D. Dowd Muska


A White Elephant in the Wild Blue Yonder

July 10, 2014

It’s been grounded again.

Is the F-35 a lethal weapon or an errant teenager?

Also known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the F-35 Lightning II was supposed to be transformative. It would replace the aging F-16 Fighting Falcon (Air Force), A-10 Thunderbolt II (Air Force), F/A-18 Hornet (Navy), and AV-8B Harrier II (Marines). “Instead of building three different airplanes for three different users, we used one design approach to build a single family of aircraft that could achieve economies of scale in production and support,” explained Paul Kaminski, whom WIRED called “the father of the JSF program.” Additional savings would come from sharing development and acquisition expenses with the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Italy, and other U.S.-friendly nations.

In October 2001, Lockheed Martin was selected to assemble the JSF. The behemoth arms merchant pledged to deliver “a truly remarkable, capable and affordable, next-generation multirole fighter, on schedule and on cost.” But troubles developed early. In December 2003, anonymous Pentagon sources told The Washington Post that the bills were mounting, and that the fighter “could fall more than a year behind schedule.” In April 2005, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned Congress that “increased program costs, delayed schedules, and reduced quantities have … made the original JSF business case unexecutable.”

By July 2007, The New York Times found that the fighter, still bleeding revenue and missing deadlines, faced “daunting technical challenges.” In March 2008, GAO auditors documented “difficulties in stabilizing aircraft designs and the inefficient manufacturing of test aircraft,” which had “forced the program to spend management reserves much faster than anticipated.”

New president, same problems. In February 2010, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lamented the JSF’s shortcomings in “progress and performance.” The general overseeing the F-35 was sacked, and the Pentagon withheld $614 million in fees from Lockheed Martin. Less than a year later, Defense News reported that the military’s testing and evaluation office had identified “previously undisclosed problems with [the fighter’s] handling, avionics, afterburner and helmet-mounted display.”

The frustrations continued. In January 2013, the Marines’ version of the F-35, engineered for short takeoffs and vertical landings, was temporarily grounded due to an engine failure. The following month, all flights were suspended for several days when the Air Force discovered a turbine-blade crack in one of its fighters. On June 13 of this year, every engine was ordered to be inspected due to “an in-flight emergency” that occurred in Arizona. Ten days later, a JSF’s engine caught fire upon takeoff from an air base in Florida, prompting the latest grounding. As of this writing, the fleet’s wings remain clipped.

After innumerable delays, the Marines were slated to finally obtain battle-ready F-35s in 2015, with the Air Force following in 2016 and the Navy in 2019. Those dates are looking less and less realistic. On the spending side, last year, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) roared that the JSF was “one of the great, national scandals that we have ever had, as far as the expenditure of taxpayers’ dollars are concerned.” Unit cost has risen from $78.4 million to $135.3 million -- the original order has been cut from 2,866 to 2,457 -- and the program’s lifetime tab will likely top $1.5 trillion.

Seasoned monitors of Washington’s wasteful ways saw it all in advance. It’s how the iron triangle that runs “national security” operates. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s summary of weapons-procurement policy is definitive: “Pentagon officials and military officers cobble together unrealistic goals, timetables and budgets, and defense contractors sign on knowing that once a big program is launched, it’s seldom canceled and the money keeps flowing.”

Oversight? Please. While the JSF has hundreds of subcontractors scattered around the planet, of all domestic jobs tied to the fighter, 71 percent are located in five states. So red (Texas), blue (California and Connecticut) and purple (Florida and New Hampshire) fedpols unite to preserve a line item that employs many of their constituents. And threat inflators, many with lucrative consulting, media, and think-tank sinecures, hype the F-35’s inevitable contribution to “air dominance.”

Testifying before Congress in March, the GAO’s Michael J. Sullivan offered a devastating précis of more than a dozen years of JSF mismanagement: “DOD began the F-35 acquisition program … without adequate knowledge about the aircraft’s critical technologies or its design. In addition, the program’s acquisition strategy called for high levels of concurrency between development, testing, and production. As a result, the program encountered significant cost and schedule growth as well as performance shortfalls and was restructured three times.”

An ugly tale. It’s getting uglier.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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