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The Best Offense
The F-35 Fighter Jet and Our Outmoded Procurement Policies

There are only two days until the F-35 Lightning II, the Pentagon’s much decried “fifth generation” fighter jet from Lockheed Martin, is supposed to debut at the Farnborough International Air Show and Royal International Air Tattoo in England. But there’s a problem. One of the supposedly cutting-edge planes caught fire on the runway at Eglin Air Force Base in June, leading Pentagon officials to ground the whole fleet. The problems were supposed to be sorted out in time for the public debut in England, but recent announcements from the Pentagon suggest that is increasingly unlikely. So now, many years and many billions of dollars behind schedule, the jet may miss its own party. The F-35 has been roundly criticized for being difficult to maintain, overambitious in its specifications, and mediocre in performance—as in this scathing Foreign Policy piece:

A virtual flying piano, the F-35 lacks the F-16’s agility in the air-to-air mode and the F-15E’s range and payload in the bombing mode, and it can’t even begin to compare to the A-10 at low-altitude close air support for troops engaged in combat. Worse yet, it won’t be able to get into the air as often to perform any mission — or just as importantly, to train pilots — because its complexity prolongs maintenance and limits availability. The aircraft most like the F-35, the F-22, was able to get into the air on average for only 15 hours per month in 2010 when it was fully operational.

And this mediocrity comes with quite the price tag:

The F-35 will actually cost multiples of the $395.7 billion cited above. That is the current estimate only to acquire it, not the full life-cycle cost to operate it. The current appraisal for operations and support is $1.1 trillion — making for a grand total of $1.5 trillion, or more than the annual GDP of Spain. And that estimate is wildly optimistic: It assumes the F-35 will only be 42 percent more expensive to operate than an F-16, but the F-35 is much more complex. The only other “fifth generation” aircraft, the F-22 from the same manufacturer, is in some respects less complex than the F-35, but in 2010, it cost 300 percent more to operate per hour than the F-16. To be very conservative, expect the F-35 to be twice the operating and support cost of the F-16.

The F-35 program is simply a manifestation of a bigger problem that Edward Luttwak discussed at length in this American Interest classic. Luttwak analyzes the folly behind the F-35’s do-it-all design by describing how, in commissioning weapons platforms, we are held hostage by an absurd tradition:

Today’s fighters perpetuate a 1945 conception of air power that views the fighter pilot as an air-borne knight with all his weapons on his flying horse, ready to the enemy on his own (or sometimes with a second crewman to play the loyal squire). From this conception follows the homogeneity principle: Aircraft of any one type are all equipped the same way, without any effort at task-force optimization–again despite the fact that fighter aircraft are never sent into action on their own.

Modern weapons development is so slow and so costly because defense procurement has not evolved past the basic types of weapons platforms which made sense in World War II.

Update: The F-35 did indeed fail to debut at the air show. Additionally, the post originally misspelled Farnborough as “Farmborough”.

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  • Alexander Scipio

    It isn’t just policies. The F35 learned nothing from the F4 – a jet for multiple services with conflicting roles, needing to be heavy for the Navy due to carrier landings makes it too heavy for the AF. It learned nothing from the F15 – the first jet in ages in which a fighter pilot could see behind him and thrust:weight was greater than 1. Pols are just playing games to support the MI complex about which Ike warned us, and continuing to fund a West that is rich enough to fund themselves.

    • B-Sabre

      The F-4 was never intended to be an Air Force fighter. It originated from a McDonnell design for a replacement to the F3H Demon, which morphed into an all-weather fighter-bomber, and then into an all-weather interceptor.The Air Force only started looking at the F-4 in 1962, 4 years after the maiden flight of the first naval F-4.The decision to buy F-4’s for the Air Force was forced by McNamara, and the F-4 won a fly-off against the F-106 Delta Dagger.
      The services also never operated the same model – the Navy operated B, J, N and S model Phantoms and the Air Force C, D, E and G models.
      I think you are thinking of the TFX program, which resulted in the F-111.

      • Alexander Scipio

        I know the Aardvark was a dud, but the F4 pilots in Vietnam also complained about not being able to see behind them, and the AF complained about the weight of the carrier-capable gear. I listened to them when was a cadet at USAFA in the early 70s. The AF listened when they designed the F15. McNamara made the AF buy the heavy F4 to decrease unit costs and spread compatibility, mtce, tng, etc. This is what we are doing with the F35 – trying to be too many things to too many. Anyway, my major point is that the problems with the F35 go waaaaay beyond procurement policies… 🙂

        • David E.M. Thompson

          And the journalists and politicians complained incessantly about the expensive, supposedly unsolvable engineering problems of both the F-15 and the F-16. Those two set the world standard for operational fighter aircraft for forty years. And continue to do so.
          Everything that Robert McNamara, the pride of the Harvard Business School, touched, in both the public and private sectors, turned to runny doo-doo (to use a non-B-school term).

