The F-35 Dice Roll

Dec. 1, 2009

This fall, the F-35 Lightning II fighter got clobbered with bad news. The military Web site on Oct. 22 reported warnings of huge cost increases and delays. It cited as a source a secret review by the “Joint Estimate Team” of Pentagon, Air Force, and Navy experts. Other media soon piled on.

DOD seemed rattled. Spokesman Geoff Morrell suggested the JET might have been overly “pessimistic.” DOD noted it was working up plans to steer the F-35 away from the JET-predicted dangers. Technical explanations were adduced.

All of that happened before anything bad had really taken place, a fact noted by our own John A. Tirpak in “Washington Watch: F-35’s Death Spiral?” on p. 8. “No new costs have actually been added yet,” he said, though DOD may be “procedurally required” to raise its cost estimates at some point.

As should be evident to all, top Pentagon leaders have become awfully twitchy about any problems—real or imagined—threatening the F-35 program. They should be. They have laid down a massive bet on this fighter. As Morrell noted, “We have a great deal riding on … this program.”

Indeed. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are on the hook to build F-35s through 2035. USAF would take 1,763 F-35As; 680 B and C models would go to the sea services. There are no really good alternatives. So, it is no stretch to say that US combat aviation hinges—worryingly to some—on the success of this lone $300 billion fighter project.

In this matter, the Air Force Association is not neutral. We strongly back the F-35 as the key to the recapitalization of the aged USAF fighter force. It should be fully funded at a high rate of production. We are aware that there can be honest differences about total numbers, but, like Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, we believe “we cannot afford … not to have this airplane.”

Having turned our cards face up, however, we feel free to offer some perspectives on the current controversy gripping the fighter program.

First, the veracity of the JET’s claims about the program is virtually unknowable because the claims deal with future events. F-35 critics and supporters alike can make plausible cases for their positions, but they are, in the end, unprovable.

F-35 critics note the F-35’s total program cost, as calculated today, runs to $298.8 billion. According to the Pentagon’s most recent acquisition report to Congress, that sum reflects cost growth of more than 44 percent since 2002.

Moreover, say the detractors, prime contractor Lockheed Martin is behind schedule on its flight tests, which breeds suspicion.

Others flatly reject the JET’s predictions. For example, Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, insists, “The JET estimates are wrong.” He asserts it has been “forced to trim earlier predictions of an $800 million cost overrun in Fiscal 2011, because the program is performing better than it expected.”

Additional pro-F-35 claims are recounted by Tirpak in his report. None, however, offer a definitive response to the JET’s charges.

The second point to make is that a burst of F-35 criticism at this time was perfectly predictable. The pattern of the past four decades has been that, when a major aircraft program nears full production, it is targeted and attacked as “unaffordable” and “unnecessary,” if not actually ineffective or dangerous.

In the 1970s, critics found fault with the new E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, branding it as an expensive piece of junk lacking any real mission.

In the 1980s, “military reformers” claimed the F-15 air combat fighter was too complex to operate or maintain and would prove to be ineffective against smaller and nimbler adversaries.

In the 1990s, the B-2 bomber was the target of many predictions, including a feckless claim that its stealth coatings would “melt” in the rain.

The most recent airplane to be so attacked was USAF’s F-22 Raptor.

As we all now know, however, these are among the all-time great performers in the history of US military aviation.

Until now, the F-35 has gotten by unscathed. Those days surely are over. With its eye-popping total program cost, it has become the latest fat target for Congressional and media scrutiny and complaint.

The third point to make is that the Obama Administration, with Gates in the lead, banked far too heavily on the F-35 program. In doing so, it needlessly placed USAF fighter aviation—and thus national defense—at risk.

This spring and summer, as Gates and the anti-F-22 brigade pressed to kill that fighter program, the Pentagon chief asserted his faith in a forthcoming buildup of F-35s. He claimed it would permit the Air Force to safely halt F-22 procurement at 187 fighters, half of the real requirement.

Even at the time, others warned that, until the F-35 has been successfully demonstrated and produced at higher annual rates, DOD should play it safe and keep the F-22 line going. Gates dismissed this argument, convinced Congress he was right, and got his prized F-22 kill.

Thus, in the Pentagon’s unintentionally funny approach to the stewardship of Air Force airpower, top officials took what was a broad and fully funded plan and whittled it to a single fighter program.

In so doing, DOD officials advanced the argument that this new single-fighter approach would afford greater efficiency and flexibility, not only for the Air Force but also for the other US services and for many allies. Now, however, the F-35 has begun to experience political and developmental turbulence, and we shall see. We can only hope that we are not in for an unwelcome comedy of collapsing scenery and exploding cigars.

If we want to maintain a capable fighter force, we must get on with the F-35 and do whatever possible to make it work.

Gates and his amen chorus in Congress have rolled the dice. Now, he—and we—must hope that this gigantic fighter program does not come up snake eyes.