Way back in the early 2000s, the U.S. military had a dream. To develop a new “universal” jet fighter that could do, well, pretty much everything that the military asks its different fighters to do.
But the dream of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter turned into a nightmare. The program is six years behind schedule and tens of billions of dollars over budget. And now, 16 years after the JSF prototypes took off for their first flights, top officials are finally owning up to the trauma the $400 billion fighter program has inflicted on America’s finances and war readiness.
In a remarkable period, beginning in February and lasting several weeks, senior officers and high-ranking bureaucrats finally publicly copped to the warplane program’s fundamental failures.
But the timing of the military's mea culpa is ... interesting. For at the same time as the admissions of guilt, the F-35 was passing several bureaucratic milestones that make it more or less impossible to cancel. Too much money’s already been spent. Too many well-established jobs are at stake. Too many F-35s are already rolling out of the factory.
The Pentagon can clear its conscience of the jet fighter’s misdeeds because doing so is, at this late hour, consequence-free.
Officials previously admitted that the new jet lacks maneuverability, that its testing is way behind schedule and that its software is still incomplete. More recently, military leaders revealed that the three versions of the F-35 jet aren’t nearly as compatible as the military had promised they would be.
Plus, one official conceded that the planes are so expensive that re-equipping all of the Air Force’s fighter squadrons with them would compel the flying branch to first cut a fifth of the squadrons.
And the kicker—two generals confessed that the whole idea of a do-it-all jet is, in fact, so conceptually flawed that it’s unlikely the Pentagon will attempt it again. Right now the Air Force and Navy are laying plans for so-called “sixth-generation” jets to eventually supersede the F-35.
“You ought to think really hard about what you really need out of the sixth-generation fighter and how much overlap is there between what the Navy and the Air Force really need,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, head of the JSF program, said at a military seminar in Washington, D.C., on March 10.
“At this point we think it will be a different enough mission that it won’t be the same airplane,” Lt. Gen. James Holmes, an Air Force deputy chief of staff, told reporters in February.
Read between the lines of Holmes and Bogdan’s statements and their disappointment is evident. The Joint Strike Fighter just hasn’t worked out the way the military hoped it would. The dream of a universal fighter proved to be a fantasy.
To be sure, the F-35 was carried aloft on grand ambitions. The twin-tail, single-engine plane with the angular nose and stubby wings would be sufficiently fast and maneuverable to battle other planes in the air. It would also possess the stealth and bomb-hauling capacity to penetrate enemy defenses and wipe out targets on the ground.
Not only would the F-35 take off from land bases like most conventional fighters do—it would also be able to launch from aircraft carriers and lift off vertically from smaller assault ships.
To do all these things today, the Pentagon possesses no fewer than eight different types of fighters. Dogfighting F-15s and F-16s. Hard-hitting A-10 ground-attack planes. Several kinds of carrier-launched F/A-18s. Vertical-takeoff Harriers.
The Joint Strike Fighter program, with Lockheed Martin as the main contractor, would replace almost all of these planes—thousands of them—with just three, highly similar variants of the F-35. The Air Force’s maneuverable F-35A. An F-35B version for the Marine Corps with an extra, downward-blasting engine for vertical takeoffs. The Navy's F-35C with a bigger wing for carrier launches.
Winnowing down from eight fighter models to just three versions of the same basic plane design would, in the military estimation, boost efficiency in production, training, and spare parts and save tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars.
That assumed that the F-35A, F-35B, and F-35C would be highly similar. You’d build one basic fuselage and cockpit and fit different wings or the extra engine, as needed. The military aimed for 70-percent “commonality.” In other words, three-quarters of, say, an Air Force F-35A would match, for example, a Navy F-35C.
70 percent commonality proved impossible, as each military branch demanded increasingly specific qualities in its F-35s. As a result, today the various models are mostly incompatible. “It’s 20- to 25-percent commonality,” Bogdan said on March 10.
Indeed, the main thing the three different variants have in common is their F-35 designation. Otherwise, they’re essentially different airplane designs—the very thing the Joint Strike Fighter program had, at its outset, endeavored to avoid.
The lack of commonality helps explain the F-35’s high price. Each plane costs more than $100 million, tens of millions more than Lockheed and the military had predicted early in the program. Sticker shock has compelled the Air Force, in particular, to cut the number of F-35s it buys every year. The flying branch had hoped to be procuring as many as 80 F-35s annually by now. Instead, it’s getting fewer than 50.
At that rate, if the Air Force were to move quickly to replace all of its old F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s with F-35s, it could do so only by significantly cutting the total number of frontline squadrons. But then the Air Force would be too small for all the training exercises, international deployments, and combat operations that the Pentagon requires of it, according to Robert Work, the deputy defense secretary.
“If you told me we were going to go down from 54 tactical fighter squadrons to 45 but they’d all be F-35s, I’m not certain I’d say that’s a good thing,” Work told the trade magazine Flight Global on March 10. The Air Force can’t afford to cut down squadrons and also can’t afford to buy enough new F-35s for all the squadrons it needs.
At this point, abandoning the F-35 is politically impossible. Producing the jet reportedly involves 1,300 suppliers supporting 133,000 jobs in 45 states. The Marine Corps declared its first squadron of F-35s war-ready in July 2015. The Air Force expects to make its own declaration of combat-readiness by December this year, with the Navy following two years later.
“It is always hardest to kill a program when it is already in production and the services have decided it is truly important to finish it,” Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University, told Bloomberg.
Work said there’s only one solution to the Pentagon’s air-power crunch—continue buying F-35s while also keeping today’s older fighters, some of which were built in the 1970s, in service into the 2040s. The U.S. military typically retires fighters after 30 years of flying. Keeping some of them around for 70 years would be unprecedented. By then the planes could be badly outclassed by much more modern Russian and Chinese jets.
The prospect of 70-year-old F-15s flying into battle against brand-new Russian planes clearly chills some lawmakers. They’ve signaled their willingness to add five more F-35s to the Air Force's budget for 2017—this despite all the recent admissions of programmatic failure by top officials.
“We cannot afford to assume that the enemy will resemble the threats of recent wars, nor can we assume that future fights won’t require greater numbers of advanced aircraft,” Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and chairman of a key Senate armed services subcommittee, said during a March 8 budget hearing.
Military officials can safely confess that the F-35 hasn’t worked out as planned because, at this point, there’s no way the military or Congress would kill the program. It's the air-power equivalent of having your cake ... and eating it, too.