Last week, the new head of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Adam Smith, said in an interview that the F-35 fighter jet was a “rathole” draining money. He said the Pentagon should consider whether to “cut its losses.” That promptly set off another round of groaning about the most expensive weapon system ever built, and questions about whether it should — or could — be scrapped.
Conceived in the 1990s as a sort of Swiss army knife of fighter jets, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was meant to come as a conventional fighter for the Air Force, as a carrier-based fighter for the Navy and as a vertical-landing version for the Marines. The problems, and there were lots of them, set in early. All three versions of the plane ended up at least three years behind schedule, and sharing less than a quarter of their parts instead of the anticipated 70 percent. Many of those already built need updates; hundreds of defects are still being corrected; the jet is so expensive to maintain that it costs around $36,000 per hour to fly (compared to $22,000 for an older F-16). At the current rate, it will cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion over its 60-year life span.
So, kill the monster and start looking for alternatives? Or declare it too big to fail and make the best of it?
Last month, the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Charles Brown Jr., gave his answer when he said that the F-35 should become the Ferrari of the fleet: “You only drive it on Sundays.” For other days, Air Force officials recently said they were exploring less expensive options, including new F-16s, low-cost tactical drones or building another fighter from scratch. But the F-35 was here to stay, General Brown insisted: “The F-35 is the cornerstone of what we’re pursuing. Now we’re going to have the F-35, we’re getting it out, and we’re going to have it for the future.”
Representative Smith — a Democrat whose Washington constituency includes Boeing, which was beat out for the F-35 contract by Lockheed Martin — acknowledged in an interview that there was no easy way to get rid of the F-35.
The reasons are many: Contractors on the project are scattered among so many states that Mr. Smith would find few congressional allies for scrapping it. Several NATO and Asian allies have already bought into the F-35. Developing a new fighter from scratch would be prohibitively costly, and the F-35 replaces too many older planes for which there is no ready alternative. Older fighters in the American fleet simply lack the stealth needed in modern warfare.
Plus, as more F-35 are churned out, the price is dropping — the tag on the Air Force version has already slid below $80 million, less than some other advanced fighter planes. As problems are eliminated, the fighter is arguably doing better than some of the criticism suggests — the Marines have used it in Afghanistan, the Air Force in Iraq and Israel in Syria. Whatever its flaws, the F-35 is a sophisticated plane, capable of generating a dynamic image of the battlefield that can be shared with friendly forces. Its cutting-edge helmet for the pilot melds imagery from many sensors into a single picture — though that, too, took a while to get right.
In short, the F-35, whatever one makes of it and however overpriced, is here to stay for a few more decades as a deterrent in the skies against a resurgent Russia and a rising China. But as General Brown suggested, the program should be scaled sharply down below the 1,763 planes the Air Force is supposed to get — especially as currently there are not enough available air bases for so many — and complemented with a mix of less expensive, older fighters and unmanned drones for more routine tasks like patrolling American skies or hammering insurgents who pose no threat to a high-flying jet.
The Pentagon carries the primary responsibility for figuring out how to move ahead. But Congress must also resume the sort of close monitoring of the F-35 and other major programs that Senator John McCain practiced as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. In 2016, he labeled the F-35 program a “scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance,” and regularly grilled Defense Department officials at congressional hearings. Taxpayers need to know what they’re getting when they plunk down so many billions.
There’s no need for a scapegoat. The F-35 was conceived in a different era when the notion of a one-size-fits-all fighter jet seemed a good way to save money. But after two decades of development, the fighter flew into a world whose geopolitics and military challenges were far different than those for which it was conceived. It is essential not to repeat the mistakes that led to the mess.
Trying to replace four different airframes for three different service branches with one fighter was an obvious mistake. Another was attempting to develop too many technologies at the same time, which resulted in long delays when progress on one front disrupted planning for others. Above all, the time for developing a fighter cannot be the decades it took to bring out the F-35. There will always be new battlefields to contend with and new technical problems to solve; all sorts of new concepts are already on the horizon, including A.I.-operated drones. A shorter schedule and smaller budget would allow for quicker innovation, and would prevent projects from becoming too pricey to fail.
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