It takes a lot of money to keep the expensive, delay-ridden F-35 program running. Advocates of the plane, the most expensive program in U.S. military procurement history, argue that it will render all sorts of other systems obsolete because the F-35 can do it all; hence, programs like the A-10 “Warthog” can be cut and their funding diverted to the jet.But it’s far from certain that the F-35 will be as good as promised. Experts are raising doubts about virtually all of its key features: its stealthiness, its agility in dogfights, its speed, its maximum payload, and, troublingly, its ability to fly close air support missions that save the lives of soldiers on the ground—the sort of missions that, for example, the current U.S. campaign against ISIS is based around.On that last point, the F-35 team itself seems to agree, because an explosive report this week disclosed that it has been fudging the plane’s performance numbers to bolster the case for more appropriations funding. According to a Defense-Aerospace.com report (h/t James Fallows at The Altantic):
Recent improvements in F-35 reliability figures are due to changes in the way failures are counted and processed, but do not reflect any actual improvement, according to the latest report by the Pentagon’s Director Operational Test & Evaluation. […]Three different types of data “massaging” are identified in the report: moving failures from one category to another, less important one; ignoring repetitive failures, thus inflating numbers of failure-free hours; and improper scoring of reliability. In all these instances, data reporting and processing rules were changed during the year for no other reason than to paint a more favorable picture.
Partisanship on behalf of favorite programs is not rare in the DoD (as in the government as a whole). In the USAF, a bias towards more glamorous and sexy weapons platforms like the F-22 and F-35 is common, writes Jonathan Foreman in the Weekly Standard. But as Foreman explains, for all the hype and all the cost, the F-35 may not actually be the best plane money could buy:
Part of the problem is that the F-35 was marketed on “commonality”—one airframe for all three services—but built around the Marine Corps’s demand for a jet that can take off and land vertically like the Harrier jump jet. The resulting design compromises meant what should have been the best fighter in the world is slower than and aerodynamically inferior to the modern Russian and Chinese designs it might come up against. As a 2008 RAND Corporation study put it, the F-35 “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.”
The A-10, in stark contrast to the F-35, is cheap, reliable, sturdy, and proven in its close air support role. This makes trading lots of Warthogs for a few much more expensive F-35s look like a dubious deal. Plus, Foreman asserts, both experts and soldiers on the ground say that close air support from Warthogs is more effective and less likely to end in friendly fire deaths than is close air support from faster jets. Yet:
The Air Force and the Pentagon as a whole, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, pushed for the plane’s mothballing. Again and again they assured Congress that the A-10’s retirement would be no great loss as the soon-to-be-ready F-35 is more than capable of doing everything the A-10 does. Of course, the Air Force knows perfectly well that supersonic jet fighters are not well-suited to the down and dirty jobs that the A-10 does so well. But admitting that might mean admitting the shortcomings of the troubled F-35.Certainly the ruthlessness of the USAF’s efforts to retire the A-10 during the last two years seems to be a byproduct of the service’s ardent commitment to the F-35 and its terror that the latter might be canceled or cut. You can see this in the way that the Air Force has dishonestly redefined “close air support” so that the term includes dropping bombs from high above the clouds, and also in its shiftiness about when the F-35 will be deployable.
According to Foreman, the USAF’s bias toward the F-35 comes down to the fact that the F-35 is more glamorous than an old workhorse that specializes in close air support. The Air Force favors close air support less than some of its other roles, Foreman says, in part because it consists of backing up rival branches of the military. In contrast, the F-35 is set up for the sort of missions that the USAF thinks of as its primary functions, like long range strikes and dog fighting. Finally, Foreman comes to an unsettling conclusion:
It may sound extraordinary that senior Air Force officers could be almost unconcerned with the safety and success of American ground troops, or that they would make such a fetish of the purchase of expensive, glamorous, high-tech pointy-nosed toys as to undermine the overall military capacity of the United States, but that seems to be the case.
People who are personally invested in the F-35’s success (rather than just financially invested in it, like every U.S. taxpayer is) have been fighting tooth and nail to justify the program. That fight is looking less convincing all the time, and even a bit disturbing. Read Foreman’s whole article here.