Is it Time to Cancel the F-35 Fighter Jet?

Friday, June 16, 2017
Smoke-and-light effects dramatize the unveiling of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Fighter Jet to the world press in 2006 (photo: Getty Images)

By Michael P. Hughes, The Conversation

 

The F-35 was billed as a fighter jet that could do almost everything the U.S. military desired, serving the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy – and even Britain’s Royal Air Force and Royal Navy – all in one aircraft design. It’s supposed to replace and improve upon several current – and aging – aircraft types with widely different missions. It’s marketed as a cost-effective, powerful multi-role fighter airplane significantly better than anything potential adversaries could build in the next two decades. But it’s turned out to be none of those things.

 

Officially begun in 2001, with roots extending back to the late 1980s, the F-35 program is nearly a decade behind schedule, and has failed to meet many of its original design requirements (pdf). It’s also become the most expensive defense program in world history, at around US$1.5 trillion before the fighter is phased out in 2070.

 

The unit cost per airplane, above $100 million, is roughly twice what was promised early on. Even after President Trump lambasted the cost of the program in February, the price per plane dropped just $7 million – less than 7 percent.

 

And yet, the U.S. is still throwing huge sums of money at the project. Essentially, the Pentagon has declared the F-35 “too big to fail.” As a retired member of the U.S. Air Force and current university professor of finance who has been involved in and studied military aviation and acquisitions, I find the F-35 to be one of the greatest boondoggles in recent military purchasing history.

 

Forget what’s already spent

 

The Pentagon is trying to argue that just because taxpayers have flushed more than $100 billion down the proverbial toilet so far, we must continue to throw billions more down that same toilet. That violates the most elementary financial principles of capital budgeting, which is the method companies and governments use to decide on investments. So-called sunk costs, the money already paid on a project, should never be a factor in investment decisions. Rather, spending should be based on how it will add value in the future.

 

Keeping the F-35 program alive is not only a gross waste in itself: Its funding could be spent on defense programs that are really useful and needed for national defense, such as anti-drone systems to defend U.S. troops.

 

Part of the enormous cost has come as a result of an effort to share aircraft design and replacement parts across different branches of the military. In 2013, a study by the RAND Corporation found that it would have been cheaper if the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy had simply designed and developed separate and more specialized aircraft (pdf) to meet their specific operational requirements.

 

Not living up to top billing

 

The company building the F-35 has made grand claims. Lockheed Martin said the plane would be far better than current aircraft – “four times more effective” in air-to-air combat, “eight times more effective” in air-to-ground combat and “three times more effective” in recognizing and suppressing an enemy’s air defenses. It would, in fact, be “second only to the F-22 in air superiority.” In addition, the F-35 was to have better range and require less logistics support than current military aircraft. The Pentagon is still calling the F-35 “the most affordable, lethal, supportable, and survivable aircraft ever to be used.”

 

But that’s not how the plane has turned out. In January 2015, mock combat testing pitted the F-35 against an F-16, one of the fighters it is slated to replace. The F-35A was flown “clean” with empty weapon bays and without any drag-inducing and heavy externally mounted weapons or fuel tanks. The F-16D, a heavier and somewhat less capable training version of the mainstay F-16C, was further encumbered with two 370-gallon external wing-mounted fuel tanks.

 

In spite of its significant advantages, the F-35A’s test pilot noted that the F-35A was less maneuverable and markedly inferior to the F-16D in a visual-range dogfight.

 

Stealth over power

 

One key reason the F-35 doesn’t possess the world-beating air-to-air prowess promised, and is likely not even adequate when compared with its current potential adversaries, is that it was designed first and foremost to be a stealthy airplane. This requirement has taken precedence over maneuverability, and likely above its overall air-to-air lethality. The Pentagon and especially the Air Force seem to be relying almost exclusively on the F-35’s stealth capabilities to succeed at its missions.

 

Like the F-117 and F-22, the F-35’s stealth capability greatly reduces, but does not eliminate, its radar cross-section, the signal that radar receivers see bouncing back off an airplane. The plane looks smaller on radar – perhaps like a bird rather than a plane – but is not invisible. The F-35 is designed to be stealthy primarily in the X-band, the radar frequency range most commonly used for targeting in air-to-air combat.

 

In other radar frequencies, the F-35 is not so stealthy, making it vulnerable to being tracked and shot down using current – and even obsolete – weapons. As far back as 1999 the same type of stealth technology was not able to prevent a U.S. Air Force F-117 flying over Kosovo from being located, tracked and shot down using an out-of-date Soviet radar and surface-to-air missile system. In the nearly two decades since, that incident has been studied in depth not only by the U.S., but also by potential adversaries seeking weaknesses in passive radar stealth aircraft.

 

Of course, radar is not the only way to locate and target an aircraft. One can also use an aircraft’s infrared emissions, which are created by friction-generated heat as it flies through the air, along with its hot engines. Several nations, particularly the Russians, have excellent passive infrared search and tracking systems, that can locate and target enemy aircraft with great precision – sometimes using lasers to measure exact distances, but without needing radar.

 

It’s also very common in air-to-air battles for opposing planes to come close enough that their pilots can see each other. The F-35 is as visible as any other aircraft its size.

 

Analysts weigh in

 

Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon say the F-35’s superiority over its rivals lies in its ability to remain undetected, giving it “first look, first shot, first kill.” Hugh Harkins, a highly respected author on military combat aircraft, called that claim “a marketing and publicity gimmick” in his book on Russia’s Sukhoi Su-35S, a potential opponent of the F-35. He also wrote, “In real terms an aircraft in the class of the F-35 cannot compete with the Su-35S for out and out performance such as speed, climb, altitude, and maneuverability.”

