Friday, January 4, 2013

The Real F-35 Question

While congress tries to find its way forward with the federal budget, there is one elephant-sized line item that deserves another look: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program. There’s been a good deal of discussion about the F-35 in Vermont, with noise and economic opportunity defining the two camps. But there’s a third dimension to this discussion that has barely been mentioned, especially by our esteemed representatives in Washington.

For all of its flag-waving, business-friendly glory, the F-35 is a project in peril. On paper the concept seemed reasonable enough: design and build a jet fighter that can be shared by the Air Force, Navy and Marines. Share as many parts as possible between these three variants of the F-35, and thereby make them for less money than developing three unique aircraft. In fact, just the opposite has occurred. By trying to be all things to all people, the F-35 is grossly over-budget, years behind schedule, and not meeting its performance objectives. 

Winslow Wheeler, a noted expert on defense spending, wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine, “A review of the F-35's cost, schedule, and performance—three essential measures of any Pentagon program—shows the problems are fundamental and still growing.” 

The F-35 is the single most expensive weapon system ever. As of April 2012, the original 2001 cost estimate of $226.5 billion had grown 75 percent to $395.7 billion. To put this in perspective, that’s $161 million for each F-35 to be built. But don’t bank on that number. It’s expected to go higher. Then add in the cost of operations and support, and the program is up to 1.5 trillion. The first combat deployment was originally scheduled for 2010. Then it was 2012. Now they’re discussing 2019. 

Wheeler continues, “If the F-35's performance were spectacular, it might be worth the cost and wait. But it is not. Even if the aircraft lived up to its original specifications—and it will not—it would be a huge disappointment.” 

The problems with the F-35 date back to the Clinton years when the fighter was first conceived by DARPA, the Pentagon’s research wing. Originally, the F-35 was conceived as a very short takeoff and vertical-landing aircraft (STOVL). The requirements of this design meant that it would never be as agile as the F-16, or have the payload and range of the F-15E. But the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin forged ahead anyway, determined that the F-35 should be a multirole aircraft. 

Before any substantive testing had occurred, F-35 advocates pressured congress to pre-approve the purchase of hundreds of copies of the F-35. Congress didn’t know what it was buying. Notwithstanding stealth, the F-35 isn’t matching up to the fighters it was designed to replace. “It is a gigantic performance disappointment,” Wheeler writes, “and in some respects a step backward. The problems, integral to the design, cannot be fixed without starting from a clean sheet of paper.”

How could the F-35 have gotten this far? 

It’s not hard to find people that still believe the F-35 is a promising aircraft, but chances are these same people stand to benefit from it financially. They’re not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Meanwhile, congress is politically paralyzed to put on the brakes. It’s the F-22 all over again—a ridiculously expensive fighter that spends most of its time on the ground.

In spite of the potential boon to local economies, we must stay focused on the big picture. This is not about patriotism or supporting our troops. It’s about common sense. Can we honestly justify a trillion dollar program for a questionable aircraft, at the same time that we're trying to reduce the federal budget? While it might be nice to be on the receiving end of some of that federal money, we must remind ourselves that nothing is free. This is one project that could come back to haunt our children. 

I encourage you to write our representatives in Washington and tell them that the F-35 boondoggle has gone far enough. It’s time to pull the plug.