Navy Secretary Slams F-35, Praises Military Inclusion

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus sharply criticized joint military acquisition programs Wednesday saying they are more expensive, slower, and lacking in accountability. In remarks made to defense reporters in Washington, D.C., Mabus focused his ire on the F-35 program, which he said is “way late and way over budget.”

The top civilian Navy official said the F-35 is “called a joint program and it’s not,” because only 40 percent of its parts are common across the Air Force, Navy, and Marine variants of the fifth-generation fighter jet. But because it is structured as a joint program, he said, “there’s nobody held accountable” because no single service chief is responsible for budget and timeline.

Despite President-elect Donald Trump’s suggestion that Boeing develop an alternate version of the F-18 Super Hornet to compete with the F-35, Mabus admitted the services have little choice but to move forward with the program, however flawed it may be. The Marines, he said, “have to have the F-35” because it “brings capabilities that the F-18 does not.”

Mabus said he doesn’t know if a viable alternative can be developed to compete with the F-35 at this stage of the program’s development. But he expressed doubt about the president-elect’s practice of publicly shaming defense contractors as a strategy to reduce defense costs, saying, “I’m not sure it works.”

The F-35 program has been criticized from all sides recently, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the program “acquisition malpractice” and President-elect Donald Trump Tweeted that the program cost was “out of control.” On Tuesday, Pentagon test director Michael Gilmore declared that the program is currently operating under a 16-month delay.

Mabus also dismissed Gilmore’s testing report, saying the DOT&E director “has never found anything he’s tested to be effective.” He said the Pentagon’s testing office has no incentive to conclude that military systems are operating properly because “it’s not a story if it works.”

In large part because of the F-35 experience, Mabus also said the Navy’s F/A-XX program, which is working to develop a sixth-generation fighter jet, should definitely not become a joint program. Mabus said the Navy is working to field the new jet sometime in the 2020s and that the F/A-XX will be an “unmanned” fighter jet. “Unmanned is the future in every domain,” he said.

On the safety of the existing F/A-18 fleet, which has seen a dramatic increase in crashes over the past year, Mabus said that flying fighter jets is “an inherently dangerous business,” but that “we don’t put people in unsafe aircraft.” He conceded that maintenance work on the F/A-18 fleet has been slower in recent years. During the 2013 government shutdown, Mabus said, “we didn’t have the people to do it,” and overall budget problems have created an environment where “we’ve just been cheating on our maintenance.” He rejected the idea, however, that the F/A-18 fleet has overall problems. “If they’re not safe they don’t fly,” he said.

Also reflecting on his eight years of service as President Barack Obama’s Navy Secretary, Mabus said he was most proud of advances in gender and sexuality inclusion. In the Navy, he said, “we are a much more diverse force now.”

To illustrate his point, Mabus told the story of his trip to Manas AB, Kyrgyzstan, shortly after the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2011. While there, he met a Marine who had served three combat tours and approached Mabus to thank him for the policy change. The Marine said he was gay and had been “scared to death” during each of his deployments that his sexual orientation would be discovered and that he would be forced out of the Marines despite his committed service. “That’s not America,” Mabus concluded, “that’s not who we are.”

He admitted the incoming Trump administration could rollback military policies that have allowed women to serve in combat positions and have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in the military—“but if you do, you make us weaker.”