 

Other critics have been even harsher. Pierre Sprey, a cofounding member of the so-called “fighter mafia” at the Pentagon and a co-designer of the F-16, calls the F-35 “inherently a terrible airplane” that is the product of “an exceptionally dumb piece of Air Force PR spin.” He has said the F-35 would likely lose a close-in combat encounter to a well-flown MiG-21, a 1950s Soviet fighter design. Robert Dorr, an Air Force veteran, career diplomat and military air combat historian, wrote in his book “Air Power Abandoned,” “The F-35 demonstrates repeatedly that it can’t live up to promises made for it. … It’s that bad.”

 

How did we get here?

 

How did the F-35 go from its conception as the most technologically advanced, do-it-all military aircraft in the world to a virtual turkey? Over the decades-long effort to meet a real military need for better aircraft, the F-35 program is the result of the merging or combination of several other separate and diverse projects into a set of requirements for an airplane that is trying to be everything to everybody.

 

In combat the difference between winning and losing is often not very great. With second place all too often meaning death, the Pentagon seeks to provide warriors with the best possible equipment. The best tools are those that are tailor-made to address specific missions and types of combat. Seeking to accomplish more tasks with less money, defense planners looked for ways to economize.

 

For a fighter airplane, funding decisions become a balancing act of procuring not just the best aircraft possible, but enough of them to make an effective force. This has lead to the creation of so-called “multi-role” fighter aircraft, capable both in air-to-air combat and against ground targets. Where trade-offs have to happen, designers of most multi-role fighters emphasize aerial combat strength, reducing air-to-ground capabilities. With the F-35, it appears designers created an airplane that doesn’t do either mission exceptionally well. They have made the plane an inelegant jack-of-all-trades, but master of none – at great expense, both in the past and, apparently, well into the future.

 

I believe the F-35 program should be immediately cancelled; the technologies and systems developed for it should be used in more up-to-date and cost-effective aircraft designs. Specifically, the F-35 should be replaced with a series of new designs targeted toward the specific mission requirements of the individual branches of the armed forces, in lieu of a single aircraft design trying to be everything to everyone.

 

To Learn More:

What Went Wrong with the F-35, Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter? (by Michael P. Hughes, The Conversation)

F-35 Fighter Jet Program, Touted as Affordable, is Far from It, as Lockheed Raises Prices at Will (by Don Bacon)

U.S. Deploying Pre-Production F-35 Aircraft Unfit for Combat (by Donald Bacon)

Obama Administration Backs Lockheed Sale of F-35 Fighter Jets in Violation of Contract with Partner Nations (by Donald Bacon)

U.S. Foreign Arms Sales Skyrocket by 35% (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

More Problems for the Trillion-Dollar F-35: It’s not Good at Close Combat (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

When F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Goes Operational this Summer, it won’t Work any better than 40-Year-Old Thunderbolts (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Defense Secretary Nominee Ashton Carter Criticizes his own Spending Record during Confirmation Hearing (by (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

How Much do F-35s Cost? Beware of Answers from Lockheed-Martin (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Trillion-Dollar F-35 Jet Fighter Has 13 Flaws (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

Comments

Troy 3 months ago
Heck no you don't cancel it! Almost 300 fighters have been built and the program has really taken off. What do you do if you cancel it???? Build more f-22? That is not going to happen. Build more f-16 or f-15? That is just ridiculous especially with the a2-az systems out there. And who the heck is this idiot Michael Hugh's and who anointed him an expert? Google him and you find any military experts with his name.
Randy 3 months ago
Just over a year ago I would have agreed with this article but now that I support the aircraft I could not disagree more. Maneuverability is important but not the end all be all, especially in the new information dominated era of warfare we find ourselves in now. If we need maneuverability the Raptor can do it. There is nothing in the world that is as much of a force enabler for all of our other assets as the F-35 is. Finding threats, identifying threats, jamming threats, killing threats, and passing all of that information to assets who need it. Stealth is great, and the F-35 is pretty good there, but as the author correctly pointed out, stealth doesn't mean invisible, but it still enhances survivability. Where he is wrong is believing Low Observability is what the F-35 is hanging its hat on. Information is where we make our money. But even its information dominance is only an enabler. Yes, an F-117 was shot down. Technology is great, but tactics matter far more. That was our 1st gen LO platform and since then we are far better at both LO and especially in the LO employment and tactics. unfortunately the truth data is classified for those who want proof, but continue to think the F-35 is nothing more than capability propaganda, especially if you're a potential adversary. Finally, yes, the F-35 is super expensive and I agree that Lockheed is milking this cow but there is a crucial aspect to that price that everyone overlooks... from now until 2070 and beyond, if anything on the jet breaks or needs replaced, LM replaces those parts at no cost to the government. If it needs a new engine, LM buys it. Every new system has bugs that have to be worked out and that will always be the case, that's why we test them. So sure, let's cancel the F-35, the greatest force enabler the world has seen to date. That would be an even bigger mistake than the one we made when we decided 180 Raptors were enough.
Don Bacon 3 months ago
Normally a development program that has gone on for fifteen years without an approved product would be canceled, right? Any new CEO would do that in a heartbeat. But we have no "new CEO" here that will backup his (Trump's) correct appraisal: “We have an F-35 program that has been very, very severely over budget and behind schedule. Hundreds of billions of dollars over budget and seven years behind schedule." The current crop of useless planes are pre-production prototypes requiring hundreds of modifications, many of them yet to be determined because much further testing remains. The F-35 Milestone C full production decision is so far away that the project doesn’t even mention it any more, as they try to pressure foreign countries to buy a pig in a poke.

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