Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapons system in history, nearly crash-landed a few years ago under the weight of repeated delays and cost overruns. Despite its history, the troubled program is getting a boost in the just-released defense budget.
The Pentagon plans to spend about $10.6 billion on the F-35 in the fiscal year ending Oct. 1, a 23 percent increase over the previous year. The money will buy 57 aircraft versus 38 from the prior spending plan. The procurement figure is also higher than the 55 the Pentagon had previously said it was planning to buy this year.
Of course, the $561 billion Pentagon spending plan contains plenty of questions and caveats, like its call for the end of the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. The administration is seeking to spend $37 billion more than current restrictions allow in both the defense and non-defense budgets.
Nonetheless, the proposed spending indicates that the F-35 program, which will cost well over $1 trillion over the next 50 years, is on solid ground both at the Department of Defense and the U.S. Congress, even as critics continue to argue that the plane is too expensive and hasn’t been able to address its numerous flaws.
Everything about the F-35 program is big, even by the standards of the Pentagon — from its ambition to its budget to its problems. To make the plane, Lockheed uses more than 2,000 subcontractors around the world, ranging from international conglomerate United Technologies, which makes the engine, to Denmark’s Terma, which makes components such as radar electronics.
Workers in 45 states are involved in producing aircraft, including 40,000 in Texas, where Lockheed’s production line is based. That assures the program will enjoy solid support in the U.S. Congress, so much so that Bloomberg News two years ago declared that the aircraft is “too big to kill” despite its costly delays due to repeated design and software issues.
Proponents of the plane, such as Dov Zakheim, former Under Secretary of Defense in the administration of President George W. Bush, counter that none of the F-35’s remaining problems are of critical significance. “None of them are deal-breakers,” Zakheim said in an interview. “You are trying to do an awful lot at the same time. It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that there are going to be some technical issues.… Once planes get over their initial teething period, they turn out pretty damn good.”
The fighter was designed in principle to save taxpayers money over the long run by replacing nine different types of aircraft, including the Lockheed Martin F-16, which has been in service for decades, and the Lockheed Martin F-22, production of which ended in 2011.
Lockheed has so far made 120 F-35s and has another 100 in various stages of production. According to the company, each plane costs about $108 million, a 57 percent decline from eight years ago. Lockheed expects the price to fall to $85 million by 2019 as production gets more efficient. And Lockheed is trying to wring out even more efficiencies.
The costs aren’t being born by the U.S. alone. The U.S. has nine partner countries that have agreed to contribute to the plane’s funding — Canada, Norway, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Turkey. Japan, Israel and Korea have also agreed to buy the F-35 through separate sales.
By Zakheim’s reasoning, the F-35 is the best way for the U.S. to upgrade its aging fleet and to maintain its technical superiority over its adversaries. “There really isn’t any other choice in my view,” Zakheim said.
The Defense Department itself wasn’t always so enthused about the F-35. In 2010, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired the Pentagon’s manager of the program and withheld $614 million in fees as a penalty. Frank Kendall, a top Pentagon official, memorably declared, years before the fighter’ first test flight, that the program was “acquisition malpractice” by the Defense Department. As a result, the Pentagon overhauled the program in 2010, seeking to strengthen its oversight.
“There were some aggressive timelines and cost estimates associated with the program,” said Jack Crisler, one of the Lockheed managers overseeing the F-35, noting that since the program was revamped, “we haven’t had to go back to Congress for more money.”
That progress was called into question again, though, by recent media reports that raised questions about the effectiveness of the F-35’s weapons systems and the customized helmet needed for the plane. For example, The Daily Beast reported last month that incomplete software means F-35 fighters won’t be able to fire their 25mm cannons until 2019 at the earliest, years after the jet goes into operation. Even once the gun is able to fire, the jet isn’t designed to carry much ammunition, making the cannon of limited use. The Pentagon disputed the severity of the reported problems.
Late last year, the F-35 passed a critical test when Navy pilots were able to successfully land the “C” variant of the plane on the deck of the aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Nimitz. The Marine Corps is expected to complete its initial certification process or the “B” version of the F-35 this summer, while the U.S. Air Force is proceeding with its plans to buy more than 1,000 of the “A” version of the F-35. (The F-35 variants are designed to meet the specific needs of each service, with the “A” version, to be used by the Air Force, designed to operate from conventional runways while the “C” version to be used by the Navy, can land on aircraft carriers.)
Even so, and even with the proposed 2015 budget boost, many defense analysts argue that the Pentagon won’t be able to afford all 2,443 F-35s that it’s planning to purchase over the long run. “There is a very low chance that we will buy all the F-35s we are planning,” said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, citing budgetary constraints.
As the F-35 program ramps up in the coming years, it will have to compete for dollars with other military aircraft. The Air Force, for example, is in the midst of a multi-billion upgrade of its fleet with a new bomber, tanker and training aircraft. “The question is when we start to scale back” on the F-35, Harrison said.
Pentagon officials dispute this notion, but other branches of the military will unquestionably face procurement choices, too. Now that the C variant of the F-35 passed that key technical milestone, it raises questions about whether the Navy will keep buying other military jets such as Boeing’s F/A-18 Hornet as well. “There are all kinds of good reasons why you don’t want to rely on just one airplane,” Zakheim said. “If you have a good quarterback, you need a back-up quarterback too.”
The Pentagon insists that darkest of the clouds for the F-35 are behind it, but it’s still hard to argue that there’s nothing but blue skies ahead.
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