst defense secretary, Robert McNamara, did in the 1960s—the project fails. Invariably, what works for one of the three branches—Air Force, Navy, Marines—fails to meet the needs of the others. McNamara’s project, the infamous Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX), was so far off the mark that the Navy refused to buy it. Only the Air Force found a niche bomber role for a small number of the resulting aircraft, called the F-111, which was too heavy and unwieldy to be anybody’s fighter. It was enormously expensive and made no one happy. 

Fifty years later, the Pentagon seems to have forgotten the lessons it learned, or should have learned, from the TFX. A case in point is the new “Joint Strike Fighter,” better known as the F-35 Lightning II. The F-35 is the most expensive weapons program in Pentagon history. And the military is all in, as the poker players would say: We’re supposed to buy 2,457 of these planes for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, at a total cost of $400 billion, which works out to roughly $161 million each. Eight other nations are also planning to buy the aircraft, including Britain, Canada, Italy, Japan, Australia, and Turkey.

Decades ago, when a group of officers known as the Fighter Mafia ran the Air Force, they established a “high-low” paradigm to describe two kinds of fighter aircraft. The “high” fighters had only one job: to establish air supremacy, which meant sweeping the skies clear of all enemy aircraft. This they did with awesome effectiveness. Since April 1953, not a single American ground soldier has been killed by enemy aircraft. So-called “low” fighters, on the other hand, were responsible for everything else, from attacking ground targets such as enemy command bunkers, to providing close air support for our troops.

Thanks to defense secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, the distinction between “high” and “low” aircraft no longer exists. The Air Force originally intended to purchase 750 of our current “high” fighters, the F-22 Raptor, but that number has steadily dwindled. In 2009, an Air Force general wrote that having only 250 would put national strategy at “moderate risk.” Production was ultimately curbed at 187. 

Now all our eggs have been placed in one basket, the F-35. Unfortunately, the F-35 is not a substitute for the F-22; it isn’t, and isn’t supposed to be, an air superiority fighter. After nearly 12 years of development, we don’t actually know what it’s supposed to be. If we wait long enough and spend enough money to fix all the inevitable problems and develop a manufacturable aircraft, the F-35 might turn out to be a success. But the high costs—in time and money—raise serious questions about whether it should be continued.

THE F-35 CONTRACT was awarded to Lockheed Martin in 2001. Like McNamara’s TFX, the F-35 was supposed to be an aircraft that, with some modifications, would meet the needs of all three services. It was meant to replace huge numbers of currently operational aircraft: the Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Warthog, the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet, and the Marines’ AV-8B Harrier. But no one knows when the F-35 will be ready to deploy. And there has been a steady stream of bad news. 

For starters, the cost of purchasing each plane has nearly doubled, according to a Government Accountability Office report issued in June 2012. Instead of buying 2,866 aircraft for a total price of $233 billion, we’re buying 2,457 of them for $395.7 billion. That’s an increase from $81 million per aircraft to $161 million. And that’s not even the half of it. Two years ago during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ashton Carter—then the undersecretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics, now the deputy secretary of defense—testified that, on top of the (then) $385 billion production cost of the aircraft, the cost of maintaining the F-35 through its service life was a nice, round $1 trillion, making it unaffordable by any measure.

The program is almost constantly “restructured” due to poor outcomes and persistent problems, extending deadlines for flight testing and development. Neatly summarizing the situation is an official Pentagon statement from last year, which made clear that there was no certain date for the aircraft’s “initial operational capability.” In other words, no one at the Pentagon has any idea when the fighter will be ready. But we can rest assured that it’s not going to be soon. Earlier this year, on February 15, the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) division published a report that was picked up immediately by the press. The headlines condemned the F-35 because the pilot’s headrest is apparently too large to allow good rear visibility. This is an oversight that might—no, make that shall—prove fatal in dogfights. 

The headrest is no show-stopper; it can be changed. But the problems posed by the cost of the aircraft can’t be solved so easily. Ashton Carter’s $1 trillion estimate has been disputed by both the Air Force and Lockheed Martin. But the F-35’s program boss, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, told the Washington Post in March that, “If we don’t do things now to change the game, this airplane will be unaffordable to fly.” It may already be. Bogdan’s supporters say that there has been zero growth in cost since he took over the program. But putting him in charge may be like having Igor Stravinsky conduct the final number played by the Titanic’s band. The problems with the F-35 are so severe that some of the foreign nations interested in purchasing it are rethinking their decisions. Even the Navy—which famously abandoned the TFX—is rumored to be thinking about how to make do with fewer F-35s. 

The press has ignored another startling implication of the OT&E report, a problem that cannot be solved or explained away. After almost 12 years of development, at a cost of more than $84 billion thus far, the F-35 project hasn’t produced an aircraft in a form that can be manufactured. Yes, the services are setting up training squadrons with F-35s they’ve already purchased. But such training is greatly limited due to the aircraft’s experimental status. The report states:

Aircraft operating limitations prohibit flying the aircraft at night or in instrument meteorological conditions, hence pilots must avoid clouds and other weather...The aircraft is also currently prohibited from flying close formation, aerobatics, and stalls, all of which would normally be in the familiarization phase of transition training…In a mature fighter aircraft, the familiarization phase is followed by several combat-oriented phases, such as air combat, surface attack, and night tactical operations. 

