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F-35: A $1.5 Trillion Give Away

Photo: International Peace Bureau / AFSC
Photo: / AFSC

 F-35: A $1.5 Trillion Give Away

Imagine you are going out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. You are seated, and promptly ask for the most expensive, least appetizing thing on the menu. It takes forever to arrive, and when it does, even the presentation is shoddy. It is spiced poorly, slightly burnt, and the waiter delivers it to you like you are indebted to him. You eat every last unsatisfying bite, then tip generously, despite the poor product and service.

This is the culmination of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the single most expensive weapons program in human history.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was conceived to be a workhorse alternative to aging planes, serving as the flexible backbone fighter for the Navy, as well as a light bomber and close air support function for ground forces, replacing the aging but beloved F-16 Fighting Falcon, the A-10 Warthog and the AV-8B Harrier. It was conceived to maximize stealth and straight line speed. The result: losing a dogfight with an “outclassed” F-16 that had over 10 years already in service.

The technical flaws of the aircraft are a cornucopia of snafus that could spell death to U.S. pilots:

  •  An engine that burns hotter than any other Air Force plane, sometimes bursting into flame during the most routine of exercises, such as taxiing across the runway.
  • A distinctly suspect record of reliability for the engine, aside from the aforementioned propensity for self-immolation.
  • Flaws in fuel tank design and hydraulic systems that increase the plane’s vulnerability to lightning strikes and enemy fire, especially at low altitudes, as well as lackluster acceleration rates and turning capacity.
  • Ejector seat issues for pilots under 140 pounds (a real challenge for sales to allied nations who, on average, have lighter pilots than the U.S.)
  • The primary technical challenge is the F-35 $400,000 pilot’s helmet, a defining system of the much-touted advanced capabilities of the plan, which doesn’t work. In the event of helmet failure, which is routine, pilots will be unable to see below or behind the plane, along with difficulty in the automated system distinguishing friends from enemies.  A fighter pilot’s mantra is “Lose sight, lost the fight”. This fight has been over before it started.

A government contract is predicated on three main priorities: cost, need, and effectiveness. These must be balanced, as taxpayer dollars ‘must’ be spent wisely and judiciously. The glaring problem addressed must be resolved by the resulting product or service at least adequately, and affordably. The F-35 program, actually conceived to be the more cost-effective alternative to the F-22 program, is neither reasonably priced, nor reasonably effective, nor particularly necessary. A recent successful flight test was trumpeted to the high heavens, a long-awaited moment of boasting amidst all the bad press surrounding the program for years.

Despite claims of successful testing, J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon official who oversees operational testing and evaluations of new weapons systems, has been clear that the plane’s major test in ostensible real world combat conditions "did not—and could not demonstrate" that the war plane "is operationally effective or suitable for use in any type of limited combat operation or that it is ready for real-world operational deployments.”

This insulting push towards production of a plane that is not ready for prime time is, at best, irresponsible. But the reality is mal-intent, as decision making is wholly centered on money and politics, not problem-solving. F-35 supporters are rushing the production timeline to make the plane “too big to fail” as soon as possible, before the budget hawks in both parties can sharpen their knives. They do this with full knowledge that retrofitting solutions to existing and upcoming problems post-production will be the most costly path, and cost for the taxpayer equals profit for the contractor: a cash cow that will last for decades. 

One of the selling points of the F-35 has been the ability to sell the planes to allied nations to offset overrun costs. Canada recently revoked their sole-source pledge to purchase a fixed number of F-35s, and thus Ottawa pulled out, opening bids to other nations next-gen aeronautical products. This could lead other countries to follow suit, leaving U.S. tax payers holding the bag.

That’s the story of the F-35. Beset with multiple varying challenges and needs, Lockheed Martin envisioned a single weapons platform to solve them all. Pulled in so many directions, their epic solution to 21st century air combat became a tangled Gordian Knot of SNAFUs that, to the detriment of all American taxpayers, has certainly achieved epic status.

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