THE F-35, THE MOST EXPENSIVE WEAPON EVER BUILT
excerpted from “The Most Expensive Weapon Ever Built” by Mark Thompson. Time Feb 25, 2013
The Pentagon plans on buying 2,357 F-35s for $400 billion, making it the costliest weapons program in human history. It is designed as the US military’s lethal hunter of the 21st century skies, but has become the hunted. It is the poster child of the Pentagons profligacy in a time of tightening budgets. Its pilots’ helmets are plagued with problems, it hasn’t yet dropped or fired weapons, and the software it requires to go to war remains on the drawing board. Its most amazing capability is landing like a helicopter using its precision cast titanuim thrust-vectoring nozzle, but that can only be used by test pilots, not operational plane drivers.
The price tag has already doubled since 2001, to $396 billion. Production delays have forced the Air Force and Navy to spend at least $5 billion to extend the life of the existing planes. The Marine Corps love costly jump jets which take off and land vertically, and has spent $180 million on 74 used British AV-8 jets for spare parts for its Reagan-era Harriers flying until their version of the F-35 comes online.
Spending on the F-35 threatens other defense programs. When the new budget deal was not reached on March 1, 2013, the Pentagon faced $500 billion in spending cuts, or a 10% cut in projected budgets over the next decade. Two years ago, defense-hawk Republicans were not expected to let the US go over the fiscal cliff, but they are now more concerned about the deficit than defense. With the US spending maybe 45% of the world’s budget on defense, a drop to 42 or 43% would not endanger the countries security. The deficit is a bigger threat than war. Bankruping the country is a bigger danger. Republican leaders are even coming to accept that military cuts are inevitable. As $5 billion in F-35 contracts have been recently issued, the sad irony is that cutting the F-35 now will not save much money in the near term. But sequester mandated cuts will delay the purchase of more planes and their required testing with the inevitable result of making each plane cost more in the future. But that will not be anything new for the F-35 Lightning II.
The single engine, single seat F-35 can be thought of as flying Swiss Army knife – able to engage in dogfights, drop bombs and spy. Tweaking the hardware makes it stealthy enough for the Air Force, Its vertical landing capability lets it operate from the Marines’ amphibious ships, and the Navy’s design is beefy enough to endure punishing carrier operations. Rather than a conservative approach, the Pentagon opted to build three versions of the same plane averaging $160 million each (problem #1), it wanted the plane to perform multiple missions (problem #2), and then rolled them off the assembly line while the blueprints were still in flux – over 10 years before critical development testing was finished (problem #3). It has already spent $375 million to fix planes already built with the ultimate bill to repair imperfect planes may reach $8 billion. Putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice.
The Pentagon felt that the need for the F-35 was urgent in order to keep the technological edge of the American tactical air fleet at least 5 years ahead of the Russians and Chinese who are building fifth-generation fighters of their own. Others feel that no nation is close to challenging US air dominance. The resulting plane was a compromise, not optimum for any one service but good enough for all three. The Air Force and Navy did not like the stubby design that puts its tailhook close to its landing gear (7′ versus 18′ for the F-18 it is replacing) making it difficult to grab the arresting cable on an aircraft carrier. Its short range will require aircraft carriers to be close to enemy shores. It can avoid in-flight fueling by adding external fuel tanks which erases its stealth ability, its prime war-fighting asset. Building three different versions with each service able to back out of the program, forced cost into the backseat behind performance.
The Air Force could have adopted the Navy variant gaining more range and durability but refused. The Marine demand for vertical landing capability is not likey needed in modern warfare. Focusing on winning two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon let costs balloon and schedules slip. Each plane is likely to be delayed several years and no date for “initial operational capability” is set for any of the planes.
The 48 lawmakers on the Joint Strike Fighter Caucus received 2x as much as nonmembers in campaign contributions from the F-35’s top contractors in 2012. Many of the 133,000 jobs spread across 45 states are in their districts. The F-35 builder, Lockheed Martin says jobs will double when the plane enters full production. Relations between Lockheed and the Pentagon have been terrible. Deliveries of new F-35s doubled in 2012 to 30.
Pilots love the plane. There are few gauges , buttons or knobs. but instead a touchscreen display that responds with very small movements of each hand. But military strategy has been moving away from manned fighters for years, being replaced by drones, standoff weapons, and GPS guided bombs. Fifth generation fighters are built from the ground up to elude enemy radar – stealth, which was all the rage before the drone explosion. Ability to detect stealth planes with improved sensors and computing is eroding their value. The change of theaters to the bigger Pacific makes the short combat radius (469 miles – Marines, 584 – Air Force, and 615 – Navy) an issue. Computers are key to flying the plane but cause incredible complexity. There are 24 million lines of computer code with 9.5 million on board the plane, more than 6x the F-18.
But the program has been declared a failure on cost and schedule, and even its capabilities are not known compared to present planes. All three planes will be slower and less maneuverable than projected. Weight reduction has increased risk of fire. Nobody has shown any sensitivity to costs. Hundreds need to be sold to a dozen nations to reduce the cost of each US plane. Canada is considering alternatives due to the projected lifetime cost of $46 billion, double the initial projection. Australia is buying F-18s, not F-35s.
While questions swirl around about how to build the F-35 right, there is a more important question: is it the right plane for the US military in the 21st century? As already discussed, with drones, stealth and the ability to fly a human through flak and missles may be passe. The Air Force feared additional fourth generation fighter acquisition as a direct threat to fifth-generation programs. Refusing to buy new fourth-gerneration F-15s and F-18s is threatening the size of the fighter fleet to dangerously low levels. A stealthy jet requires sacrifices in range, flying time and weapon carrying capability – the hat trick of aerial warfare. The F-22, the Air Forces’ only other 5th generation plane, has had problems with all three. It has been sitting on the tarmac around the world for seven years, yet to fly a single combat mission.
As the $5 billion for Pentagon contracts for 31 planes has already been issued, those planes have not been affected by sequestration, so the F-35 may end up being pretty stealthy after all.
UPDATE ON F-35, JUNE, 2014
The F-35 is now $135 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule. The relationship between the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin has never been worse. The big mistake made was that they hadn’t flown the plane before buying it. But the F-35 will never be scrapped. How could this be?
The US is worried about improving Chinese and Russian fighters and feel that they must continue to improve to maintain air superiority. The stealth features and information technology integrated into this plane gives the Americans a tremendous advantage. They can “see” the enemy at 5-10 times the range than they can be detected. A key is a sophisticated computer system, software, and a helmet worth $500,000. Information is projected onto the pilots visor changing with where the pilot is looking – ie virtual reality.
The Pentagon is presently buying 35 planes per year, but they want to ramp up the purchases to 100/year by 2018. Eventually they want to buy 2,443 F-35s at a total cost of $400 billion.