The F-35 does not yet have the capability to train in these phases, nor any actual combat capability, because it is still early in system development.

The question the press hasn’t asked is the most important: Why, after nearly 12 years and $84 billion, is the F-35 still in the early stages of development?

IN THE WEAPONS acquisition business, there are a lot of bad words you can put into contracts. “Commonality” is one that has plagued the F-35. When development began, the three versions for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines were supposed to have more features in common than differences. But the services predictably came to the table with three different plans. The Air Force needs to fly higher and faster and doesn’t want the heavier aircraft the Navy needs to operate off carriers. The Marines insist on a short-takeoff and vertical-landing version that nobody else wants anything to do with. The result is that, as Gen. Bogdan puts it, “We have three airplane programs running in parallel.” The early tussles caused a lot of costly delays, and now, with the parallel production cycles, there are even more. To state the obvious, it takes a lot longer to develop, design, and build three aircraft than it does one.

The aspect of the contract that may damn the F-35 in perpetuity, though, involves “concurrency”—the root of most, if not all, aircraft development evil. “Concurrency” means producing an aircraft before its design is settled and flight tests have been completed. In practice, concurrency means betting the cost and schedule of a new weapon system (be it a fighter, bomber, ship, or missile) on the initial work of its designers.

Concurrency is fine in many situations. It won’t matter to the cost or schedule of a new office building if construction begins before designers finalize the layout of the top floor’s corner offices. Ford could begin producing the 2015 Mustang right now. The company might later swap engines, redesign the body, or even decide to replace the rear suspension. Ford has been building cars for over a century, and can mix and match existing parts and technology without much cost or any lost time. But a fighter is comprised of various highly complex, intricately interdependent systems, some of which have to be developed from scratch. Changes to one thing—say, the main generator—might require changes to everything else. If a replacement widget is bigger or heavier than the original, other parts might have to move to make room. That might alter the aircraft’s center of gravity, which in turn might affect engine design. Further, the F-35’s developers have relied on computer simulations. That’s fine when engineers know how an aircraft will behave. But what they’ve been finding is that those simulations can’t be relied on to predict and adjust the F-35’s design. Fighters go through several laborious design reviews before full-scale engineering development begins. Only afterward do production and flight testing commence. Until everything is ready, nothing really is ready.

Way back in 1988, the Congressional Budget Office published a study entitled “The Effects of Concurrency.” It looked at 14 major weapon system programs and found, in each case, a high degree of concurrency between testing and production. They each suffered cost increases between 33 and 527 percent, and schedule delays up to 139 percent. What was a bad idea in the 1980s is an even worse idea in the 2000s.

Yet Lockheed began producing the F-35 in 2007, before flight testing had even begun. According to several reports, the Pentagon plans to have bought 365 F-35s at a cost of about $69 billion by the time flight tests are completed in 2017. Buying some for testing, maybe a couple of dozen, would make sense. But 365 of them? 

How many billions will it cost to retrofit 365 aircraft to meet the final design? It’s more expensive to refit something—and may take a lot more time—than to build it right in the first place.

Frank Kendall, who is now the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, didn’t mince words when discussing the project a few months ago: “Putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice.”

WHETHER OR NOT it is possible to put the F-35 back on track I have no idea. I do know that any attempt would do a lot of harm to a lot of people. The turmoil would be enormous. Jobs would be put on hold or lost. Lockheed Martin and the Air Force would have to abandon and then revise their goals. And while all that is being worked out, the three military services waiting for the F-35 would have to find something else to fill the gap left by retired aircraft. All of this assumes the desire to fix it. “What I see Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney doing today,” Gen. Bogdan said in February, “is behaving as if they are getting ready to sell me the very last F-35 and the very last engine and are trying to squeeze every nickel out of that last F-35 and that last engine.” 

Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney (the maker of the plane’s engine) may be acting precisely as Bogdan said, but remarks like this can only make a bad situation much worse. A program in as much trouble as the F-35 cannot survive with such a poisonous relationship between business and government. Yet despite this environment, the government isn’t at all likely to do the one thing that could save the F-35: stop buying them until the flight testing is completed and the design is finalized. The government has done something short of that, announcing that the purchase of 179 aircraft will be delayed until 2017 to reduce concurrency. But without a fuller cancellation, the F-35’s costs will continue to grow and the schedule will continue to slip down the road indefinitely. This most recent delay extends the program to at least 2037, when the last plane is projected to be delivered. 

While the saga of the F-35 goes on, we could—if we’re serious about national defense—plug the gap it leaves in our fighter capability. The F-15 Silent Eagle is a newer, semi-stealthy version of what had been our top-line fighter for three decades. The Air Force could buy a few dozen, each at a small fraction of the cost of an F-35. The Navy could buy newer versions of the F/A-18, still a highly capable aircraft. The Marines are in tougher shape; some interim solution will have to be found for their AV-8B.

But none of this is likely to happen. The F-35 may, someday, be a serviceable fighter. But when, and at what cost? Given enough time and money, you could make the F-35 succeed. Or you could build the Starship Enterprise. The history of the Pentagon is littered with the carcasses of failed weapon systems. Those who—like the F-35’s builders—attempt to develop and produce fighters at the same time are bound to fail. And they have.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.