  • Breif2

    Most aggravating is that the F-35 was deliberately conceived as a “budget” plane: far from the best possible plane we could build, but affordable. What we got is the worst of both worlds.

  • Fat_Man

    If it were just the Air Force, I would be tempted to accept the explanation proffered above. But, it is not just the Air Force.

    The Navy has a couple of classes of ships that it cannot get to work, such as a destroyer, and something called the littoral combat ship, that is apparently being prepared for the resumption of the Vietnam war.

    The Army’s fiascoes such as its next-generation service rifle that was part of the “OICW program”; which was discontinued without bringing any weapons out of the prototype phase. The OICW program was a follow on to the Advanced Combat Rifle program which also failed to replace the M16.

    Recently I have read about programs to replace the M9 pistol. And, combat helicopters.

    I can’t say that I am optimistic.

    Since multiple Pentagon procurement programs have all cost far too much money and produced far too little of real use. There must be some institutional constraints that continually produce bad results. I am not enough of an expert, nor familiar enough to know how the institutions break down and how to fix them. But, I really think we need to restructure the procurement process to make it functional.

    The one small good side effect of Obama’s attempt to kill the US military might be that it will give the next administration a chance to start from scratch.

  • B-Sabre

    I would also look hard at the overall procurement policies that have been put in place over the last 40 years. Every procurement failure has been answered by layering more and more bureaucratic requirements on top of the program infrastructure to the point that everything takes years to proceed. I would argue that if we could fail faster, it would be a better situation as we could then shelve an underperforming program and move on without having become enormously invested in it. Right now, with F-35, we are effectively stuck because there is nothing that can meet the low observables requirement without starting another 20 year development program.

  • B-Sabre

    “Aircraft of any one type are all equipped the same way, without any effort at task-force optimization–again despite the fact that fighter aircraft are never sent into action on their own.”
    OK, I don’t think this was written by somebody who really understands fighter combat. I’d love to hear the discussion between pilots as they discuss who gets the missiles and who gets the gun for this sortie….

  • ljgude

    The A-10 Wart Hog in Iraq made quite a difference in ground support precisely because it was slow enough and could absorb hundreds of rounds of enemy ground fire but they have stopped making them. They evidently don’t cost enough and actually work.

  • FriendlyGoat

    And to think—–drones MAY have already leap-frogged this whole concept.

  • PKCasimir

    Edward Luttwak? Get serious. What this man knows about the modern military and how to fight wars wouldn’t fit in a thimble. Yes, Edward Luttwak, the man who was all over the TV spouting his “expert opinion” that the first Gulf War would last weeks and cost the US thousand of casualties because the Iraqi army was a modern killing machine that would give the US all kinds of problems. Edward Luttwak, the man who called the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a “success”. Edward Luttwak, the man who predicted that Ronald Reagan’s military build-up would force the Soviet Union to launch a pre-emptive war against China. Edward Luttwak, the man who predicted that Gorbachev would re-invigorate the Soviet Union. The man is a buffoon..
    As far as the polemic about the F-35 in JDW, the author knows absolutely nothing about modern air warfare.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    This is what happens with every new bleeding edge system, the F-15 had terrible engine problems, the M-1 Tank was a disaster. The bugs will get worked out and then when the next new bleeding edge system comes in, it will be compared to the F-35 that has had all it’s bugs worked out. With every new complex system there is a learning curve as maintenance procedures get worked out, design flaws get fixed, and all the people involved gain experience.

    • Cain Abel

      What was the cost of the first generation F-15? M-1?

      How many cycles before these were actually useful?

  • Deserttrek

    the f-35 is was and always will be garbage

    it is a political beast with no end in sight

  • Tom Servo

    Someone explain why we didn’t just keep the F-15 and F-16 in production, while upgrading the electronics. That would have cost 1/10 of what we’ve spent on the F-35, and they’re both still more than a match for anything being built in the rest of the world.

    Stealth, shmealth. The main reason the F-35 has a low radar signature is that it never gets off the ground.

  • Cain Abel

    Just buy Rafales, lol.

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