Too Big to Fail?: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
“Air superiority isn’t a given, it never has been. But if we can’t provide it, everything we do on the ground and sea will have to change.”—Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the Air Force, “Is the F-35 Worth It?,” 60 Minutes, Feb. 16.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the Pentagon’s newest weapons system, as well as its most expensive ever, costing the American taxpayers nearly $400 billion for 2,400 aircraft. This fifth-generation fighter is critical for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, forecasted to replace all the war planes flying today.
However, the F-35 hasn’t quite performed as advertized. Currently, it is seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Likewise, a number of surprising defects have been uncovered ranging from problems with inadequate stealth coating to improper wingtip lights to rapidly worn-out tires.
According to 60 Minutes, “In fact, on any given day, more than half the F-35s on the flight line are liable to be down for maintenance or repairs.”
Frank Kendall, the Air Force’s top acquisitions guy, stated in a memo that “progress is sufficient” to increase production next year, but warned that the plane’s software is behind schedule and “reliability … is not growing at an acceptable rate.”
The television report highlighted a few issues that could have significant impact on the entire fighter community.
A RAND Corporation report entitled “Do Joint Fighter Programs Save Money?” was released at the end of last year. It explored whether joint aircraft programs cost less overall throughout their entire life cycles than equivalent, specialized single-service systems.
This is important in light of any continued discussions on the longevity of legacy fleets such as the A-10. What happens if the nation shifts to a one-platform fighter, which is much more dependent on sensitive and complicated technology?
RAND found that, although cost savings are achieved in initial research, development, test and evaluation, the “need to accommodate different service requirements in a single design or common design family leads to greater complexity, increased technical risks and common functionality beyond some needs.” This could result in greater cost overruns and not fully meeting the needs of distinct services. What starts out as one common platform quickly becomes three distinct aircraft.
On the other hand, a “variety in fighter platforms provides a hedge against design flaws… [and] maintenance flaws that could stand down whole fleets.”
By having a variety of designs and capabilities in the fighter inventory, as well as prime contractor competitions and innovation, the country benefits by fielding a range of available options for war fighters. Diversity in fleets provides for rapid and successful responses to unanticipated and potentially superior enemy capability.
A shift towards a fleet of only joint strike fighters could result in fewer available options. What happens should a technical issue arise? The entire F-35 fleet—the entire military’s fleet—could be stood down.
So the question at the end of the day could be: Is throwing all of the Air Force’s eggs in one basket a good idea?
This is even more concerning as the Air Force moves towards divesting itself of fully capable platforms while the replacement is far from operational and not proven to take on everything the services claims it can do. In the case of the A-10’s superior close air support capability (CAS), though Air Force officials claim the F-35 can do the CAS mission, it has only just started the testing phase. But rumored plans call for A-10 divestitures to start this year.
When asked if the F-35 program has passed the point of no return, Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the man in charge of the F-35 program, stated, “I don’t see any scenario where we’re walking back away from this program.”