Celebrate the Facts!
The F-35 promises significant advances in military capability which advocates use to justify exceeding the original budget, delivery schedule, and per-hour operational cost. The F-35 fighter aircraft being procured in different versions for the United States Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy and is the largest procurement program in the Department of Defense (DOD) history. Current plans call for acquiring a total of 2,456 F-35s, and United States allies have contracted for hundreds of additional F-35s, and eight nations are cost-sharing partners. Despite triumphant propaganda the F-35 is the biggest turkey ever built.
The F-35 was intended as a cheap replacement for the A-10 and the F-16 when Lockheed Martin won the contract in 2001. United States government officials promised the new jets would cost about $50 million each with a total cost of the program of $200 billion. Since that time total program costs have doubled to about $400 billion and when all the operating costs are accounted for over the 50-year anticipated service life of the plane the costs will be about $1.7 trillion.
Untrue claims about falling unit costs of F-35s surface when DOD staff in Washington develop the following year’s defense budget. In 2017, Lockheed Martin announced a price drop of about 7% per aircraft compared to the previous year, and in 2019, another lower price of about $81 million per plane. The real cost of an F-35 is best derived considering foreign sales values. Switzerland is planning on buying 40 F-35s for about $165 million each including spare parts and weaponry.
The RAND Corporation (a government-funded research organization) found that the fundamental concept behind the F-35 program—that of making one basic airframe serve multiple services’ requirements—may have been flawed. Lockheed Martin also chose to perform some aspects of design and construction concurrently to truncate the schedule in deploying the F-35, but that left fundamental problems to be managed after delivery.
The old-school view among combat aircraft designers was fighters were gauged by how high and how fast they could fly. Later evolutions of fighter design philosophy included looking at how easily a fighter could turn and accelerate in that turn. The most current view is how ‘stealthy’ the fighter is – in other words, how difficult it is to detect.
Proponents speak of the F-35 as having the radar signature of a bumblebee, allowing the fighter to arrive undetected at an enemy’s position or locate and kill the enemy fighter from a long distance. Defense analysts have compared the F-35 to an exotic luxury car - a hot reputation, but persnickety and costly to sustain. Advocates of the F-35 program site a phenomenon referred to as the S-curve where the disruptor technology often is not as good as the technology it is replacing and claim the F-35 has surpassed the F-16 fighter and will continue to improve.
The cost of operating the USAF’s F-35A has been cited as high as $44,000 per hour, according to the Department of Defense. The Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Office and the F-35 Joint Program Office previously have express skepticism that the F-35’s operating costs could be reduced to Lockheed Martin’s goal of $25,000 per hour by 2025. Given the empirical results of previous efforts, this doubt is well-founded.
Aside from cost and schedule overruns, the F-35 has fundamental problems including:
Instead of exclusively buying the F-35 per original plans, the Air Force is contemplating a future fighter armada that might include new F-16 fighters or a completely newly designed fighter. The Air Force requested in the 2020 United States federal budget eight of a total projected purchase of 144 F-15EX fighters, an indicator of the fundamental lack of faith in the F-35 by its end-users, . The F15EX is an improved version of the F-15 Eagle, an aircraft designed in the 1970s and last purchased in 2001. The Air Force also reduced its planned F-35 buy from 60 to 48 jets per year.
Another reason that might be driving the purchase of F-15s is its potential impact on the United States fighter industrial base. The award of the F-35 contract to Lockheed Martin posed the probability Boeing would lose the capabilities of designing and manufacturing fighter aircraft. The original designer and manufacturer of the F-15 was the McDonnell-Douglas Corporation which was gobbled up by Boeing during historical defense-industry consolidation events. Boeing continued to manufacture the F-15 to sell to foreign clients who liked the platform’s low initial cost, performance, and low operating cost. The F-35, however, is being actively marketed by Lockheed Martin and so the F-15’s days were anticipated to be numbered. The unspoken in conservative ‘free trade’ American circles is military contracts for the F-15s add much-needed stability to Boeing, allowing it to weather problems such as the 737 Max groundings and attendant production stoppages, and sustain a combat jet manufacturing capability.
How does a failed project like the F-35 continue, despite fundamental and unending complications? There are 1,400 subcontractors for the F-35 program spread out over 307 congressional districts in 45 states so there are 307 congressmen and 90 senators who have constituents whose livelihoods are related to the F-35 program. Burning additional billions appears to be unavoidable.
This investigation poses certain observations for consideration:
A congressional report on the status of the F-35 was obtained at https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/RL/RL30563. A concise and accurate account of the true costs of the program can be discovered at https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2020/10/selective-arithmetic-to-hide-the-f-35s-true-costs/. RAND Corporation military aircraft studies can be found at https://www.rand.org/about/glance.html. Information on the program from advocates was found at https://www.flightglobal.com/fixed-wing/lockheed-martin-defends-value-of-f-35-as-usaf-programme-under-new-pressure/142501.article.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.