In a June article from CBS News, you might get the impression that the F-35 fighter jet program is “clearly on track.” Capable of supersonic speeds and boasting radar-busting stealth design and unprecedented computer technology, the F-35 is the most advanced and most expensive plane ever built for the U.S. military. With more than 8.5 million lines of software code, the F-35 has been called a flying computer that is designed for both air-to-ground attack and air-to-air combat.
The F-35 program (aka the Joint Strike Fighter program) formally began in January 1994 with the goal of producing a lightweight, low-cost fighter for the Air Force, the Marine Corps, and the Navy. The Navy’s version is expected to land on and take off from aircraft carriers while the Marine’s version is designed to land vertically.
This month, National Review provided perspectives from a defense executive as well as U.S. government organizations. Former U.K. defense chief Nick Harvey stated in a May interview, “You could argue it [the F-35] was already one of the biggest white elephants in history a long time ago.” While it is noteworthy that a person of Harvey’s stature would share such harsh criticism, his statement merely reflects the conclusions of reports by the U.S. Defense Department’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional Research Service, and various independent air-power analysts—the F-35 program is not in good shape.
More specifically, these reports indicate the F-35 is unaffordable and will not be able to fulfill its mission. With this in mind, it could be argued that the biggest threat the U.S. military faces over the next few decades is not the Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile, or the proliferation of quiet diesel-electric attack subs, or even Chinese and Russian anti-satellite programs. The biggest threat is likely to be from the F-35. It is a plane that is being projected to require 1.5 trillion defense dollars. For this trillion-dollar-plus investment, the end result is a plane far slower than a 1970s F-14 Tomcat, a plane with less than half the range of a 40-year-old A-6 Intruder, a plane whose sustained-turn performance is that of a 1960s F-4 Phantom, and a plane that was outperformed by an F-16 during a recent dogfight competition. The problem is not just hundreds of billions of dollars being spent on the F-35. It is also about not having that money to spend on programs that could offer a bigger bang for the buck.
These reports point out that the F-35’s technology at the right price might have changed the game 15 years ago. With decades of advance notice, U.S. peer and near-peer competitors are already fielding planes and systems that would negate many of the F-35’s expected advantages. Incidentally, these advantages are not yet complete and have never been tested in combat against a peer competitor.
The National Review explains after hundreds of billions of dollars and more than 20 years, the U.S. has yet to field one combat-capable plane in the F-35 program. Even when it is ready, it will not be able to maintain U.S air-power dominance. In contrast, the F-16 program, from the time of its inception to initial operating capability, took just five years. For $400 billion — the current estimated acquisition for cost for 2,457 F-35s — a powerful mix of some 5,000 air-superiority and close-air-support fighters sporting world-class weapons systems could be obtained.
Although all of this feedback raises ongoing questions about the F-35 program, the U.S. Congress continues to fund it. This can partially be explained by the fact that the program provides tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. At this point, it is worth considering whether continuing the F-35 program in its current form makes sense given the information to date indicates the program is not very likely to meet its objectives which will impact not only U.S. jobs but also U.S. security.
(Photo: F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Flickr)