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”.